Womens Clothing Sizes: WTF
January 16, 2022 5:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm male, but I think that gendered clothing is stupid generally. And I really don't understand the sizing of gendered "women's" clothing.

Male clothing at least (to me) is somewhat logical, in that it has several dimensions: Men's shirts and suit tops are sized in collar (neck), arm, and chest measurements (3 dimensions).

Men's pants are typically sized in waist and inseam (2 dimensions) but often add another dimension ("husky, slim, normal").

There are simplifications in male clopthing (such as "S, M, L, XL, XXL") but even these unidimensional measurements often allow variations, as in "Small Tall" or "XLarge short" - e.g. these are specifying at least 2 dimensions (e.g. height + width).

My understanding of "female" clothing, which is based (somewhat) on purchasing gifts and (moreso) listening to women talk, is that it tries really hard to use a single dimension. "Oh, I was about a 8 last year, but due to covid I'm now a 12". (a paraphrase of a conversation I heard).

How does this work? I have theories:

(1) Women's clothing sizing historically is based on clothes that were unidimensional (a sleeveless gown). Since arms and legs don't count, one size dimension could (roughtly) handle everyone. This has been carried to extremes for some bizarre historical reasons.

(2) I'm just wrong - women's clothing is sized just like men's (neck, chest, arm...) and I just don't know about it for some reason.

(3) It's oppressive marketing crap, to make women feel bad. A tall woman will never be a "size 6" and she should hate herself for some reason. I note that when men talk (degradingly) about women, they (sterotypically) still use 3 dimensions : bust, waist, hips.

(4) I'm clueless, and it's some sociological issue that I really can't solve with science.
posted by soylent00FF00 to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: #3. The marketing crap people keep lowering the sizes so that women will think that they are smaller. What is now a "00" used to be a "4," etc. (What's next? A 00000?) Here's a fun fact: back in the early 1970s, sewing pattern companies all agreed that they would never make the sizes smaller, so now when I sew my own clothes I have to use an 18 or 20, but in stores I generally use a 12 or 14.

(But don't get me started on the inconsistencies between brands. I'm an M in some stores and an XL in other stores.)

I think in general, though, the bust is a main measurement--if that doesn't fit, nothing else will.
posted by Melismata at 5:31 PM on January 16, 2022 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I sometimes work at L.L. Bean; many clothing pages have the size chart, and you can call for more information, both intended fit guidelines and actual garment measurement.

Men's clothing is often available in Regular and Tall versions. Short men can buy a shorter inseam, and many retailers will hem men's pants, generally for a fee that's pretty reasonable. Men's clothing is often available in sizes M - XXL, with XXXL increasingly available. There are often Slim and Husky variations.

A women's size 10 will vary a great deal by vendor. Women's clothing is often made in limited sizing. Sometimes, there are versions of Petite (shorter body and arm length, shorter skirt hem, shorter inseam), Regular, Tall (longer body & sleeve) and there is often an additional Plus size range.

The average American woman wears a size 16, though whose size 16 is a mystery. Americans are bigger these days.
posted by theora55 at 5:33 PM on January 16, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's definitely all WTF.

But I'd say the best explanation is your theory 3 and the sociological aspect of 4 combined. Each manufacturer of clothing has their own sizing structure. If I'm shopping online, I'll check for a size chart that gives me bust, waist, hip and sometimes inseam measurements and what corresponds to the letter or number sizes of the clothing I'm looking at. If I'm in a store, I will grab the size I think I am, one size up, and one size down and try them on.

I have a pair of dress pants from Macy's in a 12 that are perfect. I have a pair of Old Navy jeans in size 14 that are huge. I have a pair of dress pants from Loft in 16 that are tight. It's as frustrating as you can imagine.

A tall woman can be a size zero in bespoke or high-end designer clothing.
posted by kimberussell at 5:41 PM on January 16, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think the shapes of women's clothing tends to be separated by brand, although I do see multiple shapes advertised more often from one retailer now. So Everlane may have various pants and a curvy version of some of them. Each brand has a "fit model" that they're fitting their clothes to. So by trial and error you find brands that tend to fit (because they use fit models close to your own shape.)

I've known a couple people who fit modeled for Urban Outfitters / Anthropology and a brand's fit models and the models they advertise their clothes on aren't necessarily shaped the same.
posted by sepviva at 5:42 PM on January 16, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Female clothing was historically based on dresses. The proportions of these assumed ideal proportions and foundation garments were used to achieve these. That does not just mean smoothing and pushing soft bits around but also adding substance in places.

We‘re no longer wearing mainly dresses and we’re no longer willing to use a lot of foundation garments and now expect our bodies to be a certain shape.

But also, there are absolutely more dimensions. Womenswear does come in petite, regular and tall, in plus sizes and trousers do come in varying inseems. Sleeves also come in varying lengths. I have short arms and the standard length sleeve is always too long, I am not petite overall so I can’t wear petite sizes and frequently buy 3/4 length sleeved things if it’s something that would look daft if I just roll up my sleeve.

And then there is the fact that different vendors target different segments of the population and a teenage girl/very young woman typically has different proportions to a middle aged woman and in turn her proportions will be slightly different from a mature woman of the same height and approximate weight. And in addition to actual differences the different demographics will have preferences as to how loose or form fitting they like their clothes to be and how much skin they like to show…all this is based on averages or assumptions. And that is before vanity sizing and marketing….but they all do size charts so there is that.

I would argue that the problem is not less dimensions but a lot more dimensions.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:45 PM on January 16, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: My husband knows what number his trousers are. I was angry when I realised that these are inch measurements, or sometimes cm. *I* cannot go into a store and grab a pair of jeans and walk out knowing they will fit me and be comfy, unless I'm going back to get a second pair.

No, I have to try on. I have to get a range of sizes and maybe I'm a 10 in this brand, but a 12 in that one.

Bra shopping is a little better because there's supposed to be a system, but good luck if you need an odd combination of band and cup size.

I'd just love to be able to say "I measured my waist. It's this big. What pants will fit?"
posted by freethefeet at 5:46 PM on January 16, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: It's a disaster and varies from brand to brand and you will give yourself a migraine trying to logic your way through it. Ignore the actual sizing for any new brand you buy, check the size charts for that particular brand against your measurements, and then remember for the rest of time that you are an 18 here and a 22 there and at this other store they can't accommodate hips for some reason so you are an M in tops and an XL in pants and can just never buy a dress or jumpsuit there unless you're willing to have it tailored. You can ameliorate this somewhat by sticking to particular cuts or fabrics that are more forgiving.
posted by Stacey at 5:49 PM on January 16, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm everything from a size 6 to shopping in the children's department. Sometimes it's wildly different even within the same store.

At 5'1, I'm below average in height.

BUT a typical fit model for petite clothing is 5'4, which is average female height in the United States.

So even as an Official Petite Person, petite clothes are often too long for me, they're cut for average women. (A misses fit model is 5'7.)

It's exhausting and maddening.

What's hilarious is that every time yet another women's clothing chain goes out of business, there's all this hand wringing about "changing trends" and why women won't shop and whatnot.

It's not a mystery.

Buying clothes is awful, we're closing up our wallets.
posted by champers at 6:05 PM on January 16, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Each brand has a "fit model" that they're fitting their clothes to. So by trial and error you find brands that tend to fit (because they use fit models close to your own shape.)

Relatedly: the trope of "women spend all day wandering the mall to find one pair of jeans" is because of this situation.

We're doing research on the hidden variables that the brands won't tell us, because each brand sets those variables differently. We really do need to try on pairs at different stores to find one that fits, and it's not out of vanity—it's because stores won't come out and say "We're for people with high waists, small butts, and thick thighs" or whatever, so we have to study the situation for ourselves.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:11 PM on January 16, 2022 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Women's clothing size doesn't mean anything really as seen in this image of "size 12" jeans.
posted by Mitheral at 6:14 PM on January 16, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Others have touched on the differences of sizing across brands above, so the one thing I want to add is women’s bodies are geometrically complicated. Whenever a sewer/sewist/knitter who generally makes women’s clothes makes a garment for a man for the first time, there’s often a cry of “this is so much easier!” Because men’s bodies, and patterns for men’s bodies, are generally based on some variation of a rectangle for shirts and sweaters and coats. Gone are the considerations of bust allowances and darts for backs and shaping for waists, and figuring out ease, and exact button placement for proper closures of blouses. And then no woman gains or loses weight in exactly the same place as another woman, so anything tailored and form-fitting is difficult to standardize well.
posted by umwhat at 6:15 PM on January 16, 2022 [15 favorites]

Best answer: The flip side of this is when I find a dress that does fit well, I will buy it in every color they make, every sleeve length available, and every hemline from mid-thigh to mid-calf.

I literally own 15 versions of this dress, and every time I wear one, I get a million compliments. (And I get to say, "Thanks! It has pockets!")
posted by basalganglia at 6:18 PM on January 16, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of good answers here, so I'll just pop in to add that while vanity sizing is rife in women's clothing, it affects men's sizes too, especially when it comes to waist sizes in trousers.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:41 PM on January 16, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Another smol data point: I’m 5’4”…with a 30” inseam and short torso! I also have huge broad shoulders but a normal bust so I have to get almost everything tailored. My inseam is too long for petite (27”) and too short for regular (31”). I wear like a size 8 dress shirt for my shoulders, but a 36B bra so I have to have the shirt/blazer taken in. Jeans are often a nightmare, but because I have no hips and no butt I can often wear a men’s 29x30 or 30x30. I have to stick to manufacturers who make a straight leg, low rise pant or it looks awful. I actively hate pants, so if it’s above 50 degrees, I’m probably wearing shorts and I can avoid this.

Shopping for actual dresses is soooo much easier, and I tend to wear tea-length shifts because they fit my body style with minimal or no alterations. When I’ve been measured for my Class A uniform at work, I’m a 36S coat, 14.5 shirt, 30x30 trouser. How freakin easy is that?!
posted by sara is disenchanted at 6:42 PM on January 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The rules is, there ain’t no rules.

One thing that I don’t know if it’s part of the cause, or just something that allowed manufacturers to get away with the state of things for so long, is that home sewing has been seen for a while as the province of women. When my mother was growing up, it was expected that a woman of her class would either be able to make her own clothes (which was actually cheaper back then) or alter any ready-to-wear clothes that didn’t fit well. The children’s clothes that were passed around from cousin to cousin when I was a kid were full of hems and waistlines taken up and let down, seams taken in or let out, knees patched or reinforced, you name it. When I sold children’s clothes as a young woman, parents were constantly asking me, “What am I supposed to do when my kid is between these two sizes?” like they’d never heard of rolling up a pant leg.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:51 PM on January 16, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Some women’s jeans have a waist size measurement, but that doesn’t correspond to the waist size!. My waist size is almost 30”, and I have wide hips, but I have 27” jeans that aren’t tight. I took in a pair of 28” jeans by 2 inches, and they’re still a bit loose. Also, the length is only available as 34”, and I am 5’3”, so that’s fun.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 6:54 PM on January 16, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Women's sizes are absolute bullshit. Every now and then I go through my clothes for funsies and check the sizes on the tags (that I haven't removed for being scratchy), and every garment is a different size (even accounting for translation between different regional systems). I have garments of the same type and from the same manufacturer which are different sizes. So I never buy clothing online, with very few specific exceptions where I can be very sure of what the correct size is.

Fun fact: sewing patterns don't use vanity sizing. I used to hang out in an online sewing community, and we would regularly have new people getting an unpleasant surprise as they discovered this, and/or having an absolute meltdown because the number they "were" was part of their identity to such an extreme extent that they found it psychologically horrifying to be told that they "were" a bigger number in sewing pattern sizing. (I personally have no idea how that even works, given the distribution of sizes in my clothing.)

Regarding dimensions: as you may know, most bras use two measurements -- band width and cup size (the cup size letter usually denotes size relative to band, not absolute size). So how do off-the-shelf upper body garments without a lot of ease fit with only one measurement, you may be wondering? Not very well on a lot of people, that's how. Another reason I won't buy clothes without trying them on first.
posted by confluency at 7:39 PM on January 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As a tallish lady, I’d like to nuke the women’s clothing industry from orbit. I basically don’t buy pants unless it’s from a small handful of brands that make tall sizes. You’d think there would be more companies offering tall sizes, but apparently everybody is 5’6”. Don’t get me started on shoe sizing availability over a 10.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:02 PM on January 16, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: [Edited to add, I recognize this is a very U.S.-centric answer] Back in the days before “ready to wear” and clothes in a shop you could pick up and buy everyone either sewed their own clothes (or their families’) or had a professional sew for them. All clothes were couture, made to measure, and created for an individual. Of course, I’m sure clothing was passed around families and altered as well. At some point different groups set standards, some of which stayed and some of which changed or adapted. Actually, I found this bit from the Wikipedia entry on standard U.S. sizing interesting and might help you understand, as you’re looking to use “science” to solve this. Basically, statisticians came up with standards in the 1940s but because they found too many body shape/size combos were needed their work was rejected by manufacturers [quote edited for brevity ]:

Men's standard sizes were probably developed first during the American Revolutionary War…

As this was largely successful in men, the same approach was attempted in the early 20th century for women using the bust as the sole measurement (Felsenthal 2012). However, this proved unsuccessful because women's bodies have far more variety in shape. The hourglass figure is frequently used as an industry standard, but only 8% of women have this body shape

In the 1940s, the statisticians Ruth O'Brien and William Shelton received a Works Progress Administration grant to conduct the most ambitious effort to solve this problem. Their team measured almost 15,000 women across the US. After discovering the complex diversity of women's actual sizes, which produced five to seven different body shapes, they proposed a three-part sizing system. Each size would be the combination of a single number, representing an upper body measurement, plus an indicator for height (short, regular, and long) and an indication for girth (slim, regular, and stout). The various combinations of height and girth resulted in nine different sizes for each numerical upper-body measurement, which was highly impractical for manufacturing

As a result, O'Brien and Shelton's work was rejected. In 1958, the National Bureau of Standards invented a new sizing system, based on the hourglass figure and using only the bust size to create an arbitrary standard of sizes ranging from 8 to 38…

So, yes, (2) women’s clothing is sized just like men with different measurements. Just like men’s clothes those measurements are not standardized. At one point, perhaps, a 27” waist measured 27” in the waistband but not in a long while in most regular Joe clothing lines.

Definitely, (3) It's oppressive marketing crap. The idea of bust-waist-hip is not a derogatory measurement. Those are the parts of women’s bodies that often are different sizes. I mean, sure if women went around calling men by their waist or chest sizes that would be bad too but the measurement is necessary.

As you can tell from all of these passionate comments, maybe (4) a little clueless as it’s been an issue that has been brought up and written about in mainstream press a lot. I believe there is a way to use research to come up with a better, wider-range of standard sizes for women’s clothing but it’s not a solution that most mainstream retailers would be willing to embrace — or, I should say make all the sizes suggested for both economic and brand identity/marketing reasons.

posted by Bunglegirl at 8:56 PM on January 16, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Back in the days before “ready to wear” and clothes in a shop you could pick up and buy everyone either sewed their own clothes (or their families’) or had a professional sew for them. All clothes were couture, made to measure, and created for an individual.

Yes, I've read novels written circa 1900 where what read to me as very average, middle-class families awaited the annual visit of the "sewing woman."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:31 PM on January 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: (2) I'm just wrong - women's clothing is sized just like men's (neck, chest, arm...) and I just don't know about it for some reason.

the reason is you apparently have never looked into it apart from a little light eavesdropping. go to the catalogue or website of any women's clothing manufacturer and click on their sizing chart. they don't have neck measurements usually, because women's clothing doesn't often have constricting neckholes; they do have hip measurements. they do also have inseam and either offer several inseam lengths or offer just one very long one with the expectation that you get it tailored. an expectation that many men's clothing manufacturers share.

every few weeks someone tries to get some outrage going around the fact that each women's clothing manufacturer supplies its own sizing chart and they are not all identical. since women's relative proportions are not all identical, either, this is a very good thing that we are all grateful for if we have any awareness that women besides ourselves exist.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:01 PM on January 16, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I would add to these excellent answers that men's clothing is not nearly as consistently sized these days as you're proffering either. (Source: my wife wears exclusively men's clothing, I wear men and women's clothing, and comparing the two is a constant source of entertainment). Stretch, generous sizing, and a variety of cuts have come to men's clothing!

Which for someone AFAB like me, is fantastic - me and my hips can wear men's clothing a lot more easily. But it's making sizing a lot less consistent. My Gap jeans with flex (38x30) are getting too big, rapidly, but I have 40x30 slacks that I can barely squeeze into. I'm down to a large in knit button downs (best invention ever), joggers, and hoodies, but other items I'm still an XL or XXL or "this goes over my shoulders but not my hips" or vice versa. The wife, meantime, is an XL in some brands and a XXXL in others, a slim cut works great in some brands, other brands she needs a sport cut ("WTF is even a sport cut?" "I don't know, just try it on" "Are athletic and sport fit the same thing?" "Welcome to the world of mystery sizing, babe!"). I'm looking at 9 different cuts for men's jeans on Old Navy's site right now. Which is great - it's lovely to see the industry acknowledging that the bodies that wear men's clothes come in a variety of shapes and sizes and not just "you're a 40, hope for the best!" But the flip side of that is having to keep up with what brands fit you well, what cuts fit you well, and so on.

(Then there was the time she ordered the same men's Levi 501s in the same size and cut, but one was a darker wash than the other and one fit and one didn't.)
posted by joycehealy at 6:55 AM on January 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I read something here on Ask years ago and it’s really stuck with me — I think of it literally every time I shop. I don’t know if it’s actually true in terms of how brands actually think, but it’s worked for my clothes shopping all this time.

Earlier posters in this thread have mentioned how most brands base their fit on their own unique fit models. That’s absolutely true. But the simple way I heard it described is:

Brands base their “medium” on their perception of their own average customer, and scale from there.

So big-box store mediums will be bigger than, say, higher-end athletic brands’ mediums. eg, to grossly generalize, Walmart’s average customer has a larger body than, say, Lululemon’s, so Walmart’s clothes labeled as a medium will be bigger. Everything scales off the medium, so relative brand differences will generally hold true across all their sizes.

In my experience, this has been true. I wear a medium in clothes from Target and Old Navy, then like an XL in the random athletic brand clothes I own. When I shop, the first thing I try on is the size I think I’d be compared to the average customer at that store, and it’s usually right.
posted by liet at 8:16 AM on January 17, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Male clothing at least (to me) is somewhat logical, in that it has several dimensions: Men's shirts and suit tops are sized in collar (neck), arm, and chest measurements (3 dimensions).

Men's pants are typically sized in waist and inseam (2 dimensions) but often add another dimension ("husky, slim, normal").

This is not true. The "inches" used in these measurements are arbitrary vanity sizing units called "inches" for marketing reasons (presumably, so people will see them and think yes! logical!). Get a cloth tape measure and measure the waist circumference of a pair of 32" pants. (1) It will measure significantly more than 32 inches (2) The actual measurement will vary dramatically from brand to brand.

On top of that, what it means to 'fit' is a style choice. How long should pants for someone with a 32" inseam actually be? Should they brush the top of your shoes? Hang around your ankles? Puddle around your shoes?
posted by jeb at 9:24 AM on January 17, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a trans woman and generally refuse to buy any female style clothing that isn't a dress, because everything else is such a hot freaking mess. If it's labeled 18, it probably fits. Unless it's a gown, then something about the shoulders means I probably need a 22.
posted by Jacen at 10:26 AM on January 17, 2022

Best answer: Oh and something else with men's sizing- I can buy clothes for my husband and be fairly certain they will fit. When my husband wants to buy me something, we have to spend half an hour with a tape measure before he's confident he'll find something.

We do practical Christmas presents some years (socks and jocks, etc) and while he can get me socks no problem, I can just about get him a full outfit.
posted by freethefeet at 5:27 PM on January 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So-called "vanity sizing" (ptui, manufacturers) is a thing in male-coded clothing as well. This article from 2010 discusses how they bought "36-inch-waistline pants" from several retailers. The waist measurement varied by 4 inches.

As an AFAB person who's shifted to wearing "men's" pants (they have POCKETS that I can fit my ENTIRE HAND and ENTIRE PHONE into), it's really annoying.
posted by Lexica at 3:12 PM on January 19, 2022

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