The History, Lingering Effects, and Modern Solutions to Vanity Sizing 

Despite the origins of vanity sizing dating back to the 1980s, the practice's lingering effects continue to impact shoppers to this day. Here's why:


When we think about the modern clothes shopping experience, images of ourselves in brightly-lit fitting rooms, struggling to squeeze into a pair of jeans or wrestling with a measuring tape immediately come to mind. Unfortunately, in the current retail landscape, these are often considered necessary evils to ensure the clothing you are looking to purchase will fit and flatter because, after all, sizes alone cannot be trusted

But why is that the case? Humans have the ability to land a person on Mars, yet we can't even get something as trivial as clothing sizes right? It seems ludicrous, but there's a legitimate reason behind the madness, vanity sizing

Let's take a look into the history of vanity sizing, its lingering effects on the apparel industry, and technology's response to the sizing crisis. 

What is Vanity Sizing?

In essence, vanity sizing is when clothing becomes incrementally larger over time while retaining its original size designation. To use a real-world example, a size three pair of jeans purchased today would be significantly larger than the same size pair of jeans purchased even as little as five years ago. While the practice of vanity sizing is relatively widespread, the most egregious examples occur in America and the UK, where shopper bodies have continued to grow larger over the years.

Where did Vanity Sizing Come From?

Despite the U.S. Government's attempts to establish universal sizing standards in the early and mid-1900s, their efforts ultimately failed. By 1983, brands had decided it was time to bring sizing and fit strategies entirely in-house.

This opened the door for brands to specifically target their sizing strategy, styles, and cuts toward their ideal shopper profile. However, brands found that the average shopper's body dimensions were becoming incrementally larger, and the once-revered "hourglass" body shape was now an entirely unrealistic representation of the female form.

Worryingly for brands, people, in general, were also becoming more self-conscious about their bodies due to the cultural influence of celebrities and fashion models. The last thing brands wanted to do was ruin the shopping experience and lose out on sales by lowering the shopper's self-esteem during the sizing process. Brands decided the best route forward was to alter their product design process to accommodate larger bodies without revising existing size designations to reflect the change; thus, vanity sizing was born.

Why Would Brands Engage in Vanity Sizing?

A female shopper trying on jeans that do not fit right due to vanity sizing

There is ongoing debate surrounding the original intentions behind vanity sizing. 

The brand argument was that sizing strategy must always be fluid to account for changes in shopper body types without entirely updating existing sizing methods and standards. Essentially, brands considered vanity sizing a necessary evil to ensure product offerings were always viable for their target demographic regardless of how much their bodies had changed over the years.

Industry experts, however, hold a different opinion.

"The simple answer is that the downsized labels make customers feel good," says Roger Dooley, keynote speaker and Forbes contributor. 

This quote from Roger Dooley is the hard counter to brands who insist vanity sizing is a necessary evil. The psychology of vanity sizing undoubtedly plays a significant role with shoppers who often prioritize size validation over accuracy during their journey. This has called into question whether shoppers genuinely yearn for size consistency, or are they too afraid to face the reality of their everchanging body dimensions? 

Another reason why brands would engage in vanity sizing is its effects on brand image. As shoppers continue to prioritize clothing with self-affirming sizing labels, brands that have remained consistent with their sizing strategy will be viewed less favorably. Shoppers frustrated with their size might also cycle their purchases into other product categories like accessories or make-up, resulting in lost conversions for the brands whose only crime was consistency. As the evidence suggesting that shoppers feel better and purchase more when they fit into smaller sizes continues to build up, what we have seen is a race to 0 between brands looking to snag more sales through overt size inflation.

The Lingering Effects of Vanity Sizing

Regardless of the true intentions behind vanity sizing, it remains an issue whose lingering effects have plagued shoppers to this day. The only difference now is shopper attitudes around body positivity are shifting alongside a faltering obsession with the bodies of models and celebrities. As a result, vanity sizing is quickly losing favorability, and shoppers are once again calling for brands to implement universal sizing standards. 

We've seen the fallout of vanity sizing manifest in several ways, most notably in the form of rising return rates. With over 50% of eCommerce returns linked to sizing and fit (according to Shopify), it's clear that product size designations have become essentially meaningless. As a result, shoppers are resorting to drastic measures to ensure they purchase the best-fitting clothing the first time, including methods such as bracketing and wardrobing. 

The effects of vanity sizing have also crept into the realm of public health as intentionally misrepresenting shopper bodies has had a detrimental impact on the obesity crisis. As shoppers continue to purchase the exact sizes they have for years (or, in some cases, even smaller sizes), the assumption is they are maintaining their overall health when in reality, that is often not the case. This is a prime example of how the issue of vanity sizing transcends minor inconvenience and becomes a much more glaring issue in the grander scheme.    

Technology's Answer to Vanity Sizing 

Technology's answer to vanity sizing, WAIR

Despite universal sizing standards being the fallback answer to the vanity sizing question, we've seen from past actions that the feasibility of this approach is essentially nonexistent. However, shopper demands for consistency in sizing are not falling on deaf ears as the apparel industry's interest in modern sizing solutions (like WAIR) has only grown in recent years.

What are modern sizing solutions? Simply put, modern sizing solutions are tools that leverage AI and body scan technology to predict a shopper's body shape and recommend the best-fitting size. With modern sizing solutions, brands can deliver personalized and accurate sizing experiences at scale and gain every advantage when it comes to shaping sizing strategy around the body types of their shoppers. 

You may ask, how does this affect the issue of vanity sizing? 

Modern sizing solutions address the issue of sizing on a per-product basis, bypassing inconsistent and anecdotal sizing standards. Additionally, as shoppers use these tools to order their best-fitting sizes, their body and journey data is seamlessly captured in the background for analysis. This previously unattainable data enables brands to redefine their sizing standards around the body types of their shoppers, eliminating the need to rely on outdated sizing standards and practices like vanity sizing. These insights also reveal optimization opportunities in product design, empowering brands to address the sizing issue from the ground up.

WAIR deems this triumph of modern technology "sizeless commerce," as it eliminates the requirement for shoppers to select their size both online and in physical stores. Of course, the industry isn't quite at the point where all clothing is custom-made, and sizes in some modicum will continue to exist, but only as an intangible reference point to make clothing selection easier for shoppers.

As Size Consistency Regains Priority, Brands Must Adapt Accordingly 

The era of vanity sizing has undoubtedly left its mark on the world of apparel. However, with modern solutions to this decades-old issue continuing to gain traction with some of the most prominent brands in the industry, it's only a matter of time before sizeless commerce takes its rightful place at the forefront of modern sizing strategy. 

Are you ready to unlock your brand's full potential with WAIR? Schedule a demo here, and be sure to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook for all your fashion content needs!

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