The History of Clothing Sizes and Modern Sizing Solutions

Where did clothing sizes come from? It's a common question asked by shoppers who have become frustrated by traditional sizing methods.

It’s a situation that is all too common. You find an excellent-looking pair of jeans in your size online and excitedly order them, only to find out when they arrive that you would need the jaws of life to get them on. You then decry sizing as completely broken and wonder why apparel brands can’t just get with the program and establish universal clothing sizes.

As a provider of sizing and fit solutions, WAIR understands your frustrations, but the truth is that human bodies are too unique for a universal sizing standard to ever work. What online shoppers have been expected to rely on, unfortunately, are brand-specific size charts and fit guides, each seemingly more inconsistent than the next. As shoppers struggle to play the role of personal tailor, many wonder how we even got to this scenario in the first place?

This article sheds light on the intriguing history of clothing sizes and the technological advances that are poised to eliminate size confusion for apparel shoppers.  

Before Ready-to-Wear

Before the invention of sizing standards and ready-to-wear clothing, every garment had to be either produced in the home or crafted by the hands of a tailor. These tailors would analyze hundreds of bodies to provide shoppers with clothing specifically made for their unique body dimensions. While clothing was still occasionally manufactured in factories, it was on a purely made-to-order basis.

The First Sizing Standard: A Wartime Necessity

Sadly, ready-to-wear clothing was not derived from the benevolence of manufacturers looking to provide affordable clothing to the masses but out of wartime necessity. Several global conflicts arose in the early 1800s, most notably The War of 1812 (1812-1815) and The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), which drove the need for mass production of military uniforms. Traditional sizing methods would not work at this scale; therefore, an ad hoc sizing standard to address the varying body types of soldiers had to be created.

Soldiers wearing the first ever mass-produced clothing in the history of clothing sizes
Soldiers wearing the first made-to-wear garments

The first-ever sizing standard was a simple solution that used the circumference measurement of the chest as the only variable for sizing. Despite the barebones nature of this sizing standard, it worked rather well at the time, even making its way to the clothing market for men’s clothing in America, Europe, and Great Britain.

While men reaped the benefits of this new sizing standard, women remained tethered to local tailors for their clothing needs, and in a bruised post-war economy, they too wanted access to affordable, ready-to-wear clothing. Despite the fact that brands were more than happy to welcome this new segment of the market, the established sizing standard was built wholly around the bodies of men, and there was no possibility for a smooth translation to women’s bodies.

As sizing between the genders remained lost in translation, excessive amounts of size-related returns began flowing into brick-and-mortar stores, which had a deepening impact on the profitability of clothing manufacture. Sizing standards quickly came under a national spotlight as brands and government agencies alike recognized the need for a solution to the sizing crisis.

The USDA Study of 1939

In 1939, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a study titled: Women’s Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction. This study was the first concentrated effort to remedy the sizing disparity between the genders.

The USDA left no stone unturned when it came to obtaining unique body data for this study. A top-down analysis of the entire female form was conducted on thousands of women from several U.S. states. These measurements included but were not limited to stature, hip height, neck-base girth, waist girth, bust girth, shoulder length, forearm girth, posterior hip arc, and trunk line. While this study would become the foundation upon which later sizing standards were built, it had unfortunately produced flawed data. For example, participation in the study was on a volunteer basis, meaning that the body data was skewed towards women of lower economic status who needed the participation payment. Additionally, few women of color were able to participate, which further diluted the legitimacy of the results.

The NBS Study of 1949: Introduction of the Commercial Standard

While the USDA study did provide further insight into the uniqueness of shopper bodies, no official sizing standards were immediately derived from the data it produced. It was not until 1949, when the National Bureau of Standards, at the request of the Mail Order Association of America, conducted their own study surrounding shopper body data, that an official sizing standard was finally produced. The NBS used the collected data from the USDA study as a baseline and began to reanalyze it as well as incorporate swaths of their own data. Unlike the USDA study, which aimed to create sizing standards specifically for women, the NBS study aimed to create sizing standards for all bodies, including men, women, and children.

A shopper being sized for apparel, a scene the portrays the history of clothing sizes

The NBS study ran the course of four years, and the resulting sizing standard was referred to as the “Commercial Standard.” The Commercial Standard consisted of a collection of sizes that would fit the greatest number of people with no alterations required; it would become the first sizing standard to be officially recognized by the garment industry in 1957. When the Commercial Standard was implemented in 1958, clothing brands breathed a collective sigh of relief. Finally, after decades of rampant sizing issues, a solution to the crisis!

As it turned out, the Commercial Standard did alleviate some of the more egregious sizing issues of the early 20th century, but the ever-changing bodies of the American population simply refused to conform to its standards for long. While sizing for men and children worked relatively well, the corset-bound, hourglass body shape that was common amongst women in the early 19th century was no longer representative of the average American woman who now boasted a more athletic build.

In a final attempt to salvage the remains of the Commercial Standard, the U.S. Department of Commerce released an updated standard in December 1970. Unfortunately, this sizing standard (like the ones before it) failed to remedy the still lingering effects of the sizing crisis.

Vanity Sizing

By the 1980s, the hopes for a universal sizing standard were all but abandoned, and clothing brands began to realize the benefits of vanity sizing. For those unfamiliar with the term, Vanity sizing is the practice of labeling clothing with sizes smaller than the item’s actual measurements in an effort to drive sales.

There are numerous theories as to why clothing brands shifted to vanity sizing. Some say that brands were simply aligning their offerings with their target audiences, while others claimed that it was purely an ego-fuelled endeavor meant to appeal to the now larger frames of most American shoppers.

Regardless of intent, nearly every brand was engaged in vanity sizing tactics at this time. Sizes were dropping so fast that new sizes (0 and 00) had to be incorporated because brands were at the literal end of their sizing spectrums. With the lack of a universally accepted sizing standard, the lingering effects of vanity sizing are still present in modern clothing.        

The Introduction of Modern Sizing Solutions  

Despite the fact that many clothing brands continue to rely on size charts, there has been a recent surge of interest and investment in modern sizing solutions. These solutions can take on several forms, such as virtual fitting rooms, augmented reality apps, survey-based solutions backed by real shopper body data, the list goes on and on. During these times when eCommerce activity is at all-time highs, and shoppers continue to struggle with size confusion, the influence of modern sizing solutions has only continued to grow.  

Shoppers buying the right clothing sizes every time with WAIR

Take WAIR as an example. Our Fit Advisor sizing solution is built atop the world's largest and fastest-growing database of 3D body scans captured from real people across the globe. We leverage this data to predict the exact body dimensions of each unique shopper and recommend them their best-fitting size, every time. WAIR's sizing process is also incredibly easy on the shopper's end. Our Fit Advisor solution only requires basic body information (such as height and weight) to provide shoppers with a precise and personalized size recommendation.

The question many of you are likely asking is, what has been the shopper response to these modern sizing solutions? WAIR's brand partners have seen up to 25x increases in new shopper conversion rates, as well as significant boosts to average order value. These incredible numbers prove that when eCommerce apparel brands break down the barriers of size confusion, the result is a significant boost in shopper confidence.  

Recap

While the establishment of a universal sizing standard sounds promising, the history of clothing sizes shows that shopper bodies will continue to naturally rebel against a system that attempts to lump them into one homogenous group. Thankfully, modern sizing solutions like WAIR will continue to provide eCommerce shoppers with the clothing that best fits their unique body dimensions, every time.  

Are you ready to unlock the true potential of your brand 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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