The Origin Of Women’s Dress Sizes Revealed

Photo cred – drop-acid-drop-weight

As a man, I don’t need to deal with women’s clothing sizes, which is a blessing, because I truly have next to no idea how it works. Sizes increase in incredments of two, with seemingly arbitrary numbers being the “ideal” size. A 6 is good, a 12 is bad, and 0 is actually a size that is sold in stores, as little sense as that makes. Laura Stampler of Time delved into the long history of women’s clothing sizes, and discovered what I kind of already thought: the whole sizing system is kind of random and arbitrary.

Sizes for women’s clothes didn’t become a thing until the 1940’s, as standardized sizes were created based on age for children and bust size for women. Obviously this was problematic, as not every 12 year old or 34B woman is built the same, and manufacturers were losing millions, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to create formal a sizing system for women.

15,000 female volunteers took part in the data collection, which was inherently skewered, thus creating an ill-fated set of sizes. A majority of the women who participated in the study were white and of a low socioeconomic status (many volunteered for the cash received for participating) so the information colleced created a “standard” that was much skinnier than the norm.

Eventually the big boys of fashion retailers (like Sears) stepped in to help create a better sizing system at the tail end of the 40s. The National Bureau of Standards was given the task to perfect women’s sizes, though again, the process was flawed. Women who had been in the air force, and thus incredibly fit, were the main models of measurement, and so by 1958, another sizing standard that didn’t reflect the average size of real women was created.

The legacy of a flawed sizing system for women is still felt today, though things have changed as time has gone on, namely, sizes have actually gotten bigger. As North American women (and men, mind you) started getting a little chubbier as the decades passed, sizes followed suit. A modern size 8 is actually a 1958-era size 14 or 16, a gradual change caused by “vanity sizing.”

By 1983 the government-sanctioned sizing system had become so warped that the American Department of Commerce scrapped the standard sizes altogether. Unfortunately, without any form of guideline, fashion retailers just started making their own standard set of sizes, which is probably why you may be a size 8 at one store and a size 10 at another.

So take your dress size with a grain of salt. Even if you’re not a size 6, rest easy knowing your “size” comes from a long history of flawed data collection which never really represented the average shape of women.

For more on all things amazing, follow Michael on Twitter @MDAlimonte


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