Why Are Clothing Sizes So Confusing?

Actually sizes, unlike prices, are being deflated: Ten years ago, a size 8 could easily qualify as a size 2 today; a size 4 in the 1990s might be a zero. The fact that 00 even exists is kind of nuts. As to why, well … cherchez the amateur body psychologist.

Brands began to play a twisted game a while ago when they realized that promoting the endless pursuit of the skinny had alienated customers by making them feel inadequate for not meeting that false ideal. Hence they started to shrink the numbers on the label so that larger sizes appeared smaller, thus luring customers into thinking they had achieved whatever unrealistic goal fashion had created.

This is the same reason a toy or snack food is priced at, say, $4.99 instead of $5. People see the “4” instead of the penny difference. And it’s equally ridiculous, especially at a moment when size inclusivity is increasingly culturally important. We can’t even begin to achieve that until we get some perspective on how bodies really look, and what healthy means, and celebrate that, rather than acting as if the number attached is somehow shameful.

To find out more, I got in touch with Janice Wang, the chief executive of Alvanon, a Hong Kong company that uses technology to update fit patterns to adapt to contemporary body types. She put it pretty bluntly: “The truth is there is no common standardization in sizing for women’s clothing.” It varies from brand to brand, country to country and even season to season.

This is why the academics Katelynn Bishop, Kjerstin Gruys and Maddie Evans said in their study “Sized Out: Women, Clothing Size, and Inequality” that the numbers have become “floating signifiers,” with meaning that changes over time and in the mind of the beholder (or wearer).

And it is why Ms. Wang told me: “The takeaway would be that the size label doesn’t mean anything. Just wear whatever size corresponds to your preference of how you like to wear your clothes, and how you like to look in them. This is a terrible situation for e-comm purchases, but until brands find a better way of showing how clothing can fit (3-D images can help), it is what it is.”

It is also why I hope that one day we consider replacing the 2-20 system, or even small-medium-large, with some other rating terms. Once upon a time I suggested we substitute letters. (That idea didn’t get too many takers, I admit.) Maybe Roman numerals? Anything to free ourselves from the tyranny of pointless numbers. I’m open to suggestions.

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