You’ve heard the expression that people come in all shapes and sizes. Everywhere you go the distribution of shapes and sizes of people change. A sleepy sea side village may have a larger percentage of older retired residents. A 20 year old size 10 is very different in shape to a 60 year old size 10. The average Caucasian American woman is much larger and taller than the average Japanese woman. Teenagers today are much taller than those of 20-30 years ago. Differences between nationalities are more than just face shape and skin colour, there are also significant variations in body shape.
This is why it’s hard to establish a universal and standard set of sizes and measurements. There is no standard human, so why should there be a standard size? Well there has to be some system of incremental difference in ready to wear. In reality it’s not too hard to select one measurement as indicating size and to vary the other measurements to suit your demographic. So what you end up with is an indicator and not a size. You might have noticed many manufacturers declare the bust, hip or waist measurement their garment is designed to fit, rather than specify an arbitrary size.
If you think this system would work, you’d be wrong. Nothing is more offensive to a person than being told exactly how much weight they’ve put on to the centimeter. Having a size number is indirectly saying the same thing, but a size value is horrifying to some. I have even had people come to the counter in a retail situation and tell me that I have insulted them because the size 10 they tried on last week no longer fits. Obviously they haven’t gained weight, but the same garment that was on the shelf last week had suddenly shrunk (that was sarcasm by the way). I’ve even had women get abusive and fully believe I was deliberately trying to upset them by calling the garment an extra large (it wasn’t even my label) inferring in fact she was extra large.
Designers produce garments aimed at a specific target market. This is usually a narrow demographic in which body shape doesn’t vary too greatly within each size range. For example, a high fashion swimwear designer aiming at a young and fit body type would still label an 84cm bust as a size 10, however the waist and hip measurements might be smaller than those used by a sportswear designer. Add to this, different garment styles having different amounts of ease and you get some people at the top of each size range being pushed up a size for a comfortable fit. I’ve even seen many high fashion garments with size ranges so narrow that some people are too big for their size 10 and too small for the size 12!
The other complaint is that a person fits a medium in one garment but not in another. This is not at all sinister. Manufacturers label a medium as whatever is average for their intended market, not the average person. For example, the average rugby player would be bigger than the average jockey, so if you made rugby jersies your medium would be bigger than a jockey’s silks. This does not explain why two ready to wear ladies blouses manufacturers have different mediums however!
Then there’s the big marketing issue. Let’s say a person can fit into one designer’s size 10 but only just squeeze into another’s size 12. Here is where the problem lies. The person wants to believe the second garment isn’t sized properly and will buy the garment labeled as the smaller size. This forces manufacturers to constantly re-evaluate their size tables, some labeling larger sizes as smaller in order to compete in the market place. The public then criticizes the fashion industry for not having a standard set of sizes. The market doesn’t realise that it ultimately determines the product.
Many pattern makers will attempt to logic and explain away the reasons for discrepencies between sizing systems and while many can be reasonably explained, there will always be the element attributed to the simple vanity of the market place. Strangely, many pattern makers refuse to accept that this type of problem exists, and that discrepancies are more to do with demographics and human evolution. I can assure you I’ve seen it being done myself! I could write a book on the psychology and mathematics of sizing but it’d only get me in trouble! Please don’t write to me complaining about sizing problems you are having or asking why you can’t buy clothes to fit. I simply make patterns to the size groupings given to me by the contractor and cannot speak for other manufacturers or even hope to convince them to change why they do what they do. A manufacturer will do whatever makes the most money. Altruism doesn’t pay the bills.
If all this isn’t enough to confuse you, the human body has another curve ball to throw. As you go from one size to a larger size, the variation in shape within that size increases. To put that another way, one size 8 person is usually very similar to another size 8, with more than 75% of size 8′s (80cm bust) fitting the same garment. Only about 50% of size 10′s will fit the same garment. About 30% of size 12′s will fit the same garment and it just gets harder from there. This is because as women’s bust measurements increase, there is a greater amount of variation in waist, hip and other measurements. Women DO NOT simply scale up proportionally between sizes. The average may well do so, but the percentage falling within that average decreases as size increases. Most designers cope with this variation by adding more ease with each sequential size.
For swimwear this is not possible, so how do swimwear designers deal with this problem? They usually ignore it exists and only manufacture a limited number of the larger sizes. This tends to go unnoticed as larger women don’t seem to like buying swimwear. It doesn’t, however, help larger women who like to swim. Instead what you find is larger women buying styles that may look ‘too old’ for them.
Some high fashion swimwear designers even go as far as to say they don’t want larger women wearing their garments because it adversely affects sales of their smaller sizes. This is because smaller women who are prepared to pay more to look really sexy in a high fashion garment generally don’t want a larger woman wearing the same style they’ve just paid for because it lowers the perceived ‘sexiness’.
If all that’s not enough, there is one last problem that most people tend to forget when discussing size and shape issues … symmetry. People are rarely the same from left to right … the centre line of the body is not the mirror we all think it is. Indeed almost everyone is asymmetric somehow. Just about every woman will tell you one breast is a slightly different size or shape to the other. The most common asymmetry however is left to right upper thigh measurements … bet you didn’t see that one coming! It’s all perfectly normal. However for the purposes of ready to wear pattern making it needs to be ignored because we simply work with averages. I do remember someone once studying the statistics of asymmetry so as to determine a reasonable margin of error and they found that it still fell well within the range of the positive ease added in most garments. Really for 99% of the population, asymmetry is only a problem for close fit, non-stretch garments … it’s not usally an issue for swimwear or dancewear. People with significant asymmetry issues will probably need to have garments custom made with seperate left and right hand side patterns.
I’ve not found a solution to many of the above issues and I don’t believe there is a fix-all solution. As a smaller, boutique scale manufacturer I tended to design only sizes 8 through 12 in high fashion swimwear and leave sizes 6 and 14 (and higher) as made to fit only. In this way I was also able to make the style better suit the individual.
Likewise, the swimwear methods outlined in this text will work reasonably well for Australian sizes 6 through 14. Larger sizes require more experience and understanding to decide which technique is most appropriate for your market. Non stretch will be much easier to deal with because we mostly just scale up the ease as we scale up the sizes.
If you’re going to start manufacturing ready to wear clothing in large quantities then you’re going to need to collect information about your target market … a lot of information. You’re going to need to analyse it carefully and use it to determine three things: the measurements for each size (and obviously what sizing system to use), the spacing between sizes, and the percentage of garments in each size (eg; 15% size 8, 35% size 10 etc). If you want to know how to use demographic data to actually produce a ready to wear sizing system, I’ve covered it on the Demographics II page.