The History of Clothing Sizes and Modern Sizing Solutions

Shoppers struggling to make clothing sizes fit

It’s a situation that is all too common. You find an excellent 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 brands can’t just get with the program and establish universal clothing sizes.

As a provider of size and fit solutions, WAIR understands your frustrations, the truth is that human bodies are too unique for universal sizing standards to ever work. Additionally, the use of such a standard would imply that brands engage in mass-market selling tactics when in reality, their efforts are much more targeted.

With the overwhelming amount of sizing options, each seemingly more inconsistent than the next, many wonder how we even got here in the first place? This article sheds light on the intriguing history of clothing sizes, how they affect modern sizing solutions, and the technological advances that are poised to alleviate sizing complications.  

Before Ready-to-Wear

Before sizing standards and ready-to-wear clothing were created and offered to the general public, every garment had to be either produced in the home or sized by the hands of a tailor. These tailors would analyze hundreds of bodies using archaic measuring methods to provide civilians with clothing specifically made for their unique body dimensions. While clothing was still manufactured in factories, these factories would only produce clothing once orders had been placed.

The First Sizing Standard: A Wartime Necessity

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

Soldiers wearing the first ever sized uniforms

The first sizing solution consisted of a chest measurement-based solution that used the circumference measurement of the chest as the only variable for sizing. Despite the barebones nature of this sizing solution, it worked rather well at the time, even making its way to the garment market for men’s clothing in America, Europe, and Great Britain. Bear in mind, this sizing model was originally built around a style that changed very little which reduced the chances of an improper fit.

While men reaped the benefits of this new sizing standard, women remained tethered to local tailors for their garment needs, and in a bruised post-war economy, they wanted access to affordable clothing as well. While brands were 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. This resulted in excessive amounts of size-related returns from women which had a deepening impact on the profitability of garment manufacture. Sizing standards quickly came under a national spotlight as brands and government agencies alike recognized the need for a solution.

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 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 women in this study. A top-down analysis of the entire female body 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 sizing standards were born, the efforts of the USDA still 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 a Commercial Standard

While the USDA report did provide some insight into the uniqueness of shopper bodies, no sizing standards were derived specifically from the data of this report. It was not until 1949 when the National Institute of Standards, at the request of the Mail Order Association of America, conducted their own study surrounding shopper body data that a 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 getting measured and having clothing custom-made by a seamstress

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 become officially recognized by the garment industry in 1957. When the Commercial Standard was implemented in 1958, industry players breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, after decades of rampant returns, a real solution to the sizing 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 women who now touted a more athletic build.

In a final attempt to salvage the Commercial Standard, the U.S. Department of Commerce released an updated standard in December 1970, unfortunately, this update, like the studies before it, failed to establish a homogenous standard for the American population.

Vanity Sizing

By the 1980s, the Commercial Standard was all but abandoned and retailers began to realize the benefits of vanity sizing. There are numerous theories as to why brands shifted to vanity sizing. Some say that brands were simply aligning their clothing with their target audiences while others claimed that it was purely an ego-fuelled endeavor meant to appeal to the now larger population of 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 no universally accepted sizing standards in effect today, the lingering effects of vanity sizing are still present in modern clothing.        

With shopper body data remaining an extremely complex variable, many brands have opted to release their clothing lines targeted to specific segments of the market to optimize size and fit. Because each brand considers size and fit as an integral part of their brand identity and inconsistencies between brands can be substantial, there has been a renewed interest in custom-made clothing. New technological developments have made it possible to craft custom clothing at scale which would eliminate the strife shoppers face due to the lack of standardized sizing.  

How 3D Technology Communicates Sizing

Shoppers buying the right clothing sizes every time with WAIR

Brands have recognized the benefits of technologically advanced size and fit solutions, especially at a time where shoppers are actively demanding a solution to sizing. 3D body scan analysis and virtual fitting rooms have kicked traditional sizing charts to the curb, as sizing solutions like Fit Advisor continue to reduce return rates and drive conversions for brands of all sizes and scopes. 

AI-based, 3D solutions like WAIR’s Fit Advisor are the final word in sizing, providing shoppers with seamless and accurate size recommendations based on their unique body dimensions. Once shoppers answer a few easy questions about their body type, Fit Advisor then conducts a deep search within its database of scans to find the scan that best matches the shopper’s body. On the backend, Fit Advisor also accounts for the designer’s intended fit before recommending the best-fitting size. 

This approach is wholly unique in that WAIR uses machine learning models built atop over 2 million unique body scans from validated end-users as the backbone of its size recommendations. No sizing solution available today has access to a data pool this vast and this diverse, nor are we tethered to traditional sizing standards in any way. We simply provide the precision and personalization of a personal fitting consultant at scale.

Recap

While establishing a universal sizing standard initially seemed like a benevolent act, 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 shoppers with clothing that fits their unique bodies, every time.