Home » History in Fashion: Women’s Clothing Sizes

History in Fashion: Women’s Clothing Sizes

In the world of women’s clothing, a 4 is a 2. Everything is relative — unless, of course, you’re shopping in SoHo, where some stores are deemed having only size — small.

One of the most frustrating American pastimes occurs within the confines of a dressing room. But where do these seemingly random sizes come from? Sit down, unbutton your pants and enjoy a quick history of the women’s clothing measurement system. True sizing standards didn’t develop until the 1940’s. Before then sizes for young ladies and children were all based on age — so a size 16 would be for a 16-year-old — and for women it was all about bust measurement.

To purchase clothing, people did not always walk into a store, grab their size off the rack and try it on. Prior to the American Civil War and the industrial revolution, the vast majority of clothes were made at home, either by a tailor or by themselves. Numerous measurements were taken and the clothes were made specifically to fit the individual who would wear them—  hence the term, “ready-to-wear.” The technological innovations of the industrial revolution, along with the supply of uniforms demanded by the Civil War, led to changes in the way clothing was produced. These changes eventually led to the system of standard sizes we know today.

Due to a flawed system in a measurement study in the 1930s, a new study on women’s sizes was conducted in the late 1940s. The goal was to to reanalyze the sizing — often using the measurements of women who had served in the air force, some of the most fit people in the country — creating a 1958 standard that was random to say the least. Sizes ranged from 8 to 38 with height indications of tall (T), regular (R), and short (S), and a plus or minus sign when referring to girth.

There was no size zero, like we see today in stores.

As American’s waists increased, so did our egos. And thus began the practice of vanity sizing. Over the decades, government size guidelines were given careful attention to less and less, items of clothing began getting marked with lower numbers and eventually, in 1983, the Department of Commerce withdrew its commercial women’s clothing size standard altogether.

We went from size 16 being a model in the ’40s to 12 in the ’60s. Marilyn Monroe was a 12 in the ’60s, which would now be a size 6.

Now, stores often size based on their own preferences, which can make for frustrating online shopping experiences — unless you already know your exact size.

But are we doomed to a future of sizing confusion? Maybe not. With advancement in new technologies- which might be welcoming a new era of customized clothing. Body measurements are so advanced now— with 3-D scanning aka 3D printing and digital changing rooms — We may be able to find better options for better fitting clothing.

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