Vanity sizing, ready-to-wear, and the 20th Century growth spurt

I went to buy a wedding gown on eBay the other day. I tracked down one I liked, but I was a little concerned about the size. It was a 6. When I think of "size 6," I inevitably flash back to watching Ally McBeal with my mom. Calista Flockhart and Portia De Rossi are in the courtroom and the opposing counsel is giving his closing remarks, which end with, "... blah blah blah The two size sixes over here!" He points to these two famously thin actresses and they look stunned. I will tell you, I bear little resemblance to Ally McBeal, so I was usure whether I should bid on the dress.

If you've shopped for women's clothing on eBay, you've probably noticed that most sellers take pains to provide measurements for the items they're selling. Why do they do that? Ladies? Yes, you there, waving the size 4 skirt and the size 10 pair of pants, both of which you wore last week? Exactly, something called "vanity sizing". Vanity sizing is the trend in women's clothing where the women stay the same size but the numbers on their clothing get smaller. Vanity sizing is the reason that a woman who used to be a size 8 is now "somewhere between a 4 and a 12". Vanity sizing is the reason I checked the measurements before I bid on the dress. Weirdly, they were close to mine.

Why weirdly? It's not just because of Ally McBeal. It actually has more to do with having gone through a period of wearing a lot of vintage clothing. In vintage clothing, I wear a 12, a far cry from the 6 I was yesterday. Vanity sizing is no myth. I have sitting in front of me a Time/Life sewing manual published in 1973. Let me share a few of the size tables it contains:

     SIZE  | 5  | 7  | 9  | 11 | 13 | 15
     bust  | 30 | 31 | 32 |33.5| 35 | 37
     waist |22.5|23.5|24.5|25.5| 27 | 29
     hip   | 32 | 33 | 34 |35.5| 37 | 39 

     SIZE  | 10.5 | 12.5 | 14.5 | 16.5 | 18.5 | 20.5
     bust  |  33  |  35  |  37  |  39  |  41  |  43
     waist |  27  |  29  |  31  |  33  |  35  | 37.5
     hip   |  35  |  37  |  39  |  41  |  43  | 45.5
* I don't include Women's sizes because they're given in inches here, which is logical and therefore does nothing to bolster my argument that women's clothing sizes are crazy-making.

On these charts, my measurements put me pretty close to a size 13. Any woman of 1973 would laugh her ass off at the idea of me wearing a size 6 wedding dress. The people who christened the idea of vanity sizing as such would suggest that this is because clothing manufacturers want me to buy more clothes, and by telling me I'm a 6 and not a 13, they're encouraging me to think I'm thin and glamorous, which will in turn make me want more clothes.

Ok, first? Some of the skinniest women I know are still wearing jeans and sweatshirts they got at Old Navy five years ago. They do not all seem to think, "I'm very thin!" therefore, "I should be dressing like Audrey Hepburn!" There's no logical connection between a smaller dress size and a bigger credit card bill.

Second, it's all relative. Prior to its invention, the 00 size had no vanity-factor associated with it. When being a size 6 meant having the body of a little girl, grown women probably didn't bemoan their size 10 culottes.

Third and finally in the list of reasons why vanity sizing isn't about vanity at all refers to the old "Marilyn Monroe was a size 16" argument. Though she clocked in at a respectable 5'5", Ms. Monroe was subject to the charts above when having her dresses made. And for her time, Marilyn was a pretty tall lady.

What I neglected to mention, so I could whip it out and shock you with it later, was the height ranges associated with those charts:

Junior: 5'4" to 5'5" tall without shoes.
Half-Size: 5'2" to 5'3".

There are several other charts listed here on this same page. The shortest, Junior Petite, covers 5'-5'1". The most Amazonian size is Women's, with a height range of 5'5"-5'6". At 5'7", I'm not even on these damned charts. I could be a size 6 or a size 300. We'll never know. Ms. Monroe is, however, and you'll notice that, according to the Junior chart, a size 16 was hardly a BBW.

We don't know why people used to be smaller, but they were. Vanity sizing is also called "size inflation" which, to my mind, is more accurate. When the federal reserve runs out of currency, they print more bills. When clothing manufacturers run out of five-foot women with 30 inch chests, they make up crazy sounding things like size 00. The old size charts just stopped being any good. Ready-to-wear clothing has to fit a huge range of sizes, not just because of the variety of figures, but because ready-to-wear is all anyone wears.

If it were 1973 and I was the same towering size I am now, I probably would have been sewing my own clothes, or at least altering them. But that's not an option for most women now, because what used to be a crucial skill is now a hobby. It's more likely that a woman who falls outside the range of sizes offered in a typical mall store can knit herself a scarf than that she can sew herself a pair of pants.

The ends of the bell curve can't be ignored, because our culture relies upon being able to go down the mall for our clothes. There has to be a way to express a huge range of sizes and shapes in simple meaningless numbers to women who may not know their own measurements beyond their bra size.

Besides making us taller, our wealth of good nutrition and electric lighting is part of another growth spurt, the so-called obesity epidemic. We still have the ladies pictured in my sewing book. We have their taller peers. And we have women whose nutrition is awesome, who sit in front of a computer 10 hours and day and spend their waking lives stressed out, which contributes to them being taller and bigger around. And all of these various shapes of people want to walk into the Gap and buy one pair of pants without trying on forty. You're damn right the system is a little messed up!

So... I'm sitting here in front of eBay trying to buy a wedding dress. Where does that leave me?

In a word? Fucked. Hopefully the dress you want has measurements listed and hopefully you know yours. At least you're not in a mall somewhere staring at storefronts which all feature the same mannequin, wondering which carries a range of sizes that includes yours.

Men have it easy. Being relatively un-curvy, they can kind of estimate based on their waist size. They all get used to knowing their measurements for suits and such, and for the rest, the up and down uniformity of their body shapes makes it easier for them to say with confidence "I wear a 34." Women have curves, and the variety of proportions is astounding. You know, really, how did they ever think they were going to standardize this stuff?

At the end of the day, all you can really do is sew your clothing at home, know your measurements and shop somewhere that appreciates that, or get used to walking into the fitting room with three of everything. You're dealing with a modern problem, and no one seems to have invented a way around it yet. It's not that anyone's trying to trick you, it's not that anyone's trying to leave you out. Today I'm a size 6, tomorrow I might be a size 10, and I'm not the only one. Catalog stores have begun to do something about the problem in offering wider ranges of sizes and inseams, and hopefully that's where clothing retail is headed. In the meantime, thank heaven jersey is getting so popular.

Book mentioned above is "The Art of Sewing / The Classic Techniques", published 1973 by Time Inc. And it's pink!

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