The size of the size problem

Marilyn Monroe was a classic bombshell who had it all; fame, fortune, fans, lovers, and a legacy that continues to influence modern culture and fashion today. To think that she was a size 16; a plus size! Oh, how the times of changed!

Truth be told, times haven’t changed much: the industry has.

Marilyn Monroe would have been a size 00 (with a full bust adjustment to a size 6 graded back down to a 00 at the waist) in Duck Butt Design clothes. When she was signed to be a model in 1945, her measurements were 36"-24"-34" and she weighed 120 pounds at 5'6". At the time of her death in 1962, she had dropped to 117 pounds and wore a size 16 ("Marylin Monroe's True Size", 2018). If it seems improbable, it helps to understand the difference between "vintage" and "modern" sizing.

By the end of the 1930's, the clothing industry was shifting from bespoke clothing to mass production. With no standards to work from, companies nationwide were losing an estimated $10 million to sizing issues ("No Boondoggling", 1939). To remedy this, the US government funded a study as part of the WPA (Works Project Administration) to find the shape of the "Average American Woman". The study, conducted by the Department of Agriculture, included 15,000 women who were to be measured in 59 places in exchange for a small participation fee ("No Boondoggling", 1939). Most of the women who participated were poor white women, and the resulting sizing chart assumed that all women were hourglass shaped, focusing heavily on bust circumference. Suffice it to say that the resulting chart was... flawed. 

A year later, Sears Roebuck along with other mail order businesses worked alongside the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) to conduct another study using mostly women who served in the air force. The resulting standards were "largely arbitrary” and ranged from size 8 to 38 along with an indicator as to tall, regular, or short ("The Bizarre History of Women's Clothing Sizes", 2014). It included no other indicators of anatomical measurements. Oh, also, no non-white women were included, and wouldn't be when the standards were revised in 1970 ("The Absurdity of Women's Clothing Sizes", 2015).

Yet these standards persisted into the 1980s, when the standards were withdrawn altogether as designers started to realize that there is no "standard" body shape or size (!!!).  This decision marked the end of "vintage" sizing and paved the way for the advent of “modern". With the rise of supermodels in the 80's, American society's obsession with thin women started to rage leading some to suspect that companies were lowering size numbers for the sake of vanity (i). Gap introduced size 0 in 1990. The size 00 was introduced about a decade later, reportedly by designer Nicole Miller, who is said to have proposed it in response to the influx of Asian customers in California requesting smaller sizes ("Fashion Designers Introduce Less-Than-Zero Sizes", 2006). If you are looking at that last citation and thinking "uh... smaller?", then know that J. Crew introduced TRIPLE 000 in 2014 (30" bust, 23" waist) ("Who's Buying J. Crew's New XXS Clothes", 2014).

In 1995, the ASTM (The American Society for Testing and Materials), an independent, international standards organization (ii), resurrected the effort to standardize sizes. These standards are still being discussed: the "D13 committee", which meets twice a year to discuss issues such as flammability, fiber content labeling, textile UV protection and more, continues to refine their sizing tables ("Committee D13 on Textiles"). The industry is under no obligation to use them, however, so they go largely ignored. As with previous standard charts, the sizes are arbitrarily labeled as numbers with no intrinsic notation of measurements. Oh, and they charge for access to them, so they’re not very popular.

So "modern" sizing is still all over the place, and we haven't come very far. 

When I shop at the Gap, I wear a size 6. At H&M, I'm a size 14. Forget boutique stores: I may as well not even step through the front door. I can't even rely on Small/Medium/Large as those sizes are reportedly based on sales rather than meaningful sizes. Kathleen Fasanella, author of “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing”, noted that medium is so-named only because it's the most popular size that a retailer will sell ("Who's Buying J. Crew's New XXS Clothing", 2014). Translated? As America's waist fluctuates, so does its “medium”. It’s intuitive in the long run for the population, but frustrating for the individual shopper. For the record, I have all three sizes in my closet. 

It's so frustrating and I'm willing to bet that you, dear reader, are nodding your head in agreement because you have had the same frustration. TIME magazine estimates that of the $240 billion spent on clothing, 40% of clothing (especially bought online) is returned because of size issues ("One Size Fits None").

This frustration is compounded for women who fall into the "plus size" category.  The market for plus size clothing is booming - an estimated worth of $9 billion in 2014 ("Retailers are Missing Out", 2015) - but few designers cater to the plus size demographic. Abercrombie's CEO famously once said that he didn't want to market to anyone that wasn't "good looking" (read: plus size) ("Abercrombie & Fitch Refuses to Make Clothes for Large Women", 2013) while one of the Lululemon co-founders blamed their products’ inseam problems on the girth of customer's thighs rather than construction, saying "Quite frankly, some women's bodies just don’t work (for the pants)..." ("What Lululemon Could Learn from Abercrombie About Fat Shaming", 2013). Abercrombie has since started offering larger sizes; Lululemon still tops out at size 12 (40" bust) for most tops. 

We don't have a size problem in this country; we have a fitting problem. 

There is hope for all of us, however. Tim Gunn, known for being fabulous (oh, and Project Runway), has been very vocal regarding the dearth of fashionable plus size clothing, calling it a "disgrace". Startups like Gwynnie Bee have started offering fashionable clothing for a wider selection of sizes. With the advent of new technology, more companies are offering ways of finding the best fit for all their customers. Whether it's a service allowing customers to input their measurements for a list of the clothes that will fit them best ("Fit Like a Glove", 2012) or 3D modeling, now being used for customizing everything about a garment's fit (Guo, 2016), we are hopefully headed in a new direction where standards are thrown out the window in favor of meaningful, personalized fit. 

After all, size is just a number, but fit is so much more.


If you have made it this far, thank you for reading! Don’t forget to join the Facebook group at There you will find lots of help for getting the right fit, whether it’s selecting a size, tackling full bust adjustments, or deciding which pattern you would love to wear. By getting to know your body, its measurements and your preferences, combined with a little alteration know-how, you can get the best fit for you every time.



ASTM Standards for purchase:                  

Affiliate Link for Kathleen Fasanella’s book


Dockterman, Eliana. "One Size Fits None". TIME, Web. Accessed: 4 April 2018. 

Dockterman, Eliana. "What Lululemon Could Learn From Abercrombie About Fat Shaming". TIME. 13 November 2013Web. Accessed: 4 April 2018. 

Fasanella, Kathleen. “The Myth of Vanity Sizing”. The Fashion Incubator. 29 June 2005. Web. Accessed 4 April 2018.

Guo, Siming. "Comparison of Women's Sizes from SizeuSA and ASTM D5585-11 Sizing Standard with Focus on the Potential for Mass Customization". Journal of Textile Apparel, Technology and Management. Vol 10 Issue 2. 2016. 

Lutz, Ashley. "Abercrombie & Fitch Refuses to Make Clothes for Large Women". Business Insider. 3 May 2013. Web. Accessed: 4 April 2018

Inghraham, Christopher. "The Absurdity of Women's Clothing Sizes...". The Washington Post. 11 August 2015. Web. Accessed: 4 April 2018.

"Marilyn Monroe's True Size". The Marilyn Monroe Collection LLC. 2018. Web. Accessed: 4 April 2018

Marques, Suzanne. "Fit Like a Gloge: Levi's Making Customized Jeans for Reasonable Price". CBS. 29 March 2012. Web. Accessed: 4 April 2018.

Merrick, Amy. "Who's Buying J. Crews New XXS Clothes". The New Yorker. 16 July, 2014. Web.  Accessed: 4 April, 2018.

"No Boondoggling". TIME. 25 December 1939. Web. Accessed: 4 April 2018

Rodgers, Jennifer. "Committee D13 on Textiles". ASTM International. 2018. Web. Accessed: 4 April 2018.

Schlossberg, Mallory. "Retailers are Missing Out on a $9 Billion Opportunity". Business Insider. 20 July 2015. Web. Accessed: 4 April 2018.

Schrobsdorff, Susanna. "Fashion Designers Introduce Less-Than-Zero Sizes". Newsweek. 17 October 2006. Web. Accessed: 4 April 2018.

Stampler, Laura. "The Bizarre History of Women's Clothing Sizes." TIME. 23 October 2014. Web. Accessed: 4 April 2018

(i) The vanity sizing issue is where Kathleen Fasanella and I disagree. She maintains that sizing across the industry is arbitrary and posits that companies label their clothing sizes to appeal to their various consumers bases and not for vanity (Fasanella, 2005). I maintain that to assert the latter is to assert the former.

(ii) The ASTM develops voluntary standards for many fields, including nuclear energy, UV protection, lead testing, pipe fittings, golfing turf, cigarettes, forensic science, pool safety, workplace safety, and much more.