Confusion is fitting as clothing makers mix measurements Sizable Differences


The closest I ever came to perfection was the fit of a misses' size 8. I used to be able to pull a garment off the rack and walk out of the store. But nowadays, perfection has slipped away. Frequently, I'm flattered to get into a 6, occasionally even a 4; sometimes I still need an 8 in the shoulders, though the rest hangs like a garment bag. According to the fit of my time-tattered jeans, I haven't changed. But sizes have gone totally haywire.

This fact was confirmed for me by fit model Debbie Sands, who comes close to being, literally, the perfect size 8. Ten top New York designers fit their clothes on her, and nine of them call her measurements the standard for their size 8. Her bust is 35 3/4 inches; waist, 27; and hips, 37 3/4 . Her measurements have not changed a fraction in 18 years. But other things have. "When I started in the business, some of my clients called me a 10," Ms. Sands recounts. "Now all but one call me an 8. There definitely has been a trend to loosening up."

But there's more to the mystery of fit than changing tag sizes. There's also the matter of the manufacturer's desired silhouette. When Ms. Sands goes into a Gap store, for instance, she reaches first for a 10, because the store's young-look denims tend to be cut small. And if she were to order from the J. Crew catalog, she would also have to specify a 10, "because my hips are bigger than the 37 inches they list for an 8."

Burt Hunton, co-owner of the Wolf Form Co. in Englewood, N.J., is one of the handful of people in the world who know for whom -- or more accurately, for what dimensions -- manufacturers' clothes are designed.

Mr. Hunton presides over some 1,700 body forms, used by 60,000 to 70,000 designers worldwide to determine pattern specifications. Some are the company's own forms used by such clothiers as Donna Karan and Liz Claiborne; others are made to order for such outfits as Kmart and J. C. Penney.

The measurements of a Wolf Form misses' size 8 are 34 1/2 -25-36. But these aren't the measurements of a Donna Karan or a Liz Claiborne size 8. For both, the size 8 form displays a 35 1/2 -inchbust, 26-inch waist and 37-inch hip. That's because they use the Wolf Form -- "or a spin-off close to it," Mr. Hunton says -- for a misses' size 10, but they call it an 8. For another customer, Ellen Tracy, the size 8 dimensions are 37-27 1/2 -38 1/2 -- because the designer's size 8 is made to fit the Wolf Form size 12.

Of course, an aging population wants to stick with the sizes of yesteryear, but women's vanity isn't the sole culprit in this sizing shift. There's also been a steady change in the comfort threshold, as evidenced by the demise of the corset and the girdle -- and by the response of mass-market mail-order companies.

Bigger competition

Three years ago, the Lands' End catalog enlarged its sizes, adding an inch to the bust and a half-inch to the waist and hips for size 8, to remain competitive. "We saw an increase among our competitors, like Eddie Bauer and L. L. Bean, so we felt we had to go in that direction," explains Dana Peppin, the company's quality-assurance manager.

Penney moved in the same direction, renaming its size 10 an 8. Spiegel's sizes are similarly generous. But catalog shoppers should beware. Talbots' size 8 is comparatively snug, and J. Crew's waist size is only 10 inches smaller than the hips, while an 11-inch "drop," as the proportion is called, is more the industry norm. In other words, if you're going to shop long distance, you should take your own measurements, so that you can order according to the size chart.

Yet many people who have studied the problem of inconsistency in women's clothing sizes conclude that only by labeling clothes with measurements will the issue be clarified for shoppers. Without such labeling, the meaning of any women's clothing size is known only to the individual manufacturer. There is neither a national standard for sizes, nor any federal regulation. In 1980, the National Bureau of Standards decided to leave sizing to the industry, and in 1983, the agency officially withdrew the size tables that had been circulating since 1971.

The federal government threw the ball to the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) in 1980, and Sirvart Mellian, a U.S. Navy design engineer, became the chair of an ASTM subcommittee charged with determining sizing standards. Ms. Mellian strongly advocates putting measurements on labels. "Designers say that it won't work because women don't know their measurements," she says. "But I refuse to believe that women aren't as smart as men. Men learned their dimensions because they always shopped that way."

Men's forms unchanged

It's a good argument, but it's open to challenge. For one thing, the number on a man's size, for example, 42 regular, doesn't mean much since the size is meant to fit a 44-inch chest, 38-inch waist and 45-inch hip. What may be more important to shoppers, says Mr. Hunton, is that the forms for men's clothing haven't changed much in 40 years. Also, store alterations are much more routine and readily available for men than for women. And, says Mr. Hunton of men, "We have fewer curves."

The issue of how to account for curves on size labels has its partisans too. Ellen Goldsberry, a University of Arizona professor who led a recent study that measured 7,000 women age 55 and older, concluded that not only would women be better served by measurements on labels, but also that older women would benefit from a special age code to indicate that a garment would be more likely to fit the thickened waist, bigger hips and heavier arms of the aging figure.

Lisa Aldisert, a designer whose line, La Bella Figura, is cut for sizes 12 to 24, would like labels to include bust size and a code indicating body shape -- P for pear-shaped, V for inverted triangle, H for straight up and down. Ms. Aldisert's system makes sense, but the designer concedes it probably won't happen. "I don't have the confidence to start it," she says, "and people are confused enough anyway."

Is any labeling change likely to happen? Ms. Mellian thinks so, if only for economic reasons: "We have to put body measurements on the label to compete globally," she insists.

But the truth is that Wolf Form Co. already ships size forms all over the world. Two years ago, it added Russia to its roster of South American, European and Asian customers.

And what did it ship to the land of traditionally hefty women? "We sent them our size 12," Mr. Hunton recalls, "and they called it an 8."

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