Could you make a math equation out of all the sizes floating around in your closet?
For many women, trying to find the right size and fit is about as easy as guessing the calculations behind Einstein's theory of relativity. A size 8 in one line might fit the same as a 6 or 10 in others, and most women's garments don't list the body measurements they are made for, the way menswear usually does.
Why can't sizes be consistent -- a size 8, for example, that would fit the same in every line, at every store and from every catalog?
Why? Because no sure definition of a size 8 exists. Today's suggested "standards" are based on a 1942 government study, and women's bodies have changed a lot since then.
Moreover, clothing makers have different ideas about how close or loose they want styles to fit, and about what sizes their customers prefer. And no law says the measurements have to conform.
XTC But this is a good thing, manufacturers and industry experts say -- if every size followed a single standard, women of other proportions couldn't find anything at all.
"Now at least I have a fighting chance [of finding a good fit]," says Allison Wolf of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association. "It's just a question of trying things on."
In addition to the old hit-or-miss method in the dressing room, most women rely on common wisdom, word-of-mouth and personal experience to find the right size. (Tailoring is always an option -- but one that comes at a price.)
A widely held belief is that designer lines are sized more generously than mass market clothing. One young Dallas woman's story: "You go into Express and say you want to try something on. They ask you what size you wear, and you say, 'At Neiman's I'm a 2.' They say, 'OK, We'll get you a 12.' "
Between a 2 and a 12 (and on up to a 20, and beyond for large-size clothing lines), everything's relative -- relative to the size range, the particular line and the type of garment. The cut and style of a junior size 7 dress may make it seem minuscule compared with a misses 8, even though it's just a half-inch or so smaller. And some designers do cut their clothes significantly smaller or larger.
Image consultant Marcy Weil supports the idea that different lines flatter different body types. She uses a system that classifies women's figures as curvy, combination or straight. Clothing from Carole Little and Donna Karan would be good choices for voluptuous or pear-shaped figures, she suggests, while Calvin Klein and J.G. Hook tend to flatter narrower bodies. For combination clients, Anne Klein is one of the lines Ms. Weil recommends.
With so much room for variation, a standard size table might seem like a logical solution. And one exists.
The guidelines come from the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that creates and sells standards for many industries. But clothing companies are free to develop their own size specifications.
Designer Anthony Mark Hankins gives a full cut to his J. C. Penney line. "I always size more generous -- my 8 is really a 10," Mr. Hankins says. "It helps [customers] with their ego. . . . It's added selling power."
After designers and patternmakers finalize a garment in sample size -- usually a size 8 -- they need to make smaller and larger patterns to fit the rest of the customers. Dallas-based Computer Apparel Production Services is one company providing the link between a sample garment and the range of sizes available in stores.
Among any 50 manufacturers, there might be 10 different sizing tables, says Shirley Bradford, owner of CAPS. The service gets a sample, then lets the computer calculate the other sizes according to the designer's given sizing table. A size 10 is not just a certain percentage bigger in every area than a size 8, she explains. "We build them [changes] in 32nds and 64ths of an inch on x-y coordinates, so many fractions of an inch per size, per movement area."
Part of the reason for the huge range of variations is the lack of reliable information about American women's measurements.
The ASTM's "current" statistics come from a 1942 study of military women. Exercise, a higher standard of living, better nutrition (but also the advent of junk food) and other lifestyle changes have altered the female body since then. A size 8 1995 woman would have worn a size 12 in 1942. The ASTM has enlarged its sizes to try to keep pace, but the changes have been based on feedback from designers and the public, not from new measurements.
Increased ethnic diversity has also played a role in the changingrange of body shapes, says Ellen Goldsberry, director of the Southwest Retail Center at the University of Arizona.
During 1992 and 1993, Ms. Goldsberry studied a group of women that she says has been largely passed over by the apparel industry: those over age 55. After measuring and interviewing almost 7,000 women, Ms. Goldsberry's team created a new sizing standard. They found that older women's shoulders pull inward, their head and neck come forward, they shrink in height, lose mass from their buttocks and add it in the stomach area.
At least one company, Dress Rite of Chicago, is using the new standard to make dress forms for manufacturers, which Ms. Goldsberry says will help manufacturers realize that older women make up a "viable market."
The Institute for Standards Research now wants to survey women ages 18 to 55, but not enough companies have stepped forward to pay for new research.
* Don't buy for size. Buy for fit.
* Have at least one full-length mirror and good, strong light.
* Wear the same undergarments, hosiery and heels that you'll wear with the outfit.
* Move your arms. There should be no pull across the bust or shoulders. Long sleeves should reach the wrist bone when your arm is bent.
* Sit down in the dressing room, especially in fall's slim skirts. Skirts should not ride up.
* Allow for some give: Be able to grab an inch of extra fabric on body-hugging styles, insert two fingers into the waistband of pants, and pull a skirt all the way around your body.