Episode #7: Size and Fit: It’s Not You, It’s the Clothes

Hello, and thank you for tuning into this week’s episode of True Style, which is also last week’s episode of True Style, where my goal is not to tell you what to wear, but to help you figure out what you want to wear, and also educate you on the fashion industry and history so that you can make educated decisions about what you buy to feel your best. 

My name is Lakyn Carlton and I will be your host today and for the foreseeable future. 

Today’s topic is something that every single woman who wears clothes will struggle with at some point—some more than others. 

I wanna talk about sizing, and why it’s so difficult to navigate today, as well as some tips on how to get that perfect fit for your unique body. 

I want to briefly note here that size and fit are different, and when I use each word, I am referring to two separate concepts. 

Size is simply whether a garment can actually get over your body, and the designations that let you know the likelihood of that. Fit, however, is about whether you feel comfortable and can move freely in that garment, as well as whether it fulfills your own personal idea of flattering. 

Now that we’ve gotten that little vocabulary lesson out of the way, as always, let’s start with a bit of a history lesson. 

Before the 20th century, most clothing was made either in the home or by tailors. There was no need for sizes, as everything was simply made to your measurements and taken in or let out as needed. 

While this would be impractical for most of us today, you have to remember that back then, people had far less clothing. 

Like many advancements in the western world, the first attempts at universal sizing and the increase in ready to wear clothing was born from war. The demand for uniforms for soldiers lead to the standardization of sizing for men first: jacket sizes were based on the chest measurement and pants were based on the waist and inseam. A fairly simple system for bodies that tend to be less shapely. 

Eventually, women started to accept ready made clothing as well, but, the lack of true sizing standards made it so every brand essentially had their own system…kinda like today. The first attempts at coming up with a universal system was based on bust measurement, completely ignoring the waist, as you were assumed to either have a perfect hourglass figure with a waist about 10 inches smaller than your bust, or were likely to wear a corset in order to achieve it. 

In this time, if you had a 36 inch bust, you were a size 36, and if you were a child or teen, your size was based on your age, i.e. a sized 16 for, naturally, a 16 year old.

You can probably see the issue there. 

Of course, at this time, most women were still more likely to sew their own clothing at home or with a tailor, so, while we were quickly shifting to buying off the rack, most women weren’t wearing things off the rack without altering it first.

In the 1940s, 15,000 women were measured in 59 different places on their bodies, in a survey by the National Bureau of Home Economics—a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately, this data was largely rejected as it was comprised mostly of young, white women, most of whom were poor and could really use the payment for participating.

The resulting system not only skewed much thinner than what should have been average, but also was still based on the idea that all women were hourglass shaped, even though, in reality, only about 8% of women actually are.

In 1958, the Mail Order Association of America—which represented catalog companies like Sears Roebuck—set out to reanalyze the sizing, this time using the measurements of women who had served in the Air Force. AKA some of the most fit people in the country. 

They came up with a size range from 8 to 42, a whopping 18 different sizes, each with a separate designation for Tall, Regular, or Short women, as well as a plus or minus sign for girth. This was also a failure, but, I want to take a moment to point out how they started at a size 8. 

Today, a size 8 or what is widely considered “medium” will generally fit a woman with a 36 inch bust and a 30 inch waist. In 1958, a size 8 would’ve instead fit a woman with a 31 inch bust and a 23.5 inch waist, what we now call a 00. 

Naturally, as what was considered “average” at the time was much smaller than what we consider average today, the designation of “plus size”, or “stout wear” as it was called, also started a lot earlier than what we’re used to. According to sizing tables made by some of the earliest stout wear manufacturers, stout garments could have waist measurements as tiny as 30 inches, though most started around 34. 

Of course, such a narrow range of what’s considered quote-unquote “normal” means that women with larger bodies have always been left out of fashion in some way. 

While the fashion industry as a whole has always struggled with fit in any size garment, the issue was, just like today, only exacerbated by the size of the woman wearing the clothing. 

Typically, even with ready made garments, curvier women were still relegated to sending in their measurements and having the retailer choose what size would be the best option. They were then expected to eat the costs of altering their own clothing, leading to the prioritization of reducing those costs rather than attempting a perfect fit. 

But, though it may seem like the idea of size inclusivity is relatively new, it actually dates back to the very beginnings of ready to wear clothing. Kinda.

Lena Bryant was the first to spot the gap in the market in the 1920s. She realized that the major manufacturers were outright ignoring full-figured women, and set out to change it. 

Having already made quite the name for herself after opening her first boutique in 1904, where her best selling garment was a maternity dress, she measured over four thousand of her customers in order to create the first Misses’ Plus Size range. 

She later dropped smaller sizes, as well as maternity altogether, in what is now Lane Bryant. 

In these early days, the term plus size was a designation that exclusively referred to clothing. Unfortunately, in 1953, an ad for Korell was run in a North Carolina newspaper advertising quote, “wonderful action-plus dress for the plus-sized woman,” marking the first time this modifier had been used to refer to women, instead of the clothes they wore, spawning a shift in not just how clothes were marketed, but in how we think of our own bodies.

To capitalize off of the embarrassment many women had begun to feel due to the size of their clothing, some garment companies had begun downgrading their sizing labels. 

In the 80s, and in yet another example of corporations capitalizing on women’s poor body image that they themselves perpetuated, the practice of vanity sizing was born.

Measurements that would have previously been categorized as a size 12 became the new size 8, and eventually a 6, and even smaller numbers like 4, 2, 0 and double zero were added in an effort to convince customers to buy from the brand whose size labels made them feel they were the tiniest, even though the actual clothes were the same physical size they wore elsewhere. 

At this point, sizing was less of an actual measure of how big or small clothing was, but a marketing tool in and of itself. 

But regardless of how confusing and difficult sizing may be for the average American woman, we used to have some level of pride in this nonsense—not unlike much of the other American nonsense we seem to value. 

In my research for this episode, looking for proof that inconsistent sizing has always been a struggle, I came across a surprising number of articles that paint said struggle as a sort of freedom. 

A 1953 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal outright rejected a proposed commercial standard, calling a lady’s dress size quote “a matter of personal privilege and the Fifth Amendment.” 

Manufacturers also took outright offense to the idea of any sort of mandatory standard. In 1986, one author reporting on the topic for the New York Times can be quoted as saying, quote, “The Laura Ashley woman is different from the Liz Claiborne woman, who is different from the woman whom Calvin Klein envisions.” 

And yeah, it doesn’t take a rocket genius to see the extremely vast differences between sizing across different designers, price points, even countries. 

Since 1995, a private organization called ASTM International has published a tall of body measurements for women’s sizing, using a system based on the Mail Order Association of America’s data in 1958. But, as fashion has grown more and more global, many brands have decided not to attempt to cater to the entire world of bodies, sticking instead to their own tried and true demographics and either cheating or eliminating everyone else. 

The very first sample of a garment is typically made to fit what is called a fit model, that is, someone whose job it is to try things on and serve as a live model for a brand to test garment fit. This model is typically the brand’s most ideal customer: her proportions, her body type, her measurements, everything about her is perfect in the eyes of the designer. 

Once the garment fits on her, however, there’s usually no further fittings. Brands decide sizes by putting numbers in a chart that increase or decrease by a consistent amount from size to size. Beyond bust, waist and hip, there are dozens of other measurements that come into play here. There’s the curviness of the backside, or, the seat; there’s the measurement across the chest above the bust, the shoulder, the length of the torso, the width of the neck, and many, many others. 

Depending on whether a garment is meant to be loose fitting or tight, or if it’s in a stretchy fabric or not and how much stretch there is, fit can still be an issue if you’re even an inch or two off from a brand’s ideal. 

With so much inconsistency not just across different brands but even within a single brand, it’s important, to me, to get rid of this idea of “I’m a size 8” “I’m plus size” “I’m a size 2.” Because it doesn’t mean anything. 

You are a person with a body, and that body has measurements that, when plugged into a size chart, may sometimes come out to an 8, may sometimes come out to a 10, may also come out to a Large or even a Small, or a 16 or 18, or something entirely different. 

This is why I stress knowing those measurements, but also not attaching any form of self worth to the clothes that fit them. You are not a size, the clothes are a size, and they either fit you, or they don’t. And if they don’t, it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. 

That said, with so many people doing so much shopping online it truly baffles me how many people are just guessing when it comes to what size is most likely to fit them. 

Measuring yourself isn’t particularly difficult or inaccessible., so long as you or someone else you trust can wrap a measuring tape around you and read the number. You can purchase a basic measuring tape for less than $4 online, and extended tapes that go past 60 inches for the same. You could also use a string or shoelace and a ruler, or even just measure the garments you own that fit you the best. But It’s the placement that tends to be confusing.

Of course, it’s tough to instruct without a visual, but, generally, you only need three numbers to start: your bust, your waist, and your hips. 

For all of these, you’re going to want to wear form fitting clothing. For those of us who are busty or otherwise have breasts that hang, I would recommend wearing an unpadded bra that fits well and that you wear often. I say this because clothes are often designed on mannequins, and so, in order to get the most useful measurement for buying clothing, you want your breasts to be sitting where a mannequin’s breasts do, high on your chest, with your nipples parallel to your armpit. 

Your first measurement will be around the fullest part of your bust. 

Waist is a little more difficult. For many, this will just be the most narrow part of your torso, but, if you don’t have a narrow part, a good rule of thumb is to go about two inches above your belly button. This is your true waist. However, if you carry weight in your lower stomach, you may also want to take that measurement as well. 

Lastly, you have your hip. Again, this is just around the fullest part of your butt. If you’re shopping for pants, you will also need your inseam, which is the measurement down the inside of your leg starting at your crotch, to your ankle or to the floor, depending on what sort of length you personally prefer. 

Don’t be alarmed if, while shopping, you find your measurements in between sizes more often than not. Only 23% of shoppers report that their body measurements perfectly align with the ASTM standard sizing charts, and, as we’ve established, there’s no real standard anyway. 

We have to keep in mind, as fashion consumers, that clothes are quite literally not made for us. They’re made for us to buy, yes, but, especially as fashion gets faster and faster and we demand cheaper and cheaper prices at the cost of sacrificing quality, a lot of brands now have very little interest in making their wares actually fit us properly if it means spending even a few extra cents per garment. 

This negligence runs even deeper than you may think.

Back on episode 3: From Concept to Closet, I talked about the process of taking a garment, you know, from concept to closet. That is, making a design into a real item that can be sold and worn. Today, I want to talk about some of the corners that lower end and fast fashion brands often take that save them money, but can compromise fit. 

It starts in what is essentially step one, with many low end brands using computers to create patterns from which to cut their clothing, rather than employing highly skilled patternmakers. If you compare a high quality pattern to a cheaper, more basic one, you’ll see minor details that create major fit differences, such as subtly curved lines, proportional changes between sizes, and extremely precise measurements, sometimes down to the millimeter. 

There are things such as ease, which is when you make one pattern piece slightly larger than the one it’s meant to be sewn to, and gather, or, ease them together. This technique is non-existent in fast fashion but extremely common in higher end garments, to allow for space for movement, especially around the arms.

There are darts, which are meant to shape a flat piece of fabric to the body, and can be changed in depth in order to accommodate busts, waist curves, and backsides. 

Not only do computer-generated patterns lack the nuances needed to account for real human bodies, the brands themselves are not even creating physical samples to test fit. Instead, many are eliminating fit models and samples altogether and instead creating 3D models of their garments, to be transmitted to factories overseas, in order to save on the costs and time required to ship an actual piece. 

This method is referred to as Fast Fit, and it’s not even the tip of the iceberg. The same razor thin profit margins that make it more feasible to not even test a garment before sending it to production also end up dictating what that garment looks like in the first place. 

Think boxier styles meant to save material; not allowing for differences in fabric that can affect drape and stretch making a garment fit entirely different in one color than it does in another; adding stretch to things that don’t need stretch like coats and blazers to get around the need to tailor, but ultimately leading to pieces being stretched out and ill-fitting after the spandex fibers begin to degrade and wear out. 

In 1999, brands produced, on average, 4.75 fit samples per garment, and only a third of returns could be attributed to poor fit. Today, more than 64% of returns are now due to poor fit, and 62% of consumers report not being able to find clothing that fits them at all. 

Speed to market and consumer demand requires entire steps to be skipped in order to get clothes on racks and in shopping carts, and brands have very little incentive to improve the way the clothes actually look on us when they know we as shoppers are quicker to blame ourselves for fit issues rather than the companies that don’t care to cater to their customers.

When we say clothes today are poorly made, it’s not just about the materials, or the stitching: it also includes the actual cutting of the garment. 

But, even if a piece is made perfectly, is made to your measurements, and you can get it on your body just fine, that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect fit. I can stress knowing your measurements all day, but, the truth is, even two people with the exact same bust, waist, and hips can be shaped completely differently, and the same size or even the same garments may not work for both of them.

Unfortunately, shape is something that’s difficult to accommodate for, and therefore requires a lot more discernment when shopping. Many brands don’t consider broader shoulders, or shorter torsos, or breasts that are wider set, or a number of other things that are perfectly normal but not as obvious to those without these features. 

This is where self-awareness has to take over, especially when shopping online, meaning you need to be acutely aware of your own body in order to figure out what you should be searching for, as well as how to style it, rather than getting too upset over pieces that weren’t made with your unique frame in mind. 

Your body shouldn’t and doesn’t exclude you from wearing certain things, but, if you find yourself with a closet full of things that you don’t consider flattering and comfortable by your own standards, you may need to take the time to really work out what your own personal ideal for fit is and how to achieve it.

For example, for me, as a busty girl, with arms that are on the larger side, it used to be a struggle to find tops and blouses that fit without being too tight in one area or both. Even if the measurements were correct, buttons tend to be uncomfortable and sleeves tend to be too tight. 

Instead of constantly trying things I knew probably wouldn’t work, I shifted to lean toward bigger sleeves, and looser, oversized fits. I focused on my undergarments, so I could wear my shirts unbuttoned a little lower and not have to worry about that dreaded gap over the bust and instead show off my bra a little bit, something that’s tough to do when your bra doesn’t fit properly. 

That said, if I had a taste for more fitted tops, I would most likely have to opt for some with stretch or find some that fit in the arms and get them taken in to fit my torso. 

For those who also, like me, carry more weight in their stomach it can be especially tough to buy things like dresses. One solution could be to wear things that float away from the body. A-lines and flared silhouettes that start high at the natural waist are going to be more ideal than sheath or straight cut skirts. 

Of course, if you do prefer your clothes more fitted, you may want to focus more on stretchy and ruched styles that shape themselves to the body and give you a little more room to breathe. You could also try going a size up and getting things tailored, or shapewear. 

I personally don’t believe that shape wear is something shameful. Especially in a world where most of us can’t afford to get clothes made to our exact size and shape, shape wear isn’t about changing your body or even really slimming you out. 

It’s meant to redistribute your curves and make your garment more comfortable and body skimming rather than restrictive and smothering. 

What matters, though, at the end of the day, is knowing your body, and knowing how you want to look in order to find styles and clothes that truly fit you, instead of trying to make your body fit the clothes. 

I don’t subscribe to the conventional idea of “flattering,” which typically just means it makes you look skinnier and taller. But, fit is not just about looks, it’s also about comfort, which ultimately adds to your confidence. 

I can’t stress it enough: if it’s financially plausible for you, get a tailor. Not only will they help take your fit to the next level, but they can even help you get more wear out of your garments once their first life is over. 

Honestly, I feel like tailors don’t get enough shine. Maybe it’s because our clothes are so cheap now that many can’t be tailored without basically falling apart. Or maybe it’s because our taste for instant gratification prevents us from waiting for something to be altered before we can wear it. 

I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that it’s because the average person not only has no idea of all the things tailors con do, but also thinks that what they can do is prohibitively expensive. So let’s talk tailoring. 

Fit is never more important than when you’re starting to invest in your wardrobe. Things like blazers, formal dresses, workwear and even jeans are almost always gonna need a little tweak to best honor your body. But alterations aren’t just limited to hems and taking things in. 

For instance, did you know, that if a jacket or shirt is too restrictive in movement, a tailor can—depending on the garment itself—add extra room so that you can comfortably move your arms? If you have blouses that gap over your bust, a tailor can add a hidden button to keep it closed, and even add a panel underneath the arms to give you a little more room to breathe. 

They can replace old collars and cuffs, and even lower necklines to create a more desirable look. They can add and replace zippers, or line a garment if it’s too sheer. 

That’s all in addition to the basic hems, to repairs such as worn down inner thighs from too much friction, and taking in and letting out certain items.

The average cost in a major city for most basic fixes at a tailor will run you about $20. More intense fixes can go up to $100 or more, but, for the most part, it’ll average out around $40-50 if it’s not too complex. 

Now, $50 is in fact more than what most of us spend on a single piece of clothing, and I am sensitive to that face. But, if you are investing more in quality pieces, you’ll find that great fit, and a good relationship with your tailor is ultimately priceless. 

You can find quality tailors via Yelp for brick and mortar businesses, on a site like Thumbtack for independent contractors, or, check with your local dry cleaners to see what basic fixes they can provide or for recommendations. High end retailers such as Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s offer alterations for items purchased at their stores, and, if you’re looking for the perfect pair of jeans, Levi’s also offers basic alterations and fixes like hems and patches in their own Tailor Shop.

But what if you can’t afford a tailor? I would say safety pins are your best friend, but so is, as I mentioned before, knowing what works for you. Brand loyalty is something I think we don’t necessarily value as much these days, but, once you’ve found a label that fits you well, I recommend looking to them first when trying to expand your wardrobe. 

Now, this doesn’t apply to fast fashion companies like Zara and H&M or for marketplaces like AliExpress or Shein as all of them, with the exception of Zara, have extremely inconsistent sizing and fit due to their goods being manufactured in many different factories. 

But, brands that are even a step up, like Free People, or one of the many individual brands on ASOS or others like J. Crew, the Gap, whatever, tend to be a little more consistent especially if you’re shopping similar styles. 

While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with experimentation, it pays to have a more focused point of view if sizing is a major issue for you, so that you can be both adventurous but also confident that wherever your style journey is taking you, you’re going to feel great no matter what. 

Of course, you can have the most perfect, well-fitting wardrobe in the world but, what happens when your body changes? 

In one of my most frequently asked questions, a whole lot of you want to know what to do when your clothes don’t fit anymore.

First, whether your changes are welcome or unwelcome, take all the time you need to get used to your new body. While I am more of a body-neutrality activist than a body-positivity one, it’s still important to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with how you look. 

You look how you look, and while there is a beauty in everyone, what really matters is awareness. Figure out what exactly has changed about your body. 

I don’t mean the number on the scale, I mean where do you hold your weight, what parts are you happy with and what parts are you less than thrilled about. It can hurt to be honest with ourselves, but, it’s paramount to getting to a place where we are truly okay with if not in love with what we look like. 

How to do this? Stand in the mirror naked and look at yourself. Maybe it’s easier said than done the first few times, but you can’t accept what you never see. It can be as quick as opening your towel when you get out of the shower for a few seconds or full on stopping, posing, even dancing alone in your room. 

Now, you see you. Let’s look at your clothes.

The idea of replacing an entire wardrobe can be daunting, especially if you’re on a tight budget. Luckily, you don’t have to worry about doing everything immediately. 

Focus on what’s coming up next for you. Are you going to the office? Are there events coming up? Dates? Check your calendar and figure out what outfits you actually need to get you through the next few months. 

One important step in this process will be trying on everything you have to see what still works for you. It can be tough, so, I recommend taking it in parts. Divide your closet into things that are most likely to still fit, such as loose-fitting, stretchy or adjustable pieces, and things that are less likely to still fit. Take one from each side and try on at your own pace. 

When you come to a piece that doesn’t fit, ask yourself why, and consider whether it can be fixed. Jeans that are too big in the waist can be taken in, and certain dresses can be let out 1-2 inches, and some tops can become a DIY project. If it is unsalvageable, however, consider asking your friends or people close to you if they could use it. Donating is an option, but in episode 4 I explain why it’s very rarely my first choice. 

Once you’ve determined what you actually need, make a list. Write down what you want to replace, but also options for all new things you’d like to try. Make sure the pieces you’re looking for are versatile enough to be styled many different ways to hold you over while you rebuild. 

I also think it may pay to look into more adaptable styles if you are anticipating further body changes. Wrap styles, things that can be belted as well as worn loose, and anything oversized can be safe bets. 

That said, don’t only focus on those things. Life is far too short to skip feeling beautiful in favor of dressing for a rainy day that may never come. Have fun, and don’t dwell on what doesn’t work so hard that you’re unwilling to explore what does. 

Well, that does it for this week’s episode! I’m happy to announce that True Style has a brand new website, which you should use to submit your questions for our supersized Q&A episode coming at the end of this month. As always, transcripts are also available at true style dot show, and you’ll find links to our social media as well as our newsletter there as well. Thanks for listening! Until next time, bye! 

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