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No, You're Not Crazy; Apparel Sizing Makes Zero Sense

From a sized piece of clothing, measurements can be extrapolated, but, unfortunately, the numbers used in women’s apparel today are not actually measurements, even when they sound as though they might be. If you measured the waistband or hips of a pair of size 27 jeans, there is almost a zero percent chance that the measurement is related, in any way, to the size. Surely, you might think, it would be more cost effective, never mind more logical, for standards to exist in sizing, based on measurements that any brand could easily follow. It’s even been estimated that almost $200 billion of the clothing returned to retailers each year is because of problems with sizing. Why there is no standard industry practice is a frustrating and fascinating story.
Libro de Geometría Práctica y Traça by Juan de Alcega, 1589
The very first person I can find to have authored writing about tailoring, specifically including the drafting of pattern pieces is Juan de Alcega, who was a Spanish mathematician and tailor circa 1589. Though his work was largely focused on calculating the quantity of cloth for a specific garment, such a consideration is related to the history of sizing, as such calculations would be totally necessary to scale the production of apparel at any level.

It’s important to remember that prêt-à-porter, the French term for ready to wear (off the rack, or RTW) clothing became not just prevalent, but possible very recently. Etymologically speaking, prêt-à-porter wasn’t a word in common use
​​​​​​​until 1959.

Libro de Geometría Práctica y Traça by Juan de Alcega, 1589
Before RTW became a thing, when a garment was made, the first step was to take a client's measurements; mostly made individually, and was costly enough to make purchasing them a habit mostly left to the wealthy. A tailor or dressmaker would then make a pattern to the appropriate proportions, very much the same way as haute couture is still produced today. All of this was and is labor intensive, and for most people, prohibitively expensive. The practice began to change when Thomas Saint invented what could be considered the first sewing machine  in 1790, which was refined and innovated upon through the Industrial Revolution. Isaac Merritt Singer’s still-famous version debuted in 1851.
Life Magazine, January 15, 1940, Page 25
Life Magazine, January 15, 1940, Page 25
Book by Charles Hecklinger, 1881, Hathi Library
There’s some evidence to suggest that, for menswear anyway, sizing existed for military uniforms as far back as the American Revolutionary War. And war, very literally, is the reason sizing became necessary. In the 19th century there were the Napoleonic (1803–1815), Crimean (1853–1856) and the American Civil War (1861–1865), the last of which was the start of the first (American) federally sponsored project to collect and catalog the measurements of soldiers. So many uniforms were needed, in numbers that had previously been necessary, and the only way possible to scale production efforts was to create a system that made calculating the proportions of a uniform in multiple sizes possible.  Once the infrastructure created in wartime was in place, it was relatively simple for private industry to transition into producing RTW. Menswear was bought off the rack before womenswear, by the year 1900 men in urban areas mostly wore mass-produced clothing. There was a stigma for a while, for women,  about buying a dress off the rack. It was thought of as lower, socially and economically, to wear something that was mass produced.
In the US, in 1881, a tailor named Charles Hecklinger worked out what is considered to be the first systematic method of sizing women’s clothing from pattern blocks into a range of sizes intended to fit different body types. Women’s apparel has always been more difficult than men’s to reduce to a single, all encompassing, numbered size. The variations in ratios of bust and hip proportions have always been a massive challenge, and for a long time, womens RTW was sized around bust shape alone, with the expectations that a woman could adjust a garment on her own should the rest of a garment’s fit be less than ideal.
Life Magazine, March 9, 1942, page 12
Portrait of Ruth O'Brien, image from the USDA
It was not until 1939 that the US government decided to fund a project to study women’s clothing sizes. As part of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, funding was allocated to statisticians Ruth O’Brien and William Shelton for a project they called “Women’s Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction.” The goal was to create a sizing system that was logical and would help to cut the costs of business in the new, rapidly growing, RTW industry. The statisticians  trained 100 “operatives” and, armed with a list of 59 specific measurements to take, set about determining the size of almost 15,000 women.
Book by Ruth O'Brien, image from the USDA

Of course there were problems with the data collection. Women of color were measured, but not included in the final tally of numbers. There was also a cash incentive, the study was paid, which further reduced the diversity of the women who elected to participate, and meant that the information collected included a disproportionate number of women suffering from malnutrition. The best system that O’Brien and Shelton were able to develop was based on a combination of height and weight, about 27 different sizes, but there were simply too many variables between women’s body types to create a fit system that was simple and consistent. (Luckily, they decided to trash the idea someone had about basing the measurement system on total body weight.) All the issues with the data collected during the study did not stop the [then] National Bureau of Standards (NBS, today the National Institute of Standards and Technology), from making this type of sizing its Commercial Standard for the American fashion industry. Mail order companies quickly adapted to the government standard sizing. There were some positive impacts, some consistency, imperfect as the sizing system was for almost all women. 

Image by Harris & Ewing, July 23, 1937, Library of Congress

In 1958 a system was created, sizes ranging from 8-72, which is still well known today. This system was still based mostly on bust size, but included letters to indicate whether a garment was long, full, or slender. By 1970 it had proven to be so unpopular that once again it was refined. That same year, the NBS downgraded their language about sizing, reclassifying standard sizing as a Voluntary Product Standard. In 1983 the concept of government standard sizing was completely withdrawn in the US. Since then, it has been chaos. Vanity sizing took off almost immediately after the American Federal government dropped its interest in standardized sizing, complicating everything further. ​​​​​​​

Here at Fashion Conservatory, a lot of work has gone into finding solutions to issues like this one, applying common sense and systems to make finding, buying, and selling vintage a better experience for everyone. Make sure you’ve signed up for the mailing list, we’ve got a lot of stories, solutions, and expanded resources coming soon! ​​​​​​​

Rachel Elspeth Gross is a fashion historian and writer of the popular blog, Today’s Inspiration. Her work has been featured in Women’s Wear Daily, the New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, and The National News. She has a column in The Vintage Woman magazine, works with Little Red Fashion and can be found on Instagram Live series Couture Kibbitz with vintage fashion pioneer Cameron Silver.
Life Magazine, January 15, 1940, page 24

Further Reading:

For more information about the WRA Survey, check out
this January 15, 1940 issue of
Life Magazine.
The full article starts on page 24


de Alcega, Juan. Libro de Geometría, Práctica y Traça.” Madrid: Guillermo Drouy, 1589. Accessed through the Metropolitan Museum's Website.

Hecklinger, Charles. Hecklinger's Ladies' Garments.” Catalog, Publisher unknown, 1886.  Collection of Library of Congress; Americana. Housed at the Internet Archive/Wayback Machine.

U.S. Department of Commerce. Body Measurements for the Sizing Of Apparel. June, 2006. Housed at the Internet Archive/Wayback Machine. 

Schrobsdorff, Susanna.Fashion Designers Intro duce Less-than-Zero Sizes. Newsweek Magazine, October 17, 2006.

Clifford, Stephanie. One Size Fits Nobody: Seeking a Steady 4 or a 10.” (24 April, 2011). The New York Times [New York City, New York]. 

Ingraham, Christopher. The absurdity of women’s clothing sizes, in one chart.” (11 August, 2015). The Washington Post [Washington, D.C.]

"A Short History of U.S. White Women’s Measurements Used for Pattern Making; or… Why Nothing Seems to Fit.” AnalogMe, Typepad. November 30, 2011.