A Sizable Paradox

Illustration by Shino Arihara

THE OLD CONCEPT OF SIZE ABSOLUTES — AN 8 IS an 8 is an 8 — has become as loose and deconstructed as a Yohji Yamamoto ensemble. At Old Navy, my size 8 butt nestles comfortably into the company's size 4 pants. But at Aero & Co., a size 8 pant by How & Wen threatens to cut off my blood circulation. On a recent shopping spree at Betsey Johnson, I was a large in the bootleg pants, a small in the capris and a medium in the denim. "You should never feel bad about what size you wear at Betsey," a salesperson laughed, "because it's so inconsistent." That has become the case across the board in fashion.

It's a complaint that plagues consumers and fashion journalists (though, despite a number of articles on the subject, nothing seems to change). You'd expect sizing oddities at boutiques where small collections of offbeat designers come from all over the world. But it's also rampant at chain sportswear retailers like Express, where a large Lycra tee bunches at my armpits and stretches so tight in the chest that my A-cup boobs threaten to bust loose. I recently purchased two skirts at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills that fit me identically: one is a size 4 by Cynthia Vincent and the other a size 10 by Karen Walker.

It wasn't always like this. Starting in the 1940s, women's clothing sizes were pretty much identical from shop to shop across the nation. "Things probably started breaking loose from the standard as soon as wovens started having a lot of stretch in them," says Rosemary Brantley, founding chair of Otis College of Art and Design's fashion department. "Also, people started doing knit collections, which had a forgiving fit. Since then, of course, all rules in the fashion business have been thrown out the window." Not only has the common standard for size gone the way of the changeable collar, but there's a numbers game at work these days: There was a time — think Marilyn Monroe — when a size 12 was svelte and sexy; today that same body would be considered an 8.

"I really don't know how it works," admits designer Rick Owens, the Council of Fashion Designers of America's latest Perry Ellis Award winner. "I fit everything on my girlfriend, Michelle, and whatever I put on her, I call a 6." Aha! Those independent-minded designers are cutting for their girlfriends — or, if female, for their oddly shaped selves. A designer at Ann Taylor Loft, who prefers to remain anonymous, says that most female designers use themselves as fit models. And even if the designer — or a professional fit model — is used consistently as a size guide, she will still be different from another person of that same size. Because it's not just about size, it's also about shape.

"We have a fit model and a sub," says the Ann Taylor designer, "and they have the exact same measurements. But the clothing looks completely different on both of them and it causes problems. There's no average body type, so you pick one and grade larger or smaller from that." Express is another big clothes maker with size issues. The company contracts out its manufacturing to more than two dozen different countries, and let's just say a 2 in India is no 2 in Mexico. Express spin-controls the situation by giving each garment two sizes: Clothing is labeled 1/2, 3/4 or 5/6.

But it's not just the loss of industry standards that causes size discrepancies. Some clothing companies deploy size designations as a marketing tool. The sound of customers marveling "Wow! I can fit into a 4!" is often followed by the clink of coins into the cash register. It's a modern version of trick mirrors that stores used to install to convince customers a garment was making them look slimmer. Of course, the savvy — and the catty — are on to this clever ploy. Recently, I overheard two women in dressing rooms gossiping. "Megan says she's a size 4," one woman called out. Her friend in an adjacent dressing room snorted, "Yeah, maybe at the Gap!"

No doubt some smart retailer — given that size 0 now exists — will soon be promoting a size negative 2.

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