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Vanity sizing alive, well

Garment measures continue to baffle modern shoppers

Linda Helser
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 14, 2004 12:00 AM

Hoping to lose a few dress sizes in 2004?

Well, take heart, because it's easier than it used to be to fit into that coveted Size 6.

It's all because of the garment industry's dirty little secret, a trick of the trade practiced for decades by women's wear manufacturers who have progressively cut their wares larger while labeling them with smaller size tags.

Known as vanity sizing, it supposedly fools an expanding American woman into thinking she hasn't gained an ounce or an inch over the years.

Proof seems to come in the form of shapely silver screen siren Marilyn Monroe, who everyone remembers wore a Size 12 during her 1950s heydays.

"That would be equivalent to a Size 6 today," attests Meryle Epstein, 42, acting academic director for fashion marketing at the Art Institute of Phoenix.

Further proof comes from vintage clothing sellers like Mariamne Moore of east Phoenix, who must measure each of her aged garments to ensure a more accurate clue as to a contemporary size.

"For years we were getting our sizes changed each decade," said Moore, 61, whose inventory dates back to the 1920s. "Let's say you were a Size 12 in the 1950s, and if you stayed the same measurement-wise, you'd be a 6 today, or in the 1960s, that 12 would have been a 10."

Ann Siner, founder and owner of the resale clothing stores My Sister's Closet, said when she opened her first shop in Town and Country Shopping Center in central Phoenix 13 years ago, she and her staff went bonkers trying to arrange garments on racks according to their labeled size.

Not only did the same sizes vary widely among different designers and vendors, (typically, the more expensive the garment, the more generous the cut) but they even varied within the same brand name.

"There just isn't any standardization in sizes, and even though we do have a few things grouped in sizes like 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10, we learned to do most things in small, medium and large," Siner, 44, said. "And then we encourage people to try everything on.

"Ellen Tracy was notorious for it," Siner said of the longtime designer. "It was a real marketing tool for her because women don't really want to know the truth."

Men's clothing, however, is a different story. Standardization has existed since the government, needing to outfit Civil War soldiers rapidly, found consistencies among men's measurements and labeled them with sizes that corresponded.

Those sizes, based on those measurements, are still in use today.

"I'm really jealous," said Siner, who also owns two men's resale shops. "If a men's suit says 42 regular and a guy knows he's that, he can just pick it up and he's done shopping."

Although many women want to be lied to and resist knowing their body measurements, others find that sort of ignorance is not necessarily bliss.

"If I knew what actually fit me, the shopping experience would be a lot easier," said Stephanie Dowling, a 29-year-old marketing and public relations director in Phoenix.

The sizes in her closet range from a 6 or 8 in dresses to a 12 in outerwear.

"I dread trying on clothes and it's almost impossible to buy women's clothing as a gift," she said.

John Ragan of central Phoenix learned that lesson the hard way.

"That's why I simply go to Tiffany's to shop for women's clothing," Ragan, a 36-year-old business developer, said of the jewelry store. "You can't go wrong there, and at some point I'll pass that advice on to my two sons."

The last time there was any standardization of women's sizes was in the 1940s when the U.S. Department of Agriculture did a large-scale study of women's measurements, urged on by the mail-order clothing industry. Still, many garment manufacturers developed their own sizing using the measurements that suited them.

To add chaos to the mix, American women have gotten not just heavier, but taller and more pear-shaped through the years due to a sedentary lifestyle and fast food. The U.S. Surgeon General estimated in 1988 that one-fourth of adult Americans were overweight.

Another attempt was made in the late 1990s to update the ignored standard for women's sizes when the American Society for Testing and Materials in Conshohocken, Pa., surveyed measurements used by garment makers and developed a chart of sizes to correspond.

According to the chart, for example, a Size 10 should fit a woman with a 36-inch bust, 28-inch waist and 38 1/2-inch hips.

Again, the garment industry almost universally ignored the voluntary guidelines. But their indifference is starting to cost manufacturers big bucks, particularly in the catalog and online clothing industry, an increasingly popular way to shop for busy Americans.

"They're losing a lot of money on returned merchandise," Epstein said, "There's over 50 percent poor fit, and women are getting fed up."

That's why the time might be ripe for taking another stab at size standardization.

The Web site promises consumers a better fit by guiding them, according to their measurements, to the correct size in a particular brand.

Still another attempt to standardize the entire industry is a mammoth project called Size USA, sponsored by industry group [TC]2, which was launched in July 2002 and wrapped up in September.

After about 10,800 people (65 percent were women) in 13 cities were screened with an infrared scanner, the organizers, backed financially by 30 sponsors, including companies like J.C. Penney, have developed a better idea of today's body shapes and measurements.

Karen Davis, of [TC]2 in Cary, N.C., believes that the day will come when everyone can step into a body scanner to collect data on their measurements before hitting the mall with information that will afford them a better fit in less time.

"You'll go to a scanning booth and get a smart card, like a credit card, that has all your data on it, then use the card to find, say, a pair of khaki slacks," she said.

The card will search out the best store that carries a size to fit you and list the price.

Such a card would expand gift options for Phoenix executive Bob Guenther.

He tends to buy electronic gadgets for his bride instead of something off a rack.

"I bought my wife something in a Size 34 once, and she almost divorced me over it," Guenther, 65, said. "It was so big we used it as a tarp over the garage."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8243.

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