Women's clothing sizes have been shrinking for decades

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Lin Bergfield's trips to the mall can be challenging.

Recently, the Cape Girardeau woman fit comfortably in a size 10 pair of jeans at one store in West Park Mall. At another store, she struggled to fit into a size 12.

"It's definitely frustrating," Bergfield said as she shopped for the perfect pair of blue jeans.

(Illustration by Diane L. Wilson)

New York and Company manager Amanda Farmer said there's a big difference in clothing sizes from store to store. "A size 6 at one place could definitely be a size 14 somewhere else," Farmer said.

Clothing sizes have changed so much over time that a woman who wore a size 8 in 1950 would wear a size 00 today, according to April Ainsworth, owner of VintageVixen.com, a Florida-based online vintage clothing store.

The disparity in sizes at different stores can be attributed to fashion industry guidelines, which aren't relevant today, said Dr. Paula King, chairwoman of the Department of Human Environmental Studies at Southeast Missouri State University and a professor of fashion merchandising.

Governmental guidelines for women's clothing sizes were established 60 years ago. The standard measurements were taken from women who were in the military during World War II.

"These were very physically fit women at that time. The sizes aren't exactly relevant to women today -- we're bigger now," King said.

Clothing size guidelines aren't mandatory anymore -- which also makes up for the size disparity.

"One year to the next, clothing sizes in a particular brand could change. A woman may not gain any weight during the year, but may find that a certain brand of jeans doesn't fit her anymore," King said.

Farmer said New York and Company's clothes target women between the age of 25 and 45.

"We try to focus on trendy as well as comfortable. A lot of women come here and find they fit into smaller sizes than they're used to at other places," Farmer said.

Men and infant clothing sizes tend to be more accurate when switching manufacturers' brands. For men, clothing is represented by three measurements -- bust, waist and hips, and infant clothing is based on length and weight.

"We can't just go to a store, pick out a certain size of jeans and buy them," Bergfield said "It's up to women to go into the dressing room and try the clothes on."

There's a trend in the fashion industry that's leaning toward vanity sizing for women's clothing, King said. Clothing manufacturers are beginning to put smaller sizes on larger garments.

"It's a good marketing tool. If you pay enough money, you can be a size 4," King said.

Ainsworth said retailers have inflated clothing sizes at least three times in the past 50 years.

In the 1940s, the smallest available size was a 10. By the 1950s, the smallest size was an 8 and today, there's size 00 on the racks, Ainsworth said.

"Clothing marketers began to realize that if they shifted all the representative sizes down a notch, then every woman who went shopping after the shift would be delighted to see they'd gone done a size," Ainsworth said. "It's a completely psychological boost that the marketers hoped would boost sales."

jfreeze@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 246

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