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A History of Standard Clothing Sizes: How sizes developed and why the same size does not always fit

Page history last edited by jlselman@... 16 years ago

Sewing One’s Own Clothes


To purchase clothing, people did not always walk into a store, grab their size off the rack and try it on. Prior to the American Civil War and the industrial revolution, the vast majority of clothes were made at home, either by a tailor or by the owner themselves. Numerous measurements were taken and the clothes were made specifically to fit the individual who would wear them.1 The technological innovations of the industrial revolution, along with the supply of uniforms demanded by the Civil War, led to changes in the way clothing was produced. These changes eventually led to the system of standard sizes we know today.




When clothes are purchased in a store and tailored to fit the general population rather than specifically made for an individual, they are known as ready-made or ready-to-wear clothing. Prior to the civil war, ready-to-wear clothing was rare; it was mainly limited to outerwear (coats and jackets) and undergarments.2 Today, many people bring their clothes to a tailor to have a pair of pants shortened or certain items taken in or let out, but it is rare to find someone who has had their clothes made exclusively to fit their measurements. Generally, that practice is reserved for people with extreme proportions that necessitate making custom clothing or people who are extremely wealthy and can afford to pay someone to make clothing specifically for them. Prior to the American Civil War, however, having clothing specifically made and tailored to ones body was the norm.3


The Beginnings of Ready-to-Wear Menswear


In the early 1860s, the style of menswear began to change from close fitting, custom tailored clothes to more loose fitting, ready-to-wear clothes. New technology allowed manufacturers to mass produce large quantities of standardized clothing, and a shift in the social stigma of ready-to-wear clothing helped turn the tides toward more mass-produced clothing. The real turning point in the history of mass-produced clothing, however, came with the American Civil War. When the war began, most clothing, including soldier’s uniforms, was still custom-made in homes or small factories. As the war progressed and the demands for uniforms increased, manufacturers expanded their operations to larger factories in an effort to efficiently meet the growing demand for uniforms. Along with the expansion of factories, manufacturers realized that using individual measurements to produce uniforms was timely and costly, and they would be able to produce more uniforms if they could use standardized sizes.4

Before manufacturers could begin mass-producing clothing according to standard sizes, they had to study and evaluate the measurements of soldiers to find general sizing trends to use as guidelines for their sizing system. Their evaluations revealed certain sets of measurements that reoccurred on a regular basis. These reoccurring measurements were used to mass-produce ready-to-wear uniforms in a few general sizes, which were then shipped off to soldiers. When the Civil War ended, the measurements used to mass-produce soldier’s uniforms carried over to the general public market and were used to create a commercial sizing system for men’s clothing.


Custom-Made Women’s Clothing


Women’s clothing continued to be custom made for a long time after men’s clothing was mass-produced in ready-to-wear styles. There was no need for mass produced women’s clothing for war uniforms, so there was no rush to create women’s clothing in ready-to-wear standard sizes. Women continued to wear custom made clothing through the nineteen hundreds.

A change occurred around the 1920s, when mass production techniques improved and chain stores and mail order catalogues developed. These developments occurred at the same time that ready-to-wear clothing began to grow in popularity for women. Advertisements portrayed ready-to-wear clothing as modern and convenient, and showed how ready-to-wear clothing allowed women to purchase new garments as quickly as the styles changed.

As quick and convenient as it was, new ready-to-wear clothing in the era generally did not fit well. Every manufacturer would create their own sizing system for the new clothes, and they did not use any sort of standardized measurements. A size 6 in one garment would not match a size 6 in another garment. The lack of standardized sizing required women to pay for custom alternations after purchasing the clothes or to return a high percentage of the garments. The problems created by inaccurate and arbitrary sizing led the U. S. Department of Agriculture to take action in 1937, when they began conducting a survey of women’s measurements to create a standardized sizing system for the textile industry.5


The Move Towards Standard Sizes


In 1941, the results of a study of 15,000 women’s sizes were published in USDA Miscellaneous Publication 454, Women’s Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction.6 Between 1949-1952, the National Bureau of Standards (“NBS” now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or “NIST”) conducted a study of women’s body measurements at the request of the Mail Order Association of America.7 They received information from the USDA survey done in 1941, and began reanalyzing those figures while adding data of their own. The members of NBS assigned to the study were used to analyzing measurements from hard science and engineering, and the switch to human body measurements resulted in some interesting discussions. The NBS committee discussed things such as bust points and “the subject of ‘chubby’ sizes”.8 Eventually they came up with sizes that would fit the greatest number of women without requiring alternations. The commercial standard sizes that came out of this study were distributed by NBS to the industry in 1953, formally accepted by the industry in 1957, and published as ‘Commercial Standard (CS) 215-58 in 1958.9

The size recommendations combined a figure for bust (ranging in even sizes from 8 - 38), a figure for height - tall (T), regular (R) or short (S), and a symbol for hip girth: slender (-), average (no symbol), or full (+). For example, a short woman with a size 12 bust and slender hips would wear a size 12S-. A woman’s size would place her into one of four wider classifications: misses, women’s, half-sizes (for short women), or juniors.10 The commercial standard was designed as a trade custom rather than as a law, and clearly stated that it, “should not be confused with any plan of government regulation or control.”11 As a trade custom, the industry had a choice whether to follow the guidelines or to continue making clothes based on their own, often arbitrary measurement systems.


The Move Away From the Commercial Standard


When Commercial Standard (CS)215-58 was originally published, the industry was eager to adopt the new standard to increase consumer satisfaction and decrease the number of returns they received from ill-fitting garments. The industry adopted the standard and began producing ready-to-wear clothing in more standard sizes. Not long after (CS)215-58 was published, however, women’s bodies began to change from the corset constricted structures of the early nineteenth century to the more athletic build of women in the later half of the century. The information from the 1939 study that was published in 1958 was out of date and did not apply to women of the 1960s.



Despite the problems with the measurements from the 1939 study, the recommendations published in Commercial Standard (CS)215-58 were not updated until 1971, when the U.S. Department of Commerce released a new voluntary standard know as PS 42-70 and renamed as the Voluntary Product Standard.12 The main difference in the updated standard was the incorporation of information from a health survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics in 1962. The survey found that U.S. Adults were taller and heavier than they were in 1940, so adjustments were made within the standards to attempt to compensate for these differences.13 Even with the updated information, the garment industry began to ignore the standard sizing recommendations in the 1970s, and the standards were officially withdrawn in January of 1983.

Many designers were led away from the standardized sizing system by what is now know as vanity sizing, or making larger garments and labeling them with smaller sizes. American men and women have been getting progressively larger, and women’s shapes have changed from what was once an hourglass figure to more of a pear shape.14 The sizing guidelines developed in the 1940s and 1960s no longer apply to women who are not wearing body shaping undergarments like corsets, and who are increasingly athletic.15 Additionally, the abundance of food and popularity of things such as fast food have contributed to a population where the average woman has grown increasingly larger over the past few decades.16 According to standard size measurements used in (CS)215-58, the average 155-pound woman should be wearing a size 16, but is more likely buying a vanity sized 10.17

Transitioning to vanity sizing has been profitable for some companies. One publication reported that women are willing to spend more for a smaller-sized garment than for a similar piece of a larger size number. (Melissa Cassut, Vanity Sizing: We'll Pay More to Take a 'Size 4.' The Gazette, Mar. 24 2008, available at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/entertainment/2004302760_zlivvanity25.html.) The extra cost of the "smaller" garment is said to pay for the magical feeling women experience from buying smaller-sized clothing. (Id.) Some companies seeking to capitalize on this have gone as far as creating their own sizing. For example, Chico's went from the typical concept of 2-14 sizing to sizing based on a 0-3 scale. The company hoped the change would "hook that woman if that woman knows she's a size 1." (Id.) The profitability of vanity sizing has contributed to resistance to return toward standard sizing.



The Movement Toward Mass Produced Custom Clothing


Today, there is a small movement back towards customized clothing, not for efficiency purposes, but for the sake of providing consumers with options and winning over market share. These customized clothes are not made by a tailor and measuring tape, but done through technological innovation. One company, Intellifit, recently began marketing their custom made jeans across the country. The customer steps into a booth that resembles a new-age telephone booth, and a 360-degree scan is taken of their body. The scan takes place at one of Intellifit’s retail locations, and uses low power radio waves to collect approximately 200 different body measurements in under 15 seconds. The scan used to be used to then lead consumers to their correct size of ready-to-wear garments in the store. The company has recently begun to allow customers to use the information to create a pair of jeans that is specifically tailored to the measurements of the customer. The information is then transferred electronically and custom cut by a computer to create the garment.18

There is another company called Interactive Custom Clothes Company, or IC3D producing custom fit pants.19 IC3D not only allows customers to create a pair of jeans that is custom fit for their body, but also allows customers to choose from a myriad of details, including fabric weight, button color, and the number of pockets the pants should have.20

It is unclear whether these new developments will take off in the marketplace, but the possibility of affordable customized clothing would eliminate the problems that lack of standardized sizing has created for many clothing shoppers.


Should There Be Enforceable Standard Sizes for Clothing?


Most people have had the experience today of ordering an article of clothing from a catalog or on-line only to have it arrive and fit poorly, even though it’s labeled in what one believes to be their ‘size’. The lack of standardized sizing leaves us with a system where returns are inevitable, and purchasing something without trying it on is inherently risky. The problem is more prevalent for women’s clothing than for men’s, as many menswear items are designated with an actual number measurement indicating the number of inches around or long the article is. The problem with women’s clothing is much more difficult, because women’s sizes are generally whole numbers that have no discernable relationship to an actual measurement.

As a result of the problems with the voluntary standardized sizing systems proposed by the government, and the evolving shape of the average man and woman’s body, no new standardized sizing system has yet to be adopted in the United States. A company called TC2 (TC Squared) conducted a new National Sizing Survey in 2003 called called SizeUSA. Clothing and textile companies, the Army, Navy, and a number of universities sponsored the study, which measured over 10,000 people (65 % women) and examined measurements in conjunction with age and ethnicity.21 The study has yet to result in the issuance of any new sizing guidelines for the garment industry.


Over the past year, Spain’s Health Ministry conducted a study which used laser scans to measure over 10,000 women to study their body types in an attempt to persuade the fashion industry to utilize a standard sizing that would fit the majority of women. “The study concluded that Spanish women were not the very skinny tall types that designers idealize, but rather fell into three main body types: hourglass, pear shape and cylinder. It also found that 4 of 10 women had trouble finding clothes to fit, mainly because sizes varied from store to store and because what was on the racks was too small.”i



1 Schwyzer, Hugo, Sizing Up, May 2, 2005, available at: http://hugoboy.typepad.com/hugo_schwyzer/2005/05/i_cant_express_.html.

2 Standardization of Women’s Clothing, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), October 8, 2004, Available at:


3 Id.

4 Id.

5 Id.

6 Id.

7 Id.

8 Id. Quote taken from the minutes of a meeting on October 21, 1949.

9 Id.

10 Schwyzer, Hugo, Sizing Up, May 2, 2005, available at: http://hugoboy.typepad.com/hugo_schwyzer/2005/05/i_cant_express_.html.

11 Standardization of Women’s Clothing, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), October 8, 2004, Available at: http://museum.nist.gov/exhibits/apparel/com_std.htm.

12 Newcomb, Elizabeth Anne, Body Shape Analysis of Hispanic Women in the United States, Thesis Submitted to North Caroline State University, 2005, available at: http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/theses/available/etd-07272005-104517/.

13 United States Department of Commerce, 1970.

14 Standardization of Women’s Clothing, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), October 8, 2004, Available at: http://museum.nist.gov/exhibits/apparel/vanity.htm.

15 See, e.g., Fasanella, Kathleen Fashion Incubator: Lessons from the sustainable factory floor, April 17, 2006, available at: http://www.fashion-incubator.com/mt/archives/history_of_womens_sizing_pt1.html (displaying the differences in body development between a female who has worn a corset and a female who has not).

16 Zernike, Kate, Sizing Up America: Signs of Expansion From Head to Toe, The New York Times, March 1, 2004, available at: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A07E6D8163FF932A35750C0A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1, See also, Helser, Linda, Vanity Sizing Alive, Well: Garment measures continue to baffle modern shoppers, The Arizona Republic, Jan. 14, 2004, available at: http://www.fitme.com/Fitme/html/PublicRelations/coverage/Vanity_Sizing_AZ_Rep_0104.htm.

17 Schrobsdorff, Susanna, Skinny Is the New Fat: Suck it in --‘subzero’ clothing sizes are finally here, NEWSWEEK, Oct. 30, 2006, available at: http://www.newsweek.com/id/45184.

18 Intellifit, information available at: http://it-fits.info/HowItWorks.asp.

19 Information available at: http://www.ic3d.com/index.html.

20 Slatalla, Michelle, A Personal Tailor For Denimed Masses, The New York Times, July 27, 2000, available at: http://www.ic3d.com/aboutus/index.html.

21 SizeUSA information available at: http://www.tc2.com/news/news_sizedata.html. See Also, Newcomb, Elizabeth Anne, Body Shape Analysis of Hispanic Women in the United States, Thesis Submitted to North Caroline State University, 2005, available at: http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/theses/available/etd-07272005-104517/.



i Victoria Burnett, “Spain: Real Women Need New Sizes, Study Finds,” http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E06E2D8133BF931A25751C0A96E9C8B63

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