Vanity is where size counts
Johannesburg - “Does this dress make me look fat?” is a common, but dangerous question.
The answer is no. The dress itself is pretty thin. It’s your body that adds the bigness. Ouch, how the truth can hurt!
Body sizes have grown over the decades, first through healthy living and now through unhealthy living. Yet, miraculously, many of us still fit into the clothes size that we wore in our younger, sleeker days. There’s a reason for that and it’s called cheating.
For years, clothing manufacturers have been softening the blow by enlarging the physical measurements of their sizes, flattering us into thinking we’re still slim and sexy, so we don’t skulk out of the shop empty handed. We all know one size in a particular shop or by a certain label can be considerably more generous than the same size in the shop next door or by a different label.
A survey by Which? found that the waist on a size 12 dress at New Look was 4cm wider than a size 12 at Next.
What the brands have in common is that they’re all larger than the original measurements prescribed for that size.
The Americans do it best – or worst, if you’re rating labels for honesty, not flattery. It’s called Vanity Sizing and it has seen manufacturers increase the size of the garments, without changing the size on the label. A size 12 now would drown a size 12 woman who came back from the 1960s. A woman who wears size 12 today would probably have worn a size 16 a few decades ago.
Wikipedia reports that in 1937, a Sears clothing catalogue sold size 14 dresses with a bust of 32 inches (81cm). By 1967, those boobs were fitting into a size 8. By 2011, the same perky pair could slip into an impossibly skinny-sounding size 0.
In America, where obesity is a major problem, archives show that a size 8 dress of 1958 has fallen right off the scale, with a waist and bust measurement smaller than today’s size 00. Anybody that slim could shop in the children’s department.
At the same time, new size ratings have been added to confuse the mix, so you can now buy clothes from a size 00 to XXXL.
Then there’s the complication of having several different organisations involved in defining the standards, including the International Organisation for Standardisation, the European Standards Organisation, the American Society for Testing and Materials, and other bodies in other countries. So, no standards are really standard.
For UK clothes I’m usually a size 10. In the US I’m a dainty size 6. Italians see me as a size 42 and I’m a terrifying size 66 in Korea.
The more expensive brands tend to be heavier-handed with the flattery, so if you’re browsing in posh boutiques, you may feel better about yourself than if you’re rummaging through the racks of Mr Price.
In the US, size charts were first published in 1958 to make it easier for factories to mass-produce clothing and to help shoppers easily find something that fit.
Statisticians measured 15 000 women and listed sizes ranging from 8 to 42. The US government updated those standards in 1970, then ditched them in 1983, leaving manufacturers to set their own.
In the intervening years, people have become more generously proportioned – but not according to our clothing labels.
Locally, Woolworths conducted a sizing surveyin 2014, measuring South Africans across the country. “The aim was to ensure that our clothing sizing standards still meet the needs of our customers. The best way for us to determine the best fit for our clothing is to measure real people,” the company says. “By using the data from this survey, we have reviewed our fits and sizing across womenswear, as well as menswear, and will be assisting our suppliers in updating our pattern blocks and fit forms, where required.”
The company hasn’t said what changes were needed, or whether the fits would grow more generous while the numbers stayed the same, since that’s presumably valuable info it hopes will ensure happier customers in the future.
Woolworths says South Africa has one of the most diverse populations in the world, so it’s crucial to review its sizing regularly to cater for all sizes and shapes.
It’s not only women who are being flattered by vanity sizing, however. Men are having their paunches mollycoddled by “manity sizing”.
Men’s trousers are sized by a waist measurement and the leg length. In 2010, Esquire magazine measured size 36 trousers at different US retailers and found the actual measurements varied by 10cm, and all of them were bigger than the supposed 91cm.
The UK’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper has also highlighted the issue, naming several stores that flatter male shoppers by adding up to 5cm to the waistline.
Amusingly, the comments section after the article was published was filled by men complaining they’d been proud of staying the same size over the years but now realised the manufacturers had deceived them.
And, like women, they must have been guilty of some self-deception too.