Fitting Clothes

An article in the Christian Science Monitor confirms what I have long suspected: clothing size has nothing to do with body size, and indeed is not uniform even from manufacturer to manufacturer.

I began to wonder about this years ago, when shopping for shorts in a mall. Much to my surprise, I ended up buying a pair in size 8, at a “Petites” store. I don’t think much about clothing, but I do remember clearly that, when I was in college in 1983, I had a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt designer jeans. They were, as the mode of the day demanded, skin-tight, the kind you have to lie down on the bed to slide into. And they were size 12. Ten years and a child later, how could I possibly wear a size 8?

I had also been experimenting with sewing my own clothing. I never got good at it, but it kept me amused while I was home with the infant Rossella, so, during this same trip, we went shopping for sewing patterns.

“What size do you take?” asked the clerk.

I shrugged helplessly, my usual answer to that question. “I have no idea.”

So she measured me, and announced: “Size 14.”

This sounded reasonable, but I was still puzzled about the shorts, and told her the story.

She replied: “The clothing industry keeps deflating the sizes, to make people think they’re skinnier. Pattern sizes have never changed.”

According to the article, the clothing industry now has a lot of new data about the shape of American bodies, which they will use to redesign their styles to fit people better, although it is already clear that most brands will not be altering their sizing to achieve uniformity with the others. So you’ll still need to know what size you are in a specific label in order to get a good fit, a marketing trick to ensure brand loyalty. It works, too – part of the reason I buy a lot at Lands’ End is that I already know what size will fit me.

For me, buying clothing in stores is endlessly frustrating. My basic problem – incomprehension and dislike of most clothing – is compounded by living, travelling, and shopping in so many other countries. European sizes might be uniform across brands for all I know, but I don’t shop enough for the numbers to stick in my mind, so I never know what size I’m buying. Except shoes – I know that I wear a size 39 in Italy and 8 1/2 in the US.

Shopping in Italy is difficult for me because Italian women apparently have a very different body shape than I do. Judging by what’s in the stores, Italian women when young are thin and straight – no hips, not much chest. In middle age they become barrel-shaped. Either way, the clothes don’t fit me. (Luckily for them, they also don’t have the stomach curving out in front that I have.)

The best solution to the clothing problem for me has been custom-made, in India, where wonderful fabrics and talented tailors come very cheap. I still wear a beautiful skirt and jacket of black raw silk that I had made back in 1986 – it’s almost too dressy for business occasions. Unfortunately, I haven’t had enough time on recent trips to India to pursue this solution. And people wonder why I dress like a slob.

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