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Why do women's clothing sizes have to be so confusing?

Women's clothing sizes are so confusing! It seems like every store has its own sizing system and it's hard to keep track of the conversion between one size and another, let alone how to tell if an item of clothing is going to fit you well or not! Luckily, you've come to the right place to learn how to navigate this baffling system. Here's everything you need to know about women's clothing sizes and what they mean when it comes to buying clothes that fit your body type best!

Intentionally misleading size labels (i.e., 0, 1, 2) are now commonplace in both men’s and women’s apparel lines, which means consumers might find it increasingly difficult to tell a 6 from a 16. Sticking with these ambiguous labels is not only frustrating for shoppers—it also leaves an increasing number of Americans dissatisfied with their body image. According to data released by The NPD Group last year, more than half of American women said they were unhappy with their bodies at least some of the time. And though many factors contribute to such dissatisfaction, experts say sizing inconsistencies could be one reason why nearly two-thirds of American women say they feel pressure to look perfect all of the time. In fact, according to a study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, women who felt that they had little control over how they looked reported feeling more distress about their weight than those who felt they had greater control over their appearance. This suggests that when retailers fail to make sense of inconsistent sizing standards across brands, consumers may feel like there’s no way out—and that can lead them down a dangerous path toward unhealthy eating habits or even disordered eating behaviors. So, what’s a shopper to do? When you're trying on clothes in stores, don't rely on just your eyes. Use your hands too! Remember: You should never squeeze into something that doesn't fit comfortably around your hips. If you can pinch more than an inch between your thumb and forefinger anywhere on your waistline, put it back on the rack immediately; chances are you won't want to wear it if you can barely get it up over your hips!

Clothing sizes, especially for women, have become incredibly confusing
Do you have a size 4 dress in your closet, but have never worn it? Or maybe you’ve been wearing a size 8, but would really prefer an outfit in a size 10. If that sounds like you, then we feel your pain – and not just because you can’t find any nice clothes for yourself. Clothing sizes for women have become wildly confusing over time, and figuring out what fits best is often a guessing game. So why are women’s clothing sizes such a mess? To answer that question, let’s first take a look at how they used to work: In 18th-century France, sizing was based on bust measurements; if you had 40 inches around your chest, you were considered a size 40. For centuries, U.S. clothing sizes followed suit – with one notable exception: during World War II, American manufacturers wanted to make sure that women could still purchase clothing even if their husbands went off to war. Therefore, they decided to change clothing sizes from measurements of inches (like a woman’s waist or bust) to numbers (like a woman’s size 6). But there was another reason behind these new numbers: manufacturers didn’t want shoppers comparing sizes too closely. For example, a size 16 dress might fit someone who wears a size 12 top and pants perfectly well, but retailers worried that women would get frustrated by seeing both numbers when shopping online. However, since most people don’t have an exact number in mind when shopping for clothes online (e.g., I want to buy something in a 12/14), manufacturers should probably have reconsidered their plan.

today’s women’s clothing sizes (in Western stores) have their roots in a government project during the US Depression era,
The system that is still in use today is basically an American invention. In 1933, a government study compared body measurements of about 5,000 women to existing garments and determined that average-sized women’s bodies were basically shaped like an hourglass (or very large pear). The study was used as a guide for pattern makers, who went on to develop what we now call vanity sizing—differently sized brands labeled with more flattering number tags. A woman who wears a size 6 dress from one designer could easily wear a size 10 or 12 dress from another brand, making it easier for shoppers to find something they think will fit.Vanity sizing also makes it harder for customers to compare prices between different brands; if you’re looking at two dresses that are both labeled size 10, you don’t know if they are really comparable because they might not be cut exactly alike. And since most stores carry clothes only up to a certain size, many larger women end up buying clothes online. But even then, there can be problems: Many online retailers use their own sizing systems that aren’t based on standard US measurements. It all adds up to serious confusion for shoppers trying to figure out how big they are—and how much stuff costs. It’s crazy, but I am resigned to it now, says Amy Traub, associate director of policy and research at Demos. I just expect everything to be crazy when it comes to shopping for clothes.


Healthline. 2022. What Are the Different Body Shapes?. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/health/women-body-shapes> [Accessed 6 July 2022].

Quittkat, H., Hartmann, A., Düsing, R., Buhlmann, U. and Vocks, S., 2022. Body Dissatisfaction, Importance of Appearance, and Body Appreciation in Men and Women Over the Lifespan.

Amy Traub, 2022. associate director of policy and research.