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The size-16 2019 woman is confronted by a bewildering array of sizing, grading, labeling and other confusing solutions

Plus fashion sizing – help or hinderance?

In 1960, the average US woman weighed 140 lbs, so in the mid-twentieth century, most US women took a dress size between a 6 and a 14: anything larger than that was often dubbed ‘Outsize’.  A size-16 woman at that time was considered rather a large person, and with the particular pressure to conform that existed in that era (which was even more severe than it is today, hard as this is to imagine), she may have felt freakish, embarrassed or even ashamed to admit to not fitting into a ‘regular’ size.  If she was guilty about her own body, she had low expectations as to what clothing she would be able to purchase, which was just as well, because the choice was dire.

By 2010, the average US woman's weight had grown to 166.2 lbs, and has been on an upward trajectory ever since.  Roll forwards to 2019: if a woman were a size-16, she would probably not feel embarrassment, and almost certainly not shame.  But then again, today's size-16 woman may not believe this is her size: actually, she might not have any idea what size she really is.  As the population has grown heavier, the standard sizes being retailed have stretched their seams and become more generous, and some brands have gone even further and adopted so-called ‘vanity sizing’, whereby they have been sneakily moving their sizes upward, in tune with the waistlines of their customers.  They have capitalised on the fact that virtually all people would prefer to think they are a smaller size rather than a larger one, and that a size label can be used as a subtle tool of flattery.  Indeed, some women will not even think of trying on a garment if it is labelled as larger than the size they relate to.  So, for some brands, what would have been a size-14 in 1960 has unceasingly crept upwards and would fit (an already stretched) size-16 today.



This explains why a 2019 standard size-16 woman (who is already larger than a size-16 lady of the 1960s), often wears a 14.  Such a person, when she takes a selfie in a crowded place, notices that she looks like everyone else in the background: she certainly doesn’t appear to be ‘plus size’, if that's supposed to be larger than everyone else.  She looks ‘average’, she feels ‘normal’, and she relates to being a size-14 – why shouldn’t she be wearing a ‘mainstream’ size?  Her expectations for fashion are not as low as her grandmother's, and she’s wondering why she – an average person (an ‘everywoman ') – is having such difficultly finding something to fit her properly.

But then again, is she really a size-16?  If we examined this particular woman, she is revealed to be a size-14/16 bust, a size-14 waist and a size-18 hip (a ‘pear’ shape).  Her sizing mismatch is entirely normal: very few women have what is called the ‘perfectly proportioned’ body shape (one size all over), and that matters a lot more for larger women than it does for smaller ones. This is because as female bodies put on weight, the extra mass is not usually evenly distributed.  Each woman possesses a particular body shape, meaning that, for example, if a woman is destined to wear her extra flesh on her bottom (a typical pear shape), by the time she has grown to a larger size, her derriere will have increased far more than anywhere else on her body.  This is in contrast to her friend who stores her weight on her bust, giving her an extra cup-size or two as she gets bigger, although her bottom stays relatively svelte.  By the time these different body shapes reach the top-end of the sizing scale, their bodies have radically diverged, meaning that they need to wear differently sized apparel on different parts of the body, and – crucially – although they are the same height and weight, they cannot wear the same size clothing as each other.  The busty woman, for example, may end up wearing size-24 tops, whilst still slipping into size-18 or 20 trousers, the exact inverse of her pear-shaped friend. 

It is often mentioned that our population has changed size: the critical fact that it has largely changed shape is rarely referenced; yet this has had the greatest affect on the fit and size requirements of this generation of shoppers.

Some plus-size brands have reacted to this diversity of shape by developing grading to fit a particular version of woman, their ‘muse’.  When consumers find a brand that tailors to their own body shape, this will usually become a firm favourite, while those for whom the fit doesn’t work will often learn the hard way never to order from this range again.

This is not to say that the plus-size sector has made concerted attempts to find out the body shapes of their consumers and match them with a proportionally correct array of diverse gradings.  In fact, it is extremely difficult to gather body data from this cohort (who dislike being analysed and sized) – and it has not yet been achieved anywhere near satisfactorily.  In any case, until the correct fit technology has been developed, targeting a very diverse inventory to the correct sections of the customer base at the point of sale would be impractical.  Many of the brands that have adopted a grading based on a ‘non average’ body shape have just opted for the ‘hourglass’ figure: probably one of the rarest of all the variants, and hardly a breakthrough for fitting ‘everywoman’: it simply replaces one impossible ideal (ultra-slimness) with another (perfect hourglass).  Doubtless this body shape has been singled out because the fashion has embraced the myth of the 'curvy' woman: a sexy uberwoman, who exudes an exaggerated femininity and makes 'body positivity' more palatable for an industry that finds the sight of extra female flesh very difficult to stomach – if it is in the wrong place, such as, for instance, the stomach.

But the variations in cut in larger apparel are not always deliberate.  Occasionally, the plus-size sector suffers with the same trouble that afflicts each sector of fashion: instances of random variability.  Sometimes there are technical problems in the production of garments, meaning that items are cut too small, too large, or a strange shape.  This is exacerbated by the sheer difficulty in correctly grading larger garments. 

When the pattern cutters struggle with those plus-size issues (which is surprisingly common), this also muddies the water with some consumers' understanding of their size.  The person trying on a garment may believe that the size is too small when a pair of trousers is not long enough in the rise, for example, or, if there is no bust darts in a particular blouse, she may conclude that all that loose fabric is evidence that the garment is too large.  She may choose a different size the next time in the mistaken belief that she has learned something about her size.

Retailers have also had to grapple with a greater – internalised – level of plus-sized customers’ own ‘size acceptance’ issues.  The problem of garments being rejected because they are labeled with sizes that consumers find unacceptable or depressing has driven some in the sector to alter their whole system to make it less obvious.  Some have sized their garments S (16–18), M (20–22), L (24–26), and so on; others, L (18), XL (20), XXL (22), XXXL (24), etc. – actually, the permutations of these are mind-boggling and the antithesis of standardization: the actual object being to make the sizing more opaque and anonymous.

A traditional industry response to this 'size resistance' conundrum has nothing to do with sizing or grading, but nevertheless brings a little more confusion into the scene.  For generations, many specialist plus-size designers have resorted to force majeure, and used fabric tech or design to bear on the problem.  Fabrics with extreme stretchy qualities are used to create ‘easy fit’ (‘fits size 16–22’) apparel, or drapy, baggy, or wrap-around styles (‘one size fits all’) creations to offer amorphous sizing.  Women who wear these garments can live in a twilight zone of perpetual ‘size denial’, sometimes losing all track of what size they really are, which can be a problem when they need to buy something else (say, formal workwear for an interview), where their latest sizing requirements come as a source of dissonance. 

So our size-16 2019 woman is confronted by a bewildering array of sizing, grading, labeling and other confusing solutions or missteps.  There may have been logical reasons as to why these diverse systems evolved, but there is none in trying to understand and navigate them: those that are not deliberately opaque are simply too complicated, random or impractical to be helpful – the long forgotten reason why a sizing system was developed in the first place.


 

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