Women’s clothing sizes – consistency versus diversityModa Seminar presentation, NEC Birmingham, 6 August 2017

I have worked in fashion retail for over 30 years, mainly in independent plus-size womenswear – where I’ve made a study of the bodyshape of women.  By that I mean that I’ve undertaken somewhere in the region of 20,000 individual clothing fittings.

Over this time I’ve recognised a number of body types, and many of these vary considerably from the proportions and gradings that are standard sizing in our industry.

This is particularly noticeable in plus-size fashion.  But these bodyshapes are found equally in all size cohorts, albeit to a lesser degree.

This talk is about womenswear; men’s bodies tend to be more uniform.  There are variations, of course, but the problems thrown-up by the sizing system are not the same – or, arguably, not as severe.  Nevertheless, any solutions developed for the fitting of womenswear will also be of value to the menswear market.  So menswear people are welcome to stay and listen!

We retailers are confronted with a conundrum.  We have ever-more diverse bodyshapes among our customers, yet many of these women are calling for far more consistent sizing.  Surely there is no way to square this circle?

I’m going to talk today about the interface between sizing, grading and bodyshape.

Due in part to social media, customers are steadily becoming more discerning about fit – as they are with all aspects of fashion – at the same time as their bodies are becoming more diverse.

We know there is an increase in the number of larger people, and generally women – even ‘mainstream’ sized women – are getting bigger.  The industry’s response to this growth has been so-called ‘vanity’ sizing – mainstream clothing sizes are getting bigger.  We know that a size 12 in 2017 is much bigger than a size 12 of 1967, for example.

But women do not just come in one bodyshape.  There are a number of shapes that we tend to fit into, many of which are in the collective consciousness.  Words such as ‘hourglass’, ‘apple-shape’ and ‘pear-shape’ are well-known – although the full range of different shapes is not generally understood.

All women fall into one bodyshape category or another, but the slimmer a woman, the more uniform her shape is.  As we grow larger, our various curves become more exaggerated – we are ‘filling-out’ – and these body types are asserting themselves more and more.

So ‘vanity sizing’ alone does not offer a complete solution.  In order to suit today’s more diversely shaped customers we have required a range of different gradings and better-targeted styles – so many brands have opted for differing systems to suit their own customer-bases.

As retailers – and both in buying and selling to customers we know all about the differences between brands – it’s our job.  We are the ones who know which customer to direct to which brand.  And we should know which brands to buy that will give us the spread of shapes to satisfy our clients.

However, it’s all rather complicated.  Customers don’t understand all these different offers, and it can cause confusion and frustration.

Many customers believe erroneously that the differences between brands are due to poor production values.  But no-one likes to irritate their customers... even if it can be an everyday occurrence.

So in bricks-and-mortar stores finding the correct apparel for individual customers is a problem, both in terms of service and buying.  But it is in e-commerce where it expands into a huge issue.

When a customer is looking at her phone or tablet she cannot be guided by a well-trained and experienced member of staff, and neither can she benefit from trying-on the garment in a changing room.

We have a dysfunctional sizing system, which is, in the era of e-commerce, becoming less-and-less fit for purpose.  So how did we get here?

Originally, clothing didn’t come in individual sizes.  It was all made-to-measure, or altered to fit.

In the mid-20th Century, industrialisation brought in mass-produced clothing, and this was the start of our big ‘fit problem’.

Governments all over the world had to take the initiative of developing standardised sizing.  Industry figures were invited to develop systems.

The industry needed to find a system of sizing – but in apparel this needs also to be a system of grading and proportion.

They had to ascertain the relationship between the measurement of the hips, waist and bust, and each team tasked with doing this went out and measured real women in order to obtain an average ‘fit for all’.

Different countries made their own decisions as to which women they chose to measure, but there were similarities between all these attempts.  They tended to look at young, perfectly proportioned women.

In the US they went out and measured service women.

Once they had measured their samples they came up with ‘numerical sizing systems’.

We have had problems from the beginning of these systems because the information gathered was not sufficient to produce a perfect result...
  • The grading was never scientifically researched, and was based on small sample sizes
  • It was ‘aspirational’ – about the ideal woman, not reality
  • The fit was for just one bodyshape – the ‘well-proportioned’
  • It was racially non-inclusive
  • It did not cover different age groups
  • It didn’t respond adequately to plus-sizes
  • It didn’t take account of ‘preferred fit’
  • The sample was also from one era – when women were smaller and corseted – and it didn’t take account of change over time.

All this went together to create grading problems...
  • Right from the start many, if not most, women had problems with a fit that was only designed to suit a very small percentage of the population
  • The concept of a variety of bodyshapes was never built into the system; indeed it was denied, so many people are ignorant of it.

Numbering women in itself threw up its own issues...
The system of numbered sizing has had a negative effect – women often take on their clothing size as part of their identity:
  • It encourages some women to become unrealistic – concentrating on the number rather than the fit, thus causing dissatisfaction
  • Society/peer judgement/bullying/prejudice/discrimination – it creates a ‘hierarchy’ of sizing according to a rising scale of numbers
  • It causes self-monitoring
  • It has psychological effects on some women – such as shame/eating disorders/depression/body negativity.

Industry’s historic response to the system’s shortcomings...
  • Originally stores had dressmaking services
  • Stores had changing rooms in order to demonstrate fit
  • The best stores had enhanced levels of customer service
  • As I mentioned before, brands have developed diverse fits and grading across ranges
  • Generic, non-specific fits and stretch styles have been offered to larger and older women, causing customer dissatisfaction
  • Brands have offered much cheaper lines to help sweeten the pill of poorly fitting apparel.

These ‘solutions’ have thrown up their own set of knock-on problems...
  • Inconsistency of sizing throughout the industry
  • Customer dissatisfaction with brands that they believe are at fault for sizing inconsistency – which they see as being due to poor production values
  • Widespread dissatisfaction on the part of larger, older and women who have a less ‘standard’ bodyshape, and who object to the cheaper, less stylish clothing being made available to them
  • The huge amount of e-commerce returns, largely due to fit issues, creating a dysfunctional system for large companies, and an extremely difficult one for smaller retailers.  In the UK clothing sector alone, there were £20 billion of returns last year
  • Waste of money/detrimental effect on margins
  • Environmental waste – unsuitable clothing and waste of distribution and delivery resources
  • Lower pay levels

So fit issues are having a detrimental effect on the whole industry – but particularly e-commerce.

The solution – information

Right from the start of mass-produced clothing we have never had access to the kind of information about fit that we needed to do the job of reliably serving customers.

This is already changing, and the information available is growing exponentially.  We now have the ability to gather data from individual customers, and collate it for large groups.

Soon we will, for the first time, see the ‘shape’ of our population, in all its variety of age groups, races and body types.

We will understand our customers’ bodyshapes and devise a better system than crude numbered sizing...
  • This new sizing will be based on bodyshape
  • Women will have their own FIT ID – their own grading fingerprint, and this will be matched to apparel that is both shaped and styled in ways that suit their bodyshape
  • Fit preferences will be taken into account
  • We will have the opportunity to make a study of the interface between bodyshape/preferences
  • We will know in what percentages the sizes and shapes make up the population
  • Brands will be able to manufacture product better attuned to their needs
  • Better quality apparel will be produced
  • Larger suppliers will be able to make a wider range of products
  • Larger retailers will provide a much more diverse offer
  • Small independents will get a chance to break into the e-commerce business without incurring onerous returns costs
  • Cutting back on waste – environmental advantages
  • Having highly accurate apparel sizing
  • Improving margins
  • Improving working standards across the industry
  • Happier, more satisfied customers.

How will the market develop in the future?

It’s early days in knowing how this information will transform the marketplace.  I suggest, however, that we may see:
  • The use of technology to fit a customer – meaning the end to numbering women; in the future we will neither know nor care what size we are
  • Social media forums may develop where customers of similar body types and preferences will be able to share style/fashion experience – people in effect creating their own virtual department stores full of products perfectly tailored to their needs and preferences
  • Online personal shoppers sourcing product
  • The industry having a deeper understanding of the individual customer’s requirements – for example, effortlessly and accurately ‘getting’ their customer’s own personal style
  • Independents able to excel in their field, perhaps becoming worldwide experts in particular niches

E-commerce support solutions available today are based around encouraging customers to input relevant information when interacting with a website.

Companies such as Rakuten Fits Me use their expertise in fit and customer preferences to provide fit solutions to the e-commerce fashion industry.  There is already available a free product to companies that transact 100+ e-commerce sales a month.  That would be something available to many companies attending Moda today.  These systems are extremely effective; they...
  • Help the customer select the correct size to fit their body
  • Take account of the customer’s ‘preferred fit’
  • Promote higher individual purchase values
  • Help develop customer loyalty
  • Enhance the customer’s retail experience
  • Prevent the customer from focusing solely on the size label, which can lead to poor fit
  • Can help retailers achieve a 20% reduction in returns
  • Continually advance the knowledge of fit – providing cutting-edge solutions.

We can use these new services to help us achieve fit solutions online.  But ultimately, squaring the circle of creating consistent, accurate sizing that actually fits our diverse bodyshapes will only be possible once the industry has fully matured and embraced this new technology.  We are at the beginning of an extremely exciting and important new phase in fashion retail.

Thank you.

Emma Hayes – Body shape/fit expert, womenswear customer consultant

Moda is the largest fashion trade exhibition in the United Kingdom.
Images courtesy of Rakuten Fits Me and the copyright holders.

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