Greetings My Lovelies!
A tall, slender woman comes in with two skirts from Talbots. She makes a beeline straight for the dressing room without asking if it is available. “I need you to fix these skirts for me,” she says irritably as she brushes past. “Actually, one fits fine. It doesn’t need anything but I need you to see it.”
“Ok,” I say, since we are really busy and have other appointments scheduled, “why don’t you just put on the one that needs altering and open the door when you are ready.” She opens the door, I pin the offending flare that she complains about, and I inform her that she is all done. A few minutes later, the door opens again. I expect her to leave the shop but she is just standing there in the other skirt, frowning at the mirror.
“I thought you said that one didn’t need fixing,” I say.
“It doesn’t! But look at this. Just look at this!” I peer closer. It fits her beautifully. I am unsure about what the problem is but Clearly, judging from the turn of her mouth, there is a problem.
“It’s a [number],” she hisses. “I’m not a [that number]! Why does this fit me? And how come the other skirt, which is [a smaller number], needs to be taken in? What is going on here? How is the smaller skirt the one that is too big?”
“Well, obviously, the smaller skirt is not smaller,” I think to myself. What I say out loud is “Well, sometimes different manufacturers make things slightly differently. To be honest; the difference between one size and another is really only about a quarter of an inch all around all the seams. The sizes are way closer than you think.” She isn’t having it. She keeps shaking her head and saying, “Well, you’re the expert, you tell me why two skirts from the same store are so different.” First of all, anyone who spent the first eighteen years of her life alternating between a Catholic school uniform and grubby barn clothes should never be considered a fashion expert. No way. That piece of my brain is missing. But from the stubborn set of her jaw, I can tell that this Problem is right up there with things like animal cruelty and the current threats to Alaska’s pristine habitats. More than any banking crisis or the situation in the Middle East, what keeps this woman up at night is that the number on a label (a label no one else will ever see) is wrong. Her number is not what she thinks it should be, no matter how the skirt looks or feels. An Impostor has infiltrated her wardrobe. “I don’t know why I even bought this,” she sighs, “I am definitely not a [that number]!”
So! Just how did we come to have these randomly assigned, numbers? What does an 8 or a 12 or 22 even mean? Why do I hear one of two things on a daily basis: “This is not really my size but it fits” or its sister corollary “I don’t understand why this doesn’t fit me—it’s my size!”
It turns out that we have been trying to figure out what size we are for more than ninety years. Long before Amazon or EBay was a thing called the Sears Roebuck catalogue, which provided a variety of mail-order products from plows to gowns to rural Americans, who sat in their outhouses and dreamed, then wiped, with this wonderful publication. Initially, sizes for young ladies and children were all based on age — so a size 8 should fit an 8-year-old and a 16 would be for a 16-year-old. For women over the age of 16, it was about bust measurement, as if no other part of her body mattered except her boobs. Despite the obvious limitations of assuming all 8-year-olds are the same size or that any two women with a 36-inch bust must have exactly the same hourglass dimensions, it was assumed that most women in the house would know how to sew and could alter clothing as needed. Even so, by the late 1930’s clothing manufacturers determined that the lack of standardized sizes for women was costing the industry hundreds of thousands of dollars in returned merchandise and they decided to do something about it.
Both the U.S. department of Agriculture, in 1939, and the National Bureau of Standards in the late 1940’s tried to regularize American sizing so that women could be able to order from mail-order companies with relative security that what eventually arrived on their doorstep would fit them and not their next door neighbor’s Cocker spaniel. "Each subject — matron, maid, scrubwoman, show girl — will be measured in 59 different places," a 1939 article in TIME states. (I’m curious. Were these fifty-nine places on the human female body? Or fifty-nine geographical locations, towns, or cities where the testing would take place? The article is astoundingly vague on this.) However, the results were flawed due to a variety of factors including the fact that the population they measured was not an accurate representation of the wider society. Many of the volunteers were poor white women who were lured in by the participation fee offered them, meaning more “scrub women” than matrons or show girls showed up. They tried again in 1958 to get a standard for women’s sizes by using data collected from measurements of women serving in the U.S. Air Force—the fittest group of women in the country. Um…again, not the standard mean of the population at large! And by at large, I mean larger than an Air Force cadet for sure. Eventually, in 1983, the Department of Commerce withdrew its commercial women's clothing size standard altogether and the government gave up measuring women and washed its hands of the whole affair, leaving us to guess for ourselves again, and fostering that great American pastime of taking loads of randomly numbered clothes into the dressing room, trying them on, determining that none of them fit, feeling like shit, and needing [a stiff drink, new shoes, a pumpkin latte, or a 12-step group meeting, perhaps all of the above] on the way home to soothe our frazzled nerves. A private organization called ASTM International then began publishing its own sizing tables in 1995.
Since the late 1980’s, designers have run wild attempting to keep pace with our egos and our waistlines simultaneously by using descending numbers until we reached the modern ridiculousness of a size known as 00. Most of us know vaguely that, once upon a time, a woman’s size 8 was a very tiny size. In 1958, for example, a size 8 corresponded with a bust of 31 inches, a waist of 23.5 inches and a hip girth of 32.5 inches. There was no such thing as a size zero, never mind the double or triple zeros on the market today. This business of calling sizes a series of zeros mystifies me. I was taught that zero signifies “nothing.” It is the absence of a quantity of something. By definition, it cannot be a thing itself, never mind two or three times itself, or even two or three of itself added together. How can “no size” be a size? What kind of messed up “seamstress math” enables one to say that zero actually has a variety of dimensions ranging from what might fit a three-year-old birch sapling down to what might clothe an endangered newt? Marijuana has only been legal in Massachusetts since Trump was elected. So, Who has been smoking What to get to these decisions?
In the ASTM’s 2008 standards, a size 8 had increased by five to six inches in each of those three measurements, becoming the rough equivalent of a size 14 or 16 in 1958. We can see size inflation happening over shorter time spans as well; a size 2 in the 2011 ASTM standard falls between a 1995 standard size 4 and 6. We went from size 16 being a model in the '40s to 12 in the '60s. Marilyn Monroe was a 12 in the 1960’s, which would now be a size 6.
To my mind, if it fits, wear it! If it gladdens your heart or brings you joy, if you feel Magnificent in it, then it has earned a place in your wardrobe. Otherwise, chuck it or bring it to a seamstress and alter it. Numbers are fake news. We can always cut the label out!
Be well, dear friends, and do Good Work!