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Why doesn’t it fit? How clothing size systems fail women

By Lisa Hackett - posted Monday, 18 February 2019

Clothing size works as an arbiter of the body ideal. The chequered history of women’s clothing size systems has resulted in women being confronted with confusing sizing labels and clothes that don’t fit. Size labels are much more than informational. For fashion designers and producers size labels are about aspiration. Sizing systems place emphasis on smaller sizes over larger sizes positing the aspirational desire for the female body to wear a US size 0 (approx. AU 4). Yet we know that the average Australia women is a size 16. The dressed body is a marker of a person’s social status. For the dressed female body the ideal is a thin body. For the fashion industry to promote size 16 clothes would undermine the myth of thin ideal.

Before mass production clothing sizes were not an issue as female clothing was tailored or adjusted to fit the wearer. In the early twentieth century, women’s fashions changed from a stylised corset shape that demanded individual tailoring, to a looser, more natural shape that was suitable for mass-production. At the same time, interest in the scientific management of body, through behaviours such as exercise, surgery, diet, medication, became popular amongst the middle classes.  This new ‘science’ of nutrition was influenced by the mass media. Michael S. Carolan considers that the US motion picture industry was central in promoting the ideal of the thin female body.

Unlike other consumer products like furniture, clothing cannot be made as one-size fits all. Yet the needs of mass clothing production requires a size system. To achieve this anthropometric surveys of the population are conducted. Statistical analysis then derives a set of sizes reflecting the measured population.  Australia’s standards for women’s clothing were first published in 1959. But Australia didn’t conduct anthropometric studies, instead they turned to two large studies conducted by Berlei in 1926and the 1941 survey for the US sizing standard. Prominent statistician Henry Oliver Lancaster, considered the data in the two surveys were “very close”, and therefore sufficient to develop an Australian sizing standard.


Both these studies have been criticised as over-representing younger, white, often working-class women, with a more athletic figure. The 1926 Berlei study measured young women on beaches and working in factories. The 1941 study measured younger, white women who were paid for their participation. Kate Kennedy found that the hourglass body shape implicit in the 1926 and 1941 anthropometric surveys was not reflective of the pear-shaped figure which was prominent in both the 1920s and 1940s.

Table 1: Measurements produced for use by the Australian Clothing Industry.  Adapted from the Australian Standard, L9-1959 Misses’ Size chart. Note the height and hip measurements for each size.

Originally using size denominations that related to actual measurements, in 1970 the Australian standards committee decided to adopt American-style ad hoc sizes, e.g. 8, 10, 12, 14 and 16.  In 1975 the standard was expanded to include foundation garments. Body sizes, however, were changing and brands were using the technique of vanity sizing (whereby sizes are transposed so that a size 10 is labelled as size 8, etc.). By 2009 the Australian Standard was withdrawn leaving the industry without a benchmark to work with.

Clearly the body shape and size of the average Australian women today is not comparable to her counterpart of a hundred years ago. Access to better nutrition, sanitation and medication has seen the human body change faster than at any other time in its history. Couple with the obesity epidemic we now have a situation where the average Australian woman is now a size 16.  Despite these changes, sizing in the fashion industry appears to be entrenched in the paradigm of having stock in sizes 6-18 only.


(Common measurements given by Australian Clothing Retailers)

(Adapted from: Australian Standards AS 1344-1997 (1997).

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About the Author

Lisa J Hackett is a Sociology PhD Candidate in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. She holds a Master of Business Administration from Murdoch University and BA (Media Studies) from Edith Cowan University, both in Perth, Western Australia. Her research areas include sewing, clothing fit, style, fashion history and material culture.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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