Pop Culture

Women's clothing sizes: Random, yet important

The sight of all those size-0 models on the Fashion Week runways recalls an oft-quoted line from the film “The Devil Wears Prada.” Happy to be a size 6, the impressionable young fashion assistant Andy Sachs is soon brought down to size:

Six, her mentor declares, “is the new 14.”

But for the rest of us folks, the question may be even more basic:

What IS a 6, and what IS a 14?

As any woman who tries on clothes frequently can attest, a 6 in one place can indeed be a 14 somewhere else — or an 8, a 10, or a 2. Which makes you wonder: Is there any logic to sizes, or are they just a random jumble of numbers?

The question might not matter, if the whole issue of size didn’t matter. But as the fashion industry has long known, a woman’s size certainly does matter — to her. Call it the psychology of size: We care deeply about the number on that tag, even though it’s likely no one else will see it, save the person manning the cash register. Perhaps no one else will know, but WE know, and that’s enough.

Just ask another Andy — Andy Steiner, a mother of two in St. Paul, Minn.

“I hate to admit it,” says Steiner, 38, “’cause I know size is just a number and I like to think I’m too smart — and feminist — to fall for that. But I certainly have a size I consider myself. Of course, I’ll buy smaller — and maybe one size bigger. But I’d never buy two sizes bigger. Way too depressing!”

Steiner recalls a particularly rash fashion decision three years ago, when she bought a pricey, too-short designer dress in hot pink, a color she dislikes. But it was a size 2, and she was literally flattered into buying it.

Not just the everyday shopper gets fooled. Suze Yalof Schwartz, executive editor-at-large for Glamour magazine, loves walking into a store and finding she’s a size lower. “It can make you feel fantastic,” she says. “It’s like stepping on a scale. It can make your day. Or, it can ruin your day.”

And that feeling, of course, will directly impact whether you make the purchase.

I'm a size 8 at The Gap!Which is why some clothing lines engage in so-called “vanity sizing” — skewing sizes down to make the customer feel better. It’s the reason you might be able to pull an 8 out of your closet from 10 years back, but now, in the same label, you’re a 4. (Or, in a spin on that “Prada” line, your 6 is your OLD 14.)

“I can be a very happy 8 at the Gap, but just squeeze into an angry 12 at Club Monaco,” says Berett Fisher, a New York mother and creative director. Naturally, she adds, “I don’t go to Club Monaco that much anymore.”

“Designers know that nobody wants to be a big size,” says maternity designer Liz Lange. “Nobody wants to be more than a size 8 or a 10.” And she includes herself. “I can’t do it,” she says of buying a larger size. “I don’t want that thing in my closet!”

And yet vanity sizing doesn’t explain most of the disparity. The larger picture is that every designer uses their own silhouette, or “fit model,” based on their target audience, says Dan Butler of the National Retail Federation. There were once government guidelines for sizing, he says, but they were abandoned decades ago, and were never mandatory. Maybe that’s a good thing, says Yalof Schwartz: “Everyone would be depressed. I’d rather feel skinnier.”

There’s some science to back up our fixation with size: In a survey conducted last spring by Talbots, the national chain, 62 percent of women said they’d only consider clothes in their specific size when shopping. Asked whether they’d go up from that size, 46 percent said they’d go one size larger; only 24 percent said they’d go up two sizes. The margin of error was plus or minus three percent.

There’s no question, says Betsy Thompson, fashion director for Talbots, that “women are size-focused when they’re shopping — regardless of what they say.” But, she adds, your customers need to know you’re consistent. “When women see a great variance, they question it.”

In other words, some consumers won’t appreciate it. Lynemarie D’Amore of Evanston, Ill., a frequent online buyer, is frustrated to find her usual sizes are now too big. “It just makes me have to return more, and hate shopping more,” she says. And she stops trusting the clothing line: “It’s like when you catch a lover in a lie.”

Not every woman cares about size. Some are more like, well, men, who tend to be more pragmatic. “I think many men do care about what size their waist is,” says New Yorker James Cribbs. “However, I can’t imagine any of them would buy something they don’t like just because it fits. Why not move on until you find something that fits AND that you like?”

Sounds so sensible. It certainly would avoid tales like that of Steiner’s hot pink, “it-was-the-size-2-talking” purchase.

She wore the dress once, to a wedding, where she covered it with a shawl. “I wanted to pull out the size label and show people why I bought it,” she laughs. She ended up lending it to a friend, who also wore it once.

So did the friend like it?

“She was happy to be a size 2.”

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