Clothing size irregularities

Size irregularities suit certain sectors of the fashion industry.
 
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  • Updated:25 May 2009
 

01 .Clothing sizes

Mannequin

In brief

  • There is no Australian industry standard for adult clothing sizes; as a result, designers and manufacturers are free to make up their own size specifications.
  • Sizing inconsistencies pose real difficulties for clothes shopping online.
  • Many key industry players have called for government funding of a national sizing survey to assess the body shapes of Australians to help manufacturers, retailers and consumers make a better fit.

While there is an Australian standard for children’s clothes sizes, there isn’t for adults. So in the absence of any definitive size guide, designers and clothing manufacturers base their versions of sizes on their sales history, marketing hunches and what they believe is their ideal customer.

While this may suit the designers, who can manipulate sizing to give an instant “feel good” factor, as well as deter the “wrong” body shapes from fitting their clothes, consumers are often left having to try on a range of sizes to find the right one.

Last year the federal government conducted a review of the of the Australian textiles, clothing and footwear industry. One of its key recommendations was to allocate, “as a matter of urgency,” $5 million from the 2009 budget to develop a national sizing standard.

While direct funding hasn’t been allocated in this year’s budget, the government will commission further advice on introducing a voluntary national sizing standard and anthropometric database as part of an overall funding package of $55 million for the textiles, clothing and footwear industries.

Fashion industry experts CHOICE spoke to all agree that as part of an Australian industry worth $2.8 billion in manufacturing, and a further $7.5 billion if you add retailing and wholesaling, sizing irregularity is one of the major issues.

Please note: this information was current as of May 2009 but is still a useful guide today.


Video: What size are you

Are designers and manufacturers making clothes sizes up as they go along?

The shape we're in

The most recent Australian clothing standard for adult men and women was withdrawn in 2007 as it was considered no longer relevant. Established in 1959, the standard was based on data from a 1926 study of women conducted by underwear manufacturer Berlei and some US Department of Commerce Standards. After 1970, several revisions were made to the standard for women using data provided by the Australian Women’s Weekly when 11,455 female readers measured themselves and posted in the results, the last revision taking place in 1975.

Thirty-four years later, it’s not surprising to learn those measurements are no longer considered relevant. It’s no secret that Australians today are bigger than they used to be. And research from the US reveals that the sedentary western body may be changing shape; with waists getting thicker in both sexes and, thanks to multiculturalism, there is a wider range of body shapes than back in the 1920s. Despite these studies and abundant anecdotal evidence, there is still no definitive data to show just what kind of shape we are in today.

Overseas, large-scale body shape surveys have been conducted in the UK, Spain, France, China, Japan, the US and Germany, usually funded by government and sectors of the clothing industry. This data has been used to assist clothing manufacturers improve fit as well as identify sectors of the market that may not have been previously catered to at all. The information has also been used to develop better-fitting uniforms and safety wear, as well as assist with improving ergonomics in products ranging from cars to seating on public transport.

Where to now?

While the experts CHOICE spoke to agree a mandatory sizing standard isn’t the answer, better information about sizing is needed. The latest ABS figures show 68% of adult men and 55% of adult women are overweight or obese (using the body mass index), so it makes sense that a national sizing survey would allow manufacturers to better understand the modern body shapes of consumers. It could empower manufacturers to provide better-fitting, flattering and more comfortable clothing – a win-win situation for both the industry and consumer.

For more information on Clothing See, Beauty and personal care.

 
 

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In any woman’s wardrobe it’s not unusual to find an assortment of sizes, ranging from 10 to 16. For others, the size range of clothes available in stores might not fit them at all. A study conducted by the University of South Australia and SHARP Dummies in 2002 found that about 50% of people surveyed said they couldn’t buy “regular” sized clothing as it didn’t fit their body shape, and it seems things haven’t improved since.

Fashion designers and manufacturers spend millions marketing and merchandising their clothing lines, yet many base their size ranges on limited sales information, a little market research and often a good dollop of guesswork. It’s no secret within the industry that different labels cut their clothes to different sizes, depending on who the designer thinks is their “ideal” customer.

Danny Avidan, CEO of the Discovery Group, which owns fashion labels Charlie Brown, Lili and Howard Showers, happily admits that a size 10 in the younger focused Lili brand is several centimetres smaller than a size 10 in the Charlie Brown or Howard Showers collections. He says the sizes are developed to suit the type of customer at which each brand is aimed. “Howard Showers is for the classic 30-plus woman, Charlie Brown’s market starts a little bit younger andLili is our junior brand for young women. For Lili we are talking about a very different body shape and I believe sizing accordingly is the right approach. I’m not focusing on the 40-year-old woman who wants to wear Lili, I’m focusing on that 80% of the market within the Lili target. We can’t be all things to all people.”

While Avidan concedes this may be frustrating for the consumer shopping between brands, his advice is to find a clothing label that suits your body shape and stick with it. “We are very consistent with our sizes within the brands. If you are a size 12 Charlie Brown in one garment you will be a size 12 in any other garments in the Charlie Brown line.”

For other labels, however, this isn’t always the case. Jo-Ann Kellock, Executive Director of the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries Australia (TFIA), says there are often inconsistencies within brands and within sizes due to a lack of quality control. Thanks to mass manufacturing offshore there are issues around mislabelling, mistakes during overlocking and where garments are cut in huge quantities at one time – even a slip of just a few millimetres when cutting can mean a pile of size 12 garments destined for the same store can end up all different sizes.

Vanity sizing

Part of the problem is our country’s growing waistline, which has changed from the tapered and leaner pear shape of the 1920s to the more generous-sized woman today. Rather than keeping sizes consistent, retailers sensitive to the delicate issues around weight and self-image have simply snuck a few centimetres into their sizing. Nicknamed “vanity sizing”, the rationale is that the customer will feel so good about suddenly fitting into a size 10 they will snap it up immediately.

From 1995 to 2000, department store Myer inflated the measurements of its sizes 8, 10, 12 and 14 by several centimetres, to represent what it said was a better fit for customers. Country Road was legendary for making the average size 12 customer miraculously fit a size 10. Youth fashion chain store Sportsgirl recently acknowledged the heavier population, announcing it would be adding some size 16 garments to its collection because of market demand.

The problem goes right back to the source. Alana Clifton, lecturer in fashion design at the University of Technology, Sydney, says the lack of a national sizing standard means the university has had to develop its own rough standard for students to use as a guide, and admits it seems more generous than what’s found in mainstream stores. She also says it can take time to get students to understand the difference between the design and look of the garment and the actual wearability of the clothes.

The rise of size 0

The other, more sinister end of the scale is impossibly small sizing that controls who can wear what. With catwalk models averaging size 6-8, as well as new tiny sizing categories in the US such as size zero, the battle for body image extends across the shopping malls throughout the country.

Many of the industry experts CHOICE spoke to say some designers have an idealised type of customer in mind, and that there is real reluctance to have their clothes made in larger sizes. Even if they don’t volunteer this publicly, the clothes on the rack speak volumes with tiny sizes de rigueur, especially among the higher-end designer labels.

Some openly admit the trend. Karl Lagerfeld brazenly claimed he designs clothes for “slender and slim people” when discussing the range he developed for European chain store H&M, while Australian designer Wayne Cooper is reported as having criticised the super-slim catwalk models at Australian Fashion Week for being “porky”. While he said the comments were made in jest, the cut of his clothes are well known for being small. Melbourne designer Bettina Liano is on record saying she makes size 14 clothes but they “just don’t sell”.

Kellock from TFIA believes this policy has major implications for women’s self-esteem, especially the impressionable young. “Imagine a young woman walking into a store looking for a blouse. She rummages around, finally tries one and it doesn’t fit. It’s too small and there’s nothing else. It sends a negative message likely to have long-term impact. She is going to think, ‘I’m not wanted here, and I’m not good enough’.”

For older shoppers, the effect can be the same. Sarah Donges works as a personal stylist to a wide range of clients, many of whom are women in their late 30s or 40s who love fashion and have a lot of money to spend, but hate shopping. “They can be completely frustrated that they can never find anything that fits them. Several of my clients have told me if they try one or two pieces on in a store and they don’t fit into them, they just give up.”

Video: Jo Kellock interview

The CTFI's Jo Kellock discusses the state of today's clothes sizes.

frockaholics.com.au websiteWhile it’s frustrating enough having to try on every size in a store when you’re out shopping, buying online is even more difficult. Despite becoming more common, according to the e-tailers we spoke to, online shopping can still be a mixture of guesswork, market research and ensuring the company you deal with has a generous returns policy.

According to Sarah Pavillard, who owns Frockaholics.com.au, “ideally what we’d like to have is what each manufacturer’s standard is and put it on our site but as we stock so many labels, our own resources aren’t up to it at this stage and the information isn’t always available”. Instead, Pavillard and her team try on a sample size of every garment and make notes about the sizing. She also has a no-questions-asked returns policy.

Katrina Colla’s business, frockyou.com.au, stocks more than 60 different brands. She also says sizing is a major issue and, as well as having a hassle-free returns/exchange policy, she and her staff also try a sample of garments to work out what will fit who. She also keeps a record of customer feedback to get an all-round indication of the fit of each label. Customers often send in their measurements so her team can then work out what size they will be in a certain brand.

What about men?

Most of the industry contacts CHOICE spoke to said men, in general, have it a little easier. In most cases men’s garments are named by a measurement, so if a pair of trousers is labelled 38 inches, it’s likely they will actually be 38 inches at the waist. However, Jo-Ann Kellock, Executive Director of the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries Australia says that for younger men’s clothing, sizing has increasingly become representational and carries small, medium and large labels or 1, 2 and 3, and disparity between sizes is more common.

Avidan says his personal experience of buying men’s clothes can also be a case of finding a label that fits your body type. Other men we spoke to complained about lack of length in trousers and sleeves, as well as an overall bad fit, but the consensus is the differences aren’t as extreme as in women’s clothes.

Still, Kellock believes men would also benefit hugely from a national sizing survey. “We could mine data right down to a postcode. If we wanted to we’d be able to find out what the body shape range is for men in a certain suburb in Adelaide. How good would that be?”

Kate Browne, CHOICE journalist holding size signsPssst! Want to drop several dress sizes in less than an hour? Forget about dieting or exercise and simply go shopping for clothes. To test out just how much difference there can be between clothing sizes, I head to Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall for a shopping expedition. My mission? To buy a straight black skirt. Sounds easy, especially in this winter’s range. Less easy was working out what size I was.

First stop was chain store Portmans, and in their range I fit perfectly into a size 14 skirt.
Deciding I must be a 14, I head a few doors down to Sussan and grab a 14 in their range. However, when I try it on it almost falls off, so I try a 12, which is also too loose, before finally zipping up a perfect-fitting 10.

Feeling good, I set off for Country Road, where their pencil skirts are labelled “small”, “medium” and “large”. The small doesn’t quite do up but the medium fits nicely. Later, the size 12 skirt at Witchery proves too small and the 14 too big, so I assume that makes me a 13 – but they don’t make half-sizes.

In the department stores, the body bamboozling continues. According to Sportscraft, I’m a 10 but Alannah Hill thinks I’m a 14. SABA and Lisa Ho split the difference, putting me in a 12. It’s a self-esteem rollercoaster as I teeter between feeling petite and plus size depending on who’s dressing me.

Kate Browne, CHOICE journalist holding size signsI then sample a few higher-end Australian designers.

Leona Edmiston pegs me as a “3” in her dress range, which according to the sales assistant is a “large 12” or ”small 14”, whatever that means. Australian designers Sass & Bide don’t even bother with Australian sizing on some of their labels, with one of their jackets informing me it’s a European size 40 and US 6.

Finally, a sample of Wayne Cooper leaves my self-esteem in the gutter. After trying on a size 2 dress, then 3 and finally 4 (which is still too small) I realise in his eyes I’m far too big to wear any of his designs.

Feeling despondent, I head for the door but decide to make a stop at Target on the way home and try on one more skirt, the best fit being a 10. The confusion continues…

– Kate Browne, CHOICE journalist

To follow Kate on her shopping trip, watch our video, or click on the video below to see an extended interview with Jo-Ann Kellock, Executive Director of the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries Australia.

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