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.
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.