Size Gives One Fits
Catherine Despont tries to sort out sizes
I suspect I’m not alone in wearing different sizes. There’s the size I think of myself, the size of clothes I buy, and then there’s the size of something that suits me—which you can’t really put a number on. Something that falls right and hits where it should doesn’t have any size at all—it just fits.
And even though I understand this, there are still anomalies in my closet—I think of them as sartorial fictions—things not just a size too small but that look as though they belong to another person. It’s as though my life, trimmed of a couple of inches, would suddenly turn Technicolor and include more occasions for leather—like the Alaïa miniskirt I’m not sure I could walk in even when I bought it.
Size issues can make you crazy, but even a sane person can wonder if there isn’t a conspiracy against finding the right one. We shrink and grow apparently, regardless of our diets. We translate systems involving letters, digits and nationalities, and then we pledge allegiance to a designer and a size, only to find ourselves at odds with their new season’s silhouette. Given the range of measurements attributed to a single size, anyone who actually stakes her pride on numbers can probably find a label to keep that pride intact, but that’s pretty meager reassurance. It’s better not to get hung up on numbers.
Hoping to understand the inconsistency in my closet, I sought the advice of two of the most fit-savvy people at Bergdorf Goodman—Elizabeth Hui, vice president of advanced designer and couture collections, and Todd Okerstrom, director of personal shopping (call him: 212 872 8870). It was gratifying to learn that no one finds sizing more arbitrary than the experts who deal with it day to day. Todd reminded me that right from the start the clothes we see on runways are custom. “They are fit to that model. A dress might be a six shoulder, a four bust and a zero waist and a two hip, and it’s really no size whatsoever.” When designers go into production, he explained, they use a fit model, but those models change sometimes, and then the pants you used to love are suddenly made on a different pattern.
But what makes it so difficult to agree on a single standard? Is it too few carbs or too many? A response to growing vanity? The influx of Asian markets? The creative fantasy of fashion designers? A little research provides some context, if no conclusive answers.
Until the 1920s women’s fashion was primarily hand sewn and custom made. While army uniforms provided a ready source of data for the first commercial men’s sizes, women had no such luck. Early manufactured clothing had a reputation for fitting badly and varying from one brand to the next. In the United States the government stepped into the size void, hoping to improve the sales of ready-made clothes; it was actually the Home Economics Division of the USDA that led the first effort at nation-wide size standardization.
In 1939, 15,000 brave women subjected themselves (in underwear) to almost sixty different measurements. This fact alone suggests the difficulty of scaling a woman’s proportions. We need at least three numbers to get started, and many more to get properly fitted. A hip-to-bust ratio alone doesn’t say anything about height or breadth or rise. The fairly dubious system created as a result of the ’39 survey only underscores the difficulties of comparing those measurements. It included four different classifications: Misses’, Juniors’, Women’s, and Half-sizes (for shorter women), each with a number for bust size between 8 and 38; a letter T, R or S for tall, regular or short; and a symbol—plus, blank or minus—for “hip girth.” Phew!
The problem only gets more complicated when it becomes international—a visit to just one floor of Bergdorf Goodman can bring you in contact with five different sizing methods. Even veteran shoppers well-versed in these languages can be stumped: During the course of a recent excursion one friend was unable to close a Dior dress in what she considered to be a size above hers, only to find she could have fit into a pair of Balenciaga trousers a size smaller a few months’ pregnant. My friend also complained of a showroom sale where “the 4 was bigger than the 2, and the 0 wouldn’t have fit a malnourished Japanese toddler.” Such stories abound.
No matter the size, it’s rare that anything fits perfectly without some tailoring. Todd says that ever since Spanx hit the market, he overhears women talking about those slimming undergarments in the changing room. “But, you know a size 2 needs her Spanx as much as a size 12,” he said. “It’s about being smooth, not about changing size.”
Deep down we all know it’s about fit, not numbers. “Fit is the hallmark of great style,” said Todd. “It doesn’t need to be the most expensive garment on the rack as long as it’s well tailored. Fit is the hidden secret of greatness.” Amen. BG
Catherine Despont considers size vanity in this issue. She has learned how to count in many different size languages and trusts her tailor more than any designer. Her work has appeared in Open City and Purple. She is currently working on her first novel.