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The Historical Reason Why Women's Clothing Sizes are a Complete Trash Fire

This blog post is a transcription of my Youtube video, "I BEAT an Eating Disorder: How SEWING MY OWN CLOTHES helped me! (plus a history of why sizes stink)" which you can watch here:

(and you can find a list of all my sources here)


Greetings fellow humans and welcome,

Today we’re going to be doing something a little bit different and diving into a subject I think is pretty important.

If you’ve read the title of this video then you’ll already know, but yes. I had an eating disorder – while I talk about that there’ll be a little content note on the screen that will stay there until I stop discussing specifics, so if hearing about eating disorders may be triggering you can skip ahead.

So, my eating disorder started developing when I was about 10 years old, after some critical comments about my body and my eating were made by one of my uncles and one of my cousins at a family wedding. Don’t do that, by the way. Leave kids and their bodies alone. (No good comes from criticising kid’s bodies)

Anyway, it developed (alongside a hefty helping of anxiety and depression) throughout my late childhood and early teens, but increased and accelerated pretty significantly around age 14, when my dad left. Most people around me had no idea what was going on, as I was very diligent about hiding it, and I continued to struggle with food and eating well into my early twenties.

My eating disorder would have been classified as “atypical anorexia”, which is what they call anorexia nervosa in people who exhibit every aspect of the disease but are in or above the normal weight range.

I’d been trying to improve and work on my food, eating and body image on my own with limited success when I was finally able to access therapy in 2016 and through that, my eating disorder was actually identified. In fact, I had been totally adamant that while I definitely had disordered eating, I couldn’t possibly have a real eating disorder because, I thought, I’d never been that thin and I’d never been underweight. Thankfully I had an excellent therapist, who said the most essential thing I could possibly have heard, which was: An eating disorder is a mental illness, not a body type.

Finally recognising what had been going on for nearly 15 years at that point, while having support from mental health professionals allowed me to make far greater progress in my recovery and I’m now at a point where, from a diagnostic perspective, I would be considered as having ‘recovered’. But, recovery is an ongoing process. I still have wobbles and issues of various kinds. In fact, in March this year I was really struggling, and I came very close to relapsing. It’s something I’ll continue working on, potentially for a pretty big chunk of my life.

However, something that has hugely helped me improve my relationship with my body and shift it to a more positive, healthy and loving place is moving away from purchasing clothes and instead making my own clothes.

The number one, biggest reason that sewing my own clothes has helped me, is not having to deal with the absolute trash fire that is clothing sizes.

Now, for me to really talk about clothing sizes, we need some context. So we’re going to do a deep dive into how the sizes that we have today came into existence, but just to be clear: I will only be talking over the history of sizes in the UK and the US, because that’s what I had capacity and ability to research, and at any point in this video when I refer to men’s or women’s sizes or clothing, I’m referring to the measurements, proportions and clothing that would have been seen as ‘for men’ or ‘for women’ based on a western binary concept of what clothes people are allowed to wear based on their perceived gender, which for some bizarre reason, many people continue to adhere to and enforce.

It’s impossible to talk about the standardisation of clothing sizes without talking about ‘ready to wear’ clothing.

What is ready to wear? Well, back in ye-olde pre-industrial, pre-standard sizing and pre-consumer shopping days, everyone’s clothing was made for them – either by them, by a family member, or by a garment maker of some sort, and these items were bespoke. [Bespoke: custom-made; made to individual order; made according to the specifications of an individual.]

On the flip side, the overwhelming majority of clothing that the majority of people now purchase and use is ‘ready to wear’. You can pick it up in a shop, purchase it and put it on your body. It’s also sometimes called ‘off the peg’ or ‘off the rack’. [Ready to wear: ready-made clothing; clothing not tailored to the wearer, of a standard size; an item that can be worn with minimal alternation.]

Now, historian Beverly Lemire has traced the origins of ‘ready to wear’ all the way back to the 17th Century and the manufacture of military uniforms. This developed further during the Napoleonic Wars [1803-1815], but ‘ready to wear’ items didn’t really become available to consumers until the 1820s. However, there was very limited demand for these items, as early ready to wear garments were loose fitting with little shape, so were mostly like… smocks and stuff, and were predominantly purchased by everyday working people for their functionality.

The beginning of high consumer demand for ready-made clothes was the 1840s and 50s. Entrepreneurs who had begun as second hand clothing sellers recognised that there was a growing demand for NEW clothing at lower prices, and the most successful of these, E. Moses and Son, poured vast sums of money [screen script - £10,000 PER YEAR in the early 1850s, so about £1.4 MILLION per annum now] into advertising in populated areas and in so doing created an enormous demand for well cut ‘ready to wear’ garments among the urban middle classes.

The standardisation of men’s clothing sizes according to chest measurement, and the assumed proportions of the waist, hips and thighs, along with easily altered measurements of things like leg inseam and sleeve length worked quite well. However, the standardisation of women’s sizes was much more complex and initially manufacturers tried to use the same system of working off only the bust measurement.

Now for me to make a dress that fits me even vaguely well, here are some of the measurements I would need to take: a bust measurement, yes, but I would also need to measure my under bust, over bust, waist, lower waist, hip, lower hip, shoulder width, arm circumference, a nape to waist measurement, a waist to hip measurement, it’d be handy to have shoulder to bust point, bust point to waist, and depending how long I wanted my dress, I’d need to measure from my waist to the hem’s planned length.

A bust measurement does not a correctly fitting dress make.

Well, some enterprising individual in the Textiles and Clothing Division of Home Economics, within the US Department of Agriculture realised this, and so in the late 1930’s they set out on a mission to measure 100,000 women in an attempt to create a new unified standard sizing system for women’s wear. They took 59 measurements, including TWENTY SIX different vertical measurements of each woman’s body, and 22 horizontal measurements including ankle girth and sitting spread hip girth, but inexplicably, no under-bust measurement.

14,698 women were measured, from seven different states, and all of the women were white. Participation was voluntary, but the women who were measured received a fee for participating.

All of this is important context because WHO got measured will have had a big impact on the data that was gathered. Only measuring white women means the sizes would be inaccurate for the general population, because women’s proportions, particularly the ratio between their waist and hip measurements, varies among different ethnicities.

Also, this data was being gathered in 1937. The great depression [it began in 1929] plunged the world into economic crisis, and while the US had some encouraging indicators of economic improvement in 1936 there was still widespread poverty and unemployment, and then 1937 saw a second recession. People were poor, and the participants being offered payment meant that many of them were women of lower socio-economic status who needed that money. Basically, the participant’s measurements were probably smaller than they would have been if everyone participating were well off and well fed.

The researchers noted that older women were reticent to participate and that there were too many young women represented in the data, so they removed the measurements of 1273 women under 30. Another 1626 women were excluded from the data because their chart had included some form of ‘gross error’ and they literally just didn’t bother analysing the measurements of more than TWO THOUSAND women, because the papers didn’t arrive in time… apparently.

It was deeply flawed. They only analysed the measurements of about ten thousand white women, so it was not representative. And my favourite thing, about all of this:

It didn’t result in any standard sizes.

All they did was make a recommendation to the Department of Agriculture that using “girth” measurement based sizes, with height options of ‘regular’, ‘long’, and ‘short’ for each size would be a good move.

That did not happen.

What did happen was that in the mid 1940’s the data was transferred, at the request of Mail Order Association of America, to the National Bureau of Standards to be re-analysed. But with the data pool being so small, they needed more women’s measurements! So from 1949-1952 they supplemented the measurements they already had with the measurements of just over 6000 US Air Force Women taken by The Army Quartermasters Corps during the Second World War and analysed everything all over again. But with 40% of the measurements analysed now being from serving military personnel, it was very likely the results were once again, skewed towards the slimmer end of the spectrum.

They came up with a system not too dissimilar from the previous recommendation (just, theirs included actual measurements), and created a main set of standard sizes with tall, regular and short options, but also created an additional variation of average hip, slender hip, or full hip (which represented about a two inch variation in each of those sizes).

They used a half a page of their 34 page document to discuss ‘larger women’s sizes’ noting that “adequate data [was] not available for those sizes” and stated that the tables created were only for the ‘regular’ classification in height and ‘average’ hip. By the way these ‘larger sizes’ weren’t created by measuring people, you know, like all their others had been. The smallest size in their ‘larger sizes’ chart were the measurements of the largest woman’s measured, and they just scaled it proportionally.

I know that this was pre computers and so the scale of the data they were collating and analysis is very impressive for the time, but also… guys, when I was researching this I spent at least 37 and a half hours raging at the reasonably significant flaws in the data gathering and statistical analysis methodology of these processes… because that’s what I’m like as a person...

Anyway this new fangled system came into full effect by the end of 1959, but it was entirely voluntary. And seeing as manufacturers adhering to this standard would need to stock 63 separate sizes of each garment to provide just the basic size range, instead of the much more manageable 7 sizes in the regular height, regular hip category, NOBODY BLOODY USED IT.

So fast forward to 1968 and they decided to try again, AGAIN at the request of the Mail Order Association of America. Worth noting, they didn’t appear to take any NEW measurements from any new people, but instead used the measurements of 6000 WWII Air Force Women and 10000 poor white women from the 30’s, because I’m sure they were entirely representative of the population of 1970’s America, right? [Thomas had never seen such bullshit meme].

They created a range of sizes that ranged from a 34 (an inch larger overall than the 1950’s size 34 BTdubs), to a 52. It came into full effect in 1970 and AGAIN was entirely voluntary, so nobody used it. Which meant PS42-70 (as it was fondly referred to) was withdrawn in 1983 and what followed were a series of alternatives that were also, entirely voluntary.

But what about the other side of the pond? Well in Britain, they had been carrying out anthropometric studies [anthropometric: the study of human body measurement for use in anthropological classification and comparison.] since the 18th century, but those had been heavily motivated by colonialism, racism and eugenics. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century that the potential as a tool for public health was recognised. So after the Second World War and the creation of the World Health Organisation, public health campaigns that collected measurements began, and the first standard of body measurements was released by the British Standards Institution in 1951 [BS 1445]. That was replaced in 1974 to accommodate the shift from imperial to metric measurements and that was superseded in 1982. Specification BS Three Triple Six (such catchy names) which, like the previous standards, defined sizes in terms of hip and bust measurements ONLY within a limited range and was rarely actually used by manufacturers.

It was replaced in 2002 by the European Standard Organisations much more robust and snappily titled ‘EN13402 Size Labelling of Clothes’ [Now called The Joint European Standard for Size Labelling of Clothes – clearly, so much better] which sought to create cohesive clothing sizes across the European Union as previous to that, every country had it’s own system. Its sizes are also based on a measurement range for each size, at least one primary measurement of girth, such as bust, under bust, waist or hip (depending on the garment) and a secondary measurement of height, but the labels are meant to include a cut little pictogram to help out consumers!

So, with all of these sizing systems that had so much work put into them, why it still so hard to find clothes that actually fit?

Well, there are three parts to that.

The first is that NONE of these guidelines, standards and specifications are mandatory. There is no legal obligation in the UK, the US or the European Union for clothing companies and manufacturers to actually USE these standard sizes. It is entirely voluntary for companies to use them, so in many cases…they don’t!

What they ACTUALLY do, is look at their consumer base, decide on the body shape and measurements of their ideal or average customer, they make that their mid-size and scale the rest from there. If a company wanted to decide that their ideal customer was 72 feet tall and had a 7-inch waist, there is nothing stopping them from making that their size 12. It would be poor business sense, but they could do it.

And sizes now, are not what they used to be. What was a size US12 in 1958 would be a US 4-6 now. Why, you ask? Well, we live in a deeply anti-fat society that places thinness on a dangerously high pedestal, and while ‘vanity sizing’ has existed for as long as sizes have, it exploded in the 1980s and 90s. Essentially, companies realised that this obsession with thinness meant that people felt better about themselves when their body fit into a garment labeled as a smaller size and worse about themselves when they needed to size up. They also realised that customers who felt good about themselves when they tried on a dress were probably going to buy that dress. So they tapped into and capitalised on the culture we exist in that says smaller is better and played on people’s learned aversion to the idea of living in a larger body.

We’re taught to place so much importance, value and self worth on the number printed on a garment’s label that people do things like: only purchasing clothes from retailers where they fit into a specific size, or purchase a garment that is, say, a size smaller than what actually fits them as some sort of aspirational motivation to get their body to be that size.

And that’s one area where making my own clothes has totally changed things, because sizes become basically irrelevant. What is relevant is my measurements, and my measurements ARE my measurements. It would be a complete waste of my time to spend hours creating an item of clothing that is smaller than I need for my current measurements. It would be utterly pointless. Particularly because if I make something, say, a blouse, for my current measurements and I get smaller… I would just alter the blouse to make it smaller. Or if I get larger, as long as I’ve made it with large seam allowances, I just make the blouse bigger. There’s a matter of fact neutrality to it that I never experienced when purchasing clothes in “standard” sizes.

The second part of why, despite all these sizing systems you still can’t find clothes that fit, is quality control. I have here three pairs of trousers that I purchased second hand on Ebay. They are all from the same brand, they’re the same style and cut, made out of the same fabric, and are all labeled as the same size: a UK size 14. You can see the difference easily, but I measured and there is a FIVE INCH [13cm] or variation in the waist. FIVE INCHES!

Based on British and European Standards that’s three sizes difference, but they’re labeled the same.

Now, these were produced for a fast fashion brand, so I’m unsurprised by the lack of quality control, but even with the expectation that brands wouldn’t check for correct sizing of every item and that the cheaper the clothes, the more corners would be cut by the retailer to reduce cost and maximise profit, a five inch variation is absolutely shocking.

The third part of why despite all these standard sizing systems, it’s tough to find clothes that fit is because, to put it simply, people aren’t standard. Averages do not work on the human form… and this was demonstrated in the most wonderful fashion by a man named Gilbert S Daniels. In 1950 the American Air Force decided, after a surprising number of noncombat crashes in jet-powered planes, that the cockpit they had designed in 1926 was in desperate need of an upgrade. So they undertook a mission – sound familiar? – to find the dimensions of the ‘average pilot’ by taking 140 different measurements (some as specific as thumb length) from 4063 air men. They then collated all of that data and came up with a measurement range, and a mean and median average, all of this in an attempt to design an effective cockpit.

But Gilbert S Daniels, who was a junior researcher on the project, didn’t think this was going to work and in a technical note he penned and published in 1952 he showed exactly why. He took just 10 of the 140 measurements that had been gathered and systematically removed the data of any man that didn’t fall into the average range. Of the original 4063 men, just over a thousand fell into the average height range, from those he selected those with in the average range of chest circumference, then did the same for sleeve length, crotch height, torso circumference, hip, neck, waist and thigh circumference; systematically eliminating men at each stage that fell outside of the average range for each measurement. After nine categories he was left with just TWO men, and when the last measurement of crotch seam length was applied, there was no one.

To put that in visual terms, here is a graph of the heights of the men measured plotted on a bell curve.

Now, keeping in mind that these men were serving military personnel, and that to be a pilot in the air force in 1950 you needed to be between the ages of 17 and 45, had to pass a rigorous physical examination and already exist within a specific measurement range to pass recruitment, it’s safe to say these men were not representative of the population. And that there was far less variation in their measurements than a more diverse sample size would have.

And HERE is a graph of the ten measurements Gilbert S Daniels sampled in his technical paper, with the average each data set aligned.

Yes, I did spend literal hours in excel making this.

No I do not regret it.

This represents the measurements of more than 4000 men. Out of a total 568,820 individual measurements taken, the person who sits at the mean and median of just ten out of 140 categories, does not exist. And they weren’t even looking for someone with those specific measurements, they were using a range of the middle 30%.

Which looks, roughly, like this:

Out of 4063 men, who already existed within a niche, exactly 0% of them existed within a size range literally created from their own measurements.

So how is this relevant to clothes? Well, the process followed for the Air Force’s search for the average pilot is essentially a more in depth and more effective version of what was undertaken to create standard clothing sizes; and just like the cockpit redesign didn’t work, standard sizes don’t work either because bodies, even ones with the same waist, bust and hip measurements, vary SO MUCH!

Gilbert Daniels even stated: “It is virtually impossible to find an ‘average man’… because of the great variability of bodily dimensions which is characteristic of all men….There is… every reason to suppose that conclusions similar to those reported here [In his paper, The “Average Man”?] would have been reached if the same type of analysis had been applied to body size data based on almost any group of people.”

Standard sizes were literally never going to work.

You can find twee, feel good memes and infographics across the internet that will spout some version of ‘oh sizes don’t mean very much’, but that isn’t it. That isn’t true. It isn’t that they don’t mean much. They are entirely, completely and utterly devoid of any informative value. They arbitrary numerical symbols that tell you absolutely nothing about the proportions, measurements and fit of any garment and most of us judge ourselves by them.

It is, in the truest sense of the word, totally absurd.

And I, like many others, learned to decide how I felt about my body based on these bogus, useless numerals because with the decline of people constructing their own clothes and the death of sewing being taught as a practical life skill, most of us spend our entire lives trying to shove our bodies into clothing that wasn’t made for them, and believing that our bodies, or parts of our bodies were wrong because they didn’t adhere to a mythical set of proportions, arbitrarily decided upon by bad data or brand image.

Which is why making my own clothing has been totally transformative, because instead of weighing it up against these foolish and flawed categorisations, my body just… is.

Instead of judging my thighs as too thick, my hips as too wide, and lamenting my skinny ankles, chunky calves, muscly arms and disproportionally tiny ribcage, my body is just… shaped like my body.

And instead of judging it for not being able to squeeze into whatever designation the British Standards Institution would give it, I’m taking time to make nice things for it, that fit it correctly, that fit it comfortably, and feel good to wear.

So I highly encourage you to completely ignore sizes whenever possible. If you’re going shopping in person, take a tape measure instead. And I encourage you with even greater enthusiasm to start learning some sewing skills, if you don’t have them already, and to start altering things to fit your body better.

Gilbert Daniels said it was virtually impossible to find an ‘average man’. You are not average. Your body doesn’t exist within a designated size range. Stop treating your body as if it isn’t wonderfully and fantastically unique because of some stupid, defective system. You deserve clothes that fit you well. You deserve clothes that fit your body, in all of its variability and statistical anomalies.

Now If you or someone you know is struggling, please know, there is help and support out there. There is the option for things to be different. Recovery can be tough, but believe me, it is so worth it.


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