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A Guide to Clothes Sizing

by Emily DeLong

20 September 2016

 

What size do you wear?

That's a loaded question, isn't it? Chances are the clothing size you wear varies — often a lot — based on the type of garment you're fitting into and the brand that makes the garment. Sometimes I wear a 6, most of the time I wear an 8, but other times I wear a 4 or a 10. In non-numerical sizes, I'm anywhere from a Small to a Large.

Shouldn't it be easier than this? Why isn't there a universal size standard? Why don't clothing manufacturers make a wider range of sizes?

Well, it's complicated.

The way we buy clothing today, from a retailer using predetermined sizes, is a custom that has been around for less than 100 years. From the dawn on time up until the early 20th century, basically all clothing was made to measure by tailors, dressmakers, and home sewers. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, if you were wealthier, you would be visiting a dressmaker once or twice a year (ideally in Paris!) to get brand-new custom dresses made to your exact measurements. If you weren't as wealthy, you would be adapting your me-made dresses seasonally (altering hemlines, adding ruffles, shortening sleeves, et cetera) to keep up with trends. Back then, everything you wore fit you perfectly, but the flip side is that clothing was a lot more expensive — think $500+ in today's dollars for one dress — and people made do with a lot less variety in their wardrobes.

The invention of predetermined "ready-to-wear" sizing made women's clothing a lot cheaper at the expense of both ornamentation and fit. As clothing became cheaper, apparel manufacturers began to reduce the amount of fabric and decoration used in their clothing to further cut costs and remain competitive. (Think of the difference between an ornate Edwardian gown and a shirtwaist dress from the 1940s and you can see what I mean.) And when size charts were first introduced in the 1920s, there were zero standards and every single manufacturer had their own completely different size chart based on little to no body measurement data. Crazy.

In the late 1930s, the US government developed a project to standardize this wild-west sizing situation, measuring thousands of women to create a standardized size chart. The standardization of sizes did help create size standards for the emerging ready-to-wear industry, but it wasn't a total fix ... because with a predetermined size chart, there can't be a way to fit everyone at the same time.

Think about it: everyone's body is different. Some of us are hourglasses; others are pears, or apples, or rectangles. Some of us have short torsos; others have long legs. There is no way one size chart could perfectly fit all of us (unless there were hundreds of sizes, which isn't feasible for a company of almost any size).

Every clothing brand is faced with choices to make when drafting their size chart and size range, and those choices are not easy, as you basically have to choose between which customers you are wanting to sell to at the expense of others. I am constantly trying to think of ways I can offer increased sizing to my line without increasing costs. The issue comes down to a paradox: to increase my sizing and offer my product to a greater number of customers, my costs will increase, requiring me to increase my prices, thereby reducing the number of customers who can afford my clothing. Tough, right?

Here are a few more detailed explanations on the difficulties of sizing:

 

Why can't I just make everything to measure?

This is something I really debated doing before I launched Margu. I love the idea of made-to-measure, as it harkens back to those pre-industrialized days of fancy tailored frocks, but after crunching the numbers I realized my retail prices would end up being way out of the price range I was shooting for.

If I made Margu clothing to measure, I would have to re-draft each pattern each time a new order came in, a process that would take anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours depending on the complexity of the pattern and how much the measurements differ from my base block. And that's after I have already drafted the the base block for the pattern, a process that can take days. Bottom line: adding hours of work onto each garment would require me to charge a lot more than what I'm currently charging, to make up for the extra labor as well as the opportunity cost of all the other things (marketing, sewing other garments, writing these blog posts) that I could be doing.

 

Why can't I just offer a ton of different sizes (say, 0-26)?

Oh, how I wish I could! Please know that if it were that easy, I would create a hundred different sizes so that everyone could fit into a Margu garment. The issue here, again, is cost.

The process of grading (taking a pattern in one size and turning it into multiple patterns of multiple sizes) is a LOT of work. (More info on the grading process can be found in this blog post.) Just doing five sizes, XS-XL, is a process that takes weeks, even for a small collection. Expand that to 20 sizes, and that's just not something I currently able to do.

On top of that, there's the liability issue. If I make garments in a variety of sizes that don't sell, I am stuck with a lot of garments in a lot of unusual sizes.

And that's not really the biggest issue. The real problem with offering an extended size curve is the fact that you can really only grade a pattern a few sizes up and down until it gets distorted. At that point, you'll have to draft a new base pattern to grade off of, a process that's a lot more difficult than it seems. (It took months to get my current pattern blocks to be perfect.)

The issue is further compounded when you get into plus-size proportions where the bust, waist, and hip measurements begin to grade at different rates than smaller sizes. I would love to offer plus sizes (and I plan to someday!), but drafting patterns for 14+ sizing takes a level of expertise that I don't yet have.

 

So, what is it that you DO do regarding sizing?

All Margu patterns start as a size Medium, in measurements that fit me almost perfectly (I change a few things from my personal pattern blocks to create the Margu size Medium to account for my personal abnormalities, such as my long torso.) I then take that size Medium and grade it up to a Large and X-Large, as well as down to a Small and X-Small.

Basically all clothing manufacturers create their size charts in a similar way, by starting with a base proportion then grading up and down. If you notice a brand tends to run smaller in the bust or bigger in the hips, you can assume that their size curve is based on a person with a smaller bust or bigger hips. That's also probably why some brands, as much as you try, just don't ever seem to fit you right. It's that way for all of us!

The downside to this system is that by picking your base proportions, you are inevitably going to exclude people who vary too widely from the proportions you've chosen. Margu's size chart is based on an hourglass silhouette, and if you vary too widely from the proportions in our size chart, you may have a hard time fitting into our clothing. I hate having to admit that, but it's the nature of clothing that's not made to measure.

 

I've got a few ideas bouncing around in my head for how to improve Margu's sizing even more for future collections. I'm toying around with expanding our sizing, moving from non-numerical (S/M/L) to numerical (2/4/6/8) sizing, and potentially introducing made-to-measure versions of our garments as a fee-added service. Who knows!

In the meantime, here's a look at our revised FW16 size chart and a few tips on how to make it work for you:

 

 

Tip #1: Know your measurements.

Fortunately, unless you want to get super technical with your clothing specs, you really only need to know three measurements: bust, waist, and hips. Make sure you take your measurements with nothing but your undergarments on, especially if you're wearing bulky clothing. For the bust measurement, you want to measure right across the widest part of bust, across the apex; for the waist measurement, you want to measure at the absolute narrowest part; and for the hip measurement, you want to measure at the absolute widest part. Keep your tape measure snug but not tight and parallel with the floor. I recommend finding a friend to help measure you if at all possible!

I would also recommend finding out what your favorite dress length is, in inches, as well as the absolute bare minimum length of dress you would consider wearing. How do you do this? Find your favorite dress in your closet, and measure from the top of the shoulder seam all the way to the hem: that's your favorite dress length. The same goes for your absolute bare minimum length: find the shortest dress in your closet and measure from the top of the shoulder to the hem. (Keep in mind that the more flowy the dress, the longer the dress may need to be; you may be fine with a 32" body-hugging shift dress, but possibly not with a 32" flowy fit-and-flare.) Most clothing retailers (including us) list the dress length in the product details, and it's always a good idea to give that number a once-over to avoid being shocked when you first try on your new dress at home.

 

Tip #2: Know what you like.

Would you rather a pair of pants be a little looser or a little tighter around the hips? Do you like form-fitting tops or loose, drapey ones? Do you like your skirts to sit at the waist or a bit below? Knowing how you like your clothes to fit is essential to knowing what size to order if you're between sizes.

 

Tip #3: Read the fit guidelines.

On every Margu product page, we mention what body measurements the garment in question is based off of. A lot of people will be a different size for all three measurements (say, a size Small in the bust, a size Medium in the waist, and a size Large in the hips), and knowing that information is imperative to finding your right size. For example, you don't need to look at the bust measurement when trying to find your size in a pair of pants; you'll need to look at the hip measurement the most closely, which in the above example would mean you should order a size Large.

On the product page, we also mention whether the garment runs small, large, or true to size. This is somewhat subjective, of course but it's based on feedback I get from friends and customers as well as how the garments fit me personally.

 

Tip #4: Don't hesitate to reach out to customer service!

If you're ever unsure of which size to order, shoot us an email and we'll be happy to help out.SaveSaveSave

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