Some time in the past several decades, designers tapped into a bankable truth: Women tend to feel better and buy more when we fit into a smaller size.
Enter vanity sizing, where designers add extra inches of fabric to clothing without changing the number on the tag. For example, if you measure a size 32 pair of pants today, they might be as wide around the waist and hips as a 36 from 10 years ago. And 00 sizes (in the US) aren’t the result of women shrinking away (though some actresses seem to be). Designers created them because as 4s morphed into 2s and 2s became 0s, smaller-framed women were sized out of the normal range.
“Standardized size charts exist, but designers often take liberties to create their own smaller scale, regardless of how illogical the numbers are,” says Tammy Kinley, PhD, associate professor of merchandising at the University of North Texas, who has studied the vanity-sizing phenomenon.
In one of Kinley’s studies, researchers measured 1,000 pairs of women’s pants and found as much as an 8½-inch variation in the size-4 waist. “Designers know that if customers feel happy when they try the clothes on, they are likely to buy that brand again,” says Jim Lovejoy, industry director of the apparel research company TC2’s SizeUSA National Sizing Survey. Take it from Jenn, 23, of New Haven, Connecticut, who is usually a 6: “I have two pairs of size-4 jeans, and when I wear them, I get a surge of validation seeing that label.”
Like it or loathe it, vanity sizing isn’t going away any time soon. According to Lovejoy, an increasing number of designers are “deflating” sizes more than ever for one reason: the smaller the size, the larger the profits.
Vanity sizing means that clothing sizes are not standard between different stores or brands. And even the same size and style can differ from garment to garment. This is because when clothing is mass-produced, the cloth is lasercut in huge piles. As the laser cuts through more and more fabric the size gets bigger and bigger towards the bottom.
Sad but probably true. Vanity wins every time.