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Women's Clothing Sizes: Is a 4 Really a 4?

It was a squabble that epitomized the complicated and sometimes petty nature of the celebrity fashion world.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

It was a squabble that epitomized the complicated and sometimes petty nature of the celebrity fashion world.

Actress and "Dancing With the Stars" phenom Kirstie Alley claimed with giddiness that, after losing weight recently, she now fit into a size 4 dress and then clarified on Twitter that she was a "straight up size 6." Then Project Runway star Tim Gunn fired back on a radio show in Tampa, saying there's no way she fit into one of those sizes.

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"I think she’s between an 8 and a 10," Gunn told Steve Kramer of Tampa's Play 98.7 That Guy Kramer morning show.

As much as women may tell themselves that they're worth much more than their size, the spat -- and public interest in it -- symbolizes the internal struggles and self-esteem issues that face many people as they shop for clothes.

The conversation also highlights the complicated nature of sizing in the fashion industry and its attempts through vanity sizing to deal with America's growing obesity problem. As customers get bigger, clothing sizes keep getting more generous -- offering a psychological boost as people fit into the same size they are used to wearing.


Many people, meanwhile, try on all sorts of styles and sizes without finding anything that fits quite right.

"Clothing is a communicator for us," said Lenda Jo Connell, who studies apparel product development and issues in women's clothing sizes at Auburn University in Alabama. "If we don't feel good about how we look, it affects our self-esteem, which affects how we relate to the world around us."

"Fit is a very personal issue, but it is the biggest reason people don't buy clothing," she added. "It's the reason things get left on the rack."

Recession or no recession, there is no doubt that shopping is a fact of life in the United States. Close to 90 percent of American women said that they had shopped for clothing in the past year, according to a 2010 report by the market research firm Mintel. Eight out of 10 had actually bought something. Of all the challenges involved in shopping, women said that they had the hardest time finding styles that looked good on them.

Fit may be part of the problem, especially for women. Men's clothes often come in specific waist sizes and other dimensions. But women's clothes vary dramatically from one manufacturer to another. And even though ASTM International has created standard tables for clothing sizes, most companies ignore them. So, one woman can end up with a variety of sizes in her closet.

Size 4 offers the widest range of variation, followed by size 6, reported Tammy Kinley, who researches garment size issues at the University of North Texas, Denton, in a 2003 study in the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal. After measuring more than 1,000 pairs of pants, Kinley also found that more expensive brands offered bigger versions of a given size. The reason, she suspects, is that high-end brands can afford to use more material. She plans a follow-up study this year.

"Kirstie Alley probably does have a size 4 in her closet," Kinley said. "And she probably paid a lot of money for it."

Individual manufacturers have also become more generous with sizes over the years, according to some research and a lot of anecdotal evidence. Studies by Jane Workman at Southern Illinois University, for example, have found gradual and significant growth in the dimensions used for size 8 and 10 fit models over the decades. By 1997, a size 8 was essentially equivalent to a size 10 in 1986, Workman reported a 2000 study in the journal Clothing & Textiles.

Since then, that trend has continued on the same trajectory, experts say. In the late-90s, according to proprietary information, some manufacturers simply pushed all of their clothes down a size, so that 10's became 8's, 8's became 6's, and so on. That led some stores to add 0's and even 00's for small women.

Vanity sizing has both supporters and critics. But the process of putting sizes on clothing is simply a practical business matter, said Lyn Caponera, a fashion design faculty member at the Parsons New School of Design in New York. And sizing is always a work in progress.

"It has a lot to do with the feedback that manufacturers receive from salesmen, who get their feedback from stores about how clothes fit and who they're fitting," Caponera said. "Sales people want to sell. It's definitely a marketing thing."

Self-esteem is a common casualty, especially for young women. In one of her studies, Kinley simulated a dressing room environment and gave women pants that were intentionally too loose or too tight, even though the clothes were marked with the right size.

Surveys before and after they tried the pants on showed that women felt better about themselves when the clothes were extra roomy. The felt worse when they had to suck their tummies in. The effect was much bigger for college-aged women than for older women in their 40s and 50s.

"Everybody who shops knows you have to try things on to see if they fit," Kinley said. "But it's a thrill whenever you get into a smaller size number. I know people who have bought things that didn't fit because they were the right number. And I know people who won't buy something if the number is too big."

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Vanity sizing also hints at another problem, Connell said. Her research, which involves three-dimensional body scanners, has shown that most clothes generally don't fit anyone very well.

About a third of American women today are pear-shaped, her studies have revealed, with hips that are much bigger than their waists and shoulders. A third are rectangular, with thick waists. And just a third have a classic hourglass shape – even though that's the shape that most companies use as a model for most of their patterns.

That means that at least two-thirds of females are failing to find clothes that look good on them. Yet, fit ranks above fashion and other qualities as the most important factor in whether people buy clothes, Connell has found. That's true for girls as young as 9 and for women in middle age.

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So, as girls and women struggle to find clothes that make them feel good, Connell said, their confidence levels plummet. Curvy and plus-sized styles exist, but the industry may need to go further in those directions.

"Research shows that women tend not to say, 'These manufacturers need to get off it and figure out good sizing that fits the American public," Connell said. "They say, 'I don't fit the average size, and there's something wrong with me.' I think it's really devastating to so many people."