Ziemann: Tales from the dressing room

Columnist Megan Ziemann attempts to solve the mystery behind why your jeans size is so confusing.

Megan Ziemann

No matter your gender, size or shape, shopping for jeans is almost never fun. You spend hours bouncing from store to store, trying on at least 10 pairs in different sizes and magically, none of them seem to fit.

Chances are, you’re experiencing the negative effects of vanity sizing. Vanity sizing occurs when a company intentionally downsizes clothing so the customer feels like they are smaller when purchasing clothes. For example, a true size 12 pair of jeans may be marked as size 10. Sometimes, this downsizing can lead to inches of difference between two brands.

At face value, this doesn’t seem too bad. Sure, shopping can get a lot harder when four different sizes may fit you and the only way to find out is by trying all four things on, but at least vanity sizing doesn’t hurt anyone.


Kind of. Let’s take that example from before about jeans. When someone who is a true size 12 tries on that “size 10” pair of jeans, they feel better subconsciously. According to a 2014 study on vanity sizing, when clothing is labeled as a smaller size, customer’s self-esteem is likely to rise, even if the clothing is actually a different size.

But what happens when vanity sizing erases your size from the market? At the two extremes of the size chart, customers deal with this on the daily. In our jeans example, we’re talking about your average store. Unless specifically stated, most clothing stores carry up to size 14, which is usually the stopping point for so-called “standard sizes.” 

And according to online beauty publication Byrdie, the average size of people who shop for women’s clothing in the United States is 16-18.

The average person cannot fit into any jeans at our store. Instead, the average person must shop at a “plus-size” store like Torrid or a Big and Tall store and pay more for the same product.

But that’s not all. There’s also an extreme on the other end of our proverbial number line. And that’s the extreme I am quite familiar with. 

I am naturally a very small person, so I need pretty small clothing. According to most size charts, I am anywhere from a size 00 to 0. Because of vanity sizing, the clothing I find that is supposedly in my size is too big because it is meant to fit someone who is a true size 2 or 4. Just like bigger people, smaller people usually cannot find their size at standard stores.

Luckily, we can always shop online where stores tend to house extended sizes. Except it’s so much harder. 

Online shopping has increased tremendously since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and buying jeans has become 10 times more difficult. Most brands do include size charts online, but it would be way easier if your size was standardized and you’d know almost exactly what was coming in the mail. Of course, with any mass produced item, there will be some variation.

Multiple inches of difference between two items of clothing in the same size is not a byproduct of mass production. It’s vanity sizing.

But how did we get here? Why do we depend on a series of arbitrary numbers to record our size instead of using our waist and chest measurements?

It all started during World War II when the United States needed to manufacture hundreds of thousands of men’s military uniforms at an incredibly quick pace. In order to mass manufacture uniforms, designers and manufacturers adopted a standardized sizing system based on men’s waist and inseam measurements. For the most part, this system is still used today.

Women’s clothing is a different story. Prior to the war, most people made their own clothes or bought one or two pieces a year. During the war, the fashion industry saw a shift in buying habits. More people bought clothes instead of making them, which increased the demand for ready-to-wear clothing. This demand prompted the Bureau of Home Economics to create standard sizes for women’s clothing, similar to those created for men a couple of years before. 

The Bureau ended up creating a document called Women’s Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction in 1941. The study that preceded this document was rife with issues, but the main focus of the document was meant to be a universal sizing chart for designers to reference. The document has been revised four times and is still in use today, but it doesn’t fit all customers. 

Bodies are incredibly different and thus difficult to size. The numbers put forth by the Bureau of Home Economics have been flawed from the start. It’s time to treat women’s clothing like we treat men’s — by taking away the meaningless numbers and simply using our measurements.

There’s no need to refer to clothing as size 4 or 6 or 10. Using arbitrary numbers to represent measurements takes the power away from the customer when selecting the best size for them. It forces customers to spend more time in the store, get increasingly frustrated and often give up and leave without purchasing anything.

Instead, let’s put the power back into the customer’s hands. At the end of the day, we buy the clothing. We deserve to be given a product that fundamentally makes sense.

Because it’s pretty hard to mess up a pair of jeans labeled “30×29.”