Adventures in Thrifting

Adventures in Thrifting: Clothes Sizes Are Stupid. Seriously.

Clothes sizes are stupid. There, I said it. This will come as a shock to precisely no one. Anyone who has ever gone shopping for clothes, ever, will likely agree with me. A person can be a small, medium, or large in the same store. A size 10 will happily fit you in jeans in one brand, grip your thighs with denim bands of steel in another brand, and swim off your hips in yet another.

So why do we cling so tightly to “our” size? My whole life, I’ve looked at people in puzzlement when they declare, fervently, “I’m a size fourteen, so…” “I’m a size six, so…”

Because if someone asks me, “What’s your size?” my brain has a little breakdown. The following questions flood my mind:

  • On what part of my body?  Like many people, my top half is shaped differently than my lower half. I have a rather smallish upper frame, but large-ish hips (at least if we’re talking in proportion to each other). So my lower-half size is 10-12, while my upper half can occasionally take  a small or extra-small. I can swap shirts with tiny, petite friends half my height, while their pants wouldn’t fit up my calf. So if I’m wearing dresses, we’re talking a 6 or an 8 – but pants? Let’s start with this size 10, I guess? I’ve gone up to 14 sometimes. So, you see, I don’t really have a size for the whole of my body.
  • At what time in my life? My weight has fluctuated in my life, which is hardly uncommon. Depending on eating habits, exercise habits, and whether or not I’ve just gone through a break-up, there’s a twenty-pound range. So that makes a difference, obviously. And our bodies change, dudes. I think one of the cruelest hoaxes of teenagehood is this pervasive notion that while your body may be going through all these changes now, at the end of it, you’re going to hit your “grown-up” body and somehow after age nineteen you’re never going to have a pimple or your hips are going to stay exactly the same size. Nope. Our bodies continue to change into our twenties, all of it: hips, skin, brain, muscles. And that’s not even taking into consideration the changes that can happen from something like having kids. We cling so tightly to that idea that we have “one” body and it should stay exactly the same size. But it don’t, yo.
  • At what time throughout history? Anyone who’s gone thrifting or tried on vintage clothes knows that sizes change. We talking even height, people. Bad Cholla told me when talking about vintage winter coats, “Also, people tended to be shorter back then, so even regular sleeves can be too short for modern people. This is the number one complaint I hear about vintage coats.” Yep, even people’s height/what the “ideal height” was assumed to be fluctuates throughout time.

Seriously, it bears repeating: even within a few generations, sizes radically change. My dad was looking at old family pictures from the 50s and 60s and was shocked at how rail-thin the women looked. He speculated it was because they all smoked like chimneys.

My friend Susan comments on this: “My wedding dress is a copy of a picture of a vintage dress I saw online, and my dressmaker (who’s also, incidentally, a lecturer in fashion history at the local college) said that I would have worn it in, I think, like a 14? in the fifties. But part of that, she said, is that all the proportions changed between now and then—like, women’s boobs were actually proportionally much higher than they are now because of crazy 50s bras, plus women had these petite little ribcages and shoulders. So unless you’re yourself a very petite person, it’s impossible to wear cute dresses from the 50s, even if you’re slender. Which is a bummer. Unless you have a savvy dressmaker.”

My friend Serena had a similar experience: “My grandmother was about my height, but I couldn’t for the life of me fit into her wedding dress—my rib cage is just too big. That’s not even fat, that’s just rib cage.”

And of course, now the trend is going in the opposite direction: sizes are getting bigger. I have to confess that I—the thrifting proponent—did visit an Old Navy the other day and had the experience of my “stand-by” sizes of 10 or 12 in pants swim on me—I had to try on an 8, and despite my advocacy of the meaningless of sizes, it felt weird.

I also had this experience there: Bad Cholla pointed out to me that in brands made by machine, even the same size will vary—clothes made at the end of the batch will differ slightly from those made at the beginning of the batch. The featured picture of this post shows a size 14—you can see the difference between the two pants: and that’s the same size of the same brand.

Why do I feel so passionately about this? Well, I feel that this idea of “our size” boxes us in. It’s a narrative we tell ourselves (“I’m a size [blank] so I can’t wear [blank]” “I can wear stuff like that, I’m a size [blank]”). But really: bodies are weird. And they change. And sizes change. And are stupid. Which is why I love thrifting: sizes are pretty much irrelevant there. You’re luckily if the racks are even vaguely organized by size, which is freeing. There’s no pretense.

Little tip: at a thrift store, if you want to see if a skirt fits you, put the waist around your neck. If the waist of the skirt goes comfortably around your neck, the skirt will probably fit your waist. Much better than going by size, any day.

  • Alexis Victoria Matti Canchela

    Thank you for writing this article. I feel like I completely know what you’re talking about with every word that you wrote. I’m short. I have pretty skinny legs but a big butt. It is so hard to find the right pant size for me. I also have bigger breasts than one would normally have on an Asian woman like me so shirts and blouses that fit me well are really hard to find. More often than not, I’ll have things altered because I’m not in any normal size standard. For you to perpetuate the same belief I have that the sizes don’t really matter because they all change and fluctuate anyway, is a tremendous thing. Solidarity, sister!

    • Laura Owen

      Totally! And sizes make us feel that somehow having perfectly normal variations in body type makes us weird and freakish. But it’s the clothes that are weird and freakish! For most of history, you made clothes or got clothes made to fit your individual body! We should go back to doing it that way.

  • Jessica McKelvin

    The size issue is why I don’t like buying clothes online. I’ll buy a t-shirt online though because usually the margin of error isn’t too horrible on that. Pants though are the worst, I hate shopping for pants or shorts. If I find one brand where I can pretty much guarantee where I’ll be able to fit within one or two sizes I’ll stick with that. Especially if the sight of the size number doesn’t make me want to cry.

    • Laura Owen

      Boo to size numbers making you sad! Meaningless sizes should not intimidate. But I get it.
      And yeah, I have to admit that’s often intimidated me about shopping online — however, plenty of vintage stores online go by measurements rather than size, which helps.

  • Erin Olan

    you are SO right! and i actually have these Old Navy jeggings in every color – all the same size, and each one fits differently! my black jeans are so tight, grey and denim fit perfectly. explanation? none!

    • Laura Owen

      Yep! It was shopping for old Navy Jeggings when this phenom was pointed out to me — it’s the fact that they’re made cheaply and by machine. Variations will totally happen within the same size.

    • Mandy Brown

      I have been working for old navy for almost 6 years and everything does fit differently because it is mass produced by a machine so I always tell people to try on multiple sizes and don’t assume the same colour fits the same. Different washes often fit different because of how they are treated when they are dyed. Makes online shopping difficult! And even though we are owned by Gap inc., there sizes aren’t the same as ON. So advice = try LOTS before you buy :)

  • Candace Irabli

    i was just about to say the same thing! i bought a pair of these in my ‘normal size’ at old navy, loved them so much, and bought a second pair about a week later in the exact same wash, exact same size, and they fit so differently. i was like, “hm, i don’t think i gained fifteen pounds in a week. gotta be something wrong.” i’m wearing them right now and they’re making me especially frustrated.

    • Laura Owen

      Old Navy turns out to be a bad offender on that point! I was shocked at how different the two size fourteens were.

  • Carrie Murphy

    sizes are CRAZY. i wear a 4 at j crew and an 8 at old navy, sometimes even an 11 if i want a baggier fit and i’m shopping juniors. have you heard of the machine a couple of malls have now where it like, electronically measures you and then tells you clothing available in that mall that will fit you? that’s based on your body’s size, not store sizing. i’d love to try it and see how different the suggestions would be in terms of sizing from store to store.

    also i tried on my grandmother’s wedding dress and i have the same ribcage problem!! why do we have bigger ribcages?!

    • Laura Owen

      I hadn’t heard of that machine — it sounds terrifying and awesome. Terrifyingly awesome.

  • Shandra Goldfinger

    I have the some ribcage problem- my ribs are uge! My biggest annoyance is vanity sizing. When you’re naturally very petite (everywhere but my ribs, at least) even the smallest size in a store can be too large. Pretty soon I’m going to have to either become a billionaire so I can get everything tailored or shop in the kids’ department. Vanity sizing just shows how much we tend to identify with a number, even though it’s a meaningless one! Someone should start a movement to have women’s sizes made like men’s- actual inch measurements for waist and height. Maybe the shirt measurements could be for bust, waist, and length. How much easier would that be?!?!

    • Laura Owen

      Yeah, I really do think measurements are the way to go — identification-with-meaningless-number madness has to stop. I also think we should get clothes individually fitted as a matter of course; it shouldn’t have to be a luxury/extra thing. But I have no idea how to initiate that kind of sweeping social change.

  • Hillary Leigh Richardson

    This is SO true. I’m a size 9 in jeans most of the time. But I”m a size 4 in a dress. Buying jeans for those of us who are bigger on the bottom is flippin’ impossible!

    • Laura Owen

      So much word

  • Mandy McDonald

    Baby clothes are same way. Drives me NUTS! My 15 month old can still wear some 0-3 month onesies and some 3-6 month pants, but sometimes she needs 18 month stuff. I went to get her some long sleeve onesies the other day and bought two Garanimals, one was a print the other solid with a patch on it, both 12 months. The solid one’s sleeves are way to short and it pulls down in the front but the printed one fits like a dream. Why can’t there just be a standard size EVERYONE uses??

    • Laura Owen

      Dude. That combined with baby’s insane growth rate makes the process of shopping for baby clothes even more nuts! Secondhand/thrifted baby clothes were recommended to me — can’t say I have experience in this area, but I bet lots of folk buy stuff in the wrong size/give away outgrown new stuff.

  • Kirsten Zoe Hyer

    My mom is a talented seamstress and has been sewing clothes for me as long as I can remember. (Frequently stuff that makes people go “Your MOM made that?!”) But what its really taught me (other than the true cost of a garment) is sizing outside of pattern world is complete and utter bull. In the patterns bought from the fabric store, I’m something like a 30. In the department store, I range from a 16-20. Yeah. Its not the size that counts but the body that goes in to it.

    • Laura Owen

      Can I send her my big bag of stuff to be mended/altered? No?

  • Laura Owen

    No muumuus! This is what I say to you: skirts and leggings. For us 10-on-bottom-little-on-top people, skirts and leggings (often with a belt) are a total lifesaver. Eff pants.

  • Jessy Dolensky

    Today i went shopping for a black skirt/short and a white top for a party, it made me feel “shapeless”
    First of all the sizes are getting smaller, the skirts shorter and the tops tighter. I saw a medium skirt today that would have only fit ine of my friends (a very small one). I can’t belive it I mean going shopping isn`t supposed to make you feel like a strange alien
    Luckly I found what i was looking for (after trying different sizes walking a lot: NEVER SETTLE)

  • Heather Mckown

    seriously, i wear a size zero in levis jeans, but a size 8 in H&M dresses…i think that’s a big difference…i had to rip the tag out of the dress incase anyone ever looked at the size because i felt that that is not “my size”

  • Jessica Colella

    I couldn’t agree more, I own a size 2 from Express in jeans that I still fit into, while the jeans from Delia’s have to be a size 8! This just makes no sense whatsoever. I would say I am more of a size 4/6 on average but really, I will wear whatever is cute as long as it fits! Who cares what that little number on the tag says!

  • Erica Zerbe

    Ugh! I can relate. I fluctuate twenty pounds as well depending on how I’m doing. Most of the time I’m 34.5-24.5-36.5. Sometimes I dip down to 34.5-24-35, while others I go all the way up to 36-26-38 (at my highest weight). I’ve always been really tiny, bone structure wise. Stores hate me. Everyone today is apparently really small-chested because my modest, 32C breasts burst buttons at times! I’m a 0-4 in pants depending on the brand and my weight. I’m an XXS-S in shirts depending on my weight. I’m a 2-6 in dresses depending on the brand.

    I’m rambling about sizing, but nothing ever fits me right. It feels weird having to buy something a size up and then pay to have it tailored just because nobody thinks women have breasts anymore.

    I wish the government would standardize sizing, just a little bit. Then, even if they go with the majority of women (no breasts, no hips) I’ll know what to order from every store. I would be able to order online a lot easier.

    5’5, 115-135lbs.

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