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.