Kit Steinkellner
August 14, 2015 8:29 am

We’ve all heard that sizes vary from brand to brand. You might be a 6 for one designer, and an 8, or even a 10 for another. But did you know that sizes also have varied dramatically over time? The Washington Post recently published a couple of graphs from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (formerly the National Bureau of Standards) that knocked us for a loop.

According to these graphs, as women have gotten larger, sizes have gotten smaller. In other words, Americans have gotten heavier over the last 50 years (The Washington Post points to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows that the average American woman today weighs as much as the average 1960’s man), and so because people weigh more today, vanity sizing has proliferated, accommodating a public that would rather buy clothes for themselves in “smaller” sizes.

Looking at a study National Bureau of Standards published in 1958, based on interviews with 15,000 women, a study that bears the honor of being the first to publish modern women’s clothing size charts, we see just how dramatically things have changed. For example, in 1958, the average size 8 woman had a bust of 31 inches, a 23.5 inch waist, and weighed about 98 pounds.

“So a size a 8 in 1958 is like a 000 now, is that what you’re saying?” you ask.

Yes, that’s exactly what we’re saying.

“So if I’m a size 8 now, what was I back then?” is, I imagine, your follow up.

Well, according to these graphs, a size 8 now in 1958 would probably have been the equivalent of today’s size 16. So you know how you always hear that Marilyn Monroe was a size 12 or 14? Well yeah, she might have been then but sizes have changed.

If you’re feeling a little rattled, it’s OK, we get it, size is, unfortunately, an emotionally charged issue for many women, going up or down a single size is often a big deal for people. So it is a little shocking to jump in the Fashion Time Machine and see your dress go up eight sizes.

To understand what happened, you have to understand that the National Bureau of Standards only tried to standardize sizes for about 25 years. In 1983, the project was disbanded because women’s bodies come in all kinds of shapes and sizes are a REALLY hard thing to standardize. So in 1983, when the government started letting designers decide which dress would be which size, that right there was the dawn of vanity sizing.

So, now, in 2015, sizes are crazy-arbitrary, which is frustrating when you’re just trying to find jeans that you feel comfy in, or a dress to wear to your BFFs wedding, or any of the million situations where you would just like your clothes to fit properly. That said, it’s great to understand just how arbitrary sizing is so that we don’t get too hung up on that little number tag sitting somewhere in the back of all our clothes. It really is just a number. It really is.

Related reading:

The new “Size 000” and what vanity sizing really means

Why are plus sizes so inconsistent?

[Image via AMC]

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