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Putting customers into sizing: a revolution in fashion?

by Sam Ladner on April 25, 2011 · 4 comments

in Blog, anthropology, culture, design, product design, sociology, women

The bane of many women’s existence appeared in today’s New York Times: irregular clothing sizes. The journalist interviewed one young woman who complained about irregular sizing:

“I can be anywhere from a 0 at Ann Taylor to a 6 at American Eagle,” she said. “It obviously makes it difficult to shop.”

A scanning kiosk advising customers on their correct size - NY Times

The woman used a body scanner, set up in a Philadelphia mall, to give her a more accurate size for the stores she prefers:

This time, the scanner suggested that at American Eagle, she should try a 4 in one style and a 6 in another. Ms. VanBrackle said she tried the jeans on and was impressed: “That machine, in a 30-second scan, it tells you what to do.”

Why are fashion retailers providing such poor sizing? According to the fashion historian quoted in the article, this is partly historical — sizing has never been fully standardized. But it isn’t just the numbers, it’s also the cut. Clothing is frequently cut for a single body type. If you’ve ever seen a catwalk, you’ll know that designers favour the straight-lined boyish look of models over the “apple” or “pear” or “hourglass” shape of average women.

Retailers are missing a key aspect of the fashion experience if they have inadequate sizing. Mary Alderete, vice president for women’s global marketing at Levi’s, seems to get it:

“When we try on 10 pairs of jeans to buy one, the reason you feel bad is because you think something’s wrong with you.”

Women are cramming themselves into inaccurate sizes, cut to fit only one type of body — and they’re feeling bad about it. It’s amazing that fashion retailers, who go as far as scenting the air in their stores, fail to cater to this most basic aspect of the clothing experience.

What does “size” means to women? It is conversation between her and the garment, one which all too often ends with a judgment of the woman.  When a woman takes a piece of clothing to the fitting room, she is asking the garment, “Are you right for me?” The garment “speaks” first in through its listed size. But imagine when that size does not match how the garment fits. It is now telling the woman, “You are too big for me.” This is obviously a touchy subject for most women, as we are expected to maintain a small size. We are trained to take up less space, less food (among other things).

The size is a “normative” expectation, as sociologists would call it. A woman is “supposed to” fit into a certain size, and if she does not, “something’s wrong with you.” Retailers are making women feel there’s something wrong with them, not to mention frustrated, and are also wasting their time.

When the customer is at the centre of what you do, it’s inevitable that you design better products. In this case, fashion retailers are failing to achieve this most basic tenet of design. Levi’s has the right idea by introducing “It’s not size; it’s shape,” campaign. They have several body types and sizes, making it easier for the garment to say, “Yes, you’re exactly right for me.”

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Categories: Blog · anthropology · culture · design · product design · sociology · women

{ 1 trackback }

Right-Sizing Women | The Global Sociology Blog
April 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ajay May 3, 2011 at 3:55 am

Spot-on. There could be a tremendous potential for clothes that are designed to fit average woman rather than the models on cat-walk.


2 Liz July 30, 2011 at 11:44 am

Having suffered an eating disorder in high school, and still struggle with overwhelming bad body image, I totally agree. I’m 6′1″ with hips and a chest so it is so difficult to find good clothing and I always feel like there’s something wrong with my body and essentially me. Not to mention the tremendous pressure put on us women by society. Failing to fit a certain size often feels like a failing as a woman. I couldn’t agree more with her and ’shape’ over size is a wonderful concept that should be seen in all brands!


3 Sam Ladner July 30, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Hi Liz,
Your story is so evocative. More marketers and product designers should hear stuff like this — really hear it, not just pretend to. We shouldn’t have to feel bad about our bodies, ourselves, every time we go to the store!


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