If you are like me, you may have had the following deflating experience: After confidently selecting a pair of jeans in your size from the rack, you find yourself alone in a tiny dressing room, desperately in need of heavy machinery to get them onto your body, wondering why, oh, why clothing sizes don’t make sense.
Cheer up! You’re in excellent historical company; people have been moaning about sizes for the better part of a century. “I don’t know who the mythical size 36 is who forms the basis of sizing,” complained one indignant retail executive in a 1927 New York Times article, “but average, tall, short, thin and plump women come into a department store and the 36 size fits none of them.” A young Katharine Graham reported for the Washington Post on a similar subject in 1948: “As most harassed mothers know,” Graham wrote, “size 5 in a little girl’s dress can mean almost anything.” It’s enough to make you wonder: Was there ever a time when sizes were standardized?
The federal government did take a stab at it in the early 1940s. That was when the Depression-era Works Progress Administration commissioned a study of the American female body, an effort to instill a method to the sizing madness. At that point, the ready-made clothing industry was in its infancy. If your clothes are made-to-measure—as they were in an earlier era, particularly for wealthy women—there’s no need for a standard set of sizes. But as European couturiers were hobbled by World War II, an American fashion industry developed, with New York as its capital city. New York’s all-star cast of designers, among them Claire McCardell and “Sophie of Saks,” specialized not in couture but in ready-to-wear. And as wealthy women began to purchase premade clothing, pressure mounted to ensure that it fit in a consistent way.