Demographics

How Does The Industry Interpret Body Shape

You've heard the expression that people come in all shapes and sizes. Everywhere you go the distribution of shapes and sizes of people change. A sleepy sea side village may have a larger percentage of older retired residents. A 20 year old size 10 is generally very different in body shape to a 60 year old size 10. The average Caucasian American woman is much larger and taller than the average South East Asian woman. Teenagers today are much taller than those of 20-30 years ago. Differences between nationalities are more than just face shape and skin colour, there are also significant variations in body shape.


This is why it's hard to establish a universal and standard set of sizes and measurements. There is no standard human, so why should there be a standard size? Well there does need to be some system of incremental difference in ready to wear. In reality it's not too hard to select one measurement as indicative of size (typically bust measurement) and to select the other measurements to suit your demographic. So what you end up with is a size indicator of a designers selected shape envelope. You might also have noticed that some manufacturers specifically state the bust, hip and/or waist measurement their garment is designed to fit, rather than specify an arbitrary size.


If you think this system would work, you'd be wrong. Nothing is more offensive to a person than being told exactly how much weight they've put on to the centimetre. Having a size number is indirectly saying the same thing, but a size value is horrifying to some. I have literally had people come to the counter in a retail situation and tell me that I have insulted them because the same size 10 they tried on last week no longer fits. Obviously they hadn't gained weight, but the same garment that was on the shelf last week had suddenly shrunk (that was sarcasm by the way). I've even had women get abusive and fully believe I was deliberately trying to upset them by calling the garment an extra-large (it wasn't even my label) inferring in fact she was extra-large.


Tip: The above will happen no matter what you do. Normally you won't experience this unless you both manufacture and retail, and are publicly accessible. A woman that comes to the counter to start such an argument is clearly hurting and looking to distance herself from her own self-image by passing responsibility on to someone else. Arguing with her with any kind of logic will not work. I instead try to redirect her away from the problem and toward a solution ... creating a custom made garment especially for her, at a much higher price, but with no size label!


Designers produce garments aimed at a specific target market. This is usually a narrow demographic in which body shape doesn't vary too greatly within each size range. For example, a high fashion swimwear designer aiming at a young and fit body type would still label an 84cm bust as a Australian size 10, however the waist and hip measurements might be smaller than those used by a sportswear designer. Add to this, different garment styles having different amounts of ease and you get some people at the top of each size envelope (the amount of variation in body shape each size will tolerate) being pushed up a size for a more comfortable fit. I've even seen many high fashion garments with size envelopes so narrow that some people are too big for their size 10 and too small for the size 12!


The other complaint is that a person fits a medium in one garment but not in another. This is not at all sinister. Manufacturers label a medium as whatever is average for their intended market, not the average person. For example, the average rugby player would be bigger than the average jockey, so if you made rugby jerseys your medium would be bigger than a jockey's silks. This does not explain why two ready to wear ladies blouses manufacturers have different mediums however!


Then there's the big marketing issue. Let's say a person can fit into one designer's size 10 but only just squeeze into another's size 12. Here is where the problem lies. The person wants to believe the second garment isn't sized properly and will buy the garment labelled as the smaller size. This forces manufacturers to constantly re-evaluate their size tables, some labeling larger sizes as smaller in order to compete in the market place. The public then criticizes the fashion industry for not having a standard set of sizes. The market doesn't realise that it ultimately determines the product.


Many pattern makers will attempt to logic and explain away the reasons for discrepancies between sizing systems and while many can be reasonably explained, there will always be the element attributed to the simple vanity of the market place. Strangely, many pattern makers refuse to accept that this type of problem exists, and that discrepancies are more to do with demographics and human evolution. I can assure you I've seen it being done myself! I could write a book on the psychology and mathematics of sizing but it'd only get me in trouble! Please don't write to me complaining about sizing problems you are having or asking why you can't buy clothes to fit. I simply make patterns to the size groupings given to me by the contractor and cannot speak for other manufacturers or even hope to convince them to change why they do what they do. A manufacturer will do whatever makes the most money. Altruism doesn't pay the bills.


If all this isn't enough to confuse you, the human body has another curve ball to throw. As you go from one size to a larger size, the variation in shape within that size increases. To put that another way, one size 8 person is usually very similar to another size 8, with more than 75% of size 8's (80cm bust) fitting the same garment. Only about 50% of size 10's will fit the same garment. About 30% of size 12's will fit the same garment and it just gets harder from there. This is because as women's bust measurements increase, there is a greater amount of variation in waist, hip and other measurements. Women DO NOT simply scale up proportionally between sizes. The average may well do so, but the percentage falling within that average decreases as size increases. Most designers cope with this variation by adding more ease with each sequential size.


For swimwear this is not possible, so how do swimwear designers deal with this problem? They usually ignore it exists and only manufacture a limited number of the larger sizes. This tends to go unnoticed as larger women don't seem to like buying swimwear. It doesn't, however, help larger women who like to swim. Instead what you find is larger women buying styles that may look 'too old' for them.


Some high fashion swimwear designers even go as far as to say they don't want larger women wearing their garments because it adversely affects sales of their smaller sizes. This is because smaller women who are prepared to pay more to look really sexy in a high fashion garment generally don't want a larger woman wearing the same style they've just paid for because it lowers the perceived 'sexiness'.


If the all this isn’t enough to confuse you, the human body has another curve ball to throw. As you go from one size to a larger size, the amount of variation in shape within that size group increases. To put that another way, one size 8 person is usually very similar to another size 8, with more than 75% of size 8's (80cm bust) fitting the same garment. Only about 50% of size 10's will fit the same garment. About 30% of size 12's will fit the same garment and it just gets harder from there. This is because as women's bust measurements increase, there is a greater amount of variation in waist, hip and other measurements. Most non-stretch designers cope with this variation by adding more ease with each sequential size. For stretch wear this is not as easy.


So how do commercial designers deal with this problem? Unfortunately, they usually ignore it exists and only manufacture a limited number of garments in the larger sizes. This tends to go unnoticed as larger women don't generally seem to like buying swimwear. It doesn't, however, help larger women who like to swim. There was also a kind of backlash years ago against some brands that didn’t provide larger sizes, leading to negative publicity.


Some high fashion swimwear designers even go as far as to say they don't want larger women wearing their garments because it adversely affects sales of their smaller sizes. This is because smaller women who are prepared to pay more to look really sexy in a high fashion garment generally don't want a larger woman wearing the same style they've just paid for because it lowers the perceived 'sexiness'. Seriously, this is an issue I’ve frequently heard discussed! 


Generally commercial production runs produce proportionally more smaller sizes than larger sizes, meaning they’re still manufacturing principally for the smaller sizes, but can announce they manufacture a wider range of sizes, gain better marketing advantage and avoiding the negativity of bad press. The disproportionate mix of sizes is actually more representative of real sales anyway!


As a smaller, boutique scale manufacturer I tended to design only Australian sizes 8 through 12 in ready to wear sizes and leave the really small sizes and much larger sizes as made to fit only. In this way I was also able to make the style better suit the individual.


Likewise, the methods outlined in this text will work reasonably well for Australian sizes 6 through 14. Larger sizes require more experience and understanding to decide which technique is most appropriate for your market. I am leaving the techniques for larger sizes to an advanced section.

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