In Cherie Bixler's patternmaking studio in Leonia, amid the whir of sewing machines and piles of fabric, sits both a relic of the past and a sign of just how much the American clothing industry and its consumers have changed over the past few decades.
It's a tattered dress form, discolored and worn, the neck machine-stamped with a black 8. The form is from 1976, used to fit clothes for a woman with a 24-inch waist and 35-inch hips. Bixler still uses this dress form in her patternmaking business, but she ignores the number emblazoned on it.
Because today those measurements don't equate to a size 8. They're closer to a size 2. Well, depending on where you shop. And maybe what season it is. One of the most frustrating aspects of clothes shopping today is the basic question: What size am I?
"Sizes are geared toward a particular client and their body shape," said Bixler, who's been a patternmaker for more than 25 years and recently wrote the book "How to Start a Fashion Company." "Sometimes a store will make all their designers adhere to a certain measurement. Other stores don't make them adhere to any standards. So when you go shopping, the sizing is all over the place."
The popular phrase for this issue is "vanity sizing," in which designers inflate their sizes to make customers think they're a smaller size than they actually are. But the explanation for sizing disparity is a complex mix of inconsistent sizing standards and Americans getting bigger.
The problem isn't just in the United States. In late March, Women's Wear Daily reported that Mexican retailers banded together and took a survey of women's measurements in 14 cities, after international retailers said Mexican women complained about clothes not fitting them properly.
There were once similar studies conducted in the U.S. The Department of Agriculture took 59 measurements of 15,000 women starting in 1939, when mass production of clothing was in full swing. The measurements were compiled and reviewed and the resulting standards were distributed by the National Bureau of Standards in 1953, adopted by the apparel industry in 1957 and updated in 1971.
Looking at these measurements, it's clear the average woman was a lot smaller than she is now. Misses sizes started at 6 (a 22.5-inch waist, not on today's size charts) and went up to 22 (a 35-inch waist, size 16 today).
Today, the average woman has a 37-inch waist, weighs 164 pounds and is 5 feet 4 inches tall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1960, she weighed 140 pounds and was 5 feet 3 inches tall.
The standards were withdrawn by the Department of Commerce in 1983 as women's bodies shifted from the previous norm, and there currently is no standard in the U.S., though there are enough similarities among larger retailers to suggest they use similar measurements.
"The brand or manufacturer has complete discretion in the alignment of a measurement with a nominal size," said Abby Lillethun, professor of fashion studies at Montclair State University. "Men's wear is based on simple, specific measurements. Women's wear is arbitrarily labeled a 4 or a 2, and these labels have no implicit relationship to a measurement except within that particular company."
For example, retailers with a younger audience like J. Crew and Anthropologie call a 27-inch waist a size 4. But the same measurement is a size 6 at H&M, a Michael Kors size 10 and a size 0 at Chico's, a store targeted toward mature women.
"Designers are going to be who they are, and almost no one is a 'slip it off the rack and out the door' person," said Dorothy Regan, co-owner of Ambience Boutique in Edgewater.
Shopper Donna Consoli of Cliffside Park said she notices more of a difference from designer to designer than store to store. While she gravitates more toward personalized boutique shopping, if she's at a department store she'll pick the size she thinks she is and go from there.
"Lots of people still have this number in their head and they'll hesitate buying something if they can't fit into [that number]," Consoli said. "But now if I look good and feel confident, the size doesn't matter."
Regan and co-owner Grace Guido agree with Consoli's philosophy.
"Women get so emotional about sizes and it's really unnecessary," Guido said. "Buying clothes is a very psychological experience, and women will beat themselves up for it. Shopping should be a good experience."
Sometimes, though, a shopping trip is actually a blow to a woman's self-esteem. Ridgewood psychologist Linda Centeno said that according to the messages women receive about their bodies, both growing up and from the mass media, thin is always better.
Centeno said she often advises patients with body image problems to cut the labels out of clothing. She added that it's important to surround yourself with supportive people.
Bixler knows firsthand how much of clothes sizing is measured with the mind rather than numbers. "It's all very psychological," Bixler said, as sewing machines hummed around her. "But in the end, fitting into the smaller size will always be more desirable."
U.S. sizing standards from 1971
Here are the sizing standards for misses from the National Bureau of Statistics Voluntary Product Standard from 1971 (since withdrawn, and never replaced):
* Size 6: 31.5-inch bust, 22.5-inch waist, 33.5-inch hips
* Size 8: 32.5-inch bust, 23.5-inch waist, 34.5-inch hips
* Size 10: 33.5-inch bust, 24.5-inch waist, 35.5-inch hips
* Size 12: 35-inch bust, 26-inch waist, 37-inch hips
* Size 14: 36.5-inch bust, 27.5-inch waist, 28.5-inch hips
* Size 16: 38-inch bust, 29-inch waist, 40-inch hips
* Size 18: 40-inch bust, 31-inch waist, 42-inch hips
— Erinn Connor