During the 1930s, two statisticians thought that if they measured enough women, they could decide what was average. One of their goals was to generate a dress size chart.
Where are we going? To standardization.
The Average American Woman
Whereas sizes for men’s clothing have existed since the 18th century, not women. Why men? Think war. An army needs sizes for uniforms.
The need for women’s sizes takes us to the 1930s, the spread of ready-made clothing, and a study commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Collecting data from 15,000 women, researchers took 59 distinct measurements that included “abdominal extension” and “bust point to bust point” distance.
Eventually, after multiple data tweaks, they wound up with 27 different sizes. Still not simple enough to be functional, the proposal was later modified with a size range of 8 to 38. Commercialized by 1958, the results were used by the pattern making industry and became a standard for modern sizing.
Until the 1980s.
As you know, we are getting bigger, and sizes are getting smaller and less consistent. A size 8 in 2008 was the equivalent of a size 14 or 16 in 1958. J. Crew’s smallest sizes are 000 and XXXS. At the Gap you can find a range of 00 to 20 but H&M uses 2 to 32.
So yes, while sizes have shrunk, their variety has grown.
Our Bottom Line: Standardization
Dress sizing contradicts the market’s need for standard weights and measures.
In 18th century France, doing business was tough because fabrics and grains each had their own metric. Traveling from one village to another, you could have seen a 20% difference in the size of a pint.
It helped the market considerably when two scientists defined the size of a meter during the 1790s by calculating the distance from the North Pole to the Equator and dividing it by 10 million. Once they knew the size of a meter, they said the kilogram was “a cubic decimeter of rainwater at 4 degrees Celsius.” From there, they could fabricate a platinum kilogram cylinder.
Today, in the U.S., the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is the place to go for an inch or a second or any definitive standard for measurement that is used in commerce and research.
Preserved in a vault, this is the standard kilogram:
Does it matter that there are no standard dress sizes?
My sources and more: While this Slate article has the history, the New Yorker was perfect for learning about J. Crew. If you are interested in the international implications of our inflationary sizing, do go to this fascinating discussion of small Asian women. Please note that several sentences in Our Bottom Line were previously published at econlife.