They are both right, according to Marilyn scholar Elisa Jordan, but at the same time they’re both wrong. Dress sizes in the 1940s and 1950s were larger than they are now. At some point manufacturers began putting tags in clothing that had smaller numbers. (Oddly, a ten-inch increase of the average American woman’s waistline, from 24” to 34”, began in this period.) Marilyn may have worn dresses that range from 10 to 16. Depending on her weight and who you ask, those dresses today would be anywhere from current sizes 4 to 10.
Think about it: smaller numbers attached to bigger size clothes: its rampant flattery, and what clotheshorse isn’t going to kindle kindness towards a manufacturer who adroitly lowers the numbers? That’s the easiest reduction plan ever.
I realized something. I, too, was the dupe if vanity sizing. As sizing met my practical male brain, I always assumed 32 inch waist, size 32. Right? Wrong! An extremely helpful wardrobe person at a Spanish TV dating show, “12 Corazones,” helped me solve a chronic and hilarious problem with my pants. For years they had been slipping down my hips.
“You have been wearing the wrong pants size,” she said. “You should be wearing size thirty.” She recommended going to Express and H&R for slim fit clothes. I felt suddenly flattered that I was even thinner than I thought when I went to buy my new pants. And it did help me solve the falling pants.
Then my Marilyn research opened my eyes to vanity sizing, also known as size inflation (really size deflation). My darkest suspicions hit paydirt when a web search yielded a Wikipedia article on the subject. The phenomenon of ready-to-wearclothing of the same stated size becoming bigger in physical size over time has been documented primarily in the United Statesand the United Kingdom, according to Wikipedia.
Size inconsistency has existed since at least 1937. In Sears' 1937 catalog, a size14 dress had a bust size of 32 inches (81 cm). In 1967, the same bust size was a size 8. In 2011, it was a size 0. Talk about pandering to ”˜thin’ goodwill and seeking to satisfy wearers' wishes to appear thin and feel better about themselves. Designer Nicole Millerdid vanity sizing one better and introduced size 0 as the size of other clothing increased while the size on the tag decreased. Miller introduced subzero sizes for naturally petite women.
In 2003, a study that measured over 1,000 pairs of women's pantsfound that pants from more expensive brands tended to be smaller than those from cheaper brands with the same size. The moral is: if you want to feel honestly thin, choose more expensive clothes.
Although more common in women's apparel, vanity sizing occurs in men's clothing too. For example, men's pants are traditionally marked with two numbers, "waist" (waist circumference) and "inseam" (distance from the crotch to the hem of the pant). While the inseam is fairly accurate, the waist size may be smaller than the actual length by more than an inchin US sizes. In 2010, Abram Sauer of “Esquire” magazine measured several pairs of dress pants with a waist size of 36 at different
At any rate, the numbers fetish is a very slippery slope, leaving us without the proper correlation between body size and clothing size. And, worse, it leave those unhappy about their weight self-stigmatized by size and shunning properly sized, comfortable clothing in favor of that small sexy number on the label. On the other hand, pretty soon we’re gonna have some people who believe they’re so skinny they’re gonna feel invisible, and maybe they’ll dispense with apparel altogether.
Grady Miller, author of “Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet,” available on Kindle, can be reached at email@example.com.
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