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Size Does Matter (or, What Dress Size Are You Really?)

Updated on August 21, 2012

Do you really know your dress size?

You try a dress on in one shop and you are a size 10. You go into another shop and you are a size 12 or maybe a 38 if the store stocks European sizes. The question “Does it come in my size?” can result in total confusion, there is so much variation in sizing. In addition, it is not just where you buy the garment that affects the size, where it is made has a bearing too. In Malaysia and Sri Lanka, the cut is based on UK sizing; in Turkey, on German sizing, and in Egypt, on American sizing. This all too regular dilemma is not only restricted to women, men too are faced with what size “medium” really means.

Size Survey in the UK

Going up a size once meant an expanding waistline, but now, with the demise of standardisation, it does not mean a thing. SizeUK¹ undertook a national survey in 2001-2002 but until then the previous national survey undertaken was over half a century ago in 1951. The sizing system based on the vital statistics gathered at that time, when the average women’s measurements were 37 bust, 27.5-inch waist, and 39-inch hips, lasted well into the 1990’s. Over the last 50 plus years women have altered shape; not only is she 2-inches taller, her breasts have become fuller, hips wider, tummies rounder and bottoms flatter. She has also put on an average of 7.5lbs, only partly due to the increase in height. It is not just the women that have changed; men too have gained in height and girth.

The Average woman’s measurements in the UK are now 39-inch bust, 34-inch waist, and 41-inch hips, a significant increase compared to the 1951 statistics. In the 1950’s she was a size UK12 (US10), now she is a UK16 (US14).

Size Survey in the USA

A similar Survey, SizeUSA², was undertaken in America by [TC]² in 2003, the previous survey having been done in 1941, the results of which indicated that what was considered ‘average’ size for American men and women is anything but the norm for today’s body shapes. The average woman was thought to be a size US8 (UK10) with a 35-inch bust, 27-inch waist, and 37.5-inch hips. The SizeUSA survey found that the average woman’s bust, waist and hip measurements for women aged 18-25 were 38-32-41, and for Women aged 36-45 were 41-34-43. On average African-American women measured 43-37-46 and Hispanic women 42.5-36-44. The average American woman is in fact closer to a size US14 (UK16), the size at which “plus-sized” clothing begins. “We can see the US population has grown taller and heavier, but we are growing heavier faster than we are taller,” says the Director of SizeUSA.

Not wanting to fall into a ‘size of American women verses British women’ argument and invoking the wrath of women on both sides of the Atlantic, I will just say that the average American woman is 63 inches tall and weighs 155.5lbs and the average woman in the UK is 64.5 inches tall and weighs 143.5lbs. These are the findings of the two surveys and I will leave it at that.

Base Size

The sizing of women’s clothing is determined by a base size that is aimed at a retailer’s target market. The base pattern is perfected on the target model and then decreased or increased to make patterns for smaller and larger sizes. Following the SizeUK survey, Marks and Spencer announced 14 as its base size.

Sizes vary between styles and brands because designers and clothing suppliers target specific groups of customers, making clothes to fit a particular size and shape. Retailers targeting the teenage and early twenties market will have a smaller base size whilst those selling plus size clothing will have a larger base size. A size 16 modelled on a base size 12 will have a different cut to a size 16 modelled from a base size 20.

Designer Wayne Hemingway, the founder of Red or Dead, told the BBC “Sizes are all over the place because when samples are fitted, different companies use a different person as the model... – Nor is every garment cut the same, so it’s impossible to make each size 10 fit the same…” Retailers are simply messing about with the sizes in order to delude people, putting size 10 labels in size 12 clothes etc.

On the whole, designer labels target smaller customers (though of recent this is not so true as designers wake up to the growing plus-size market) while mass-market stores have more generous sizes.


Vanity Sizing

Vanity sizing is when manufacturers and retailers label larger clothes with smaller sizes. It has been suggested that “vanity sizing” as its name infers, is designed to entice the buyer into purchasing a garment because they feel flattered to fit into a size smaller than their true size. It helps the buyer feel thinner and better about themselves and, the retailer hopes, encourages the customer to return to their store to make additional purchases. One buyer said “If us women buy a size 10 and it’s really a size 12, I am all for it! If it’s the other way round, I won’t buy from that shop, simple as!”


Wearing Vintage

Vintage clothes were sized smaller than garments of today so are a good buy for someone of less-than-average stature. When buying vintage you may need to know your bust measurement. A size 36 in the UK, for example, was made to fit someone with a 36 inch bust. The current system of sizing – 10, 12, 14, etc – was introduced in the 1960s, but a size 10 from that period will be smaller than a size 10 of a modern garment. A look at eBay will highlight this differential. Many item descriptions contain phrases such as “says its size 12 but will fit a size 10,” and, what is far more helpful to buyers, some sellers include actual measurements.

In the UK, New European guidelines (EN 13402) could see the end to traditional labels for sizes such as 10, 12, and 14, and would be replaced with labels giving bust, waist, hip and height measurements in centimetres. There are arguments for and against this, with one side for standardisation of size, - but didn’t we have a form of standardisation before vanity sizing crept in? - and the other believing fit is more important than size. Andrew Crawford from SizeUK told Which “It’s beneficial that there is no agreement between shops over sizes. It means consumers can find a shop selling clothes that fit them.”

So in conclusion, the reason why the size labels on the clothes in the store do not reflect your true size can be summed up by a comment from the assistant director of the British Clothing Industry Association, “It is accepted that what used to be a size 14 is now a size 12, and what was a size 16 is now a size 14. This is particularly because women in Britain tend to be very vain “- her words, I wouldn’t dare make such a suggestion – “and want to buy a size 12 and not a 14, or a 14 and not a 16.”

In the end is it best to look at the size label as only a guide as what to take into the changing room, and just buy for a good fit? This is fine if you are buying from a store, but how do you know what size to order if buying over the Internet? Perhaps this is where the new European size labelling will come into its own, similar to sizing information already being provided by some eBay sellers.


I would appreciate it if you would give me a moment of your time to answer the questions below:

Do you have to buy clothing in different sizes depending on which shop or clothing company you are buying from?

See results

Do you believe that sizes should be standardised?

See results

Should labels show actual measurements, e.g. bust, waist & hip size, plus height?

See results

If you are say a size 14, and a size 16 fits, would you buy (Answer 'Yes') or go to another shop (Answer 'No')?

See results

Which stores or brands do you find have the most or least generous sizing?

Please share your clothes shopping experience by adding a comment below.

¹ The SizeUK national sizing survey was carried out by UniversityCollege of London, the LondonCollege of Fashion, and supported by a number of major retailers,Arcadia Group, BHS, Debenhams, Otto UK, Great Universal Stores, House of Fraser, John Lewis Partnership, Littlewoods Retail, Marks and Spencer, N Brown, Monsoon Accessorize, Oasis Stores, REDCATS UK, Rohan Designs, Speedo International, Tesco Stores. (results became available in 2004). The survey of 11,000 subjects consisted of taking 130 body measurements accurate to 2mm using state-of-the-art 3D whole body scanners, providing both size and body shape data. The 1951 survey was done by hand measuring people with tapes, and men were not included.

² The SizeUSA national sizing survey was carried out in 2003 by [TC]², a technology firm, and supported by clothing manufacturers, retailers, the U.S Army and Navy, and The U.S Commerce Department (results became available in 2004). The survey of over 10,000 subjects consisted of over 240 body measurements using 3D whole body scanners.

I hope you have found this article helpful and of interest. If you have please click on the "thumb's up" icon below to vote it up.

If you would like to say more, I would love to receive any comments you may have on any of the subjects covered.

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© 2009 Derek Slark


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    • profile image

      Janice 4 years ago

      I now wear a size 4-6 (Canada) but can still perfectly fit my leather skirt I bought in 1990. It's a size 12...sizes have definitely changed.

    • profile image

      Liliana 4 years ago

      I find that all standardized sizing doesn't fit my body shape. I am an hourglass. bust and hips are the same and waist is considerably a lot smaller. waist wise I am a size 0-2 but my bust is a 4-6. and my legs are a 2 and hips are a 4. they need to make clothes that fit different body types

    • Derek Slark profile image

      Derek Slark 4 years ago

      Rene'e, thank you for visiting Hubpages, and for your appreciation. It is always good the hear about where people find it easiest to shop for clothes, as hopefully it will be helpful to other readers.

    • profile image

      Rene'e 4 years ago

      Great article. I find being a 55 year old women that clothes always fit well when I purchase at Dillard's or Nordstroms. I tend to always have my wardrobe pressed and ready to go.

    • profile image

      Jeannie 5 years ago

      I've been wondering what the heck was going on with sizes for years- your article was very informative- thanks.

      I generally keep 2-3 sizes in my closet because the cuts are so different.

      Standardized would be much better.

      Also, the inseams keep getting longer and longer. A Petite used to be 27-28', and 'regular' length (for women) was between 29-30, now it's hard to find pants that don't have to be hemmed because they're 31-33' for regular inseam length. Are we turning into Amazons?

    • profile image

      alexa 5 years ago

      I really like the styles at Promod, but find I'm at the top of their range for pants, skirts. Dresses and shirts are not a problem. At my age, (over-50) realize height and bust/shoulder size are more important than waist and hips for most styles, excepting jeans. Women with more hourglass shapes (smaller waists) will always have problems getting a good fit from pants, whatever the brand. Have also noticed that sizing becomes irrelevant when the fabric (some lycra %) stretches out a good five cm or so after wearing. Have had to throw away a dozen pair of pants b/c they became too large.

    • profile image

      jw 5 years ago

      My measurements are 38/29/38 5'5.. In the UK, u might as well forget about it. They do not cater for any kind of ass what so ever. Also, a size UK 14 can actually be the demsion of a 12 in many stores, it goes the other way as well. These clothes are made in 3rd world countries, by people with minimal skill and not of the same proportions. So, they have no clue what they are doing, how can you have size uk 14 and size 22! In the same store.. But when you out a tape measure around it the size 22 is actually 14 with a 22 tag on it. Go on that..

    • profile image

      Mimi1966 5 years ago

      Great article!!

    • profile image

      fullerhips 5 years ago

      i love m&s because they have one range that is nice and loose around my wide hips and has a pull cord to adjust to my narrow waist ( im pear shaped, all other trousers in the whole of uk are for apple shape and simply dont fit)

    • profile image

      rachael_gogo 5 years ago

      What I find frustrating, is im 5'2, with measurements of 32 1/2 bust, 29 in waist and 37 in hip and weight 120 and cant never find clothes my size, they are all primarily either to big or too small. I wish sizing was more accurate and maybe easier to alter.

    • profile image

      starbright 5 years ago

      lets say the enlish markert doesn't careter for women with curvys, or fuller figures as they believer everyone the same. A average woman in england are a size 14 or 16, you careter for stick thin people. Take a look around you pls.

    • profile image

      SueS 6 years ago

      I too think Marks and Spencer have generous sizing so there is room for one not being an ideal shape.

    • profile image

      Bella 6 years ago

      Well written and helpful article. It kills me to read comments from people about how a size 16 person feels when they are not a size 16. Another article in Cleveland OH said women size 14 and 16 won't shop for clothes and dress well because they don't like their size. I have been single and double digits. My issue is you go to a store to buy your size 14 or 16 and can't get it past your hips or across your bustline. I'm an african american woman and we are bigger women and I am muscular, so at 5'4" 200lbs with a large bust, backside and hips clothes are a challenge. If I go beyond 16 or get a 14 or 16 in a plus size shop the underarms of a blouse looks as if I'm going to take off and fly. I would love to see actual measurements on clothes.

    • Derek Slark profile image

      Derek Slark 6 years ago

      Julua, thank you for taking the time to read my article, and I am pleased it was of help.

    • profile image

      Julua 6 years ago

      This was incredibly helpful,thank you so much for it!!

      It drives me insane not knowing what size I REALLY am because with each store it can change quite a bit.

      Now I don't feel so bad...

    • Derek Slark profile image

      Derek Slark 7 years ago

      Yenajeon, welcome to my Hub and thanks for taking the time to write a comment - pleased you found the article of some interest. I see from looking at your articles you have more than a passing interested in the fashion industry. If you have the time I would welcome comments on any clothes shopping experiences, favourite retailers/designers that suit your figure, etc. you would like to share with us.

    • yenajeon profile image

      yenajeon 7 years ago from California

      This is very true! Currently I'm a US 2 but 50 years ago, I would have been a normal US 6! The companies are accommodating to the people. Women who are an actual size 16 don't want to face that reality and would prefer to buy a size 10 and think of herself in that way!

    • Marisa Wright profile image

      Marisa Wright 7 years ago from Sydney

      Everything you say is so true - manufacturers are definitely making sizes more generous to pander to our vanity. I've managed to fool myself my weight isn't as bad as it looks, because I can still get into a 'size 14' (Australian size - which is a size 12 in the UK and a 10 in the US). But in reality I'm almost as big as my Mum was at my age, and she wore a size 18!

    • profile image

      Eeyore 7 years ago

      Hey, informative hub, now I know why I have such problems when clothes shopping. I personally like the Per Una range at Marks & Spencer's. I find their sizing quite generous, which always makes me feel good even though I know I haven't really dropped a size.