But we haven’t really done away with the O’Brien Shelton data entirely. ASTM International, a private organization that comes up with voluntary product standards, has, since 1995, published a table of body measurements for women’s sizing, using the basic nomenclature and system developed by the 1958 commercial standard. “The numbers keep getting massaged,” says Boorady. “Nothing gets reinvented.”
The ASTM recommendations have evolved over time to accommodate a very real trend: vanity sizing. Women don’t want to know their real size, so manufacturers re-label bigger sizes with smaller numbers. In 1958, for example, a size 8 corresponded with a bust of 31 inches, a waist of 23.5 inches and a hip girth of 32.5 inches. In ASTM’s 2008 standards, a size 8 had increased by five to six inches in each of those three measurements, becoming the rough equivalent of a size 14 or 16 in 1958. We can see size inflation happening over shorter time spans as well; a size 2 in the 2011 ASTM standard falls between a 1995 standard size 4 and 6. (This may also explain why smaller sizes are constantly invented. The 1958 standard listed 8 as its smallest size. The 1995 ASTM standard listed a size 2. In 2011, ASTM lists a standard for size 00.)
Though the lower bound of women’s sizes may be sinking faster than Venice, people often point to the ever-expanding American woman as the reason standardized sizing no longer works. In the early aughts, a private organization called the Textile Clothing Technology Corporation conducted the first widespread study of American women’s bodies since O’Brien and Shelton, called SizeUSA. They installed body scanners at 13 different locations across the country and, over the course of about a month, scanned the bodies of almost 11,000 people between the ages of 18 and 80. The main finding, says Boorady, who was involved with the study, is that people are bigger than ever. The study also distinguished five to seven distinct body shapes for women, as opposed to the single hourglass ideal that has long determined the proportions of clothing (and which only 8 percent of American women have). Boorady says the results mean “it would be extremely difficult to come up with a single sizing system.” But it’s not just the way we eat that changes the national body. “The prevalence of implants is really changing the way clothing is sized,” fashion historian Ann Frank points out. “If you go to Victoria’s Secret, the 34B is bigger.”
Whatever the difficulties of sizing the American woman, we also seem to take some national pride in our nonsensical system. Looking through historical newspaper articles for complaints about inconsistent sizing, I couldn’t help but notice how often we’ve grafted ideas about individuality and freedom onto a woman’s struggle to find jeans that fit. A 1918 Washington Post article painted the standardization of women’s blouses in Germany—“shapeless monstrosities”—as an act of near fascism. A 1953 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, rejecting a proposed commercial standard, earnestly asserted: “A lady’s dress size in our view is … a matter of personal privilege and the Fifth Amendment.” The freedom in question wasn’t always that of women shoppers; in 1986, the Times reported on manufacturers’ resistance to the development of ASTM standards. “The Laura Ashley woman is different from the Liz Claiborne woman, who is different from the woman whom Calvin Klein envisions,” opined the article’s author, who then quoted a designer saying, “Fit is a type of identity.”
There is something to this. My sense of brand loyalty is as much about the way a designer’s clothes fit as how they look. I do pretty well with J.Crew sweaters, Urban Outfitters jeans, and Frye boots—because those have become, after years of trial and error, my brands. If these companies suddenly changed their sizes to adhere to some synthetic average of the American female form, I’d feel annoyed—even indignant. In a country so diverse, it’s near impossible to define any sort of average national body; any attempt may be futile. Lynn Boorady drove this point home when she described her analysis of the SizeUSA data: In trying to find an average hip girth for a 28-inch waist, she discovered a 12-inch spread.
Correction, Jan. 25, 2012: This article incorrectly referred to the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) as the National Bureau of Statistics. (Return to the corrected sentence.)