A Brief History of Women's Clothing Sizes—and Why You Just Went Up a Size

A look back on how fashion measurements have changed

By Diana Nguyen Aug 18, 2015 9:26 PMTags
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It's safe to say we all grow with time.

Today's standard clothing sizes are vastly different than they were 50 years ago. For instance, "a size 8 dress today is nearly the equivalent of a size 16 dress in 1958," according to the Washington Post. "And a size 8 dress of 1958 doesn't even have a modern-day equivalent—the waist and bust measurements of a Mad Men-era 8 come in smaller than today's size 00." 

In the article, "The Absurdity of Women's Clothing Sizes, in One Chart," writer Christopher Ingraham credits this change to a growing obesity rate and vanity sizing (when manufacturers mark clothing with smaller sizes to appeal to customers). But perhaps the most profound takeaway is that a woman's shape cannot be homogenized or standardized—we're all built differently, after all.

Washington Post

Using the Post's chart as a reference, let us show you the difference in American women's sizing between then and now.

Early '40s
Before the depression era, most clothing was made to fit an individual…until a government-funded study attempted to "define the ‘Average American Woman'" by measuring almost 15,000 females, according to the Post. The result? Way too many measurements. 

In the late '50s, the government attempted to classify the woman's body yet again. By this scale, a star like Marilyn Monroe—with a 35-inch bust and 22-inch waist, might have worn clothing marked as a size 12 or larger at the time. But based off her bust size in modern times, she'd be about a size 6 or less now.

A little over 10 years later, the government updated its standard again—this time to include non-whites and non-military personnel. In the same decade, Brigitte Bardot would retire, but the French model was still famous for her beauty and hourglass shape. As a young actress, Brigitte, with her 20-inch waist, was reportedly the first size-0 model. But given her 36-inch bust, she would theoretically need to wear a size 8 now.

By 1983, the standard sizes of the '70s were deemed useless, and brands started to establish their own sizes. The New York Times reported that one size could differ as much as five inches amongst popular designers. For reference, Queen Latifah, who was reportedly a size 18 before becoming a Jenny Craig spokesperson in 2008, could have fit a size 12 in one label and size 20+ for another.

In the height of Mad Men hysteria in Hollywood, Christina Hendricks was lauded for her portrayal as Joan Harris, with the perfect hourglass shape to match. But in 2010, the actor, a size 14 at the time, admitted it was hard to find a designer to lend her a dress, since most came in sizes 0 or 2, she told the Daily Record. According to the chart, there is no Mad Men-era equivalent, but we'll unscientifically call it a 28.

Nowadays, vanity sizing is still prevalent, while many brands prefer to use their own catalog sizes, which can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. We get it—it's necessary for mass production, but the evolution and inconsistencies of women's clothing sizes just validates every frustrating ordeal we've ever had in the dressing room. 

*All measurements are estimated.