Size Is Just a Number: Women’s Clothing and Vanity Sizing

I can specifically remember a time in my childhood where I went shopping for pants with a friend of mine and my mom at the mall. The first store we went to, I tried on a pair of pants in a size 3 (I was a “tween” at this time, hence the odd number) – my typical pant size – and found it was quite tight. Not a big deal, I thought; I’ll just try on the 5. We continued shopping and went to a different store, where I also tried on a pair of pants – and had to go down to a 0 because the 3 and the 5 were too large.

If you’re a woman who’s ever had to buy pants or dresses (i.e. every woman reading this), then you’ve most likely run into this problem. So, why are sizes different from store to store for women? Let’s take a trip back in time to the invention of “standard sizing”.

During the Great Depression, the US Government sought to create a standard for women’s clothing sizes. To do this they measured 15,000 American women to find the “average.” What they found was that American women were anything but average, and their data proved mostly inconclusive. Fast forward to the 1950s, the government again took up the challenge to create standardization in garment sizing. Thus, in 1958, the first women’s clothing size chart was born, ranging from size 8 to 42.  

This is great right? Well it would be, if every generation stayed the same size. Since the 1950’s, women’s US sizes have on average gone up about 8” for each pant size, and about 6” for bust size. What does this mean? In 1958, a woman who wore a size 16 would have a 28.5” waist – today, she would have a 36” waist. In general, people are larger today than they were in the 1950’s. The size charts were updated again in the mid 1970s, and shortly after that the entire chart was thrown out and every manufacturer was left to invent their own sizing.

In the early 1980s, manufacturers realized the smaller the size tag, the more clothes a woman would buy, so a 1958 size 12 became a 1980s size 6… and welcome to the modern age of Vanity Sizing.  The ‘80s version of vanity sizing wouldn’t be so bad if it were still “the standard”, but it’s not. Today, individual stores and brands compete with each other to size their clothes just right in order to increase sales. If a woman fits in a “smaller size” at a particular store, it’s going to boost her self-esteem, causing her to purchase clothing from that store more often. Even Don Draper would agree, nearly 4 decades later, Vanity Sizing stands as one of the most successful marketing strategies ever conceived.

Now, with this knowledge, how can you go about purchasing vintage clothing that will be guaranteed to fit you? Consider this chart for reference from The Washington Post:

Vintage Clothing Size Changes over time Washington Post Infographic


The further back the decade, the higher the number on the tag you will want. For example – If you are a size 4 by today’s standards, and buying something from 2001, you will need to look for a size 6-8; something from 1970, you will need a size 12, and from 1958, you would need a size 12 or 14.

So, what happens if you find a vintage piece with no tag? A lot of older clothing will either have no tag, the tag will be sewn inside the material, or the item would have been bespoked for a particular client. Luckily, ThisBlueBird makes sure to give detail sizing in inches, but you should also make sure to have a good understanding of your own body measurements, and allow ½ inch to 2 inches on the garment measurements for any given style to ensure it fits and you still have room to move and breathe. It’s easier to take something in with a tailor than to add material to it!

The battle between us uniquely-shaped women and vanity sizing is one that will most likely not disappear for a very long time. As long as you find an article of clothing you like, it fits you well, or you can take it to a tailor, don’t even pay attention to the number on the tag – chances are, with how fickle this system is, it’ll change again tomorrow.