It’s not that I change radically from shopping trip to shopping trip.   And if you’re a woman of middle height, as I am, a numbered size gives you about ten pounds leeway up or down anyway.   The XS-S-M-L-XL range is even more elastic.  (We’ll get to that later.)  It’s that the sizes themselves have become so shifty.  You just have no idea what to say when a saleswoman — if there is a saleswoman — asks, “What size?”

Time was when you knew where you were with the American dress.  That was a “when” during which most women mostly wore dresses, except for sport.  Even in the house.  (The house ones were called — surprise, surprise — “house dresses.”) A few women, who went out to “business,” might occasionally wear a suit instead of a dress. Still fewer women, like Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn, did wear pants in public. But they called what they had on “slacks.” In any event, the suits and slacks came in the same sizes as dresses.

Here’s how it worked.  First, you had to know which department to go to:  Misses’ Dresses, Junior Dresses, or Women’s Dresses.  That depended on your body type.  If you were about 5’3″ to 5’7″ and of normal weight, or not v-e-r-y overweight, you could usually wear a Miss size.  If you were shorter, or short-waisted (meaning shorter than average between shoulder and waist), or small-breasted and slightly hippier than a standard Miss size but not what anyone would call fat, you were a “Junior,” irrespective of your age.

And if your body was, um, “womanly” (and I don’t mean sexy) — requiring a one-piece undergarment with hooks and zippers that held you in from shoulder to crotch — then you went to that third dress department.  There the sizes ran from 22 to 36 or higher (sometimes up to 52), and everything was in navy rayon or muted floral prints.  I can’t tell you anything more about it, except that eventually it developed a little-sister department called Half Sizes — for women (and I still don’t mean sexy ones) who were too short for the standard Women’s Dress merchandise;  there the dresses ran from 22 1/2 on up, up, up, but still relied heavily on navy and muted florals.

Okay, back to Misses and Juniors.  In the years when I had just outgrown the Girls’ Department, Miss sizes ran from 12 to 20.  I kid you not:  Hollywood stars were a perfect size 12.  It was the size that dreams were made of.

Can you guess how you sell more dresses?  (If you’re a dress manufacturer, that is.)  You make dreams come true.  Pretty soon — right after World War II, as I recall — the Misses size range dropped.  Now everything came in 10 to 18.  It’s not that American women had got thinner.  Size 12 had got bigger!  More women could wear it!  Even I could wear it when I went off to college! Hooray!

Junior sizes, by the way, played copycat; the former 9 to 15 size range dropped to 9 to 13.  (And then Junior sizes disappeared entirely, to be replaced by Petites, which were Miss sizes with a P after them: 10P to 18P.  Simpler for the buyers, I guess.  Besides, adult women were complaining that Junior styles were too “youthful.”  (How times have changed!)

As I moved into my thirties, I noticed everything I was interested in was beginning to be sized 8 to 16.  And then the currently common 4 to 12. (Unless it’s very expensive, in which case it runs 2 to 10.)  Today, I wear an 8, or sometimes even 6, depending on whose name is on the label. But a size 14 wool jacket bought in 1965 from Henri Bendel, which I kept because I liked the op art pattern of the fabric, is slightly snug.  Go figure.  And then figure out how much lower sizes can go, now that some of them have reached 0.


Of course, jeans are sold by waist size, which is a whole different ball of wax.  Except it’s not really your waist size unless you want a high-rise, meaning the waist is really at your waist, which is where it used to be when I was in college.  Otherwise it’s the size you measure wherever the top of the jeans hits:  28″? 29″? 30?” 31″?  Unless you’re looking at pipe cleaner legs (and you really shouldn’t, unless your legs look like pipe cleaners, too), in which case the waist size may be misleading and you will have to spend at least half an hour in the dressing room struggling in and out of various jean cuts from various manufacturers.

Which brings us to the convenient S-M-L (sometimes with forgiving elastic in the waistband, if it’s pants you’re buying) and its friendly extensions: XXS, XS, XL and XXL.  Actually, all that lettering solves nothing.  I just bought two linen knit tops on sale from Eileen Fisher.  Same fabric, same manufacturer, slightly different design:  One is a S (all they had left), the other is a M, they both fit.  How can that be?

Then we come to European sizes.  Or should I say, English sizes, French sizes, Italian sizes?  English numbered sizes are generally one larger than ours (our 12 is their 14, although our 8 can be their 8 or 10) — but what will actually fit remains a mystery.  French and Italian sizes are both in the low to mid-40s (and perhaps also include 38, but I’m not a 38 so it doesn’t matter) — only different from each other.  Am I a 42? A 44? And in which country? Sometimes the American representative will attempt to offer an American size equivalent, but isn’t always right.

And let’s not start on footwear, especially if one foot is slightly smaller than the other, or you have a wide foot but a narrow heel.  That’s a whole other post.  Have you noticed that Nikes run smaller than Nu-Balance?

In fact, what with these sizing dilemmas, shopping in real stores has become so exhausting I rarely do it in person.  It’s so much easier to shop by computer and mail things back and forth until you’ve got it right, or nearly right.  (With some types of apparel, good enough IS good enough.)  If you end up finally keeping something, postage is free after the first time.

Unfortunately, blogging about sizes online is not easier than writing about them offline.  So now I’m going to hang up my new M and my new S from Eileen Fisher and lie down. As we used to say in the days of 12 to 20, I’m all tuckered out!



  1. Ah yes, Size Creep – or as the industry calls it, Vanity Sizing. But you are also correct in that even vanity sizing isn’t consistent any more. I have lost a lot of weight in the past 2 years, and I can sometimes now wear a size 2 (but I am usually a 6), but the top I wear with those size 2 pants might be a LARGE. And I am as flat chested as a boy, so it ain’t the boobs. Just last week I wore a XS tee shirt and the very next day I wore a L – and they looked about the same to me. I wrote about Size Creep also a while back: http://notquiteold.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/size-creep/


  2. Here’s fun thing to do if you are up for a challenge. Go to a secondhand shop that sells “gently used” clothing. Find your size range and see just how many sized “L” are actually for someone half your girth.

    I said fun. I meant crazy/nutsy.


  3. I’ve had similar problems with men’s clothing. I used to be large, and then was extra large, and now I have to buy XXLarge, but I’m relatively thin, and the clothes are always a bit wide on me. Fortunately, it doesn’t bother me much. I don’t have a lot of mirrors around, and so I leave it to others to worry about the way I look…


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