Finding Clothes That Fit and Flatter

How to make sense of sizes

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

You've worked hard dieting and exercising, and you've finally lost those 10 (or 20, or 50, or more) pounds. Now you just can't wait to buy some new clothes to show off your fitter figure.

But one trip to the mall, and you might start wishing for your old body back. The reason? No matter what you try on, nothing seems to fit! The slacks that fit your waist are too snug in the hips. The size 10 you used to wear swallows you in one store, and is tight in another. And trying to decipher the different sizing systems -- missy, juniors, women's -- sets your head spinning.

But before you give up and go back to your oversized sweats, read on for some advice from experts in the clothing industry on how to make sense of sizes.

We'll start with some good news: It's not your body that's to blame.

One problem with today's clothing sizes is that as a nation, our basic shape has been gradually changing. Yet much of the clothing industry hasn't yet recognized that fact. At least, that's the conclusion of SizeUSA, a research project from textile company [TC]2 that recently set out to determine today's true American size standards.

"We heard a lot of complaints from consumers about not being able to find clothes that fit them, which is what led us to develop this project," which was jointly sponsored by manufacturers and the U.S. Commerce Department, says SizeUSA director Jim Lovejoy.

Using a specially designed body scanner, the company took electronic measurements of some 10,000 American men and women in a range of ages, races, sizes, and locales. These measurements were used to create a mathematical model of today's "average" body. Not surprisingly, says Lovejoy, it's not exactly the shape the fashion industry has been using to create our clothes.

"Clothes made today are based on the hourglass shape for both men and women," he says. "We found men are now leaning more towards what we call the inverted triangular shape, their shoulders wider than their hips, while women are going the other way, pear-shaped, with hips wider than shoulders."

So if trying to put your "pear" body into an "hourglass"-shaped designer garment feels a lot like putting the square peg in the round hole, you're not alone.

Still, don't expect your local mall to be full of better-fitting clothing right away. While Lovejoy hopes the new report will eventually change the way all clothing is sized, he says it will likely take some time before manufacturers make major changes.

Deciphering Vanity Sizing

A label game known as "vanity sizing" can make finding the right size even more difficult.

"Some designers try to make customers feel good by putting a size 4 label on a size 8 garment, or a size 10 on a size 14, which is why in certain lines you seem to take a much smaller size than you do in others," says George Simonton, a professor of fashion design at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

Unless you're onto the game, says Simonton, you could end up frustrated as you spend hours hauling armfuls of the wrong-size garments into the dressing room.

Even more frustrating is when a designer or retailer uses standard measurements to make their garments, then translates those numbers differently when converting to the popular "letter sizing" -- S, M, L, XL, 1X, 2X, 3X -- a sizing concept that has no universal standards.

A recent Lane Bryant catalog, for example, shows a 1X T-shirt as equal to a size 22-24 (bust 46-49 1/2 inches) while in the Spiegel catalog, a 1X T-shirt equals a size 14-16 (bust 42-44 inches). Hop over to Newport News, and a 1X T-shirt equals a 14-16 -- which that company says fits a 43- to 45-inch bust!

The answer, says Simonton, is to forget what the size tag says and just go for the fit. If you're buying something you can't try on, take accurate body measurements and consult the company's size chart.

"You can't assume that because you're a large in one line, that all larges, or all 14s for that matter, are going to fit you -- that's just the way it is today, " Simonton tells WebMD.

Still another problem is getting a good fit in garments containing spandex. The initial idea was to add this stretchy material to make clothes fit more comfortably. But instead, designers often use it as a way to make clothes smaller while still meeting size requirements. The end result: You may get the item on, but it's going to fit like a second skin.

"Depending on the manufacturer, you may have to go up several sizes if you want a spandex garment to have a relatively normal fit," says Simonton.

Misses, Juniors, Women's ... Oh, My!

Further complicating the quest for a perfect fit, there are four different size ranges for women's clothing in the U.S. Here's a primer on the basic differences:

  • Missy sizes (even sizes, generally 2-18). If your figure is "average" -- no one part of your body (particularly your arms, upper back, or bust line) is out of proportion to the rest of you, your waist is neither high nor low, and your torso is "average," try a "missy" size.
  • Junior sizes (odd sizes, often 0-13). Whether you're 17 or 47, if your arms are slim, your bottom narrow and your bust high (or if you simply like your clothes to fit close to the body), you're a "junior" fit.
  • Women's sizes (such as 16W-32W). If you have a fuller, lower bustline and extra weight in the upper arms and upper back, a "women's" size may fit best. A 16W or 18W has broader fit through the top than a missy 16 or 18, and the overall cut is different. Half sizes were once a popular subdivision of the missy category (starting at 12 1/2 and going up to 22 1/2). But this fit has been replaced by women's sizing, with 16W being equal to the old 16 1/2, and so on.
  • Petite sizes (such as 2P-32WP). Technically, petite clothing is women's or missy sizes proportioned for women 4'11" to 5'3" tall (with shorter arm, leg, and overall garment length). It's usually cut smaller across the back as well. So if you are over 5'3" but have either very short arms, or a long torso and short legs, some petite separates might work for you.