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The History of Why It’s Impossible to Find Clothes That Fit

2 minute read

It’s never been easier to find clothes or harder to find clothes that fit.

As Americans grow physically larger, brands have raced to flatter us with vanity sizing, assigning smaller numbers to clothing sizes so that we can feel thin. The measurements that made a woman’s size 8 in 1958 has shrunk to a size 00 today. But brands have changed their sizing schemes at different rates. The result: A size 6 jean can vary by as many as 6 inches in the waistband across brands.

The logical solution, it would seem, would be for retailers to all agree on standardized measurements for clothing sizes. But it turns out the American government already tried that—and it failed.

In the early 1940s, a government body called the Works Projects Administration took 59 distinct measurements of 15,000 women. The data was used to create a universal sizing standard in 1958: Even numbers 8 through 38. But by 1983, that standard had fallen by the wayside. The data the WPA had collected quickly became outdated, not only because Americans’ bodies were growing, but also because the WPA had measured exclusively white women.

Experts say any effort of create a more inclusive universal sizing system in the U.S. today would fail too because there is no “standard” American body type.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com