The History of Clothing Sizes

The ideal body shape has changed in many ways over the course of time, moving from slender shapes to exaggerated hips to exaggerated busts and circle back to today where any size is deemed beautiful. Well, with the change of ideal bodies also changed the sizing of garments. Meaning, a size 8 in 1940 does not equal a size 8 today. BUT WHY?


Clothing size standards were developed in the 1940s. For young girls, the clothing was based off of age so if you were 12 years old, you were a size 12. Totally logical! For women, the size was based on your bust measurement.

To assume that two women with a 36 inch bust are created equal everywhere else is a huge flaw in their plan. Did they assume that women would sew and alter their own clothing? That seems to be the only explanation/solution to this backwards way of thinking.

Before you assume men developed these standards, let’s give credit to the true masterminds, Ruth O’Brien and William Shelton. In a 1939 article titled “No Boondoggling,” TIME explored the Department of Agriculture’s effort to standardize women’s clothes. “Each subject — matron, maid, scrubwoman, show girl — will be [measured] in 59 different places.” Measurements of 15,000 women was collected and generated the data, impressive considering there were no computers to spit out the size charts. However, the women who provided measurements were there voluntarily, meaning the group was not controlled. There was not enough variety in not only weight but race and income, which also plays a part in the data.

In 1958, with the help of the National Bureau of Standards, sizes 8 to 38 were established with variations in Tall (T), Regular (R) and Short (S) with a plus (+) or minus (-) sign in regards to girth.

Naturally, as Americans do, their girth began to expand (due to butter intake increases in the 50s?). With this expansion, the idea of vanity sizes was developed.

According to Slate:

In 1958, for example, a size 8 corresponded with a bust of 31 inches, a waist of 23.5 inches and a hip girth of 32.5 inches. In ASTM’s 2008 standards, a size 8 had increased by five to six inches in each of those three measurements, becoming the rough equivalent of a size 14 or 16 in 1958. We can see size inflation happening over shorter time spans as well; a size 2 in the 2011 ASTM standard falls between a 1995 standard size 4 and 6.


So when people say Marilyn Monroe was really a size 16 (or whatever) this is why!

In the 90s, size 0 and 00 were developed but for what really? To boost someone’s confidence that they have 0% body fat? While the idea of a standardize set of sizes is a great idea and needed, it also developed this idea in women’s heads that they need to be skinnier all the time.

However, this does create more of a problem when you are buying vintage clothing. When you are looking to purchase vintage pieces (from me or any other store) please read the measurements and look for your size, usually found in the description. If there is never measurements listed, you should ask.

All sizes in different decades, are not created equal.

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