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What Happened to Dress Sizes Anyway?

I love to shop for clothing, shoes, hats…you name it! My addiction to authentic vintage fashion has me frantically searching for 1940’s & 1950’s clothing in every nook and cranny at each antique store I enter. My exploration of these shops has turned up some pretty amazing finds including dresses, coats, skirts, and tops. The funny thing is, when I first started wearing vintage fashions, one thing became very apparent to me. To be clear, it wasn’t the quality of the garments, the craftsmanship, or the attention to detail. It was the size! When I found a dress that fit me, I would look at the tag and see that the dress was a size 12. A 12? Ok, I know I’ve gained some weight over the years, but come on! How could I go from a size 8 in a modern dress, to a size 12 in a vintage dress? This was an enigma I had to solve. I turned to the modern-day wonder called Google to get my answer. It turns out that there is a very logical explanation to this mystery and it starts with the word vanity and ends in double zeros. Let me explain.

In 1958, megastars like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield were all the rage. Their voluptuous figures were what men dreamed of and what women emulated. Compared to today’s stars like a Nicole Kidman or Angelina Jolie, the stars of yesteryear were full figured gals. Not overweight, but round in all the right areas. By today’s standards, they would be considered overweight. But were they? It turns out that stars like the iconic “Candle in the Wind,” Marilyn Monroe really wore a tiny size 8. That equates to a size 00 in today’s clothing. Here is where it gets a bit confusing. Clothing sizes started at a size 8 in the 1950’s. There was no size smaller than a size 8. Size 4, 6 and 0 were non-existent. Today, the size 8 of yesterday translates into size 00. Basically, between the years of 1958 and 2008, your basic size 8 expanded by an incredible six inches. In 1958, dress sizes were 8, 10, 12, and so on. This is why a size 12 in vintage fashion fit me well. It actually translates into a size 8 in today’s measurements. So why the radical difference? Well, apparently, woman, and to be fair, most gentlemen too, like to shop by numbers – and I don’t mean prices.

Vanity sizing, or size inflation, is the phenomenon of ready-to-wear clothing of the same nominal size becoming bigger in physical size over time. This has been documented primarily in the United States and the United Kingdom. US standard clothing sizes are no longer used by manufacturers as the official guidelines for clothing sizes was abandoned in 1983.

Vanity sizing came into play in 1983 to appease

a consumer with an ever expanding waistline and a retail industry looking to blow smoke up the dresses of their consumers. I read that a study was conducted with consumers that provided them clothing without tags. Consumers were less likely to pay attention to the size if the garment fit well. But once a tag with the true 1950s size was added, the consumer was less likely to feel good about themselves since the tag indicated a larger than imagined size. In fact, the consumers decided that they did not want the garment or they were depressed about buying a garment in such a perceived large size. When the tag was changed to the vanity sizing of 1983, consumers were happy campers once again!

The introduction of food additives, high fructose corn syrup, and packaged food in the USA in the late 1970s’ and early 80’s yielded higher numbers on the scale for Americans. But ladies were still in search of fashions that made them look great. Since men and women are not fans of buying double digit sizes, the fashion industry decided to create a new sizing scale that would patronize our egos. Now, instead of buying a size 12, buyers reached for a size 8. voila…instant weight loss!

This sizing issue becomes more of an issue if you use vintage patterns to sew your own dresses. Recently, my mom, who is 90, and I decided to embark on a sewing project together. She hasn’t sewn anything since the 1980’s and I have never sewn anything! But I wanted to give it the old college try considering that I was aiming for a vintage life. I bought some nice material, thread, interfacing and an original 1940’s dress pattern. The pattern, which originally sold for $0.15, now cost a whopping $25. The think I noticed was the sizing on the back of the pattern. My mom looked at it and said, “you are a size 12. We will make that size for you.” She explained that it would be comparable to a size 8 in today’s sizes. What the heck? My 90-year-old mom even knew the fashion industries dirty little secret. She was on to the vanity sizing that has overtaken the fashion industry.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to vanity sizing. On the contrary. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to hand me a size 8 dress in my vintage size 12 body, who am I to argue? I’m blissfully happy to be a size 8 instead of the old size 12. But for those ladies out there wanting to purchase an authentic vintage dress or skirt, the sizing difference is something of which you need to be aware. For me, I have adjusted to wearing a size 12 in vintage fashion. But then again, if someone asks me what size I wear, my answer will undoubtedly be “A size 8, of course!” I guess that’s vanity at its finest. But if the fashion industry can live with it, I guess I can too! 💋

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