The Ottumwa Courier

AP National

October 22, 2013

The funny math of clothing sizes

(Continued)

To be sure, sizing is an inexact science. Women's sizes were developed in the 1920s as catalogues became popular and ready-to-wear clothing replaced tailor made or self-sewn items.

But while a system of men's standard sizing based on chest sizes in the Army had worked well, a similar attempt to base women's sizes on bust measurements wasn't as reliable. Women's bust sizes are more variable.

In the 1930s, retailers began adopting even-numbered sizes commonly ranging from 14 to 24, says Alaina Zulli, a dressmaker who studies costume history. But those sizes bore little resemblance to those used today — a size 24 back then, for instance, would be a size 14 today — so the issues of not having enough plus-size fashions likely was not as pronounced.

The sizes stayed the same but the numbers decreased gradually, Zulli says, about 1 size a decade. This is known as "vanity sizing" because it gives women the allusion that they're fitting into a smaller size.

Women's sizes, which today range from 0 to 24 but vary from store to store, haven't evolved much for decades. And for the most part, neither have the range of plus-size fashions.

As a result, the amount spent on women's plus-size clothing annually has only risen by one percentage point to 9 percent since 2011, the furthest back plus-size data available from research firm NPD Group.

"If the offering becomes stronger, women will spend more," says Alison Levy, a retail strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon. "There's a significant dollar opportunity in what is currently a very depressed apparel segment that retailers should be looking to exploit."

Some retailers have started to do just that. H&M, a European-based retailer that sells trendy clothing in the U.S. equivalent of sizes 1 through 16, last summer featured plus-size model Jennie Runk, who is a size 12 or 14, in its swimsuit ads. "Our aim is not to convey a certain message or show an ideal, but to have a campaign which can illustrate the collection in an inspiring and clear way," said Andrea Roos, an H&M spokeswoman.

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