My Thoughts on a Standard for Clothing Sizes

The lack of standardisation in Australian women’s clothing has been receiving a fair bit of media attention in recent weeks. When I first heard the issue raised I remember thinking it would be great if there was a set of standard sizes that all designers utilised. Like many women, I’ve been frustrated by differences in sizing between brands. For as long as I can remember whenever I’ve gone shopping for clothes I’ve had to try on a couple of different sizes in whatever garment I was interested in, as it can be hard to always know what size you’ll be in any given brand. This has simply been part-and-parcel of buying most new clothes, especially when unfamiliar with a brand’s sizing. Just because a label says Size 10 for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that a Size 10 in a different store or brand will equate to the same measurements.

Clothing tags

So after my immediate positive thoughts about the introduction of standard clothing sizes, I then found myself thinking about the issue a little more. Quite frankly I struggled to see whether it would make a significant difference. I can see that some benefit could be gained from having a standard range of measurements for each size (for instance particular dimensions in place for a Size 10 garment), so then in an approximate sense you’d have a pretty good idea of where you’re likely to fall on the sizing scale. However the introduction of precise measurements for clothing sizes still doesn’t solve the problem of having to try on clothing. It is unlikely that you’d ever be able to walk into any store and purchase a Size 10 (if that is your pre-determined size) in any garment, as the fit of an item of clothing is so much more than its measurements.

For instance, I know of at least three female colleagues who would all be around a Size 10 and yet they have completely different body shapes. They may have a similar waist or chest or hip measurement, but the style of clothing which suits them differs markedly. Regardless of the sizing issue, a similar garment (for instance a simple black skirt) which is compared across different brands may differ in cut, fabric, detailing, length or quality. In other words while the sizing may be exactly the same (for instance they may all be labelled as a Size 10) and share the same measurements, the fit the wearer experiences can be worlds apart. You could never, ever just trust in the fact that the same sized garment would in actuality ‘fit’ each wearer off the hanger.

One of the issues which is also being discussed is that of ‘vanity sizing’, where designers and manufacturers of clothing may understate clothing sizes in an effort to flatter their customers’ egos. In this way a size tag isn’t just used to indicate a garment’s size, it is being used as a marketing technique. Look, everyone loves to be flattered and never more so when it comes to the delicate discussion of size (which is then a reflection of weight and general aesthetics…which can then open up a whole range of physical and emotional issues), and if a particular designer’s clothing tells you that you’re a Size 8 when every other brand is telling you that you’re a Size 14, well sure – why wouldn’t you support the flatterer if you liked their clothes? Again I ask, why does it matter? Apart from potentially deluding the purchaser of their clothing into thinking they are smaller than they actually are, where is the harm?

Another issue raised is that of top-end fashion designers who can utilise their own sizing systems that often fail to cater for larger or smaller women. Now I can understand the frustration of finding clothes that you really, really love and then having the sad realisation that the designer doesn’t in fact make clothing in your size. But I don’t think this is a problem that can be solved by a national clothing size standard. This is really a decision made by particular designers in working out what segment of the market they are looking to target. I fail to see how they can be forced into making clothes for all sized women if that is not their desired market. Of course I understand that no one likes to be automatically excluded, and left feeling like they are not ‘represented’ by particular brands. All that can really be done in these situations is to voice your opinion with your shopping habits and only support brands that reflect your size.

I will concede that the clothing industry does need to accommodate the increasing demand for online shopping. But perhaps this responsibility doesn’t rest solely with the designers working with standardised sizes, it rests also with the online retailers. I would say that I purchase roughly 85% of all my clothes online, and I can honestly say that I’ve never had a problem with purchasing the wrong size. I think that this is largely due to being familiar with the particular brand or designer of the garment and therefore already knowing what my size will be, or basing my size decision on the brand’s size guide which a lot of online stores now provide. Failing that, if I ever have any doubt on sizing I’ll send an email or call the store owner and discuss the fit if I need further information. But honestly for me this research process is just part of the online shopping experience. Providing online consumers with as much information as possible (not just a size) is the best way to give the purchaser confidence to proceed with making a purchase. In any case most online stores have really good return, exchange or refund policies in place, so if there was ever a problem with buying the incorrect size it could be readily fixed.

Confusion on clothing sizes can also be introduced by designers who do not even use the numerical sizing system, but instead label their clothes as ranging from Extra-small, Small, Medium, Large and through to Extra-large. Some designers can call a Size 12 as being ‘medium’, whereas other designers may say a Size 12 is ‘large’. Again achieving the right fit in these garments is all about trying the garment on or following measurements which are provided in size guides. Sure this may  be frustrating, but it is unlikely that you’d be buying a garment straight off the rack anyway without trying it on because of the whole range of factors mentioned above which can impact on the garment’s fit.

Hanging Clothes

Similary I’ve noticed a few Australian designers have abandoned the traditional numerical system (that is, Size 8, 10, 12, 14 and so on), and have applied a new numerical code ranging from 0 to 4. In my experience a Size 3 under this system equates roughly to a Size 12. Again sure perhaps there’s a certain level of frustration which comes from decoding these sizes into something meaningful for your own shape, but again once you’ve tried on a few garments you soon get a feel for the sizing. As I keep mentioning it is pretty rare that you’d ‘buy before you tried’ (especially if the sizing structure seems a little unfamiliar).

So apparently the major reason for this lack of standardisation in clothing sizes is due to a lack of data on the Australian female form over the past fifty years (according to Choice). The hope is that a government-funded national sizing survey would provide updated information on current shapes and sizes, and then become the basis for a voluntary standard for the industry on which to base its sizing systems. I can certainly see that undertaking a national size survey to gain a greater understanding of the ‘average’ Australian female form would be interesting, I just don’t know whether I see much value for the consumer in introducing a voluntary sizing scheme.

I feel that there are likely to be more pressing concerns in the clothing and fashion industry which may warrant more urgent attention – issues such as the environmental and social consciousness of the clothing industry and the ongoing problem of using unrealistic images to market clothing (especially to young girls) through the use of techniques such as air-brushing and only showcasing models that are far too skinny. Important issues yes, but easy to address and solve? No, certainly not at all. There are so many complex issues to face within the industry, issues which are likely to require massive physchological and cultural shifts on a wide scale – not an easy change to achieve.

The problem with a voluntary clothes sizing scheme is simply that it would have to be ‘voluntary’. Therefore there would be no real requirement for the entire industry, designers and brands to get behind the scheme and adopt it’s sizing structure. I’d hate for the government and industry to waste resources by trying to introduce a layer of bureacracy that may not in the end, add all that much value.


  1. shraddha

    If you see kids’ clothes from India…you will be shocked….there is absolutely no standardization…

    i wish i was size 10…lol!

    1. tracey (Post author)

      Hi Shraddha – Based on the issues we have with a lack of standardisation for clothing in Australia, it’s interesting to know that other countries suffer in similar ways. 8)

  2. Arjan

    I’ve had shoes varying from size 43-47 (European size..) without my feet growing/shrinking 😛
    And with t-shirts it’s always a guess when you order online, ordering from the US I usually need an XL, ordering in Europe I can manage with an L and even an M would fit me.

    If the governments would get behind it, it shouldn’t be too difficult to standardise sizes…but I guess it won’t happen for a while.

    1. tracey (Post author)

      Hi Arjan – Shoe sizes can be frustrating…I know that in Australian sizes I’m a Size 9, but that can sometimes equate to a Size 39 or a Size 40 in European sizing…you just have to hope for decent guidance from the retailer I guess.

      I know what you mean about t-shirt sizing, sometimes you have to do some comparisons to get the right fit. I’ve never really had much trouble ordering online with getting the right size, but I have sometimes had to rely on the additional information provided by the online retailer.

      Good luck with your future clothing purchases!! 8)

  3. beth

    HERE TOO….cripes, there is no way any longer to grab your size and head to the dressing room…instead you have to take half the rack with you and then just pray with your fingers crossed that at least one thing is really even your size !!

    1. tracey (Post author)

      Hi Beth – Yes it can be a challenge in the change rooms when you have to carry bundles of clothes with you. I notice that several department stores in Australia have introduced stricter policies on the number of garments you can take into the change rooms at any one time…some are down to only three garments at a time – and that’s just not practical!! (especially at sale time!). My biggest problem is often with the fabric of a garment – sometimes the fit is OK, but the type of material means that it is not for me…

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