Size is just a number

The system used for labelling the sizing of women’s clothes is a mystery to most of us. When the various standardised systems were first introduced, it became easier for women to buy clothing off-the-peg and know which garment would be most likely to fit them. However, since the 1980s, UK manufacturers have individually been slowly straying away from these standard size recommendations to the point where not only is it impossible to buy vintage clothing based solely on the size in the label, but it is also extremely tricky to work out which modern garments will fit from one retailer to the next. This so-called vanity sizing has become more about the brands making clothes to fit the size they think their customers want to be, therefore appealing to the desire of many women to be, or appear to be, smaller than they are.

Whether or not the idea of fitting into a smaller size appeals to you, the purpose of a standardised system is to make purchasing garments easier for the customer and so ignoring it is not always in the retailer’s best interest. Especially when selling clothes online where consumers have to commit before they can try anything on. Retro Chick’s Campaign For Clearer Clothes Sizing goes some way towards addressing this, asking retailers to make the measurements they use for each size available to the public. However, I think there is something that we can all do ourselves to break away from this and benefit our own confidence and body image.

As has been proved by clothing companies’ increasingly blatant disregard for the standardised sizing system in the UK, the number on the label of each garment you own is largely irrelevant. Detaching any significance from it will help restore your confidence in a way that fitting into an apparently smaller size never will. If we’re completely honest with ourselves, if it was really that important, we’d all be buying our clothing from the US where the numbers for the corresponding sizes are smaller. On a holiday to New York, I visited a Levi’s store and fitted my UK size 14 hips into a pair of US size 10 jeans. The tiny amount of delight I felt at this soon evaporated when I thought about telling my boyfriend as I realised that his reaction would be one of confusion. After all, the jeans I tried on had fitted me so they were clearly my size, regardless of the digits on the label.

I first started to realise what was most important when buying clothes, after I’d purchased a dress from Vivien of Holloway. As their clothing is based on 1950s patterns and use the sizing from that era, you have to check your measurements before buying. At the time I found a shop that stocked them so that I could try on several sizes to find the best fit, but it’s clear from looking at the sizing chart on their website that I cannot fit into one of their straight frocks due to my pear shape, and a full-skirted option would need to be a size 16 in order to fit my waist in. Normally this would have been frustrating for me as I am usually a size 12-14 but, in this case, it failed to matter as I loved the clothing styles so much. One of the dress styles not being cut to fit my figure simply gave me less choice, which was actually helpful, and the fact that their sizing is different (and clearly explained) helped me to shrug off the number on the label of the pretty frock I ended up buying. I felt confident and looked good, which was by far was the most important thing.

Since then, I have noticed that the Vivien of Holloway dress I have doesn’t actually fit my body shape terribly well at all. I have a short body and a medium sized bust so the halter strap is too long, the boning comes up too high and I need a bra with extra boost to fill out the top. this didn’t matter at first, because my increased confidence meant that no one noticed, but it has now helped me to realise the second part of what I really need to look for when buying clothes. This is so important that I think it’s worth sharing.

Concentrate at first on the fit of clothes, rather than the look
Of course how they look is important to a certain degree, but do not let it sway you. I have returned a great many garments or have just let them sit, unworn, in my wardrobe for years because I was so taken by the way they looked in the changing room that I ignored the simple fact that they didn’t fit. Are the arms too tight? Does the waist pinch? Is the skirt too short? Does the zip dig in? If so, don’t ever think of it as a failing of yours, just admit that this type of garment isn’t cut to suit you in this particular shop and resolve to find something better. If it feels wonderful when you slip it on, isn’t uncomfortable anywhere and also makes you smile, that’s when you take that smile and look in the mirror. You’d never leave a fitting room to show a friend something that looks truly awful on you, so why bother showing yourself? Reserve the long lingering mirror looks for the clothes that make you go “mmm” and you’ll soon realise that you look far better than you thought you did.

Then concentrate on the feel of clothes, rather then the size
If you have to take several sizes into the changing room because you don’t know which you need, does it really matter which of them you come out with at the end if it fits you beautifully? If a gorgeous soft cardigan fits, flatters and makes you happy with a number larger than you thought you’d need on the label, why would you take the smaller size that gapes at the buttons? If it bothers you that much, you can always cut out that pesky number once you get home and need never see it again. We’ve all spent slightly more money on a garment than we we wanted to because it was utterly perfect and it made us so very happy just to put it on, so why not do the same with size? If something makes you feel happy and confident, ignore the label and just buy it. Similarly, if you are at all unsure about the fit and feel of clothing, put it back on the rail and try another store. Much as we have to shop around to find a style that we like, we have to shop around to find the correct fit too. It does depend on the type of garment – for example, I can buy unstructured tops anywhere, but Oasis is always a first stop for dresses and Whistles is the only shop that stocks trousers that fit and flatter me – so do some research.

Clothes can give you confidence and they can take it away. A little bit of time figuring out which shops sell clothes that are more likely to help make you feel amazing is time well spent. Just remember that you, as the customer, are important and shouldn’t be parting with your money for something that is less than fantastic. The size number on the label plays no part in how great or not that garment is. Seriously, who sees it but you?

Please note: The second image is from a series of fake campaign posters, designed by me as part of my A-level Photography course in 2007. This is not an official Body Shop campaign poster.
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The interior of Fischer's, Marylebone High Street, London