Last Updated on March 20, 2023
People always have trouble finding clothing that fits. But why? I wanted to learn more so I conducted a survey about sizes and common clothing fit issues to get some data and see what we can learn about clothing size and fit.
First, a huge THANK YOU to everyone who filled out the survey! You input has been incredibly helpful.
It’s taken me a while to wade through all the numbers and to be honest the scope and variables of this kind of data collection were a lot more complex than I initially anticipated. However I found it really interesting and also was quite surprised by what I learned.
Housekeeping and info about the survey
The survey received just under 1000 complete responses, so a decent sample size.
Since the survey was mostly filled out by my audience (although it was also shared on social media and through some other ethical bloggers). It’s important to acknowledge that there might be some bias with the results because I assume people who are following fashion bloggers for clothing and brand recommendations are more likely to follow someone who is a similar age, speaks the sample language, maybe are from similar parts of the world, or maybe even has a similar body type to them so they can see how clothes might look. These are all speculative and of course we follow people for different reasons but it’s just good to note that this isn’t a totally random sample of people.
Also I think it’s very important to point out that the data was all self-reported. Taking measurements in particular can be difficult and even though I provided some instructions there was no control over how people were measuring themselves and therefore likely some variation and inconsistency with that.
Some basic demographics
The vast majority of respondents were 18-44 with the bulk of that falling in the 25-34 age range.
The respondents are also mostly from North America and Europe:
While I really appreciate the men that filled out the survey there unfortunately weren’t enough to have a good set of data so I just focused on women’s sizes for this project.
What did the Size & Fit Survey Show?
Let’s start off with a more simple one…
Height – Petite vs Tall Sizes
One thing I was interested in was height and what percent of people usually wear petite or tall sizes. This chart shows the height distribution of respondents (in cm – sorry everyone who prefers inches but I work a lot better with centimetres so had to convert everything) and what portion wear petite or tall sizes. Typically petite sizes are for those under 160 cm although some also go up to 162 while tall sizes generally start at around 171 cm. However these sizes are mainly for limb length, so for example if you are a average height but have long legs and a short torso or the opposite you might still wear tall or petite sizes and I think that’s why we see some overlap.
Something I found interesting is there are slightly more taller people than petite people however more people wear petite sizes than tall sizes. Maybe this has to do with availability or how clothes are designed, but I found it interesting because I assumed it would be the opposite – since it’s possible to hem regular clothes for petites but you can’t add fabric for taller people.
Measurements & Sizes
This is the data I was really interested in. With my background in fashion design and pattern-making I’ve always used a “standard size guide” for drafting patterns which as far as I understand is based on quite old measurements. I was really curious how closely these measurements matched real people and also how closely the respondents fit into clothing brand’s size charts.
Everyone was asked what letter size(s) they usually wear and these fit relatively close to the way stores typically order sizes, with medium being the highest and tapering down from there (a standard curve), although compared to the survey data stores would likely order more larges and fewer smalls.
Although as I’ll explain shortly this graph isn’t totally accurate and this is also where things really got interesting.
Looking at the measurements (participants measured their bust, waist and hip) there was so much variety in sizes and shapes that it was very difficult to find commonalities and overlap to draw conclusions from. I basically had pages of measurements that really just illustrated how diverse and unique women’s bodies are.
One thing I wanted to do was see how easily people fit into brand’s sizes, so I decided to average the size ranges of 10 popular brands (I used a mix of regular and sustainable/ethical brands) to get my average size ranges. This on its own was interesting to see the variations from brand to brand – they were relatively close for the S-L range but then getting into plus sizes the variations were so drastic it was basically impossible to find a good average.
I then looked at how everyone’s measurements fit into this average size range and assigned a letter size to the bust, waist and hip measurements.
Something that I found incredibly interesting is only 23% of people are the same letter size across their 3 measurements (ie. M bust, M waist, M hips) and this is a generous percent as I also included people who are at the edge of the size range above or below (for example someone who is M bust, M waist and L hips but close to the bottom of the L size range I still included in this %). So this means at least 77% of people don’t fit a single letter size! Most people should be wearing different sizes for tops and bottoms, although even with that, often people’s waist and hips, or waist and bust are different sizes, which can cause fit issues, nevermind buying a fitted dress that needs to fit all measurements. I’ll talk later about some things you can do though!
This is also a good time to highlight the fact that these are a VERY simplified set of measurements, we’re not taking into account things like torso length, bust point, shoulder width, upper hip/lower hip, neck size, thigh size etc. Even with the most simple measurements we could possibly have, there already is a ton of diversity with women’s bodies. Letter sizes are also more simplified than number sizes, so if there is this much of a difference in letter sizes than it must be even greater with number sizes. I of course expected there to be a lot of different shapes and sizes but was surprised at how different everyone actually is even with such basic measurements.
Something else I found really interesting is 27% of people fit a totally different size than they say they wear, and this is a very conservative estimate because I only included people who were significantly different in size than they said. Some of this might have to do with brands having variations in sizing, for example if your favourite brand fits really small or large, or people wanting tighter or looser fits, but I was still surprised at how high the percent of people wearing the “wrong” size is. I also didn’t find commonalities of people saying they wore larger or smaller sizes, for example there’s women who wear an M but fit in a XS size range and women who wear an M but fit in a XL size range.
In hindsight I should have added another question for clarification – asking if people purposely size up or down for fits they like, because I don’t know if a lot of people are doing that on purpose or if a lot of people don’t know what sizes they should be wearing.
Common Fit issues
The one commonality I did manage to find is many women have wider hips than clothing brands account for. The waist-to-hip ratio needs to be larger for a lot of women’s sizes and this was echoed with the question about what common fit issues people had – the biggest issues were hips fitting too small and waist fitting too big. Thighs fitting too small was also very high and also relates to the waist-to-hip ratio issue.
Everything thing else was relatively close with people needing certain areas larger or smaller, so it would be difficult for brands to make changes. Although offering different inseam options could potentially be helpful.
Something else that really needs to be talked about, especially in the ethical fashion space, is inclusive sizing. Many conscious brands only have a S-L range, or if you’re lucky a XS-XXL range. Based on the data I also found there is an under-served market in ethical fashion of about 11% of people who need size XXL or larger and 7% of people who need size XXS or smaller.
Findings – What we can Learn
To be honest, going into this I hoped to come out with a list of recommendations and things brands can do to better serve the fit needs and sizes of their customers, and ideally a better size chart that more closely reflected people’s measurements. However what I learned is that clothing brands essentially have an impossible task, women’s bodies are just so different! And this was from only looking at the very simplest of measurements – while people might fit the bust/waist/hip they could have have broader shoulders, larger cups, longer arms, etc. Basically clothing perfectly fits almost no one.
I compared the “standard size” many brands use for their samples (this size is supposed to be the “average customer” and is used to grade up or down other sizes from) to the data and not a single person exactly fit the base size! 4 people (out of 950) were pretty close but it still blew my mind that no one actually fit the measurements which entire brand’s sizes are based off. Across all the sizes less than 1% of people exactly fit the base size measurements and yet this is the sizing the vast majority of brands use.
I tried to come up with a new size guide based on averages of the measurements I collected, and even that would still only fit a few people in each size properly – there is just too much variation to create proportions that fit most people.
After discovering this I was actually surprised to see over 25% say it was very easy or fairly easy to find clothing that fits. Although this is pretty close to the 23% of people who fit 1 size across their measurements and it still shows that about 75% of people have issues finding clothing that fits.
How easy people said it is to find clothing, 1 = Very Easy, 5 = Very Difficult
So what can brands do?
- Utilize stretch in fabrics to fit a wider range of people – quality spandex/elastane is important so things don’t lose shape over time!
- Focus on a niche market and designing for a specific body type instead of for everyone – use customer feedback and different fit models to develop fits.
- Offer custom sizing or alterations.
- Possibly try a larger waist-to-hip ratio as this seems to be a common fit issue people have.
However we also have to recognize that things like custom sizing cost a lot more and targeting a niche market really limits your audience so unfortunately this can be very difficult for small brands.
I would also recommend brands use a medium size as their base/sample size to grade from since that is the most common size.
Is it too much to expect clothing to fit off the rack?
I hate to say it, but yes.
We’re so different and yet we expect brands to make clothing for all of us. It’s also important to point out that this is a relatively new expectation, historically it was normal for everyone to get their clothing tailored, custom made, or do alterations themselves, but with the rise of fast fashion tailoring has been dying. With clothing that is so cheap and abundant we care less about how it fits and don’t want to spend extra money to get it tailored to our body. There also has been a huge rise in knit clothing and spandex because it allows clothing to fit a larger variety of people.
What can we as customers do?
- Know your measurements and always compare your measurements to a brand’s size chart, don’t just go off what size you usually wear. (Also make sure you know how to properly measure yourself)
- Fit your largest parts first! Since we learned most people wear different sizes based on their bust, waist and hip measurements it’s best to go with the larger size and have it taken in to fit the smaller areas.
- Although this depends on the garment you’re thinking of buying – pay attention to what areas are most fitted, for example if you’re buying a dress with a fitted bodice and flared skirt the hip measurement doesn’t matter as much but you want to fit the bust and waist measurements.
- Check if the garment is a knit (like jersey which naturally has some stretch) or a woven which has no stretch, or if there is any spandex or elastane. This will affect how the garment fits and will give you more flexibility with determining the size you need.
- Find a tailor or learn to do alternations yourself. My biggest lesson from this project is how important tailoring and alternations can be for a good fit.
With all the variations in size and shapes it actually feels like a miracle that someone can walk into a store and find a piece that fits perfectly (although I’m pretty sure that miracle’s name is Spandex).
It’s easy to blame the clothing industry for not making clothes that fit, but after combing through all these measurements it seems basically impossible to create clothes that will even fit the majority of people. Fitting about 1/4 of people mostly well doesn’t actually seem so bad when you look at all the variation in our bodies.
I do think though that if we understand our shapes, proportions, and fits we like, then we can get better at finding the kind of cuts that fit and also know how we can alter things ourselves or with a tailor to get that “fits like a glove” garment.
If clothes off the rack don’t fit, we should never blame our bodies. I sadly hear this all the time – instead of “these pants are too small”, people often say (or think), “my butt is too big”. We shouldn’t be criticising ourselves when clothes don’t fit, it’s an issue with the clothes not you! This project really showed me how incredibly unique everyone is, of the 950+ participants the vast majority of people have completely individual measurements and at the very most share measurements with 1 or maybe 2 other people. I think that’s pretty incredible. We love to compare ourselves to others but I actually think it’s really freeing and empowering that everyone’s body is uniquely theirs!
I’m leaving this project with 4 main takeaways:
- Why don’t see more of this incredible diversity of bodies in media and product photography?! This need to change, seeing clothing on one body type helps almost no one.
- There’s definitely some frustration from the designer/pattern-maker side of me at how incredibly difficult it is to design and make clothes that fit well. The only real solution is custom sizing but that unfortunately isn’t realistic for most brands and customers.
- This project really highlighted for me how terrible it is that we’re taught to view the things that make our body unique as “flaws” which should be hidden and to wear “flattering” clothes to try and create the illusion that our bodies are different.
- It’s amazing how unique we all are and horrible how critical I and so many other people can be of their bodies. Nothing is “wrong”, “weird” or “different” – everyone’s body is different! While it might make trying on clothes frustrating I think that uniqueness is something we should celebrate ?
I’d also love to hear what you learned or took away from this!