You’ve Been Fooled: Vanity Sizing and Why Clothes Don’t Fit

May 18, 2016 · 5 min read

If you’ve recently tried to track down some new clothes add to your closet, you know how difficult it is to find a dress shirt or pair of pants that actually fit.

Buying clothes online is especially tricky, as you don’t have the luxury of trying the clothes on in-store before you order them.

Despite this difficulty, in 2016, online sales of apparel and accessories is expected to generate $68.2 billion in revenue, up from $60 billion in 2015.

The graph below from Statista shows how gross revenue in online fashion retail is expected to nearly double from 2013 to 2018.

Looking at these numbers, it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything wrong with the industry.

That said, there are still plenty of people like Becky Worley who still don’t shop for clothes online, due to issues with ordering the wrong size.

Bernadett Szabo of Reuters calls the lack of standard apparel sizes, “a serious drag on the global spread of online commerce”.

Your best bet is to go the Zappos route and order every size on the planet and return all of the ones that don’t fit.

To make the situation worse, if you order 32x30 pair from a brand like Uniqlo, they will fit completely different from a brand you pick up at a department store.

The reality is that every brand has a different interpretation of sizing.

1. Why do sizes vary so much?

Sizes differ between brands because there is no set-in-stone standard for what a “Large” is. The proportions of a piece of clothing are determined by what fits and looks the best to that brand’s target customer, which ultimately drives revenue.

Old Navy, for example, knows that its customers tend to be larger than those shopping at tighter-fitting brands like Uniqlo.

To make their customers feel better about themselves, Old Navy increases the waist size of their pants. When Abram Sauer tested some common brands of pants a few years back, he found that the Old Navy slacks measured a full 5 inches bigger than the label!

So a pair of jeans that you’d think has a 36 inch waist really has a 41-inch waist.

From the measurements he took, we constructed this graph, which shows the size discrepancies in the other brands he tried:

Stunning. And guess what? Everybody’s doing it.
This artificial sizing is commonly known as vanity sizing.

In the United States, clothing sizes tend to run larger than their counterparts in other countries, like China.

It’s not just that they’re larger though.

The vast majority of retailers are actually lying to you about the true sizes of their clothes to make you feel better.

To better illustrate this, the folks over at Fitbay used thousands of data points from their app to create an infographic that displays the size discrepancies between brands.

Look at how large J. Crew fits compared to a brand that runs as small as Abercrombie & Fitch.

As you can see, the fit varies widely between Tommy Hilfiger and H&M, or Adidas and J. Crew.

But hold on a second. I want to give clothing designers the benefit of the doubt.

Every Designer Has a Different Interpretation of Fit

One size doesn’t fit all. Likewise, each brand has a vision, and is designed not for everyone, but for a specific person in specific contexts.

Levi’s believes strongly in natural cotton to give their jeans the best fit along with lifelong durability.

Nike builds their apparel to be lightweight and moisture-wicking, but also durable so that athletes can perform at their peak potential.

Southern Tide engineered a Polo that is 97% cotton and 3% Comfort Stretch, a material that adds elasticity to the shirt, so that it fits better than conventional polos.

Clothes are designed for different purposes and for different people, so it is logical that some fit differently than others.

However, that doesn’t justify misleading sizing. If pants say they have a 32in waist, and I have a 32in waist, I want them to fit.

But that’s not the case. So this brings us to the second big question in my head.

2. How can I be sure that clothes I order online will fit?

Measuring tape? Maybe.

If you’ve had a professional take your measurements, you can look at the sizing chart for each brand, and try to piece together what size they say should fit you.

If you haven’t, well…you could ask a friend to attempt to accurately measure your proportions. Even so, I’ve found that sizing charts don’t always yield the size that I like to wear.

Sizing charts merely reflect what that company believes the average customer should wear.

So what’s the alternative?

Look at clothes you already own.

Let’s take a hypothetical example. Say you own a Large Ralph Lauren shirt. You’re looking to buy a shirt from Brooks Brothers but you aren’t sure what size to order.

If I own a Large Ralph Lauren shirt, and an XL Brooks Brothers shirt, we know that Brooks Brothers shirts run a size larger than Ralph Lauren (not saying they do, this is just an example).

Now, you accurately predict that you wear an XL Brooks Brothers shirt before you even order it. You were able to save yourself the hassle of ordering a Large and waiting on it to ship, only to find out it doesn’t fit and you have to return it.

The Solution

We’re building Layers to tackle this sizing problem. For brands like Nike, J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, and more, we determine what size you’ll wear even if you’ve never worn clothes from that brand before.

How do we do that? Just like in the Ralph Lauren/Brooks Brothers example above, we use size ratios between brands to predict what size you’re going to wear.

If you own a Ralph Lauren shirt, we can tell you what size Brooks Brothers shirt to order.

Cool, huh?

If you enjoyed this article, we’d love to have you as one of our early users. We’re about to launch, so sign up here for early access. Thank you!


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