You’re so vanity

Outside Rowe in the Short North neighborhood in Columbus. Photo courtesy of Adam Lowe. Outside Rowe in the Short North neighborhood in Columbus. Photo courtesy of Adam Lowe.

Sizing Up a Fashion Industry Phenomenon

By Sara McKinniss

So, none of the girls here eat anything? – Andy
Not since two became the new four and zero became the new two. – Nigel
Well, I’m a six … – Andy
Which is the new 14. – Nigel

Outside Rowe in the Short North neighborhood in Columbus. Photo courtesy of Adam Lowe.

This line from the 2006 hit movie The Devil Wears Prada resonates all too well with some women. For many, trips to the mall or local boutique result in agony and defeat and normally for one reason: clothes do not fit. American women diet and exercise relentlessly to wear the latest styles in clothing, in the hopes of squeezing into a size zero dress in time for that summer wedding. An emerging phenomenon, however, may let you wear that size zero when you’re really a four: in the fashion and retail sector, this is known as vanity sizing.
Vanity sizing is the practice of using smaller numbered sizes on bigger clothing patterns, while integrating European and Metric sizes, to make customers feel better about themselves and become more inclined to buy. This practice occurs everywhere from small design houses to large retail clothing companies.
A size 10 dress from 1960 is not the same as one pulled from today’s retail market. Over the last 50 years, the height and weight of people has gradually increased, inspiring fashion designers to change their patterns and shift with market needs to accommodate for the differences. Vanity sizing picked up momentum in the 1980s when Columbus-based Limited Brands started reexamining their clothing sizes. After the prominent retail giant began doing so, other chains were quick to follow. Eventually, it trickled into fashion houses and independent clothing boutiques (although boutiques still tend to carry smaller sizes than larger chain stores).
“Big box stores have made larger clothes in smaller sizes for years,” said Maren Roth, owner of Rowe, an independent clothing boutique located in the Short North neighborhood in Columbus. “Contemporary fashion, like what you see in boutiques, is a niche market and target for a very specific customer, so a 10 in a chain store could be an eight in here.” However, retail fashion designers have been quick to adapt their sizing to help their customers feel less self-conscious. The retail industry employs fit-models who are specifically used for building patterns for clothing designs. A company will use the model to determine what a size two or four should look like. Though some mass retailers employ non-models, most clothing lines still use fit-models to test clothing for fit, comfort and structure before they manufacture it en masse.
“I love the fact that I get to see new styles before they are put into production and that I can offer my feedback regarding how they fit,” said an anonymous tester for a premier lingerie retail company. “If there are issues that need to be addressed, I’m happy to let them know that as part of my feedback so they can improve upon the item.”
This real customer feedback helps retailers understand what people like and don’t like about fit, but more importantly, what will ultimately sell. In the current economic climate, it is important for manufacturers to have an idea of what sells because retail sales still have not fully recovered since the recession hit in 2008.
“High-end designers tend not to design or manufacture bigger sizes because they don’t sell,” said Roth. “The market dictates where the money is and the designers are designing for people who are buying, which is why you do not see sizes normally past a 10 or 12 in most boutiques.”
Because of the economy’s effect on several retailers, many have cut back on what sizes they are carrying in store. Chain stores including Ann Taylor, Ann Taylor Loft, Banana Republic and J. Crew have stopped carrying some clothing size 14 and 16 in every store, though some items can be still be ordered online. Because of the increase in prices for raw goods, it costs more money to produce larger sizes through the whole manufacturing process from sewing the garment to shipping it. By eliminating one hard-to-sell size, retailers cut their costs and reduce potential loss. As a result, they will cut a slightly larger pattern for their other sizes and lessen the number on the tag, resulting in a vanity sized pant or dress.
Some might raise questions as to how ethical this practice is because it could be seen as misleading to customers. People want to be able to shop where everyone else does, but in today’s market, that can’t always be the case.
“I don’t know why this industry can be so segregated,” said Roth. “I don’t judge my customers because they come into the store and can’t find something to fit in their size. My goal is to provide them with the best customer service I can and offer alternatives when I can. Jewelry and accessory sales make up a good portion of my business, and I’ll continue to offer that to my customers at Rowe.”
Until the economy turns around and designers once again alter their sizes to accommodate society’s ever-demanding needs, however, vanity sizing will continue to grace our country’s retailers.

Reach DCP freelance writer Sara McKinniss at

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