Why Is It So Hard to Find Clothes That Fit?!

Anthropometry is not as simple as alpha-numeric sizing.

How do we define fit?


Fit is a vaguely defined, complexly intertwined technical and emotional topic.  Each individual has a different definition of how they want their clothing to fit. The way that we use words to describe fit even varies from one person to another. ‘Baggy’ to one person may look like something different to someone else.  Brands often use words like athletic, skinny, curvy, classic, or slim.  They intend to describe the style of a garment, but this secondary definition.  This as it may relate to fit or to a body type within their customer base.


Some people’s preference for fit defy rationality and are embedded in the sentimental. The sentiments are often left-overs from previous necessity. One example of this sentimental effect is in garments like denim.  Denim was once made for durability and has since become an icon.  It’s worn by almost everyone, regardless of age, demographic, or gender.  Look at the sagging jeans preference. Its most recent appearance popularized by hip-hop celebrities. The look is rooted in necessity.  The tradition of handed down garments that didn’t fit. Its popularization is a sort of optimism about the situation.  Turning a symbol once associated with poverty into a powerful statement.  It becomes void of its original context. 

What do we currently use to describe fit?


Sizing systems are an alphanumeric organization of fit.  They were created to simplify the process of finding garments that fit individuals. This simple-looking concept becomes complex as brands tailor their own systems based on customer. Resulting is a bastardized concept based on relative measure, not concrete measure. The idea is deceptive.  The current sizing system is entrenched in an unspoken language.  Finding a garment that fits can be an over-all complicated process.

Here’s an outline of the funnel that happens when a consumer is shopping.  Each level narrows their search until they’re able to find their unique fit:

  1. Brand Selection.  Different brands cater to different demographics and psychographics and will handle the fit of their garments based on their customer. This has many benefits to both the consumer and the brand.  But can be frustrating to shoppers excluded from the average customer base.   As well as, to shoppers learning about new brands.
  2. Style Selection.  This is a layer of fit that is frequently seen using the nomenclature discussed above: athletic, skinny, curvy, classic, or slim, to describe the style of a garment. These descriptors show that there might be more or less room in the seat of a pant, or the waist of a shirt, etc. They a lot to do with fit preference, but for some become a utility of finding garments to fit their body shape.
  3. Size Selection.  The obvious alpha-numeric system for choosing within a brand and style which set of measurements fits best.



The most common sizing is a simple mathematical system, called a grading rule. This method increases all key measurements by 1” for smaller sizes up to 2” for larger sizes. Grading rules account for body shapes that follow the rule of the original proportion.  They do not take into account proportions that differ from that rule. For example, someone with a large waist and small hips.  They may have challenging time finding garments within this system. A sample of a standard grading rule is in the chart below:


What are the economics of fit?


Brands cater to their particular customers. Their brand’s fit profile is often characterized based on race, culture, economics, and trend. The defined fit of a brand is an important service to their customer base. The consistency of a brand’s fit is useful for finding or re-ordering garments.  It also helps build brand loyalty. This can be marginalizing to those who desire to be their customers if they are outside of the defined set.


There is a benefit to offering the least amount of sizes possible.  This is true as long as a brand is still serving their target customer. Decreasing breathe can help to cut costs on stocking inventory.  It can also decrease end of season waste on styles that were less popular for a particular size. Brands have long been tailoring their fit based on customer. Take Japan for instance, where brands offer smaller sizes based off averages and distributions.

How is it that so many brands are driven by sales of smaller sizes when the average American woman is a size 14? How is it also that while 60% of women are overweight, plus-size sales account for only 16% of the total? How many women are wearing the wrong size?  How many are creatively finding clothing that fits?  Are garments labeled smaller than they’re measured? 

How can we improve?


The industry is improving methods of sizing.  Some brands are returning to customized garments.  The experience walking into a store soon won’t be defined by a randomly assigned number. You will be size you.

Companies have been trying since the 90s to offer mass customization of sewn products. There have been successes, like Nike’s sneaker design customization.  That service accounts for 20% of their sneaker business. There have also been some abandonments, like Levi’s custom-fit program, launched in 1995. As off-shoring became more and more popular, companies needed to prioritize their initiatives. Focus on customization did not match goals of manufacturing overseas.  Turnover from overseas was too slow to satisfy customer expectation for custom.

Startups attempting fit customization are mostly on the basis of customer self-measurement. These startups end up with a business model that simplifies down to traditional retail.  They are often forced de-emphasize customization over time due to the measuring bottleneck. Manual measuring, even by a professional, is messy and inaccurate. Asking people to come into a physical location for measuring is an expensive experience.


We know that anthropometry data is far more accurate when taken from 3D scans.  Manual measurements can be up to 2” off in accuracy. The question stands.  How do we get passed this bottleneck?

This essay is a brief overview of why fit is a problem and what issues are playing into the problem.  Looking for more information about fit and sizing systems?  Check out the research from Cornell University. Sizing Systems and Body Scanning.