The Psychology of Clothing Size

A few weeks ago, Peter was out with one of his British friends, named Andrew, who wanted to buy a skirt for his wife. Peter called to ask me for the American equivalents to British clothing sizes. After some confusion, I came up with a phrase to clear it all up: American girls want to be told they are smaller than they actually are; European girls don’t care.

If an American girl gains 20 pounds and has to buy new clothes as a result, she’s happier to find clothes that fit her in her accustomed size, so she can ignore the actual poundage and declare, for instance, that now she prefers clothes from the designer with the more generously cut clothes, because they fit her better. In their own economic interests, clothing manufacturers have engaged on a massive campaign of downsizing that’s sometimes ridiculous. I have a size 2 J. Crew skirt that’s still roomy on me, and larger than a size 10 Ralph Lauren skirt I bought almost 20 years ago.

English clothes, at least at the British stores I like to buy them, have remained fairly consistent in size, and if you’re in any doubt about which size you should try on first, there’s always some clerk with a tape measure to be found, who will authoritatively tell you your size and forbid you from trying to squeeze into something smaller. Clothing on the continent is even more straightforward: your metric measurements are your size, and feminine will and vanity, as powerful as it is, can’t make centimeters any wider.

There’s also an explanation to European indifference to flattering clothing sizes. To an American woman, her clothing size is her figure’s identity. If she loses weight, the quantity lost will often be expressed in clothing size, as in “I dropped two sizes!” In comparison, English women express weight loss or gain in a conveniently large 14-pound increments called “stones,” as in “I lost 2 stone!” Continental women will use their measurements in centimeters to express the same thing.

And to continental women, clothing size is particularly irrelevant. While we lived in Germany, I think my mother’s clothing source was a fabric store, her sewing machine, and a magazine called Burda Moden, which had a big insert from which (if you could follow all the colored lines correctly), you could create a variety of fashionable clothes. She varied the patterns to fit her measurements, so if she had to cut a section bigger, and another smaller, so be it: it was what fit her. In high school, I borrowed some pre-me cheongsam dresses. I have no idea what size she was, because they had no size labels.

And Russian women of my age and older, are by necessity, expert seamstresses. It may be that the only dress available in the local store that season was all XXXXL; a few cuts, a little thread, and that could turn into a range of outfits to last the year. In fact, I’m not even sure Russian women comprehend the notion of “clothing size.”

To truly find the right size, Andrew should have had his wife to try on the clothes. But since he was at the Gap, which exists both in Britain and the U.S., I advised him to just go down a size, i.e. if his wife is a British size 10, buy her a size 8. I think Andrew just melted down with confusion about American feminine vanity, and just fled.

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