Vanity Sizing

Have you ever wondered why there’s such a difference in the fit of your store-bought clothing? Why can you wear size 32 jeans, but your dress pants are 34, or even 36? Or why are size 34 jeans are too small at one store and too big at another? The answer is a trend called Vanity Sizing.

Vanity Sizing has been a growing trend in ladies wear for many years now. Today, menswear clothing manufacturers have also adopted the use of “vanity sizing”: the labeling of clothes with sizes smaller than the actual cut of the items. There have been many studies comparing retail brands; actual measurements were often 2-3 inches larger than the indicated size, and in some cases as much as 5 inches.

So, why do clothing brands do this? It makes shopping for clothes more difficult when manufacturers don’t use the same standards for labeling, and no doubt increases return rates when products don’t fit as expected. The simple answer is that the downsized labels make customers feel good. Clothing producers believe that vanity sizing increases self-esteem, which creates brand loyalty.

In 2010, Esquire‘s Abram Sauer charted his actual waist size (36 inches) vs. his size in trousers by Gap, CK, Dockers and a few others. His results are outlined in the following chart:


As you can see, Old Navy tops the chart at 5 inches larger than the size label. Should there be a correlation between waist size of a pant and what the tape measure reads? That is a question I’ll leave to you.

In the custom clothing business we live and die by the tape measure. When I measure a client I will ask him what size pants he buys. The answer is almost always 2” smaller than the reading I get from the tape. I don’t usually address this issue with the client – I simply make a pant that will fit well.

If you want to know if you are being taken in by Vanity Sizing, take your favourite fitting pant, button up the waist, lay the pant flat and measure across the waist – multiply by 2 and you will discover the actual measurement of the pant. Another option is to take your belt, lay it flat and measure from the end of the belt buckle – not where the leather starts – and measure to the hole you use most often when your belt is done up.

Designers, especially ones influenced by European fashion, tend to stick more to the true sizing – hence the common perception that European clothes are tight-fitting. It’s not that they are smaller, it’s that they are more true to the tape measure.

Another recent manifestation of Vanity Sizing is the use of the term “slim fit” in shirting. A true slim fit shirt on average would be at least 4 inches slimmer around the waist than a regular fit shirt. Some shirt manufacturers are slimming shirts down by 1.5 inches and calling them “Slim Fit”. These are not true slim fit shirts, but by labeling these shirts this way many more men get to say they wear slim fit shirts.

Does it really help our self-esteem to wear mislabeled sizes when deep down we know the truth? There’s no way you were wearing size 32 jeans in high school and now 10 years later (and 20lbs heavier) you can still be wearing size 32. The reality is that none of this obsession with sizing should really matter. Wear what fits, what is comfortable, what flatters your shape, and don’t get hung up on numbers.