Too Big, Too Small, Or Just Right? Why Shopping For Women’s Pants Is So Difficult, And How You Can Avoid The Guesswork

If you have ever tried to order women's pants online, you know how difficult finding the right size can be. Nothing is as frustrating as ordering pants in the size you normally wear and then sending them back because they are too big or too small.

Here is a brief history of women's clothing sizes here in the United States, and why shopping can be so complicated, along with some tips on how to navigate the women's sizing challenge.

An Attempt to Standardize Sizing

For centuries, women constructed clothing at home. They purchased fabrics and patterns and made properly-sized garments for themselves and their family members.

When the Industrial Revolution hit the shores of North America, it considerably changed the American way. Manufacturers mass produced clothing, and women could simply shop for their garments instead of making them at home. The introduction of the clothing industry made things easier in some respects but not all. Imagine shopping for clothes in a sea of mystery sizes. To make things even more difficult, clothing manufacturers that did offer different-sized garments did so according to just one measurement: bust size.

In response to the confusion, the federal government, through the 1930's Works Progress Administration, compiled and organized standardized women's clothing sizes. The standards took into account a woman's size and height; naturally, women were not pleased with the thought of revealing how much they weighed. As a result, the standardization was unsuccessful.

In the 1950s, the National Bureau of Standards, responsible for universalizing measurements, took on the challenge of standardizing women's clothing sizes. It combined standard bust sizes from sizes 8 to 38 with height (tall, regular, or short), and body type (slender, average, or full). These standards never caught on in the pre-made clothing industry, but they did set the stage for women's clothing sizes of today.

Shrinking Numbers

If you usually wear a size 8, then you most likely would have worn a size 14 in the 1950s. Why is this? There are two predominate reasons.

First, the average woman in the 1950s boasted a lithe 25-inch waist. Today, the average woman has a 34-inch waist.

Second, clothing companies began realizing that, given the option between two articles of clothing with the exact same measurements, women would choose the piece that advertised the smaller size. All things being equal, choosing a pair of pants with a size 8 written on the label makes you feel better than choosing the exact same pair of pants with a size 10 written on the label instead.

The combination of these two things resulted in a phenomenon called "vanity sizing," and it makes online shopping a living apparel hell.

Navigating Today's Pant Sizes

If you are ordering pants online, you do not have the liberty of trying them on first. This does not mean that you should give up online pants shopping altogether, however.

First, learn your measurements. If you cannot do this yourself, enlist the help of a professional tailor.

If you can, try to find an identical pair in a local store and then order the exact size online. If you cannot find the brand in your area, learn which brands use vanity sizing and which do not. Compare your measurements with the clothing manufacturer's sizing approach and order a larger or smaller size accordingly.

Thankfully, some clothing companies ditch the American clothing sizing approach altogether and sell items based on actual measurements instead. This is, of course, the easiest way to shop for pants online.