As a custom seamstress, I spend most of my time altering commercially made clothing to fit my individual clients. Increasingly, I find myself explaining the current American sizing definitions to these females to assist them in selecting the VERY BEST SIZE for their body when they shop off the rack. During this process, I have been surprised at how much confusion there is about sizing.
I am using the word "female" sizing, because the term "Misses" and "Women's" sometimes refer to a size range, and sometimes are only used in the general sense of the word. This blog refers to adult female sizes.
The first thing a person needs to know is her CURRENT height. Because height sometimes changes during the aging process, I intentionally emphasize the need for everyone to have an updated height measurement.
At this time, American Standardized Sizing Charts consider the average height of an adult woman in America to be 5' 6". To the best of my knowledge, the last time the standards were nationally set was in the early 1960's, when there was a major shift in the definition of size ranges. For those of you who purchase vintage clothing made prior to 1960, you have undoubtedly found that the marked size of the garment does not convert accurately to contemporary sizes.
NOTE The national business press has been awash recently with comments about how terribly varied sizes have become, and about how many manufacturers are now using in-house size standards, rather than using the American Standardized Sizing guidelines (which you can get from the US Government.) To adjust to this trend, most of us just take several different sizes into the dressing room with us. This matter is particularly crucial if you are shopping online. See my notes on that topic below.
In American clothing sizing PETITE MEANS 5'4" AND UNDER. It does not necessarily mean skinny or tiny. It means SHORT. Garments that are sized for petites are shorter overall, but more importantly are shorter in a number of different segments of the body. Petite sizes are shorter than regular sizes from the neck to the bustline, from the bustline to the waist, from the waist to the crotch, from the crotch to the knee, and from the knee to the floor. They are also shorter from the armscye to the elbow and from the elbow to the wrist. Because humans are so marvelously diverse (and a standard size really only works perfectly for a doll that comes out of an injection mold and is always the same size,) a woman can be petite in one area of her body, say, the torso, and be a regular size below the waist for pants. Some of my clients are short overall, but have a very long rise (the distance from the base of the crotch to the waistline) and thus need to purchase petite sized tops, and regular misses sized bottoms.
NOTE Larger department stores that have both a petite and a regular "Misses" department often make it easy to mix and match garments in the two different size ranges. Macy's is an excellent example. Many of the brands they carry, including INC, Alfani, and others, produce very similar clothing, using the exact same fabrics, in both of these sizes. Thus you can sometimes find the top in one size and the bottom in a different size, both made of the same material. The revitalized Talbot's brand seems to be following suit.
MISSES sizes, sometimes referred to as "Missy," REFER TO AVERAGE HEIGHT (5'6") ADULT WOMEN. Misses sizes are EVEN NUMBERS, most often 0 through 16. The size is designed for a fully developed woman, one with some hips and an average (B-cup, actually) bust size. This size range has nothing to do with age. I didn't fit into Misses sizes until I was in my mid-30's!
JUNIOR SIZES ARE FOR LESS-DEVELOPED FEMALES, usually with smaller hips and busts. Junior sizes are UNEVEN NUMBERS, usually 1-15. The problem here is that junior sizes are often considered to reflect a youthful STYLE, not just a more 'youthful' SIZE. Females who are very flat or narrow in the hip, and those who have small fannies will do better in Junior sized pants than in the Misses sizes, which are more rounded in the hip area. My older female clients often loose their fannies as they age (a statistical fact of life,) and while I've developed some highly effective alterations to adjust their pants, I often have to encourage them (dare I say "force" them) to try junior sized clothing. They argue, they resist....and the come back later wearing a pair of pants that requires no alteration whatsoever. On the other end of the age scale, I have high school female clients who are so fully developed in the bust and hips that they cannot wear Junior cut clothing. They are profoundly unhappy, because they want to shop with their skinny girl friends in the Junior Department, but they are a Misses size. In truth, Misses STYLES often reflect more maturity than Junior STYLES, but I have found that, when you shop carefully, you can meet both your SIZE needs and your STYLE needs.
WOMEN'S SIZES, sometimes referred to as Plus Sizes, REFER TO AVERAGE HEIGHT WOMEN WHO CARRY MORE BODY WEIGHT THAN A MISSES SIZED FEMALE. Plus sizes most often include 0X, 1X, 2X and 3X, but also include 16W-26W...the W standing for Women's size. Again, this can be confusing, because I have gone to retail web sites that list "Women's Clothing" as one of their categories, but it usually includes primarily Misses sizing. No wonder my clients are confused! As with the petite sizes mentioned above, many women are often one size range on the bottom and a different size range on the top, and like the petites, they can mix and match between departments at some stores.
Not quite as commonly found are WOMEN'S TALL sizes. These sizes are for women with proportional body mass who are TALL. Well, "how tall?" you may ask. It's hard to say, but I have two daughters who are 5'9"+ and they often purchase tall pants--but not always. I'm only 5'6", but I have "tall" legs. Many regular lengths, especially in the less expensive brands, are too short for me. So it's the same thing as with petite sizing. A woman may not be just one size, she may be a combination of the two. At any rate, tall sizes are increasingly available at retail on a regular basis. We have recently found talls in stock at JC Penney, Kohl's, and Wal-Mart. It makes laundry day easier for us...we can actually dry our pants in a drier!
Now that you know the major size ranges for adult women, allow me to mention a few other shopping pointers. As most of us know, some manufacturing companies "run large" and some "run small." In my experience, the Ralph Lauren and INC lines tend to fit quite close to the body, and I will often refer my thinner clients to those brands. Jones New York and Liz Clairborn, on the other hand, seems to run large, and I can often downsize when I shop in those departments.
NOTE To make yourself feel better about a clothing size that is, after all, only a number, feel free to remove the size tag when you decide to keep the garment. Instant guilt-free happiness!
There are many in-person shopping venues that do not employ professional clerks with knowledge about fitting. Never-the-less, I counsel my clients always to state the obvious to a clerk when shopping, to make it easier for her to help you. "I am very narrow in the hip. Are you aware of any companies who cut for my body shape?" would be an example.
Be aware that within the past few years, many national brands have begun to produce lines of pants to fit women with three basic shapes: the curvy woman (her hips are larger by one size than her waist,) the straight-figured woman (with less size change between the waist and hips,) and the 'regular' woman. Every manufacturer has developed their own unique names for these shapes. Some are named after geographical areas (Eddie Bauer, Lane Bryant,) some are named after famous women (the J-Lo cut, the Audrey,) some are numbered (think Levies) and some just state the obvious (new at CJ Banks: "straight") You might be surprised that Wal-Mart does an excellent job defining the cuts of the many different jeans they carry. So when you're shopping, pay attention to the cut of the pants, and ask the clerk for help fitting YOUR figure.
As we all become accustomed to the ease of looking at a million garments from the comfort of our computer, I have a few tips for those of you who wish to shop online. First, know your height. If you are 5'4" or under, shop for Petites first. Many retailers who do not carry petite sizes in their brick and mortar stores DO carry petites online. The same is true for plus sizes and talls.
Second, know your 3 basic measurements--bust, waist and hip. To learn these, use a soft tape measure, wear your usual undergarments, and make all three measurements with the tape parallel to the floor. Do not pull the tape tight, just rest it on the surface right around the real you. Then, when you go to a new web site, visit their sizing page first. Forget about what size you think you are, and use the company's sizing chart to decide which item to order. This will insure that you get the closest to the correct size for you. (When I order from Garnet Hill for my daughter, I notice that I will order some items in Medium and some in Large, depending how each individual manufacturer does their sizing. Same person/different number.)
Third, read the reviews and feedback comments. Other shoppers may comment that a particular item runs small, etc., and you may glean valuable information. Zappos has done an excellent job noting such variations in shoes, and clothing should be no different.
Finally, before you order, consider whether the potential cost of returning items that do not fit is worthwhile for you. As shipping costs increase, this is a very real aspect to shopping online.
OK, so now you're armed with some up-to-date information about how clothing is sized for females in America. Remember to have FUN shopping!