The skinny on vanity sizing

When J. Crew last month announced[1] it was introducing a new triple-zero size, equivalent to an XXXS, the blogosphere erupted in irritated frustration and condemnation of the supposed routine, and worsening practice, of “vanity sizing.” And that included[2] the apparel retailer’s fans. 

Why are J. Crew and other retailers going to these extremes? Is it really about women’s vanity?

Vanity sizing is taken for granted

So-called vanity sizing is the putative practice by the apparel industry to label, say, a realistic “10” with a “4” so as to thrill women about the size they’re fitting into in order to make a sale. The belief stems largely from a 2003 study[3] by Tammy Kinley of the University of North Texas. Kinley looked at 1,000 pairs of women’s pants and determined that high-end fashion designers, who she said can afford[4] to waste more fabric, made the smaller-size pants — smaller sized labeled pants, that is — that were actually larger in reality. 

A brief[5] touting the study on the University of North Texas website notes: “Kinley’s study focused solely on women’s clothing, but she states that vanity sizing happens in men’s and children’s clothing as well.

“‘Nowadays the size number doesn’t mean much,’ she says. ‘It’s just an arbitrary number.’”

Of course, it’s unlikely that vanity sizes would be an “arbitrary” number, considering that they are  supposedly wielded with a purpose. And her assertion that the practice occurs in menswear and childrenswear, without backup, is troublesome. In any case, the study is consistently quoted in stories about vanity sizing to this day, 11 years after its publication. Very little information seems to have been added since that could give further insight or any more concrete information on the topic.

Moreover, some people actually find that upscale designer clothing is smaller than clothing from mass market retailers[6] — a notion that severely challenges not just the conclusions, but also the premise, of the original vanity sizing study. 

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