Sizing, and why it appears to baffle the boffins

Sizing of clothes is a topic that is close to my heart, and not in a good way. I’m sure I’m not the only one to find it quite supremely annoying how it seems impossible for manufacturers of clothes to do something as apparently simple as mark clothes with an actual size that bears some relation to the garment itself, and the physical proportion of the human it is intended to be draped upon.

hansen handprinted

How many times have you seen a garment, selected the size you feel is appropriate, and then discovered you needed to size up or down to find the right fit? I find I vary between a Small and a Large, though on average I’m mostly a medium. Like me, you’re probably thinking: How hard can this really be?

If we look at the process behind the making of clothes we find that a garment will normally be developed in one size, to ensure that construction and fit works. Once this version has been determined to be good, it will be developed into a fuller range of sizes. This process is known as grading, and the skills of the grader are crucial to this process.

hmA poor grader will take a well-fitting Medium and turn it into poorly fitting versions in other sizes. Basically, the process is a matter of scaling the garment up or down, in proportion to the way humans generally scale.

Now, this is where there a little science should come into play. Humans are clever, we have maths and statistics to aid us. A medium size should fit the average human, isn’t that quite logical? The other sizes should then fit humans with standard increments in measurements up and down from the average. It would make things so simple!


Now, an obvious issue with this is that looking globally, there are large variations between people of different races. A medium size in the USA and a medium size in Japan would be very different. How can this be dealt with?

Today we have companies that manage to confuse sizing even more than it already is by having Euro, US and Japanese sizing, all mixed up! Internet forums are full of topics such as “For a jacket from company X, should I size up, down or sideways?”. It’s crazy!


You may think “Small, medium and large, a silly way to give sizing, why not use actual measurements?”. And I’d say, “wise thinking, let’s take some engineering to this!”. And some companies do.

Trousers are mainly measured in waist and inseam, which would appear to be a smart and accurate way of informing the customer. What do we find? Some companies can’t even measure and label their own trousers accurately and it’s still a case of sizing up or down! And if they have measured and labelled accurately, it’s still a case of sizing up or down, because your new unsanforized denim will quite dramatically change size the first time you wash them… What a nightmare.


When shopping for suits it is more common to see actual measurements being used. Going by chest size should make things nice and easy. Here we find another oddity though. In the UK and the US chest size is measured in inches, the proper accurate size. The same garment in Euro sizing will have 10 added to it. So knowing I have a chest size of 40″, I can look at a UK-sized jacket in size 40, or a Euro-sized jacket in size 50. In an asylum somewhere there is someone who sees reason in this.

Of course, given that those setting the sizes seem incapable of actually using a tape measure, even garments marked with this style of sizing will fail to be accurate, we’re again back to having to try everything on for size.


And what’s the deal with shirt sizing? I’ve given up on trying to understand the sizing of these, especially since two shirts with the same arcane sizing info can be quite different in size. And why can I almost never find a shirt that fits both torso and neck?

Shoes though, shoes should be easy. Feet are much more uniformly sized than the rest of the body. So how come you might take a 9 in one brand, and you’ll need an 8 in brogues from a certain traditional shoemaker? “Oh, it’s an old last, from when chaps used thick woolly socks in their brogues!”. Really? Are you serious? It’s 2014, we can measure things and being sloppy and blaming tradition does not cut it.

Is bespoke the only way to go? Or do we have to sew our own clothes?

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  • Antoine Becaglia 17/02/2014 at 16:59

    I feel your anger! An old favourite brand of mine Marshall Artist is guilty of this… Large their eyes means Medium/small…or is it that because their clothes are made in Vietnam, the large size there is smaller than in Europe?
    I am glad you have not touched upon the denim sizing, I would have added my 2 pences.

    • Well Dressed Dad 17/02/2014 at 18:04

      I have touched on denim, but not made a huge point of it! Feel free to add a few pennies!

  • Antoine Becaglia (@AntoineBecaglia) 17/02/2014 at 20:54

    Yes you mentioned the unsanforized denim shrinkage issue! But even with sanforised jeans – depending on brands manufacturer , I ve tried on some 33W that were close to fit a 32 …or a 36! Go figure!

  • Peter Redfern 17/02/2014 at 21:24

    This has touched a nerve! The three chaps I tend to buy from – Paul Smith, Nigel Hall and John Smedley have me as an L, XL and an XXL! I come from a construction background and we measure things – how hard can it be? Buy a bloody tape measure

  • WDG 18/02/2014 at 07:25

    Same goes for women’s sizes, and it varies between countries. A british size 6 is not the same as the norwegian equivalent, but the american sizes tend to run big.
    Here´s my take on it.
    -“Hmmm, might be a Medium this one. What do you think?”
    -“A trick bastard this one. Could also be a Large, or maybe a 34 or 49 depending on”
    -“I suggest we go for a clean 49, but maybe safeguard with a /52M”

  • Chris, Manchester, UK. 18/02/2014 at 14:21

    It’s very frustrating. Here in the UK we have retailers who seem to think we are all Italian cut/fit. Shirts and jackets are wide-ish shoulders, then slim fit, and darted immediately below that. Other retailers who wre once know for being generous ( or realistic) in their sizing, are now equally undersized. Ultimately, it must come down to the pattern lay. Those extra few inches on the fabric stack mean more than satisfied customers.
    As you mention, actual inch sizes would be the best way forward. However, I suspect that may expose poor quality control, so variations couldn’t be hidden.
    My only conclusion is to find a retailer/designer, which us realistic, and stay with them…

  • Why shoe sizes are a mess | Well Dressed Dad 05/04/2014 at 07:37

    […] to me, again,  how frustrating the issue of sizing is. I’ve previously posted about this in regards to clothing, this time it’s about the […]

  • Steve 25/06/2016 at 23:47

    Excellent post! I hate modern sizing…it never seems to make sense to me. Here in the U.S., things do tend to run large for me (especially in the waist with shirts). Vintage clothes fit me so much better for various reasons.


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