Sizing Up the Fashion Industry

The Birth of Modern Fashion

It’s hard to imagine a time when clothes were custom fit to your body, no matter your income.  Those with little economic means only had two outfits to their name—one for daily wear and other for special occasions—but they were fit to your body and sewn typically by the matriarch of the household.  On the other hand, aristocrats and later the nouveau riche, wore multiple outfits per day, for every occasion, as required by social norms. The rich had personal dressmakers and tailors up until the 19th century, ensuring good fit, and one’s own personal expression.  In the 1860s, Charles Frederick Worth opened the “House of Worth” in Paris, the first haute couture house, wherein clients were presented a collection of clothing to choose from each season. While this helped to standardize and popularize clothing style trends (la mode) overall, each look was still made to measure for each client. And Paris became the de facto capital of style.

Around the same time, and an ocean away, the U.S. Civil War was raging. The death tolls were staggering, and it was necessary to enlist soldiers at a rapid rate.  There wasn’t time to custom fit a uniform for each soldier, so a sizing standard was set, and soldiers were given a uniform that was closest to their size. Due to the technological advancements of the industrial revolution in the early 1800s, including the invention of the cotton gin and the sewing machine, mass production of uniforms was possible, especially in the North. Post war, these northern factories shifted their businesses to manufacture clothing for the new middle classes, especially in for booming cities like New York City, Philadelphia and Boston.

A New Century

As for the upper classes, strict social dress norms persisted well into the 20th century, until post World War I, when young men and women poured into the cities of London, Paris and New York in search of a less restrictive life. Paul Poiret, followed by Coco Chanel, created clothes that were more wearable (no corsets), less constricting and more masculine in shape. For women, this meant wearing clothing that was less about idealizing the female shape in the extreme using underlayers, to more boxy shapes in the 1920s, and naturally form fitting dresses in the 1930s.  These changes in dress were handled so deftly in the television series Downton Abbey, the clothing become an expression of the dying aristocracy, especially with the onset of the Depression and then World War II, when production of clothing all but came to a stop in France.  Americans had to rely on American clothing, giving the US fashion industry a chance to grow, powered by the factories all along the East Coast.

Morris Size Table,  Fashion Incubator

Morris Size Table, Fashion Incubator

Standardized sizing, as we know it today, started developing in the 1940s, after World War II. By this time, the middle classes were now shopping primarily at department stores, such as Macy’s or Gimbels in New York City and Selfridges in London. The concept of pret-a-porter (ready to wear) was emerging, in direct contrast to haute couture (made to measure).  Ready-to-wear was exactly that, clothes that were offered in standard sizes that could be tried on in a store, purchased and worn, all in one day!

Additionally, people began ordering their clothes through catalogs. In the late 1940s, “the Mail-Order Association of America, representing catalog businesses including Sears Roebuck, enlisted the help of the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) to reanalyze the sizing — often using the measurements of women who had served in the air force, some of the most fit people in the country — creating a 1958 standard that was largely arbitrary. Sizes ranged from 8 to 38 with height indications of tall (T), regular (R), and short (S), and a plus or minus sign when referring to girth.” (Stampler, Time)

For more information on the history of size standardization, read the “History of Women’s Sizing” series on Fashion Incubator.

Fashion for the Masses

As society began to shift through the 1950s and 1960s, especially gendered expectations, the interest in ready-to-wear clothing exploded.  Clothing began to reflect the diversity in culture in the U.S. and Europe, there became a need for fashion houses to provide more variety in their collections, and at cheaper price points, to reach new clients.  The concept of a “fashion designer” emerged, and “fashion houses” morphed into “fashion brands” that marketed and catered to more niche markets. Haute couturier, Yves Saint Laurent emerged as the master of this new market, and opened the first ready-to-wear shop Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, with licensed stores throughout the world. A customer who wanted YSL, no longer had to have the means to visit Paris and be fitted, they could simply go to the store and find something in their size.

Since the 1960s, fashion became much less about catering to the wealthy, and became much more about selling to the masses. The 1970s saw an explosion of the corporatization of the fashion industry, wherein small family businesses joined together to scale their businesses into global entities, to the point now where LVMH and Kering Group own most of the luxury fashion houses in the world.  

Image:  Fashion Law

In the 1980s, connections between media and fashion, especially MTV, further changed fashion, giving voice to the young, shifting fashion further away from the rich. By the 1990s, luxury fashion logos were being appropriated by hip hop celebrities and Marc Jacobs was selling grunge at designer prices.  The birth of “fast fashion” retailers like H&M and Zara, used new swift manufacturing technologies to get styles from the runway to the market in record time, and at staggeringly low prices. By the new century, anyone, no matter their income, could now participate in fashion.

Fashion Today

We live in a world today that is in in direct contrast to our past. Most people now have large quantities of mostly ill-fitting clothes. Size is mostly meaningless from brand to brand (with “vanity sizing” a size 6 at one brand could be a size 4 at another), as cheap prices make fit even less meaningful.  After all, you can always buy something different later. Consumers with little economic means are still likely to have overstuffed closets and unworn clothing, subject to constant purges to make room for new clothes. Those with money simply build closets the sizes of their bedrooms, in order to fit their constant purchases.  And the irony in all of this, is that customers tend to spend more overall on clothing, even though they think they are spending less.

Another Industrial Revolution Driven by Technology

Fortunately, there is an emerging shift in mindset from overconsumption to more thoughtful buying patterns, especially among millennials. Customers, with too much stuff that looks the same as everyone else’s stuff, are now seeking more authenticity in the brands the purchase. They are more aware of sustainability issues, and are making the connections between the clothes they wear and the effects of their consumption on their bodies and the environment, much like what happened in the food and health industries.  And a direct correlation with this movement is a greater awareness and desire to find clothes that fit well, both in terms of the body and personal expression. Customers are willing to spend a little more to have something special, that makes them feel unique and comfortable.

What’s more, we are experiencing another dramatic industrial revolution, this time driven by technology, especially via the internet. While on the one hand, technology has further facilitated mass standardization on a global scale--just consider the plethora of options to buy clothes online--many companies are now focusing their efforts on a more one-on-one relationship with their customers. This includes online personal customization (ie. Nike, Converse), 2D and 3D body measurement technologies (including iPhone measuring apps), and virtual dressing rooms, all in an effort to provide a customer with something more individual.

Annie Lennox Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This, 1983  AnOther Magazine

Annie Lennox Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This, 1983 AnOther Magazine

Queering Fashion

At the heart of this massive shift, is the queer fashion movement. To many, queer fashion represents clothing that are different than the norm, that allows specifically for gender free expression that sits outside of fashion trends, and typical gendered binaries.  And that is powerful. However, queer fashion is much more than that, more than facilitating the visibility of queerness in all of its manifestations and “tribes.” Because with tribalization, invisibility occurs. Inclusivity can breed exclusivity. Thus, true queer fashion must be about celebrating diversity and providing inclusivity in tandem, and in tension. And queer fashion must be a radical return to individuality, an obliteration of group standards and full fashion anarchy.  After all, queer fashion is clothing that fits each person uniquely--no rules, no sizes.

—Joshua Williams, Chief Brand Officer

For more on queering gender and fashion, we recommend reading:

“Queering Gender, a Fashion History” by Olivia Singer for AnOther Magazine.

Also, visit our Archive for more articles on queer fashion.

Joshua T WilliamsComment