Fashion is more than what to wear. It holds a lens up to culture, reflecting everything from art and politics to the economy. But there’s one area where fashion is failing to uphold its role as a mirror of society: sizing. By catering primarily to the thin body type that has dominated fashion imagery for decades, apparel brands have sidelined the majority of people. And, in doing so, the industry is missing out on significant revenue: in 2019, the "plus-size" apparel market was worth $9.8 billion.
The Size Gap
Most of us are used to walking into a store and seeing a limited size range offered: 0 to 14, or XS to XL (known as a “straight” size range). Skewed towards smaller bodies, this range has othered many consumers. Making matters worse, when retailers do carry larger sizes, the selection is shockingly limited—and segregated into a designated area called "plus-size," a term that carries serious stigma for many consumers. Others don’t give up any floor space for these sizes at all, only offering them online and excluding an entire demographic of in-store shoppers.
Body Positivity Breaking Through
The push for better size representation (and better visual representation in editorials and campaigns) is the result of decades of work by activists. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was founded in 1969 to protect rights and improve the lives of those who are discriminated against based on size. Numerous other groups followed. They put in the groundwork, writing manifestos and picketing the White House. With the birth of social media, racially diverse set of fat-acceptance and body-positivity influencers could suddenly build platforms without traditional gatekeepers standing in the way.
As bigger bodies began to share in the fashion spotlight, brands began to wake up to the fact that there was an audience waiting for stylish clothes in larger sizes. For those who made the investment, it was worth it. The "plus-size" fashion category in the US is growing at nearly twice the rate of the overall apparel market, according to an NPD report. In 2016 alone, US sales of "plus-size" women’s apparel rose by 6%, while the total clothing market grew by just 1.6% that year, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The Sizing Misstep
In the scramble to produce a broader size range, some brands are skipping the necessary fitting, sampling and redrafting process needed to ensure a well-fitting garment. The result? A skeptical consumer base faced with inconsistent sizing and poor fits, unable to hit the buy button with confidence.
Inaccurate sizing is more than just a consumer letdown—it's also an environmental issue, particularly with online shopping. Between 2014 and 2019, ecommerce returns grew by 95%. Given that 5 billion pounds of returned goods are landfilled each year in the US, and that size is cited as the number-one reason for returns, getting sizing right is imperative. In the UK, 37% of consumers say incorrect fit is the key reason for making a return, while 91% are confused by inconsistent brand sizes. Globally, over half of shoppers purposely purchase items in multiple sizes and return duplicates to mitigate the hassle of navigating poorly fitted garments.
Given that 5 billion pounds of returned goods are landfilled each year in the US, and that size is cited as the number-one reason for returns, getting sizing right is imperative.
The Good, the Bad, and the Future
Some brands are determined to walk the talk and get the sizing issue right. Universal Standard, a brand that produces in sizes 00-40, grades between every size. “We started using fit models across our entire size range whenever developing a new garment,” the founders told Vogue Business. The brand also has an updated sizing system, placing a size 18-20 as a medium, in line with US averages. Ethical activewear brand Girlfriend Collective offers sizes XXS to 6XL and shows its products on an array of different bodies, and Loud Bodies runs from XXS to 10XL.
Not all brands are quite so proactive or thorough. In order to produce more sizes, many simply follow the standard procedure of grading. In most cases, a sample size (usually a 2, 4, or 6) is graded using a formula or specification sheet to make a pattern bigger. The issue with this approach, however, is that it doesn’t adjust the cut of the garment to account for different body shapes. Imagine enlarging something on a photocopier—that’s the effect you get when grading apparel. By the time you’ve graded something from a size 6 to a size 18, the original design can be completely distorted.
For manufacturers, there are further obstacles to cross when it comes to introducing size-inclusive garments, one being the issue of fabric usage. Larger sizes use more fabric, and many brands that are willing to make the investment factor this into their pricing. However, some have passed the cost onto the consumer in the form of a so-called "fat tax." In fact, in 2018, UK retailer New Look was called out for charging up to 15% more for its Curve range. There are other points to account for: in some cases, looms are not designed to make larger knits, and in others technicians aren’t trained to take "non-standard" measurements into account.
The future of inclusive sizing means no separation, no extra costs, no guesstimated fits, and no manufacturing shortcuts. Just one collection, designed for every body.
However, technology is emerging to address these shortfalls and improve sizing. Euveka, for instance, has created scalable robot mannequins to allow designers to fit every body type imaginable. So far the company has reduced returns by 70% for clients in larger size ranges, a significant improvement on the 40% reduction-rate for "straight" sizes. 3DLook, which uses two photos of a shopper to determine what size fits them best, has reduced returns for 1822 Denim by 48%, and Bodi.Me, which creates a sizing algorithm for each new garment, has reduced returns to less than 3% for size-inclusive startup Curves with Purpose.
For other brands, a low-tech, common-sense approach prevails. Torrid, which reached a $2.5 billion valuation after its IPO, simply eschews grading and instead employs fit models for every size it develops.
The message is clear: previously excluded consumers are ready and waiting to spend on well-designed, well-fitted clothes. This market will not be won over by a token line or a mini collection. By making the shift from offering plus size to investing in inclusive sizing, some brands are excelling. The future of inclusive sizing means no separation, no extra costs, no guesstimated fits, and no manufacturing shortcuts. Just one collection, designed for every body.