Finding Clothes That Fit and Flatter

How to make sense of sizes

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on April 01, 2006
8 min read

You've worked hard dieting and exercising, and you've finally lost those 10 (or 20, or 50, or more) pounds. Now you just can't wait to buy some new clothes to show off your fitter figure.

But one trip to the mall, and you might start wishing for your old body back. The reason? No matter what you try on, nothing seems to fit! The slacks that fit your waist are too snug in the hips. The size 10 you used to wear swallows you in one store, and is tight in another. And trying to decipher the different sizing systems -- missy, juniors, women's -- sets your head spinning.

But before you give up and go back to your oversized sweats, read on for some advice from experts in the clothing industry on how to make sense of sizes.

We'll start with some good news: It's not your body that's to blame.

One problem with today's clothing sizes is that as a nation, our basic shape has been gradually changing. Yet much of the clothing industry hasn't yet recognized that fact. At least, that's the conclusion of SizeUSA, a research project from textile company [TC]2 that recently set out to determine today's true American size standards.

"We heard a lot of complaints from consumers about not being able to find clothes that fit them, which is what led us to develop this project," which was jointly sponsored by manufacturers and the U.S. Commerce Department, says SizeUSA director Jim Lovejoy.

Using a specially designed body scanner, the company took electronic measurements of some 10,000 American men and women in a range of ages, races, sizes, and locales. These measurements were used to create a mathematical model of today's "average" body. Not surprisingly, says Lovejoy, it's not exactly the shape the fashion industry has been using to create our clothes.

"Clothes made today are based on the hourglass shape for both men and women," he says. "We found men are now leaning more towards what we call the inverted triangular shape, their shoulders wider than their hips, while women are going the other way, pear-shaped, with hips wider than shoulders."

So if trying to put your "pear" body into an "hourglass"-shaped designer garment feels a lot like putting the square peg in the round hole, you're not alone.

Still, don't expect your local mall to be full of better-fitting clothing right away. While Lovejoy hopes the new report will eventually change the way all clothing is sized, he says it will likely take some time before manufacturers make major changes.

A label game known as "vanity sizing" can make finding the right size even more difficult.

"Some designers try to make customers feel good by putting a size 4 label on a size 8 garment, or a size 10 on a size 14, which is why in certain lines you seem to take a much smaller size than you do in others," says George Simonton, a professor of fashion design at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

Unless you're onto the game, says Simonton, you could end up frustrated as you spend hours hauling armfuls of the wrong-size garments into the dressing room.

Even more frustrating is when a designer or retailer uses standard measurements to make their garments, then translates those numbers differently when converting to the popular "letter sizing" -- S, M, L, XL, 1X, 2X, 3X -- a sizing concept that has no universal standards.

A recent Lane Bryant catalog, for example, shows a 1X T-shirt as equal to a size 22-24 (bust 46-49 1/2 inches) while in the Spiegel catalog, a 1X T-shirt equals a size 14-16 (bust 42-44 inches). Hop over to Newport News, and a 1X T-shirt equals a 14-16 -- which that company says fits a 43- to 45-inch bust!

The answer, says Simonton, is to forget what the size tag says and just go for the fit. If you're buying something you can't try on, take accurate body measurements and consult the company's size chart.

"You can't assume that because you're a large in one line, that all larges, or all 14s for that matter, are going to fit you -- that's just the way it is today, " Simonton tells WebMD.

Still another problem is getting a good fit in garments containing spandex. The initial idea was to add this stretchy material to make clothes fit more comfortably. But instead, designers often use it as a way to make clothes smaller while still meeting size requirements. The end result: You may get the item on, but it's going to fit like a second skin.

"Depending on the manufacturer, you may have to go up several sizes if you want a spandex garment to have a relatively normal fit," says Simonton.

Further complicating the quest for a perfect fit, there are four different size ranges for women's clothing in the U.S. Here's a primer on the basic differences:

  • Missy sizes (even sizes, generally 2-18). If your figure is "average" -- no one part of your body (particularly your arms, upper back, or bust line) is out of proportion to the rest of you, your waist is neither high nor low, and your torso is "average," try a "missy" size.
  • Junior sizes (odd sizes, often 0-13). Whether you're 17 or 47, if your arms are slim, your bottom narrow and your bust high (or if you simply like your clothes to fit close to the body), you're a "junior" fit.
  • Women's sizes (such as 16W-32W). If you have a fuller, lower bustline and extra weight in the upper arms and upper back, a "women's" size may fit best. A 16W or 18W has broader fit through the top than a missy 16 or 18, and the overall cut is different. Half sizes were once a popular subdivision of the missy category (starting at 12 1/2 and going up to 22 1/2). But this fit has been replaced by women's sizing, with 16W being equal to the old 16 1/2, and so on.
  • Petite sizes (such as 2P-32WP). Technically, petite clothing is women's or missy sizes proportioned for women 4'11" to 5'3" tall (with shorter arm, leg, and overall garment length). It's usually cut smaller across the back as well. So if you are over 5'3" but have either very short arms, or a long torso and short legs, some petite separates might work for you.

Then, of course, there's "one size fits all." The general consensus here: "It doesn't exist." Unless you don't care if your clothes are smotheringly tight or tent-like, chances are you won't find the fit you're looking for with these garments -- no matter how much spandex they have!

After you figure out the right size, finding the right style is a big part of getting the fit you want. June Saltzman, vice president of fashion merchandising for the Home Shopping Network, offers the following style definitions (They apply not only to clothes sold on HSN, but to most items available off the rack):

  • Close fit -- follows the curves of the body.
  • Fitted -- slightly more relaxed, but still follows your curves.
  • Semi-fitted -- close to the body, but with more ease of movement.
  • Loose-fitting -- generously sized, with ease of movement and fabric drape.
  • Very loose-fitting -- cut very full for ultimate comfort.

While electronic retailers and some catalogs provide this information to shoppers, you may simply have to use your "eye" when sizing up the cut of clothing in a brick-and-mortar store.

It may actually be easier to find the right size when you buy from electronic and catalog retailers than when you shop at the mall. Because inaccurate sizing can lead to returns, many such retailers have taken steps to avoid sizing confusion.

For example, all 60 lines of clothing from HSN conform to identical size standards -- unlike many department or specialty stores, where every line may have its own sizing structure, Saltzman says.

"Because shoppers can't try things on, we had to get over a lot of hurdles, and one way we did that was to give equity to all of our brands," Saltzman says. Since 90% of all fashions sold on HSN are exclusive to the network, Saltzman says, it was easy to lay down the sizing law.

To further ensure a better fit, Saltzman says, HSN tweaked the industry-standard measurements to develop a more relaxed fit, closer to what SizeUSA has found to be the "normal" American shape.

"We started with standard size measurements and we interpreted them to our style, which at HSN is a nice, full fit, not skimpy -- it's Middle America, demographics of age 45-plus, " Saltzman says. That even includes anything containing spandex!

Online retailer QVC also has standardized sizing across all its lines -- but the two networks don't share the same sizing structure. So if you're a 2X on HSN, don't automatically think you're a 2X on QVC; you've still got to check sizing charts, says Simonton.

For online purchasers, HSN, Lands' End, and some other retailers also allow you to create a virtual model of your body so you can "try on" clothes online. You enter your body measurements, and a computer program builds a 3-D, on-screen model of you. Then when you click on outfits you like, you get an idea of how they look on your body size and type.

"It can show you how you're going to look from all angles," Saltzman says. And that can go a long way in taking the sting out of that first glance in the full-length mirror!

Still another answer to the fit dilemma comes by way of a California-based company called Archetype Solutions. The brainchild of Rob Holloway, former CEO of Levi Strauss and Co., this computerized system takes body measurements and other details supplied by the shopper, including style and fit preferences, and turns it all into a custom-made garment -- for a price that rivals off-the rack styles.

Sportswear retailer Lands' End was among the first to jump on the Archetype bandwagon and has no regrets.

"We feel Lands' End Custom is revolutionizing the apparel industry -- it's changing the way people shop for clothes online," says Sam Taylor, vice president of custom clothes for Wisconsin-based Lands' End.

Lands' End's custom line began with its men's chinos, but the company quickly added women's chinos, then women's and men's' jeans, men's dress slacks, and now dress shirts for both sexes.

Customers, says Taylor, are clamoring for more. "In 2003, custom sales grew 72% over the prior year, and we're going to continue to expand in many categories," Taylor says.

The price of a pair of Lands' End custom- made jeans (which in women's sizes ranges from a 24- to 44-inch waist and 33- to 50-inch hip) is $54. If they don't fit the way you like, Lands' End will take them back and try again until you're happy. Once you are, the pattern is stored and you can reorder any time -- the same style, or another one -- knowing that you'll get the same made-for-you fit.

Lands' End has been joined by, which offers custom jeans, chinos, and shirts through its "Target to a T" program. More retailers are expected to jump on the bandwagon soon.

Whether or not you're ready to spring for custom made, here are some simple tips that can help anyone find their best fit:

  • Check manufacturers' sizing charts. These are often available online, along with helpful hints on how to take your measurements correctly (Here's one: Get a friend to help).
  • Try clothes on whenever possible, wearing the same type of undergarments and shoes you'll be wearing with them.
  • Enlist the aid of salespeople, who may be knowledgeable about how different lines and items fit.
  • If you find a line of clothing that fits well, stick with it.