Clothing manufacturers lowering sizes to increase profits

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by Diane Moca

ROCHESTER -- Imagine going clothes shopping for the first time in years, knowing you're not in the same shape you were before you had kids but discovering you could still fit into the same size.

I was elated, but I still wondered why I could no longer even button many of my pre-pregnancy clothes, which were the same size as the new clothes I just purchased.

Then my jubilation turned to cynicism after I realized the clothes were bigger, even though the size was the same.

After some research, I learned this practice is called vanity sizing, and it's especially common among high-end designers and retailers.

Fashion industry experts says women's clothing sizes are irrelevent, because they are sometimes determined more by profit than by measurements.

That's why shopping can be fun and exhilarating for some women, while it's frustrating and depressing for others.

"I am very happy that I can wear a size that maybe 10 years ago I wasn't able to wear. And I know I'm not smaller than I was 10 years ago," shared Jane Smikowski, owner of Jeana B Designs. "I think it makes you feel good; maybe it makes me feel a little more youthful and slimmer than I actually am."

"I hate clothes shopping," countered Darice Damata-Geiger, University of Wisconsin-Parkside costume lab supervisor.

She says women are getting bigger, and so are their clothes -- but the garment sizes are getting smaller, especially in certain places.

"Basically, the more expensive the dress, the smaller the size you're going to wear," noted Damata-Geiger.

The Theatre Arts Department professor says it's not unusual to find a dress in a size 6 that fits great in one store and costs less than a similar dress with the same basic style and dimensions that also fits well but has a higher price with a size 4 or 2 on the tag.

She says the practice has become accentuated over time. "A size 2 now was probably a size 8 in 1966," explained Damata-Geiger.

According to sewing pattern sizes, which haven't changed, a 30-inch waist and 40-inch hips should be a size 16. Yet J Crew's size chart lists those measurements as a size 10. And surprisingly, a new pair of pants from Express with those same measurements has a size 4 tag.

"It's just like an ego stroke I guess. Who doesn't want that once in a while?" laughed Smikowski. "I don't feel duped. If they want to call these pair of pants an 8 and they fit me, I'll wear them with pride."

She did say she is not "one of those women who'll pay more for a smaller size. But I know there are women out there who will."

It's a concept many men admit they just don't understand, since men's sizes are based on actual measurements.

Smikowski says she remembers when women's clothes had to be made according to the standard sizing first mandated in the 1950s, which used measurements of women wearing girdles until manufacturers pushed the government to drop those standards in the 1980s.

"Women's body shape was changing from kind of the hourglass that they were forced into by really structured undergarments to more of a pear shape," she explained.

Smikowski says designers were suddenly free to increase dimensions to meet customers' growing girth and decrease sizes to boost the company's bottom line.

"I definitely think it's a marketing thing. It'll get you to buy that item if it's a smaller size," noted Kim Maule, a shopper from Wind Lake buying clothes at New To You consignment boutique in Rochester.

"It feels good, and it motivates me to shop!" added Smikowski.

Women also acknowledge that it's one of the main reasons that shopping takes so long, since they don't know which size will fit.

While most retailers list measurements for their sizes on their website, some do not.

When CBS 58 requested size charts and comments on vanity sizes from large chains like The Boston Store, we did not get an answer.

Damata-Geiger says even theater departments have to contend with the confusion, because mannequin dress forms, which are used to create costumes, keep changing.

A size 12 grew by two inches in the bust and an inch and a half in the waist and hips from 1984 to 2011.

Though the professor says the size on the tag "means very little," female shoppers admit that fitting into a tag with a lower number can be an uplifting event in their day.

Smikowski says she has no hard feelings against manufacturers exploiting women's egos and sensitivities for financial gain.

"It's good business, and nobody gets hurt," she points out.

Health experts note that young women may get so hung up on image and size that it could lead to eating disorders.

Girls are regularly reminded to focus on what's inside.

Yet a tag that will motivate women to pay more for a garment is also on the insde -- since size tags don't show on the outside of most clothes!

If you have a story you'd like us to investigate, send an email to dmoca@cbs58.com.

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