Feature

The shape of the nation? It’s anybody’s guess

Mannequin

We recently asked the question on Facebook: ‘Do you think there should be a standardized approach to sizing in Australia?’ It got you talking – and it got us thinking. Why don’t we have consistent clothing sizes in this country?

The most recent national standard, the Australian Standard Size Coding Scheme for Women’s Clothing, was withdrawn in 2008 because it was no longer considered relevant. Drawn up in 1959, it was based on data collected in 1926.

“The sizing standard was very outdated, not reflecting the changes of body shape in the population and the broad spectrum of the demographic,” says the Council of Textile & Fashion Industries of Australia (TFIA). “People today are taller, broader in the shoulders, bigger around the waist as well as from much more varied ethnic backgrounds. A size 10 is completely different now than it was in 1959.”

Without an industry standard, Australian designers and clothing manufacturers have been left to develop individual scales based on their own sales data and market research. The frustration from a consumer point of view is the discrepancy between stores – meaning a size 12 might be a 14 in one and a 10 in another. And as for online shopping, it’s not unusual to buy three and send two back in order to get the fit right.

Target

Last year Target used Alvanon 3D scanning machines to conduct a national survey of its customers.

“The issue with everyone using different fit models and assessing size variations based on their customers or what they might like to think of as ‘their’ size, is the inaccuracy,” says the TFIA. “Consumers get confused by the fact they have to know what size they are according to different stores, different countries, even just different seasons as the sizing isn’t always consistent.”

Industry commentators argue that part of the issue is our country’s growing waistline and the fact that some retailers have chosen to add centimetres to their measurements to make their customers feel better about themselves. Known as “vanity sizing”, the rationale is that flattering the shopper into thinking they are a size smaller than they actually are will persuade them to spend more and choose that store over one where they are a larger size.

“Vanity sizing is a huge issue in the industry,” says fashion agent Phoebe Garland. “It’s largely driven by the consumer, as women are quite often reluctant to go up a size. I think better customer service at the retail end – helping consumers to understand fit and guiding them as to which labels and styles suit their body shape – would solve half the sizing issue problem.”

But there are also other factors at play and some argue that meeting the needs of the customer with well-fitting garments is far more important than the number on the label.

“We’re not sure the consumer wants to be flattered by smaller sizes but of course for stores it’s a bit of a draw card if they can make their customers feel thinner than they are,” says the TFIA. “It’s not so much about ‘feel good sizing’, rather knowing who your customer is. You may find you can sell a whole lot more of those great trousers by just tweaking the waist measurements or the crotch length to reflect your customer’s body shape.”

And to do that you need to know what that body shape is and what your customer looks like. Australia is behind the rest of the world in this area, with large-scale surveys being conducted overseas over the past decade to assist clothing manufacturers and benefit consumers.

“The TFIA has always been very eager to push for revisiting a national sizing standard. It’s an enormous undertaking requiring time and funding but it’s worthwhile,” says the TFIA. “Other countries have certainly recognised the importance of a current and relevant sizing standard and there should be no reason Australia doesn’t follow suit.”

AlvaFormHowever, many in the industry are skeptical that a sizing standard would work as there are too many variables when it comes to body shape and argue that it would be impossible to enforce.

Adds Phoebe Garland, “A size 8 or 10 in a mature label is a lot different to size 8 or 10 in a younger label. I don’t think it’s possible to have standard sizing. What is standard to a 16-year-old is different to a 66-year-old. It’s a nice idea in theory but I don’t think it can be implemented.”

So while the jury’s out on whether a national sizing standard could work and would even be helpful – one thing everyone can agree on is that retailers would benefit from a better understanding of their customers’ size and body shape.

And that’s where new technology comes in, with 3D body scanning making it easier than ever before to capture accurate measurements. Last year Target spent $1 million on the technology to measure the dimensions of 20,000 men and women as part of a national survey to update their designs.

Says the TFIA, “A sizing standard is one thing but understanding fit and flattering shape is another. So reading measurements to create good patterns and well-fitted clothing is much needed.”

dummyAgrees Kellaborate’s Jo Kellock, “If we had a national database on the profile of the population, it would benefit everyone. Not just TCFs but interior designers, automotive designers, anybody who works with a product that has any relationship with the human body. At the moment we usually start with a guess and that just slows down the process. In terms of productivity this would be of enormous benefit to industry.”

“If we could help Australian businesses to better know and understand the size of their customers, it could be used as a competitive advantage.”

While many have lobbied for years for a national standard and public domain database, it has always been rejected in terms of funding and logistics. But with multi-stakeholder support it could be done argues Jo.

“There is merit in setting up this framework and if everybody contributed it needn’t be that expensive – it could even be self-funding,” she says. “And the really exciting thing is that while the rest of the world has done one-off surveys and walked away for 15 years, we could have an ongoing survey and create a better model. We could do it better than the rest of the world have done it.”

For the moment though, apparel technicians will have to keep looking to other sources such as overseas data and even a little bit of guesswork to inform their practice.

“What we need is real data based on real measurements that will help and support our knowledge and then we can start to design for those body shapes,” concludes Jo. “Instead of a coathanger.”

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