Put Your Big Girl Pants On – The Arbitrary Numbers of Women’s Fashion

Three pairs of women size 33 jeans and a mans size 34x32

Despite it being thoroughly smashed to bits, the beauty myth of the zaftig, size 16 Marilyn Monroe persists, especially on Tumblr and Instagram, where not a day goes by when one does not see some meme-enhanced image of the late Ms. Monroe complaining about how she was (or by today’s standard is—the myth is prone to fluctuation) a size sixteen.

Fact is: she wasn’t. Not even close. Not by today’s standards; not by standards of the day. Not by British, American, European, Asian, or Yanomomi size standards. At 5’5” and between 118-140 lbs, with measurements around 35-22-37, our girl Marilyn was an exaggerated hourglass with a 19.6 – 23.3 BMI who would fit somewhere between a standard size small or sizes 4-6 today.

The argument that she’s a “British” size 16 is equally unfounded. British sizes are about two sizes smaller than US sizes, so a size 4 US tends to be a size 8 UK. When I did a semester abroad in Manchester, I learned quickly that my size 12 body needed a size 16 at Next or Debenhams. And, as for the argument that sizes were different back then, due to modern vanity sizing, Sadie Smith at Jezebel took that into account as well when debunking this claim, “Depending on the designer, a British 10 might translate as an 8, a 6, or even a 4. And vintage clothes of that era were cut slim, intended to be worn with serious girdles, so take this into account.”

Marilyn Monroe - Not Size 16
Secrets and lies! Why is it always secrets and lies?

So, other than Healthy At Every Size propaganda, why does this myth persist?

Because shopping for women’s clothing is impossible.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve watched with envy as Jaime, as have many boyfriends past, decides he needs a new pair of jeans, walks into a store, selects his size from the rack, (32×32) and walks out, fit untried. If he’s concerned his weight has fluctuated since his last purchase, he’ll wrap a measuring tape around his waist to verify the circumference, and then adjust the size he selects based upon that.

I do not believe the man has ever stepped foot in a changing room, other than stories from his pre-Elizabeth past, when he was accompanied by a previous girlfriend for some decidedly family unfriendly extracurricular activities.

If I could wear pants cut for a man, I absolutely would shop this way. But, me and Marilyn, we share similar hourglass proportions, just mine are slightly… inflated: 5’2” and 45-34-45. And much like society’s inability to agree on what size the famous, gentleman-preferred blonde wore, fashion simply cannot agree what size I wear.

There is some standardizing, generally, among brands who share the same corporate parent. In Banana Republic, Old Navy, and GAP (parent company: GAP Inc.) I’m a solid size 14, with an occasional slip into size 12 if I’ve lost a few pounds and that particular garment happens to have been sewn a little larger. (Fun fact: garments have about a ½” seam allowance.)

But, walk next door to Lululemon, and none of that is relevant. I’m a comfortable size twelve pant and XL in outerwear, and a size Oh Hell, No! in tops, bras, and panties. Only through sheer determination to not have the tall, lithe sales associate, Cadyn—helpfully waiting outside of the dressing room door upon which she’d cheerfully written “Elizabeth” in curvy, round, Catholic-school-girl penmanship—see my exposed breasts strangled by thin strands of fabric, did I manage to extract myself from the strange contraption they insist is a sports bra for curvy girls, called a “Ta Ta Tamer.”

Elizabeth’s Ta Tas: 1 – Ta Ta Tamer: 0

H&M—with its patchwork of in-house brands—has always been a particular nightmare, with skirts fitting my waist ranging from size 10-16, though desperately in need of a good hem at every size, while tops and pants are absolutely impossible to fit. Every shirt that I can squeeze my 36E-G breasts in (yes, they can fluctuate about a cup and a half depending on where I am in my cycle)  tends to be in the shapeless, XL size, though always so long as to hit me well below my natural waist, appearing to be more of a tunic than a blouse.

This is deliberate.

In women’s fashion the idea is that the larger the size, the larger the person—in all directions. Like blowing up a balloon, the reasoning seems to be that as a person’s width becomes larger, their height must also increase proportionally. Petite clothing often means that the clothes are cut to fit a woman with a flatter chest and smaller hips, so that a size 14 petite (if you can find such a large “petite” size) doesn’t just feature a shorter inseam, but is narrower in the shoulders, chest, and hips as well.

Fashion designer Angela Gao, of ANGG New York, tells Parsons students, “…the length of the size will also matter because a person bigger will probably need a longer length than a petite person.”

Bite my short, fat ass, Angela.

I know that the fashion industry doesn’t want to hear it, but we, the people of diminutive stature, can, in fact, be “bigger.” The bane of my existence is trying to find jeans that will not have frayed hems after one day because they’ve been dragging on the ground but will also be large enough to fit across my Kardashian-sized ass—which is odd, considering said sister body-proportions Kim is 5’3”.

The episode of South Park, “The Hobbit,” immediately is called to mind for some reason, and I wonder where the hell hobbits like me and Kim and Nikki Minaj (5’2”) are supposed to shop for clothes that will fit all of our thick and juicy hourglass bodies without making us look like grade school girls who’ve raided Mom’s closet.

ET - The First Drag Queen
I’m a grown up!

There is an old adage that fashion models are thin because designers make their garments to look good while hanging in a shop—and this often seems to translate into the ready-to-wear market, where pants that fit my hips gape at my nipped in waist; shirts that fit my voluminous breasts then hang straight down rather than tapering in, so that a police officer, helping me from my car after an accident a few years back, asked if I was pregnant and would like to go to a hospital to be examined. Even my beloved Banana Republic lost my business several years ago, when they decided that their oh-so-comfortable no-iron button-down oxford shirts would no longer feature darts in the waist, which kept shirts that fit at my midsection from gaping open when stretched across my breasts.

Back at the 29th Street Mall, I’ve given up on H&M – the clothes are cheap, but the amount it will cost me to have them tailored to look like they belong to me would make them far more expensive than the Gap—and moved on up the street to Anthropologie, a brand whose ideal customer, according to their own internal documents, is “female, about 30-45 years old…married with kids or in a committed relationship…. She is into cooking, gardening, and wine… She is relatively fit” which should mean clothing not meant for a tiny woman-child with a pre-pubescent, clothes-hanger body.

But the clothing sizes have become deceptive. Instead of a standard size—0 to 14—their pants are sized 24 to 32, which would appear to be, much like men’s clothing, waist measurements.

In women’s clothing, however, that is not the case.

At Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing company with a large retail store down in Denver, I can fit a 32 pant, with a 33 being far more comfortable, especially on my highly-bloated PMS days, despite the fact that a seamstress taking in my size 12 McQ dress noted my waist was 34” at the time, and I’ve noticed my waist can balloon up to 36” in the days before my period. A tape measure and a few straight pins helped me pin down the discrepancy—the waistband on my Uniqlo size 33 boyfriend jeans measured 39.5 inches!

On my size 33 boot-cut GAP jeans? 41 inches.

Banana Republic size 33 mid-rise jeans? 39 inches.

Jaime’s 34×32” jeans? 34 inches.

This is madness! – No. This. Is. FASHION!
“This is madness!” – “No. This. Is. FASHION!”

No, that size 33 isn’t a “European Size” either – a European size 34 is equivalent to a US size 4; a 41 inch “waistband” the sits between the natural waist and hips is around a size 14 US, which would be a European size 44, which is pretty close to the actual width of my hips.

This is called vanity sizing.

“…[S]ome designers or corporations might like to appeal to their customers by making their size smaller than they actually are. So for example, you buy a garment that is size small, and you bring it to my collection and compare with the size small in my collection, it might be a large,” says Angela Gao.

Translation: it’s a “We made up a bullshit number because women are so vain, they’ll buy more if they think they’re smaller than they actually are!” size, with as much rhyme and reason as the regular straight US sizing. The number is designed to mimic the simplicity of the men’s sizing model, lulling women into a false sense of slimness. I’m a 32! My waist must be 32 inches around. I’m not really that big! I’ll buy more!

The thought crossed my mind that maybe, just maybe, like the difference between the cuts in the Uniqlo and GAP jeans and their differing waistband sizes, there is a simple pattern to this madness—lower waist jeans means wider waistband. Which means I can squeeze into a size 32. But, unfortunately, while so many trends from the 90s have come back around this cycle, bootcut and flare jeans, which are made for curvy women and are oh-so-forgiving, have not. Skinny and so-called boyfriend jeans are harsh mistresses, and I cannot even squeeze my thigh into one leg of Paige Premium Denim; Citizens of Humanity may as well be Citizens Against Huge Manatees. Nothing fits this bootilicious body, despite the assurance from Cosmo that boyfriend jeans are, “totally figure-flattering because of the way they taper at the bottom.”

Elizabeth Williamsberg modes why Boyfriend jeans are NOT universally flattering
“The loose fit is flattering on just about every body type.” SECRETS AND LIES!

My last stop—my last hope—is Lucky Jeans at the end of the street. It’s a long shot. The last time I stopped into a Lucky Jeans store—an outlet shop, in Jackson, New Jersey—I left squeezing my eyes closed tightly and mumbling something about allergies, despite it being the middle of an unseasonably-cold March. I was 40 pounds lighter, and still nothing fit. A size 32 was much more like a men’s 32, and my hips simply couldn’t squeeze through the narrow opening to even explore whether or not my waist would slide in gracefully or squeeze through like Play-Doh through a Fun Factory machine.

PlayDoh Fun Factory Machine squeezing PlayDoh
Actual image of me trying on Lucky Brand jeans.

I thumbed through the racks and looked at the shelves, searching for anything close to my size, happy to see that there are some straight-sized jeans as well as this weird 18-32 sized clothing that doesn’t make any sense to my mind.

But sadly, there is nothing above a size 32; no straight sized jeans above a 12.

Dejected, I turn to leave the store.

“Can I help you with something?” the sales associate asked, her face clear, her body lean, her hair perfectly coiffed, like she just stepped out of an oversized Abercombie and Fitch ad.

“You don’t carry a size 14, do you?” I asked.

“What style?”

“Any.”

She disappeared into the stockroom momentarily, then returned emptyhanded; I immediately read the disappointment on her face from losing a sale to the only customer in the store.

“I’m sorry, we don’t have any in that size. Have you tried our website? They have a larger range of sizes online than we carry in store.”

Of course.

Of course, in fitness-obsessed, crunchy-mama, health-living-everything Boulder, there isn’t going to be a great demand for larger sizes, and there simply is no reason for a small, boutique shop to carry sizes to cater to niches that would rarely visit them. Of course I’ve struck out completely in this failed experiment—my demographic simply is not the demographic of the area!

At home, I log into the website of the stores I visited. H&M has an extended size line including plus size jeans that go up to a straight size 26. Anthropologie has no larger sizes, but there are petite sizes available, though these still stop at size 32. Similarly, Lululemon does not go above the store sizes online—a fact that should not be surprising from a company whose CEO once said that his clothing is not for women whose thighs rub together. GAP offers sizes that go up to a straight-size twenty and offers inseams in short, regular, and tall—in the past, I’ve found short to be a bit TOO short, while regular length will absolutely require a tailor, but at least here there are options.

Then, at Lucky Brand, I found it. The holy grail. The invisible pink unicorn. My white whale.

Sizes 14-24 WP.

I was so excited, I let out a tiny scream.

Women’s Petite.

This is in-fucking-credible.

Of course, as I’ve discovered after placing many orders on Rent the Runway, a Woman’s 14 and a straight size 14 are two very different beasts. While a 14 in GAP may fit me very closely and turn into muffin top madness right before my period, a 14W from Nicole Miller or Badgly Mischka fits like it was made to be my period clothing—anything larger, and I would need to pin it to fit.

Before ordering, I decided it would be best to see what measurements correspond to each WP size, just to make sure I ordered the correct item. I pulled up the sizing chart from the page for the style of jeans I was eyeing. Knowing how other brands cut both women’s and petite sizing, I wanted to know what the cut was going to be like on a women’s petite.

There are straight sizes with corresponding measurements.

There are women’s sizes with corresponding measurements.

There is nothing for petite or women’s petite.

I decided to just buy a 14, 16, and 18 and see how they fit. Then, as soon as my laptop pinged and opened up the order confirmation, panic set in. Angela Gao’s words ring in my head.

What if “WP” doesn’t stand for Women’s Petite? What if those aren’t straight sizes? What if 14, 16, and 18 are more that weird fake men’s sizing?

Panic set in.

Back on the Lucky Brand website, I scanned the order confirmation page; to my horror, I noticed the order said I’d ordered the “Ginger Boot Petite” – there was no mention of WOMENS anywhere on the item. My heart raced; my breathing quickened.

I opened up a chat window.

“I’m looking at the Ginger Boot Petite jeans, but I don’t know which size will fit me, and I do not see sizing information for petite or women’s petite on the size chart. Can you tell me – a 14 petite… is that a straight size, or is that a waist band size?”

“That is the waist size.”

“You mean, like a size 32?”

“Yes.”

I tried to do the math in my head. If a size 32 roughly comes out to a thirty-eight-inch waist, what would a size 14 come out to? A sixteen-inch waist? Wasn’t that the same size waist Scarlet O’Hara had… in a corset, after being pulled, pushed, shoved, and squeezed by a series of slaves?

Then, I remembered my experience in the Lucky Brand outlet store, where a size 32 had been almost exactly a 32” waist.

Could there really be a woman in this world whose waist was the same circumference as my bicep?

Fuck my life.

I asked to cancel my order.

This, apparently, was not possible. Because different items ship from various distribution centers, the faceless chat customer service reprehensive explained, they could put in a request to cancel the order and issue a refund, but my item may ship before the correct distribution center received the cancelation. I would know whether or not my order was cancelled within 24-48 hours, when I’d either receive an email confirming shipment or cancellation.

Fabulous.

That evening, I received a shipment confirmation.

I looked at the receipt.

At least nothing I purchased was Final Sale, I thought.

Five days later, a package arrived on my doorstep.

I ripped it open and held the first pair of jeans up, scrutinizing them for whether or not I should attempt to wear them.

They looked large enough.

Slowly, I slid a leg into one side, then the other. They easily glided over my hips without the usual dressing room shuffle, and buttoned easily.

I looked at the long, black size sticker running down the front of my leg.

14 WP.

I grabbed my tape measure.

The waistband measured 39.5 inches.

Even the customer service representative for Lucky Brand had gotten it wrong.

“ The answer? There’s no “exact” number,” wrote Sadie Stein, when covering the Marilyn Monroe size myth.  “All we can know for sure is that Marilyn Monroe was a gorgeous, dramatically curvaceous woman with a physique heavier and curvier than that which is en vogue now.”

It seems, that’s not just true for Marilyn—in today’s fashion market, this is true for every woman.

 

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