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Your pants are lying to you. You don’t have a 36″ inch waist, even if the label in your jeans says “waist 36.” Your waist probably measures closer to 38″.

I’m sure many people reading this (particularly women) are thinking, “no shit,” but if you were unaware of “vanity sizing,” it’s a shocking revelation. What does anything mean when a pair of jeans labeled “W:36” doesn’t measure 36” around the waist?

While The American Society for Testing and Materials maintains a set of “Body Measurement for Apparel Sizing” standards that cover every kind of person from “Mature Big Men Type, Size Range 46–64” to “Misses Maternity Sizes Two to Twenty-Two (2-22),” the ready-to-wear apparel industry mostly ignores these (and any other) guidelines. This is partially due to to people, in general, getting bigger but still wanting to wear smaller sizes, but it’s also from the inherent complexity of applying a universal standard to clothing sizes in the first place.

Where vanity sizing came from

Sizing has always been somewhat arbitrary, particularly in women’s clothing. Pre-Industrial Revolution clothing was often hand-sewn in the United States, so there was no need for sizing. Even when the sewing machine (and the sweatshop) was invented in the 1830s, retailers assumed that someone in the household knew how to sew well enough to alter clothing, so sizes like “medium” didn’t have to be exact, and clothing for children could be labeled “size 11,” meaning “about right for an 11 year-old.”

In the 1940s, as society became more mechanized, the US government took on the difficult task of standardizing women’s dress sizes. After a decade or so of research, the National Bureau of Standards created a system by which all women’s clothing could be represented by an even number between 8 and 38, combined with a T, R, or S (tall, regular, or small) for height and a plus or minus to represent “lower body girth.”

The National Bureau of Standards’ research was flawed from the start. Instead of a random sample of all women, they measured volunteers—mostly white women—and later included female members of the Air Force, who were likely more fit than the general population.

The NBS standard was only applied to pattern makers. Clothing manufacturers didn’t have to adhere to it on their labels, so they sometimes did and sometimes didn’t. Because the size numbers never really meant that much anyway, and people were getting bigger, by the 1980s, the clothing industry abandoned the idea of universal dress sizes entirely in favor of, generally, lowering the “number” to flatter customers. So a “size 8” in 2023 might be equivalent to a “size 16” in 1958. But a “size 8” dress wouldn’t have been a perfect fit for everyone who “wore that size” in 1958 anyway.

All this is not even taking into account how much our size can change on a day-to-day basis based on exercise, what we drink and eat, how much sleep we get, and a variety of other factors, which makes standardized sizing even more difficult.

The surprising complexity of pants sizing

Given the range of differences in body types and the insidious influence of capitalism, sexism, and classism, assigning a universally applicable number to a woman’s dress is complex to the point of impossibility, but what about trousers? That should be easy, right? Sadly, it is not easy.

First the good news: The inseam measurement of your chinos is generally an accurate representation of your inseam. But when it comes to your waist, things get complicated.

It seems logical that “waist 38” on the label of a pair of jeans would refer to a waistline measurement of 38 inches, but it doesn’t work that way. Your actual waistline is usually a little larger than the marked waist size on your jeans because pants tend to sit below your natural waistline. If manufacturers were being honest, “W:38” means something like, “these jeans should fit someone with a 38-inch waistline.” Not “these jeans measure 38 inches around the waist of the jeans.” But manufacturers are generally not being honest.

Men are vain too, so just as in women’s clothing, men’s apparel manufacturers size things down to make you feel better about your growing gut. The industry standard is to raise the measurement by one-and-a-half to two inches, so a pant waist labeled “34″ may measure 36 inches, or more. There are really no rules and no way of telling without trying them on, but the general idea is to make you smile and think, “Ah, still wearing the same size I wore in college.”

Online shopping and sizing

If you’re shopping at a brick-and-mortar store, the label on a pair of pants doesn’t matter that much—you’re going to try ‘em on anyway—but when shopping online, it matters a lot. It’s estimated that 30 to 40% of clothing purchased online is returned, mostly due to sizing issues.

In the interest of making clothing fit when you can’t try it on, online retailers often count on the wisdom of the crowd. On Amazon, user reports on whether clothing “fits true to size” are compiled and displayed, but this relies on customers’ personal concept of their own size, so it’s a “usually good enough” number that’s based on perception of what our sizes are rather than an objective measurement.

Where to find pants that are more likely to be labeled correctly

There is one place where you can find pants where the label is closer to the ruler’s measure: uniforms. Vanity and flattery are not important when outfitting workers; accuracy and standardization are. To illustrate the point: These Dickies Men’s Original 874 Work Pants are standard issue for many jobs, so they have a more accurate waistline measurement than other pants. If you look at the Amazon sizing chart, the consensus among consumers is that they “run small.” In other words, other brands might call this 36” waist pant a 34”. Or check out the comments section on the Dickie’s website. Customer after customer reports: “I usually wear size 28 so I ordered a 29. It was a little tight,” and “I KNOW it tends to run ‘small’ on the waist but it exceeds my expectation.”

Ultimately, if you want clothing that fits you perfectly, you’re going to have to get a tailor. Barring that, we all have to settle for “close enough.”

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