In her first exclusive for 2020, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, delves further into the industry’s issue with fit when it comes to plus size womenswear. Emma has worked in retail for over 3 decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.
Today’s plus size women’s fashion suffers from a serious problem with fit. This struggle is evinced by an unsustainably high level of e-commerce garment returns (between a half and three quarters of all online sales in this sector are ultimately cancelled), the lion’s share of which is reported by consumers as being caused by ‘poor fit’. The subject of fit has become inextricably linked to the lack of sustainability that fashion (one of the world’s major industries) presently wrestles with.
Fit has repercussions that go way beyond mere aesthetics and customer dissatisfaction: with major disruption to the inventory, wasteful delivery costs and newly manufactured product even ending up in landfill (just to scratch the surface: the list of ramifications is substantial). Failure to obtain accurate apparel fit reliably presents ongoing ecological and product lifecycle damage that cannot be ignored. So, if the industry could just develop dependable ways to ascertain the size of a customer at the point of sale, this would surely cure the problem? No, it would not. For one thing, size is not fit.
Anyone who is active in the plus size (or regular) fashion social media platforms will be familiar with the drum-beat of pressure from consumers, influencers, activists and even the press who are desperate for there to be more ‘standardisation’ of the sizing system of apparel. What they want appears to be reasonable: it is for all items that are sold as the same size to be of the same measurements, believing that this will result in an improvement in the ease of obtaining well-fitting apparel. But it will not. With the present system of sizing, it would almost certainly have the opposite effect, because the very process of standardisation within such a limited range of options is at odds with the diversity of human bodies.
It’s easy to see why consumers are dissatisfied and confused. My research with this cohort shows that any plus size woman may well have a wide array of differently-sized apparel in her wardrobe. Indeed, when ordering online (where she can’t try something on before she buys), she has to make judgements about sizes on a brand-by-brand or style-by-style basis, often using sources such as customer reviews or her own experience of a brand, rather than the retailer’s sizing information. Across brands and styles, the fit requirements of, say, a size 22 woman may vary anything from a size 16 up to a size 26. Attempting to judge by size label alone, it’s practically impossible for a consumer to know for certain which garment to order online, so it is little wonder that the fashion industry is suffering from a major fit-related returns problem.
The lack of consistency of apparel sizing is a symptom of the problem, not the cause, which is that not all women are the same shape. Plus size women’s figures diverge far more than ‘mainstream’ sized women, who themselves vary considerably. The fashion industry doesn’t really know enough about the body shapes of the female plus size population, because the subject has never been studied with a large (or a representative) enough sample. There have been far too few studies of ‘curve’ women, and there is no evidence that those that have been undertaken have actually looked at the entirety of the shapes of the consumer cohort. In general, women who are willing to reveal their fit data to the fashion world are likely to be those who have an ‘acceptable’ body type: that is to say, their bodies are either ‘well-proportioned’, ‘straight’ or ‘hourglass’ shapes. These are the figures that look more aesthetically pleasing to the eye, yet which, in all probability, encompass only half at most of all women. Other shapes, which look less conventionally attractive, such as ‘apple’, ‘pear’ ‘supersize’ and ‘busty’ demand to be better studied in order for the industry to find out all it needs to know about the female plus size consumer.
The present sizing method works on a very small and crude set of sizing, theoretically with no variation in body shape whatsoever; indeed (apart from being able to source garments with personal stylistic fit synergies) the only reason why most women find anything to fit them at all is the lack of precision and random variations that have grown up between brands over time. Through a process of evolution, it is the very mutations in the grading DNA of various brands that have allowed them to exploit whatever niches in the commercial ecosystem to which they are best suited, with consumers learning which brands ‘understand’ them. This is why so many plus size women have to rely on brand knowledge, customer reviews and guesswork in order to buy apparel.
Even were it actually possible, standardising sizing would mean that all items of apparel (from every brand) would be manufactured with precisely the same measurements, doing away with this variety and creating a homogenised situation that would be less fair than ever. It would be comparable to a cosmetics company producing a foundation for all women’s skin tones by offering just one ‘average’ colour. The resulting single-shade option would only suit a tiny number of women, disenfranchising most of the customer base. If it sounds ridiculous to do this with skin tone, it is equally so with body shape: yet this very ‘one grading fits all’ system that is (albeit somewhat theoretically) what the fashion industry is deploying to fit customers. It is a situation that urgently calls for change.
Our society is highly censorious of women whose bodies differ from the ‘beauty standards’ of the day, so negativity is disproportionately directed at those with particularly divergent body shapes. These women therefore experience an avalanche of opprobrium, with the mainstream media, strangers, social media (even friends or family members) directing health-vigilantism, ridicule or critical judgements towards their bodies. Some divergently-shaped women suffer a loss of body confidence, becoming extremely uncomfortable with having their physiques monitored and a significant number do not even want to know their own measurements. This means that, in order to find out about their fit requirements, the fashion industry needs women who may be dissatisfied, secretive, embarrassed and perhaps even ashamed of their bodies to cooperate with having their fit data harvested. Obtaining the participation of enough of this cohort is an extremely difficult ask.
It is, in all likelihood, a better idea to approach consumers whilst they are participating in an activity when they look on body monitoring and analysis in a more positive light. For example, my studies have shown that those who are engaged in what may be termed ‘body transformation’ are often far more accepting of physical examination. Looking at scans taken from the health and fitness industry, it’s clear that these have offered a far wider, more representative range of body shapes than those gathered by fashion studies. It might be time to take a more imaginative approach about where to seek volunteers for the examination of the sizes and shapes of the female population.
The effort will be well worth it: with modern scanning techniques, the technology is available to make much more penetrative studies of the body shapes of this astonishingly diverse cohort. What the apparel industry needs to accomplish it is the acceptance that body shape diversity is at the core of the fit problem, and the will to do something about it. The stakes are high enough to warrant making radical changes to e-commerce fashion: the returns issue is a significant problem assailing not only the plus-size sector, but all womenswear. Anything that provides a fit for plus size customers will also do so for all fashion consumers, of every size and sex.
Once the data has been obtained, in order to create a sizing system that is better suited for online retail, as can be anticipated, it will be necessary to develop one that is far more complicated than the model presently in use. Given the wide number of differing body contours (which is virtually infinite), in the beginning it will be necessary to group women into a workable range of body shapes (say, six or seven), and then, possibly three heights (petite, average and tall), taking average measurements of each group to create a grading. Even with this (fairly gross) simplification, already there are 18 types of grading. This is not size: this is body shape (which can probably be simplified down to about 12 for separates, when taking similarities between various ‘half body zones’ into account). So, if the plus size womenswear size range started at size 16 and went up to size 30 (just 8 sizes in the present system), the result would be a variety of around 100 differing sizes and gradings. If this were expanded out to include ‘mainstream’ apparel sizes (which would be preferable), there may ultimately be something like 150 differing fits, as opposed to the 12 (official) sizes that exist now. This is only one imagining of how a new methodology might be developed: there are many others, but they will be nearly all of equal or greater complexity. Clearly, this is problematic, and goes a long way to explaining why, as yet, this has been a nettle that the fashion industry has not been overly keen to grasp.
Suggestions as to how exactly to take such a grip will probably be as varied as is the industry itself. Larger companies may choose to stock an inventory with a full range of fits (I suggest calling them ‘fits’ rather than sizes) and medium-sized concerns may select a number of whichever lines of body shape customisation they believe suit their consumers best. Luxury brands might develop individual customisation or even bespoke manufacture. Tiny brands will possibly choose one (or perhaps two) body shapes to specialise in (much like the mutations in fit that happen today; indeed, it will probably be possible to simply impose the new fit denomination on much existing inventory by simply analysing what is already there). The difference will be that all consumers will know the exact measurements of apparel before they buy.
Complicated as it sounds, the cure need not be worse than the illness. Technology is rapidly being developed to obtain fit details from customers at the point of sale, and new digital manufacturing processes are capable of producing the smaller runs of diverse fits that the inventory would require in order to supply a far more complex system. New procedures will also be able to analyse how styling alters the measurements of garments which in turn feeds into the individual consumer fit profile. For the first time, apparel could be constructed to extremely precise measurements in a clear and sane manner, standardised across all brands. The consumer would buy online with a high degree of confidence in fit.
There is no need for the fashion industry to be hidebound by outdated systems, struggling eternally with an unsustainable level of garment returns and a heavy carbon footprint. The slow creeping towards a better, more efficient system has begun, but is likely to become a jostling, highly competitive stampede as the third decade of the millennium gets into full swing.