A new US study aims to help the clothing industry wise-up to the body size and shape of today's American consumers. Following the example of similar UK research, Textile/Clothing Technology Corporation is using 3D body measurement technology to scan 12,000 men and women across the nation over a period of nearly a year. Tania Casselle reports.

Sponsors for the SizeUSA project include Sara Lee, Lands’ End, Levi Strauss, JC Penney, Liz Claiborne, Milliken and Dillards, who will have first access to the information when the study is completed in summer 2003. The data will later be sold to other interested parties, and after five years will be freely available in the public domain.

Current information on average US sizing is hopelessly out of date, relying on a 1941 study of 10,000 young white women and a post-World War II survey by the military of service personnel, who at that time were mainly white men.

“Women and ethnic groups have been under-represented,” says Jim Lovejoy, industry director of Textile/Clothing Technology Corporation, or [TC]². “Our American study is covering six age groups, both sexes and four ethnic groups. There’s a lot of interest in aiming at Hispanics and urban black youth, but brands are not thinking sizing so much as styling. We’re saying: Here’s what they look like. If you want to design for Hispanic women in a certain age group, if that’s your target, you may not need an Extra Large size for them.”

[TC]² is taking as many as 200 measurements around the body for SizeUSA, using a white light scanning process that takes less than 12 seconds per person.

Specific measurements

Body measurement system

Lovejoy comments that sponsors are asking for specific measurements according to their garment ranges. For example, they can gather measurements for the point one and a half inches below the natural waistline, for low rider jeans, or for a line tilted 20 per cent towards the front, as many women like their low-riders lower on the belly than on the back. If the trend next year is for high-rise jeans, [TC]² can provide those measurements as well.

“We’re building the database as we go along,” says Lovejoy. “Some of our sponsors have asked for quarterly reports. Right now 3,000 people have been scanned, so we are a quarter of the way through.”

He notes that some trends are already becoming evident, including the fact that women are taller, heavier and more pear-shaped than in the old studies. “My guess is that in some of the demographic groups you are going to see a big move, even if overall the average doesn’t change so much.”

Standard sizing “unlikely”

Lovejoy expects that brands will use the information to adjust specifications on sizing, but states that, unlike in the UK, most US manufacturers are not interested in standard sizing. “It’s considered a competitive advantage to have their proprietary sizing, and they don’t want to level the playing field.”

Six individual views of 3D data points

The trend towards ‘vanity sizing’, which started in the 1980s, is another disincentive towards standard sizing.

“A size 8 has got larger,” observes Lovejoy, “so women who’ve gotten larger will stick with that brand. Women who shop a lot know this, but they stay with it.”

Standard sizing is also made unnecessary as consumers are now accustomed to heading for the changing room with a prospective purchase, rather than taking it straight from rack to till. “They really have to try a garment on to see how it looks,” says Lovejoy. “They’ve been trained to try it on.”

Theresa Maag, who is an evaluator in R&D and quality control at JC Penney, agrees that standard sizing in the US is unlikely.

“Manufacturers will size products so a women who ten years ago wore a size 12 is now a size 8. At a dinner party, a women will announce “I’m down to a size 8!” That’s a reason to buy clothing! People who are really small can’t find clothes to fit because everyone has bumped their sizes down, so smaller women don’t have a size!”

As JC Penney is a sponsor of the SizeUSA survey, Theresa Maag co-ordinated the size study in Dallas, and was actively involved in measuring 1800 people in 3 weeks.

“We are trying to evaluate our sizing issues, wondering if we can make clothes that fit people better. We hear statistics that 50 per cent of the population is not happy with fit, but until you have cold facts, it is hard to decide what to do. It would be nice to know, and not go on somebody’s hunch. What do people really measure, what are the ratios for waist and hips, or waist and bust?”

Ethnic size and shape

3D composite data set

Depending on the results of the study, different sizing and shaping for different ethnic groups is “a possibility,” says Maag. “If we look at Caucasian height and weight for a woman of a particular age, and compare that to the Hispanics and they are different, who knows?”

“It’s very hard to predict how this will affect the way we do business,” says Al Shapiro, head of marketing at SizeUSA sponsor Liz Claiborne. “I suspect it may affect the range of sizes offered on a particular product.”

He agrees that the ethnic sizing information could be used for garments aimed at particular audiences, but raises the issue that targeting those products might prove a tricky marketing problem. After all, research shows that Hispanics and African Americans shop in the same stores as Caucasians, so smart promotional and merchandising strategies would be required to successfully position the ranges.

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“Great fit creates loyalty,” concludes Madison Riley, a principal at Kurt Salmon Associates. He believes that the data will be most useful for understanding general trends in body shape, as well as restructuring size scales and adjusting existing sizes. Perhaps the consequences of not finding ‘a great fit’ explains the phenomenon reported by [TC]² of many women signing up to be scanned purely to get the handout sheet with their accurate measurements.

“Some women are now so frustrated with store sizing, they are making their own clothes,” says Jim Lovejoy. “It’s a big movement in the US – and they are making sophisticated garments. We didn’t know how big it was, but we’ve learned that the software they use to make their own patterns requires detailed body measurements, so women are driving three hours just to be scanned.”