After years of frustration in the dressing room, Americans may finally have a shot at better-fitting clothes. A survey released this week challenges current standards for sizing - evolved from measurements that date back to at least World War II - and opens the door for designers to make products that look good on more than just a hanger.
The survey reveals what anyone can see by walking down the street: People are getting wider and slightly heavier, especially as they age. Women in particular are moving from hourglass to pear shape.
That might not be cause for celebration, but the availability for the first time in recent years of exact measurements - across multiple ethnic groups - is prompting optimism about the prospects for happier shoppers.
"That the data exists is absolutely a momentous occasion," says Cindy Istook, a professor of apparel design and technology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "Now somebody has to use it."
Already, at least one of the survey's sponsors is figuring out how to incorporate the information into its clothing lines. "This is probably going to take us a year or more to do correctly," says Andy Van, manager of quality assurance at JCPenney Co., based in Plano, Texas. He foresees a phase-in of new sizing. Manufacturing details - such as altering patterns - and customer-relations issues will have to be sorted out. Changes might mean a company would pick up some disgruntled shoppers, but lose those who formerly fitted into the clothes just fine.
Then there's the ego factor: "Suppose you think you're an 8 but you're really a 12? Pretty tough for me to tell you [that]," he says.
Frustration over fit has reached a significant level in the United States in recent years. A 2003 survey of consumers by Kurt Salmon Associates found that 60 percent of consumers say they have difficulty finding clothes that fit well.
"The average size for any person ... seems to be a little bigger, but the ready-to-wear hasn't kept pace with that," says Shelley Gibson, of Fort Worth, Texas, while shopping in Manhattan this week. "It takes me a long time to find what I'm looking for."
The fit problems date back to the middle of the 20th century, says Susan Ashdown, an associate professor of textiles and apparel at Cornell University. That was about the time department stores stopped offering alteration services, she points out.
Today, practices in the industry for determining size are complicated. Some companies use "vanity sizing," labeling a size 10 a size 8, to flatter customers. And often designers and retailers develop their own measurements for sizes based on the fit of their customers.
Professor Ashdown says the variety of fit across companies is good because it means more options for consumers. Even with better information about the shape of Americans, it's unlikely that measurements will ever match from one brand to the next, say those in the industry.
"There's no way a Tommy Hilfiger is going to have the same sizing as a Wal-Mart," says Van, explaining that companies are interested in keeping their customers to themselves. "Selfishly, on our part, we want to have brand loyalty."
More likely, the SizeUSA survey, with its more than 200 measurements and 20 body shapes, will be used to target certain markets. For example, bust sizes for white women run from 38 inches (for ages 18-25) to 42 inches (ages 56-65), according to the results. But bust sizes for black women range from 40 inches to 44 inches. Similarly, Hispanic women tend to have smaller hips (41 to 44 inches) than black women (43 to 46 inches).
Retailers may need to fine-tune the models they use for their patterns, suggests Jim Lovejoy, director of the SizeUSA project for TC2, a company in Cary, N.C. "If they're using a white fit model, then how are they grading their patterns and their sizes to meet the black market?"
Three-D scanning devices were used to take the measurements of more than 10,000 people around the country and process them. These devices more accurately convey size and shape information than the old-fashioned, time-consuming measuring tape.
One of the significant things the survey revealed is how different average measurements vary from the current standards set forth by the American Society for Testing and Materials, especially for women.
The average size for a woman has been considered an 8, with ASTM standards listing that size as a bust of 35 inches, a 27-inch waist, and 37.5 inch hips. Overall, 69 percent of women in the survey had hips greater than 40 inches, "so that puts them up into size 12, 14 rather than size 8," says Lovejoy.
According to the survey, fewer than 10 percent of women who should be a size 8 actually were, based on their measurements. Most of the women who had a size 8 bust had an average waist of 29.6 inches and average hip of 38.6 inches.
One way to address that problem might be to identify garments by shape within a size 8, Lovejoy suggests. "I might have a size 8A, and the A would mean that it flares out a little bit ... so I have a little wider waist and a little wider hips."
As for men, although their waists and hips are getting bigger with age, the average of their measurements came out closer to the current national average for men of a 40-inch chest, a 34-inch waist and a 40-inch hip, says Lovejoy.
Even with some in the industry salivating over what this information represents, it could be years before consumers can purchase clothes that reflect the new numbers. Companies have to analyze the figures and then promote any changes they make, says Istook. "I hope it'll be faster than that, because I think in the long run, they will plan to do a sizing study every 10 years or so, and they have to be able to respond a little bit quicker than a couple of years after that."
• Kimberly Chase contributed to this article.