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The Small-Minded Shopper

August 11, 2003

The U.S. apparel industry is in the midst of a new project to standardize clothing sizes, its aim to make trousers and shirts and dresses fit the proportions of real Americans. Using three-dimensional scanners, the "SizeUSA" census is measuring 10,000 shoppers of six different age groups and the four most populous ethnic groups.

And when it's all done, the census takers explain, more size-12 clothes will fit size-12 people, more 32-waist slacks will fit 32 waists, and all the customers will know their real sizes.

This assumes they really want to know.

A more predictable fit would help consumers who order via mail or Internet, but when it comes to fashion, imagination (the ability to think two sizes smaller) would seem at least as important as reality.

There goes the venerable practice of trying on a range of different-label slacks in the hope of finding a smart manufacturer who lets us pretend to be of trimmer girth.

The industry group conducting the census, Textile/Clothing Technology Corp., says this is the first comprehensive measurement of Americans. Previous studies sized up military personnel for the government, with an eye to designing uniforms. That could explain a lot about American fashion.

Other sponsors are Target, Liz Claiborne, Levi Strauss and Sara Lee, which gets a double whammy out of participating. It can use the results first to find out exactly how its pound cake has changed the shape of America and then to learn how better to cover that shape with its Hanes underwear label.

The census doesn't obligate clothing manufacturers to adhere to its size findings. Liz Claiborne, for one, tells Textile/Clothing Technology that although it will use information about proportions to provide a better fit, it sees its sizing practices as a "competitive advantage." That is, you pay more to feel skinnier. Sounds like a bargain.

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