The government recently announced that it will roll out a size chart that reflects Indian body measurements by November. Apparel brands will now have to list their India size. But here’s the big question: Will it make shopping for clothes any easier?
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Researched by: Rachel John and Anannya Parekh
First, a quick history of size charts
War ke side effects: For the longest time, humans wore bespoke clothing. The rich employed tailors while the poor stitched their own. But wars in the nineteenth century—The Napoleonic Wars, Crimean War and the American Civil War—required the mass production of uniforms. Soon after, men’s tailors started making clothes in roughly different sizes—which could be altered to exactly fit the customer. Still, no size charts required. Women’s sizing remained individual.
The first size chart: The first universal chart was commissioned in 1939 by the US government—to measure the bodies of its female citizens. The study took 58 distinct measurements of 15,000 women—but the sample had some glaring flaws:
They used only white women in the study, however—even though they took measurements of women of colour, they didn’t include them in the research. Furthermore, the body models were rewarded for participating in the study, and so poorer women were more likely to turn up. As a result, the data set represented a not particularly diverse group of women, even potentially including some who were suffering from malnourishment.
All of this data went into creating the first size chart issued in 1958. It had numbers from 8 through 38—and a set of letters (T, R, S) and symbols (+, -) to represent height and girth. Apart from the shortcomings of the sample, the chart also assumed an hourglass figure—since women wore girdles. In reality, only 8% of American women fit that body shape.
Vanity sizing: But by the 1980s, brands had cast aside the universal chart—realising that women are less likely to buy a dress if they fit into a larger size:
[G]arment companies began downgrading size labels and adding lower numbers like 2, 0 and later even 00. A waist measurement that would have previously been categorised as a size 12 became an 8… This is how sizing became a marketing tool, instead of simply being a vehicle for sizing (which it wasn’t very good at in the first place).
Today, Marilyn Monroe would be a size 6—though she was a 12 in her time. As heroin chic took the world by storm, we got the size 0, then 00—and eventually triple 000. By 2011, the 1995 size 2 had turned into a size 00. And here we remain, even though women’s bodies are getting bigger with each passing decade.
Ok, so what’s with the India size chart then?
The rationale: For years, fashion design researchers have been calling for a large-scale survey to capture the immense diversity of Indian bodies—ranging from Nagaland to Punjab and Tamil Nadu. Right now, Indian brands use some tweaked version of US or UK charts—which doesn’t come close to reflecting Indian proportions. Foreign brands just stick to their sizes and fits—even when they sell in India—or they use sizing borrowed from nearby Asian countries.
Data point to note: 42% of apparel and accessories sold in FY2023 were imported.
The INDIASize project: In 2021, the Ministry of Textiles partnered with National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) to launch a large survey. Researchers measured the bodies of 25,577 people between the ages of 15 and 65 from six different cities —New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Shillong. The cost: Rs 310 million (31 crore).
The methodology: The project will map each person’s body using 3D scanners—taking over 120 “different anthropometric elements, including, height, weight, waist-size, hip-size, and bust-size.” How the mapping works:
The experts have created a sleeveless top and a 3/4th legging for women, and vest and cycling shorts for men as scan suits. "Made from a knitted fabric and lycra (for stretchability), the scan suit is designed to not compress the body’s dimension, and not loose enough to add to the dimension. We have eight size ranges and the size is issued to the person depending upon their chest size," she informs.
The resulting chart will be numerical—like the others.
So will it be easier to shop for clothes?
We’re not sure. A size chart based on measurements of Indian bodies should help brands create clothes that fit better than those tailored to other populations. But it isn’t clear how this will affect foreign brands—which may not make changes just for the India market. Most importantly, the problem with sizing isn’t really about charts at all. Here are the key reasons why shopping for clothes is so frustrating:
One: Lack of range. Plus sizes are hard to get—as are extra petite clothes. Brands continue to ignore wide swathes on both ends of the weight/size spectrum. Even plus-size clothes often fit poorly—because brands simply scale everything up:
“[H]istorically it’s common for plus-size garments to have ‘sleeves that are too long, arm openings that gape,’ and many other fit problems because the human body doesn’t scale the way designs do.”
Two: The listed sizes are widely inconsistent. A pair of size-6 jeans can vary in the waistband by as much as 6 inches. In fact, you can’t even rely on the listed size of garments from the same brand. As one fashion executive confesses: “I always try on four pairs of a size-8 jean in the same brand because they all fit differently.”
Point to note: In response to this madness, some brands have given up sizing entirely—like Brandy Melville which promises “one size fits most.” But as with many trendy labels, in reality, it fits mostly skinny people.
Three: One big reason why shopping is trial and error is because brands tailor their clothes to fit their target demographic:
Think of a brand’s clothing shape, the dimensions of each size, and the amount of ease in their clothes as a form of intellectual property; it’s the secret recipe that makes each brand special and keeps customers coming back. In fact, brands take their sizing and fit so seriously that they create clothes that fit their customers, veering away from published size standards as they gain more data… According to [industry expert Kathleen] Fasanella, “Everybody sizes to their market, to their customer base.” Even if every brand were working with the same size chart, that doesn’t mean they would produce clothing of uniform dimensions.
This is why women continually favour certain brands over another. They know how their bodies fit its clothing. Hence, a size chart is unlikely to change how many brands and designers work.
The bottomline: There are 14 other countries who have their own size charts. Yes, an India chart isn’t a cure to all shopping woes—but at the very least, it will more closely reflect the diversity of our bodies.
Vox, Forbes and TIME magazine are best in unpacking the dilemmas posed by a universal size chart. Business Insider explains why the size chart confusion has spread to menswear. This Medium essay has all the history you need. This older Mint piece is valuable in capturing the challenges faced by Indian designers and manufacturers. This Mint piece looks at why plus-size clothing is so boring.