How Big Am I?

Age 15½, height 5′6″, 15″ collar, 35″ chest, small, medium … just what size am I?  The number of different sizing systems can be very confusing.  To quite an extent, different companies use different systems.  Sometimes companies cannot even make up their own mind, sizing some clothes by one system and some by another, even among the same or similar kinds of clothes.  This disarray sometimes makes it difficult to find the right size when buying clothes.

The Various Systems


This is used by a lot of clothing companies for children’s clothing.  It appears that they think a child’s size is directly determined by his or her age.  Since people of the same age vary greatly in dimensions, this system is meaningless.

I have also observed that these systems usually use children who are above the average size for their age.  I may have been slightly below average size for my age, but these systems exaggerated it quite a bit.  When I was a child I certainly didn’t like being labelled as the size of somebody two or three years younger by these systems, and I doubt that other children appreciate it either.  That said, it would make sense for such a scheme to give the child a bit of growing space, but from what I saw it was clearly too much growing space for me under these systems.

Several years ago, a Littlewoods catalogue featured a commentary on the meaninglessness of sizing by age.  At that time, their children’s clothes were sized by height (another not very meaningful system – see below).  However, in a more recent catalogue they have regressed to sizing by age.

Pumpkin Patch has a sizing system that appears to be based on age.  But it circumvents the stupidity by using the word “size” rather than “age”.  Though it still isn’t any more a universal system, this terminological sensibility would seem to imply that they acknowledge sizing by age is meaningless.  As they, even more so being a children’s clothing specialist, certainly ought to understand.  Nonetheless, since going to the shop I came across a Pumpkin Patch catalogue with a ‘size guide’ on some of the pages that went something like this:

Size 2 3 4
Age 2 years 3 years 4 years

What a useless table!  Talk about defeating the whole point of size guides!


This is the other common system for children’s clothing.  While this system is objective, unlike age, it ignores the fact that people of the same height vary greatly in build.  (For that matter, how have companies using this system coped with the childhood obesity epidemic that we hear of these days?)  I have seen almost all kinds of clothes sized in this way, absurdly including underpants.  And why is this system nearly always used only for children’s clothes?


These are subjective terms, often a cause of ambiguity since different companies define these terms differently.  Typically there would be more than three sizes; a fairly typical scale seems to be XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL.  An arbitrary number of Xs can be added to either end of the scale, though such extreme sizes are not very common; even when they are used, one tends to write e.g. 4XL rather than XXXXL.

Some do go quite a bit beyond XS or XXL and are even somewhat lopsided.  Cotton Traders, for example, goes if I remember correctly from S to 5XL.  OK, so compared with what some might consider a ‘medium’ size, there might be more demand for very large sizes than very small ones.  But since the scale obviously isn’t standardised anyway, if you’re going to use this kind of system then why not call the middle one M?  Giving it Large was a short-lived independent specialist of plus-size menswear in Loughborough, claiming 2XL to 8XL as its size range.  Its speciality would of course make such size names as ‘small’ inappropriate, but still, why start at 2?  But here’s the real stupidity: I took a peek at the Giving it Large website (out of pure curiosity since I’m nowhere near a size anybody would call XL with any number in front of it myself), and it even had an online shopping service, but I couldn’t find a sizing key anywhere.

Ladies’ Dress Sizes

Other than measurements, this is the only system of clothing sizes that seems to be standardised in the UK.  Though the term ‘dress size’ is used, the scale is used for tops, skirts and trousers as well, as if such a ‘one size fits all’ (pardon the pun) sizing system makes sense.  But perhaps the main problem is that different countries have different systems, some using numbers of the same order of magnitude as each other.  This makes the system useless or misleading when buying clothes internationally, either while travelling abroad or over the Internet.  And why is there a standard system for ladies’ clothes, while nobody can agree on a standard system to use for men’s and children’s clothes?


These are by far the nearest to a meaningful sizing system.  The usual measurements are chest for tops, and waist and inside leg for trousers.  Men’s shirts are an exception, as they are sized by collar.  Even with this type of system, there are discrepancies.  One company’s 28″ may be another company’s 30″.  (Indeed, my trousers size since I finished growing has varied between companies from 28″ × 30″ to 31″ × 28½″.)  This appears to be a consequence of different measurement methods, which could perhaps be standardised to some extent.

Of course, there is the question of whether to measure the garment itself or the person whom it is intended to fit.  The former, especially, would depend on how tight or loose a fit it is supposed to be.  This may be one cause of discrepancy, but I’m convinced that it’s far from the only cause.

“One Size”

Clothes that are available only in one size typically use this label.  Some merely state that there is one size, meaning that you have no idea if it will fit until you try it on.  Others might state the size as a measurement.  However, a lot have S/M/L labels, which are especially meaningless when there is only one size – small, medium or large relative to what?

So We Have Fitting Rooms…

When shopping for clothes, most people would try them on before buying them, in order to check that they are the right size.  However, while you can try on clothes in a shop, you cannot try on clothes in a catalogue or over the Internet.  OK, so some companies will allow you to exchange a garment if it turns out to be the wrong size, and a few might even allow you to order more than one size so that you can find out which one fits and then return the rest.  Whatever you do, you should always check the returns policy before ordering.  But it is a lot easier if we can know what size we are in the first place rather than going through ordering and returning clothes to find the right size.  This is not easy with the disarray of sizing systems that there is.

Sorting the Men from the Boys

Most shops and catalogues have separate sections for children’s and adults’ clothing.  Along with what sizing system to use, a question that a clothing company often faces is where to draw the line.  Having separate sections has its purposes – somebody looking for clothes for a small child would probably rather not rummage through all the adults’ stuff to get there.  It also enables shops to save space by having smaller fixtures on which to hang the children’s stuff.  However, the separation can also be a cause of difficulties.  Someone of a borderline size might try on various clothes in the children’s section before discovering that everything’s too small and they need to go the adults’ section, or vice versa.  It seems that occasionally there is even a slight void between children’s sizes and adults’ sizes, such that nothing from either section is a good fit.

There are also, to an extent, different styles of clothing associated with children and adults.  I don’t know what the limit is of children (OK, I guess early-mid teenagers mostly) who have reached an adult-like size but still like to wear children’s styles, but I can see that relatively small adults would certainly like access to the more mature styles.  I’m not meaning that every clothing company should make children’s clothes in adults’ sizes and vice versa, but that there should be some overlap between the two size ranges.  This also means that somebody of a borderline size can walk into either section and have a chance of finding something that fits.


It is straightforward to clear up most of this confusion.  It’s too bad that many companies just don’t seem interested in doing it.  All that’s needed is a universal sizing system.  And we already have such a system, namely the aforementioned measurements.  The measurements of chest, waist and inside leg are adequate for the sizing of most items of clothing.  If only all clothes in shops would be labelled most prominently with these measurements, and if only all clothes from all suppliers are orderable by measurement, then clothes shopping would be easier for everybody.

However, even when measurements are used, there are sometimes discrepancies, as I’ve already mentioned.  Indeed, I don’t really know what different methods of measuring the different companies use.  But I suppose a possibility is to stick with measurements of the person whom the clothes are intended to fit, and for sophisticated testing to be carried out directly on people or mannequins that are confirmed to be of the intended size and shape.

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