The rise of S-M-L clothing sizes is good for customers’ self-esteem, but bad for fit

How does this work again?
How does this work again?
Image: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

One more consequence of “soft dressing,” beyond seeing your co-workers in yoga pants? According to the Wall Street Journal, US retailers are increasingly replacing numerical sizing—dresses sized zero to 16 and beyond, for example, or men’s waist sizes from 28 and up—with the somewhat vaguer sizing system of small, medium and large that they call “alpha sizing.”

Those sizes (as well as XS and XXL, among others) have long been used for teeshirts and stretchy casual clothing (or as the Wall Street Journal calls it, “ath-leisure” wear). Now, higher-end designers are adopting the less specific sizing structure as well, combining two or three numerical sizes into a single letter size. Many brands are also utilizing stretchy fabrics with more give, making precise sizing less essential.

So rather than buying a pair of $1,195 white leather overalls in a size 8, a customer might purchase a medium—or, more likely with the advent of “vanity sizing,” a small. As Michelle Smith, the overalls’ designer, told the WSJ, customers are happier to purchase an item if its sizing makes them feel slimmer. If customers have to go down a size, she explained, ”they are not going to be upset. They feel skinny. If they have to go up the other way, they may not be too pleased.” (Customers are also getting bigger; a size zero today would have been an eight in 1978.)

There are plenty of upsides to alpha sizing for manufacturers and retailers: it makes production less complicated, with fewer different-sized items to manufacture; it makes online shopping easier, with customers less likely to purchase two sizes and return one; and stores have found that men, who are increasingly shopping for their own clothes, prefer alpha sizing, a representative of Old Navy told the WSJ.

For style-conscious customers, however, alpha sizing can make finding the perfect fit a chore. Just as with number sizes, which vary in different companies, and can run bigger or smaller from store to store, there are no universal alpha sizing standards, which is why one brand’s XS may be another’s M. But as companies such as Gap increase their global reach, they are implementing global size standards to match. (Gap uses both numerical and alpha sizing, depending on the garment.)

“When I started, we had a European fit, the Japanese fit and American fit,” recalled Gap CEO Glenn Murphy on a May 23 earnings call. Now, he said, the company is adapting the American fit to become what he called “the global fit.” When it comes to alpha-sizing, that “global fit” may mean that stores in Japan, where customers tend to be smaller, are stocked with sizes XXXS to L, while a customer in the US could buy the same sweatshirt in size XXXL. Murphy was crystal clear in the reasoning behind Gap’s global fit: “Simplification to our business.”