A Brief History on Why Sportswear and Other Clothing Sizes Fit Differently

A Brief History on Why Sportswear and Other Clothing Sizes Fit Differently


By Connie Phillips

We’ve all had the experience of stepping into a clothing store in search of a cute pair of leggings or other athletic attire to, unfortunately, discover that the pieces that were supposedly in your size, are actually a bit too big or too small. Why is that?

It's not your fault - clothing sizes are just messed up across the board. From brand to brand you'll find that each has its own standardization when it comes to sizing. Take Under Armour for instance - this athletic retailer tends to run small because their style prefers to be a little snug. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but there is a historical reason for the madness. Let's take a look at a little history of fashion and sizing to better understand how this catastrophe evolved.

Fashion Was For The Rich

In Ancient Egyptian days, approximately 3000 BCE - 300 BCE, clothing was gender-neutral with fabric draped over the body and pinned in place. Pretty hard to mess up sizing when everyone is literally wearing a sheet over their body. Hand sewing became accessible to people around the Dark Ages from 476 CE – 1000 CE. The Sacking of Rome was done wearing crude handstitched tunics, for crying out loud.

People’s sizes varied based on how well their local tailor could make clothing. Accurate sizing was, unsurprisingly, a luxury for wealthy people throughout history. Costume designers evolved from expert tailors making over-the-top clothing for the wealthy, first recorded in the early Renaissance 1400s CE time period.

Four hundred years later in the 1860s, the wealthiest designers started founding their own companies called the Houses of Fashion. You might not know the original names (like the House of Worth) but you know some of their successors, like Gucci or Chanel. 

a woman in a pink shirt using a sewing machine
Photo Courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

A Flawed System Was Born

National sizing didn’t come about until the American Civil War in 1861-1865. During the mass production of war uniforms, people studied the measurements and noticed a pattern. The soldier’s full-body measurements could be determined from a single chest measurement. A system was created to streamline assembly. When the war ended, the data was used to manufacture ready-to-wear menswear. 

Women's sizes wouldn't follow until 1939 when a study funded by the US government took 15,000 women's measurements (chest, waist, hips, height, and weight) to find a correlation. But statisticians had trouble finding patterns in the data- maybe, because a woman's hips defy all standardization when it comes to sizing. So they took the height, hip, and weight measurements to form a system of measurements from 8 to 42. Except the data was tainted. Only white women's measurements were used and since the study was paid, it's thought that most of the women came from poor and malnourished homes. And thus the data was used to create a national measurement system in 1958. 

Vanity Sizing Became the New Normal

In the 1960s, Twiggy became the first supermodel and films displayed actresses like Audrey Hepburn, claiming their tiny frames looked "normal" on the screen. Being skinny was in. Women began to feel pressured to be smaller and the wealthy fashion companies saw an opportunity.

In the 1970s-1980s, companies started marking down clothing sizes to appeal to consumers’ vanity to be smaller. A size 14 dress in 1937 used to mean the chest measurement was 32 inches. In 1967 the same measurement meant a size 8. In 2011 it was a size 0. And historically, size 0 didn't exist until 1966. This became known as Vanity Sizing.

A woman wearing a camo crop top measuring her waist
Photo Courtesy of Andres Ayrton on Pexels

The remaining factor in sizing discrepancy is the lack of sizing variations. Women come in all shapes and sizes. But to keep things simple, manufacturers combined the measurement system of 1958 and the bust measurement of women with hourglass figures to create sizes, even though only 8% of the population have hourglass figures.  

Over time, there have been many attempts to create a public sizing system. These failed, mainly from lack of size variation, and the US government withdrew the standard measurement system in 1983. Today clothing companies are not required to use a national measurement system. Only pattern companies, like Simplicity, maintain a general measurement system. 

Today's brands often focus on singular body types - curvy hips, flat chest, tall, short, etc - to appeal to a niche audience. This is why women commit to specific clothing brands, they’re often one of the few brands that fit her shape and budget. And with brand sizes varying in sizes by 5 inches or more, it's no wonder it takes women hours to find a single pair of jeans. 

Find a Brand That Fits You

In this day in age, knowing your size is everything because ordering online is just as normal, if not the main, way of shopping for most. How are women supposed to buy something as simple as a t-shirt without trying it on if there isn't a standard size that can truly be trusted? It's a tough one to answer. Lifting the Dream provides apparel that simply makes working out comfortable so that the hunt for exercise attire is quick and easy. From tops to outerwear, finding something to fit should never be an issue. The lifting gear is also pretty safe when it comes to sizing and is equipped with velcro for anyone needing to adjust.

three woman in lifting gear talk in front of a brick building
Proof that Lifting the Dream knee sleeves generally have a universal fit

So next time you’re curious why you can’t fit into a sports bra or leggings, know it’s not you. Fashion is just as all over the place as human bodies are. Until an accurate system is created, finding and sticking to a brand that works for your body type is the way to go.

Have you tried Lifting the Dream sportswear yet?

If you have any questions or you would like to be a guest blogger, please email us at hello@liftingthedream.com


Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing

Lift with Us

Want a chance to win a Lifting Belt? We do a monthly giveaway with our subscriber list!

Circle of Life Contour Knee Sleeves

Regular Price
Sale Price
Regular Price
Unit Price
Translation missing: en.general.accessibility.unit_price_separator 
Shop this product


Lifting the Dream is not associated with CrossFit or any other organization mentioned in this article in any way. The opinions expressed in our blog are solely ours and do not reflect the views of CrossFit or any other organization.

Some of the links on our website may be affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. However, we only recommend products and services that we truly believe in and have personally used. Our opinions and recommendations are always honest and unbiased.