Ten years in the fashion industry has left me puzzled with the way we fail to serve the needs of the so-called “average” woman. As a society, we’ve turned “average”, once a useful as a guide to understanding the range most people fall into, into a synonym for “undesirable”, “fat”, and “there is nothing in my closet that fits me”.
Consider fashion imagery. It’s rarely all about being real, right? How often do you see someone who looks like your friend, neighbor, co-worker, or mom in an ad for a well-known, expensive fashion brand? How often do you even see a woman who looks like she might be over 30, even for a brand that mostly sells to women over 30? The argument in fashion is that we always must be aspirational and artistic, we must always be leading someone toward a grander vision that they want to be. But do we all really relate to the imagery that shows us an eternally 20-year-old, 95-pound, 6-foot-tall multi-millionaire in a swanky hotspot, or do we just groan in agony at this point in our lives, despite all the inspirational self-help seminars we’ve done?
Beyond the advertising of the clothes, how much better would women feel if those clothes actually fit them? If shopping didn’t have to be a brain breaking needle-in-haystack search for something that “sort of works”? Most of us don’t expect the fashion image to change, but if the clothes could just fit, we’d be happy with that. Why don’t most clothes seem to fit the average woman well? While we’ve seen a very welcome increase in the availability of plus sizes, I’m not sure we’ve seen a good systematic increase in the availability of well-made clothes for the “average” woman, and there are factors in the industry that may be contributing to this.
Here’s a little behind-the-scenes secret that could be part of the problem. The average height of women in the US is 5’4”. Most fit models used as brand “bodies” to prototype clothing samples are 5’7” and up. Is it any wonder our pant hems are dragging on the ground? When the average weight for that 5’4” woman is between 120-135 pounds, and that 5’7” fit model weighs 120 pounds, there’s a further mismatch in proportion about where weight is distributed on the body and how to accommodate shape. If you go out there and shop and have a hard time finding your size or clothes that fit, you’re not alone. Designing and scaling items properly between sizes is not just about height and weight, it’s also about where shape happens proportionally on that height and weight.
Another obstacle to great fit is the increased use of computer programs to make clothing patterns. While streamlining the process and making quick digital communications possible, time must be spent on making these very linear shapes into curved shapes, with the darts, vents, and subtleties in cut that make the fit difference. Blocks are easy, curves take effort. Grading between sizes is often done by formula based on body data from years ago, and while that may be quicker, it’s not necessarily more accurate. Adding to that, the pressure to produce quickly and cheaply means the time isn’t always spent on detailed multiple fit issues. There are deadlines to be met with stores expecting stock, overseas communications in multiple languages, and the general rule is that if you have to go beyond three samples, you cut the item from the lineup. A square-ish item is easier for the machines to cut through multiple fabric layers at once with fewer errors, and straighter lines to sew is less expensive to make, because each feature you add and each seam that’s more challenging to sew costs you time and money as a producer. Current production pressures in the industry actually impact the fit of your clothes.
So, whether you’re talking about fashion image or fashion product, it’s not easy to be “average”. The industry is not catering to you, it’s telling you to be a different height, weight, age, and income bracket than you are. It’s giving you product based on business pressures, economics, speed, and sometimes, old data or “aspirational” body types.
Imagine this as an alternative: Size 16 models on every runway. 30 to 65 year-old brand models on every website. Clothes made with a 5’4” 125 pound fit model in the sampling process. Colors chosen to flatter rather than follow trends. Time spent on curves and fit features, with some hand-done old-school patternmaking. Magazines with no ads for diet pills. Updated body statistics in the computer programs. Articles about women in their retirement years starting new businesses in every social media feed you saw. How differently would women feel about themselves?
What we project matters, and what we make matters, because it impacts women’s sense of empowerment. We can’t ever get away from constant digital, print, and auditory bombardment, but what if the onslaught reflected us, rather than excluded us? We’re a consumer society with a seemingly endless supply of what to buy, and even an economic downturn doesn’t change the instant availability of ways to shop. What if the purchases we made were made for us, our real bodies, our “average” selves?