Retooling the Industry Sizing Standard
Finding the “Perfect Fit” for Older Women

First, the good news. Today’s older people are healthier, have more discretionary income and maintain very active lifestyles. They like to travel, enjoy hobbies, recreational activities, sports and physical fitness. They also spend much of their time volunteering. These activities have resulted in an increased desire for well-fitted fashionable clothing.

What about the bad news? Research has shown that older women experience body changes as they age which greatly affect the fit of their clothing. They have identified “the lack of good fit” as one of their major concerns in clothing purchases. Fit problems have become more apparent for this consumer market segment because few garments are designed to fit the changing bodies of older women.

“Previous research has shown that finding well-fitted clothing is vital to an individual’s psychological and social well-being,” says Ellen Goldsberry, associate professor with The University of Arizona Division of Retailing and Consumer Studies (RCS). “The search for ‘good fit’ can be challenging for older women, especially for fit in the areas of the shoulders, upper back, bust, arms, waist and abdomen.”

Goldsberry, and Naomi Reich, professor emeritus in the School of Family and Consumer Resources, have completed the first nationwide study to examine the body measurements of women age 55 and older. The results of the study have lead to the development of the first body measurement database specifically for women in this age group. Data was also collected on consumer demographics and satisfaction levels of garment fit, according to Goldsberry. The body measurement database, representing more than 6,600 women subjects from 38 states, is being used to improve the U.S. ready-to-wear garment fit, labeling information and the U.S. domestic apparel sizing system.

The Institute for Standards Research, a division of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), funded the research. Industry sponsors included the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, Brylane, Butterick Co. Inc., Lands’ End, Levi Strauss, L.L. Bean, Simplicity Pattern Co., Sara Lee Knit Products, Sears, Shadowline Inc. and the Textile and Clothing Technology Corp. ASTM develops quality control product performance standards, including apparel sizing, that were once under the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Many consumers, manufacturers and retailers agree that the U.S. domestic apparel sizing in use today is greatly outdated and does not represent current body measurements of women regardless of age. The U.S. Department of Commerce developed the currently used database, PS 42-70, which was based on a 1941 study. That study included a low representation of older women and was biased toward young, unmarried white women, Goldsberry states.

“We had two main objectives in this study,” Goldsberry says. “First to identify differences between current body measurements of women over fifty-five and the body measurements in the Department of Commerce database. Second, we wanted to understand factors that might relate to older women’s satisfaction and dissatisfaction with fit of ready-to-wear and commercial patterns.”

The researchers recruited and trained state project coordinators from university Cooperative Extensions and clothing and textiles faculties at land grant universities to help with collecting data and interviewing the women who participated in the study. The state project coordinators then recruited subjects from within each of the participating 38 states. The volunteer data collectors took body measurements of participants over a body suit, worn over normally worn undergarments. The body suit provided strategically placed landmarks and a consistent form for taking measurements, thus increasing the accuracy of the data.

By comparing the new measurement data with the PS 42-70 database, Goldsberry said they found that most body measurements were significantly different. For example, hip measurements taken of subjects, with Women’s figure-type proportions, had the greatest amount of difference in measurements, compared to the old standards followed by Junior Petite and Junior.

“The ‘Women’s’ figure type is described as large framed but well proportioned,” Goldsberry states. “However, the women in this study who could be categorized with Women’s figure type proportions had thicker waists and greater hip measurements than their PS 42-70 counterparts, suggesting a need for additional allowances in these areas.”

Of 45 body measurements compared, 27 tended to be greater than the 1941 database despite being separated into the seven proportional figure types used in the original study: Junior Petite, Junior, Misses Petite, Misses, Misses Tall, Women and Half-size. Occasionally, though, the older women’s measurements, regardless of figure types or sizes, tended to be greater in the torso area, when compared with the subjects in the PS 42-70 database, the researchers found.

“These results shed important light on the frustration that older women have in finding a garment that fits properly and looks stylish,” Goldsberry says. “It’s becoming an increasing dilemma that all women, but especially older women, experience in the dressing room of retail stores.”

To further understand these frustrations, subjects involved in phase one of the study were asked to comment voluntarily on their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the fit of ready-to-wear garments. Responding to a questionnaire, 70 percent of the respondents said they were dissatisfied with fit of ready-to-wear clothing while 31 percent said they were satisfied.

“This is not surprising because women of all ages voice dissatisfaction with the outdated U.S. domestic sizing system,” Goldsberry states. “Older women might be expected to be especially dissatisfied since the system does not reflect aging women’s groups and their changing bodies, as we identified in the first part of the study.”

Most of the women in the survey said they had trouble with lengths of ready-to-wear, especially with pants, dresses, and sleeves being too long.

“Yet some older consumers may be dissatisfied with fit and style because they continue to buy the same size or figure type proportion they wore in their thirties to fifties, not being aware that they might fall into a different size or figure type due to effects of aging on their figure,” Goldsberry says.

“Many women involved in the study said they rarely take their body measurements,” Goldsberry notes. “However, they did realize that either their body conformations or their sizing system had changed.”

The suit used in the study is made of stretches and molds to a subject without compressing the body or changing the body dimensions.According to Goldsberry and Reich, the effects of aging, like the waist thickening or the bustline lowering, or the back shoulder becoming broader, are things that have to be taken into consideration for good, comfortable fit when older women are buying ready-to-wear fashions.

The primary goal of the interviews, according to Goldsberry, was to see whether or not women purchased styles in the same size and figure type proportions as their measurements categorized them. The researchers also wanted to explore which body measurements specifically contributed more to satisfaction or dissatisfaction responses.

“We found that subjects whom we categorized as Junior tended to purchase mostly Misses and Misses Petite,” Goldsberry said, “while those categorized as Junior Petite tended to buy Misses Petite and Misses. Across all size ranges, womer tended to buy outside their “type.”

Even while many women purchased ready-to-wear fashions, 77 percent of the women commented that they needed to adjust these fashions for fitting. “Women may attempt to have garments altered to fit, if sufficient seam allowances and fabric are available, or if the style is easy to alter- for example, a skirt length,” Goldsberry says. However, most of the problems identified with fit, like upper back width measurements, can rarely be altered.

Another factor associated with fit dissatisfaction was the locations where women purchased their clothing. Women who bought their clothes primarily from department stores or off-price/discount stores were more dissatisfied with the fit than those who purchased their clothing at specialty store/boutiques, or had clothes custom-made or had made garments themselves.

Overall, dissatisfied customers tended to be younger (55-65); in the higher income category of $30,000 or more; Caucasian; to buy clothes at discount/off-price stores, department stores and through mail-order catalogs; to live on the West coast; and to buy commercial patterns but at the same time be dissatisfied with the fit of commercial patterns.

“Consumers with a higher income are more likely to have higher expectations of clothing performance due to greater resources, and therefore tend to be more critical of the quality and fit of clothing,” Goldsberry stated. She added that the higher-income consumer may be shopping for clothing more often, thus exposing her to more opportunities for dissatisfaction.

From their findings, Goldsberry and Reich recommend that an extensive consumer education program, directed to older women consumers, manufacturers and retailers be undertaken. Women also need to become more aware of their actual body measurements and proportions rather than focusing on hang tag numbers which vary greatly in measurements and proportions from one manufacturer to another.

“We hope that the results of using more than six thousand women in this study, when combined with other research findings, will stir the industry to action toward improving and updating the U.S. domestic apparel sizing system,” Goldsberry says. “We believe that, ultimately, the satisfaction level of apparel sizing will be improved for all women, but especially for older women. Manufacturers and retailers together need to reevaluate their marketing strategies and to update the current U.S. domestic apparel sizing system to make it more ‘consumer friendly,’ rather than a marketing ‘guessing game’.”

Article Written by Crystal Renfrow, ECAT, College of Agriculture
This is part of the 1996 Arizona Experiment Station Research Report
This document is located at
Return to index for 1996 report


Ellen Goldsberry, Division of Retailing and Consumer Studies
Phone: (520) 621-1140