S-M-L instead of 4-8-12? Women's clothing may swing to alpha sizing

Pittsburgh Post-GazetteJuly 2, 2014 

The Olsenboye line at JCPenney uses alpha sizing instead of numbers. Designers can save money because they have fewer fits to figure out for each piece.


Fashion loves buzzwords. The latest ones: alpha sizing.

The phrase was the subject of a recent Wall Street Journal story predicting that more apparel designers and brands likely will ditch numeric clothing measurements in exchange for alpha sizes small, medium and large (and sometimes extra-large). Ever since, cyberspace has been swirling with questions about what this claim could mean for clothes – and the people who make and buy them.

For mass ready-to-wear designers and manufacturers, it’s good news.

“It means more sizes can fit into an alpha size,” says Rikki Hommel, a lead faculty member in the fashion design program at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Rather than having to create a look in sizes zero through 12 or larger, an alpha size combines two or three different sizes into a single fit. (In other words, sizes 2, 4 and 6 might all make up a small in alpha sizing.) This means designers have fewer fits to figure out for each piece and save money as a result.

For consumers, however, the switch in size scales could bring varied shopping experiences. On one hand, it might be easier to find a desired fit for apparel with a boxier silhouette. (For example, if you want a tighter fit, go down a size. For a baggier one, try a medium or a large.) But seeking a more fitted, figure-flattering ensemble that cradles curves in all the right places could be trickier to track down.

The transition to alpha sizing also could mean differences in the types of fabrics designers use.

“You’re going to see a lot more knit and spandex and comfort-wear fabrics,” says Pittsburgh-based designer Kiya Tomlin. “Maybe we’ll see a decline in the use of woven fabrics” because they don’t have as much stretch and give.

This path isn’t surprising in an age when activewear (think yoga clothes) are worn as everyday casual attire and sportier silhouettes continue to crop up on the runway.

“Everything is going to be a little more voluminous, a little more stretchy,” Tomlin says.

This trend – and the fact that comfortable chic clothes are easier for dressing the masses – influenced her to design a line of sweatshirt dresses as part of her initial foray into ready-to-wear fashion. She also creates custom pieces, a service that could become in greater demand if more brands board the alpha-sizing bandwagon.

“If you want something that is fitted to you, then that becomes more important to have a custom garment maker,” she says.

Womenswear sizes have long been a sea of speculation for shoppers. A woman who slips perfectly into a size 8 in one store but swims in a size 4 by another retailer is commonplace and the result of vanity sizing, or the fact that the U.S. government doesn’t enforce a standard of measurements for women’s clothing.

Alpha sizing likely won’t help with size standardization. A small by one brand might offer a looser fit than a medium in a different store based on how many numeric scale sizes a piece tries to accommodate within a single alpha size, Hommel says. And expect sizes to skew to soothe shoppers’ egos.

“Someone who fits in a higher numeric size might be able to fit in a small (alpha size) because it fits three sizes,” Hommel says. “I’m sure that’s something companies might look into because it can make the wearers feel better about themselves.”

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