What you need to know to understand the T-shirt sizing mess

sizing around the world - hero image

Turns out that standard clothes sizes are not so standard, now are they? We’ve heard about it in other countries, but even in the UK personalised T-shirts can sometimes feel a bit off…

People often think that because I’m tall and slender it would be easy for me to find clothes that fit, but it is sometimes in fact the opposite. Tops can be particularly annoying because I have to often choose between something that adapts to my torso or the right sleeve length. I still haven’t decided if my arms are too long or if I’m just lanky.

For the longest time I resigned myself to a Medium (M) size because it seemed to fit okay. That was until I moved to Europe and the whole ball game changed. The M size suddenly became really small. Like it-is-hard-for-me-to-breathe-right-now tight. Surely I hadn’t gained weight — or had I? It didn’t look like it, in fact I got even skinnier during my first year here on the old continent. That’s when it dawned on me that it wasn’t my body that changed, but the garments.

The idea for this blog post started as a way to explain how sizes differ from country to country, but when we started doing research we realised that not only do they vary depending on the territory, but also the brand. Which means that often times the fits of regular T-shirts vary from shop to shop even if they’re marked with the same size.

How did we get into this mess?

The origin of the current sizes we see on shops today varies depending on the source, but most agree that it dates back to the 1800’s. Before then, people would just have custom clothes made.

This is hard to imagine in our fast-fashion world, but we have to remember that people owned a lot less garments back then. When looking at the history of fashion as a whole, we realise that the concept of cheap, ready-to-wear garments is very new. Sewing was a skill that was widely taught and, almost like typing nowadays, it was expected for women to know. Rich folk would hire seamstresses and tailors to do their clothes for them. While in the lower classes it was the matriarch of the household who took care of the job.

Enter the industrial revolution. For the first time in history we are not only able to mass produce, but also do it in record time. The old way of doing things, like bespoke measuring, couldn’t keep up with the machines so changes had to be made. This is when measures based on average numbers were introduced.

t-shirt-sizes-town-in-lancashire

Cotton factory in 19th century Lancashire

Why do T-shirt sizes vary so much?

There are several reasons as to why sizes change so much, but we found the following four the most telling:

1 – Standard clothing sizes

Organisations such as the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) have designed standards regarding what the measures or certain clothes should be based on the user’s age, gender and the final purpose of the garment. These, while strongly encouraged, are not required by law and even in member countries, the standards change among themselves due to a variety of reasons. This lack of restriction has led to problems such as vanity sizing.

2 – Vanity Size

The so-called “vanity size” is a term (probably christened by the media) that’s given to the practice of mislabeling garments on purpose with one or two sizes less. The theory being that when a customer thinks they fit into a smaller size than their real one, it will make them feel good and more likely to make a purchase.

Sizes keep getting bigger (and smaller?)
On top of mislabeled garments, there is also the fact that as the population keeps getting fatter and fatter (all over the world) and sizes seem to grow along with it. This article on the The Daily Mail does a good job explaining the phenomenon by illustrating how Marilyn Monroe, a woman that’s often referred to as a size 12 beauty, would actually fit into anything between 00 and 8 in today’s sizes.

Which brings us to the other side of the equation, we have 0, 00 and sometimes even minus sizes nowadays. Which is insane if you think about it. Measurements are supposed to represent the inches of actual body parts like a chest — then how can someone be a 00? Is that for people who have a black hole for a waist? The thing is, if overtime an 8 becomes a 12, then what happens to the 6? Exactly, that’s when the 0’s start showing up.

Abercrombie & Fitch - T-shirt sizes

Abercrombie & Fitch shop opening in Hong Kong

‘Abercrombie is only interested in people with washboard stomachs who look like they’re about to jump on a surfboard’ — Mike Jeffries (former CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch)

3 – Target audience

Brands have a desired target audience which they cater to, most of these revolve around income, age and tastes, but some of these also include body types. Mike Jeffries, the former CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, became infamous a few years ago due to his comments about targeting only the ‘Cool and beautiful people’ (AKA no fatties).

The American retailer was the one who got the media attention, but it is far from being the only culprit. While Abercrombie & Fitch simply does not offer bigger sizes, some so-called experts claim that “higher end” brands do the opposite of the ‘vanity size.’ They label their garments with bigger sizes because they’re only interested in slender customers wearing their products. Although, I couldn’t find any trustworthy source that backed it up.

So how do I know which is the right T-shirt for me?

Even though some websites convert sizes from territory to territory and sometimes even from brand to brand, it seems like the good old ‘trial and error’ method is still the best one.

On the other hand, if you prefer a more ‘digital’ approach, Threadbase provides a comprehensible chart that features how T-shirt sizes vary across different brands. In order to make the most of it, I’d suggest measuring your body to know which is the brand that’s making the best T-shirts for you.

It is far from being the ideal solution, but it seems like until someone enforces some universal sizing processes then it will be the only way of knowing which are the brands that fit us best.

Text: Harald Meyer-Delius
Research: Luna Giontella


Printsome is a T-shirt printing agency based in London who deliver all across the UK, from printing t-shirts in Brighton to York and everywhere in between. So, if you’re after T-shirt or personalised vest printing, indulge yourself in some awesome customer service and get in touch for a quote.


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