Discover more from Burnt Toast by Virginia Sole-Smith
That Time I Bought 56 Pairs of Jeans. For Science.
Part 2: How the Fit Industrial Complex Is Conspiring Against Us.
If you haven’t read Part 1, start here to catch up on why I bought
50 56 pairs of jeans, the history of women in trousers, and why we can’t stop believing in a myth that is ostensibly about the “perfect jean,” but also about the bodies we think we should have.
Jeans Science Log
Subject 15: Torrid Midfit Super Skinny Jean, Size 18
My personal struggle with jeans always comes down to the waist/hip/leg relationship. If a pair of jeans fits my legs, the waist is inevitably too tight. If the waist feels comfortable, the legs are likely to be baggy. This is because I am, in admittedly problematic women’s magazine parlance, an “apple” shape, with a high waist and round middle. Enter these Torrid jeans, which promise to be “perfect for fuller midsections and slimmer legs.” They look great out of the bag, though they do feel a little like I’m wearing a wetsuit. A few hours later, I start remembering how the one time in my life when I actually wore a wetsuit, it was the wrong size. Once I got in the water, it started to drag downward; I felt like I was drowning in a tube of neoprene. I wear these jeans to get my COVID-19 booster and feel cute taking my post-shot selfie. Then I go grocery shopping and realize I’m leg-drowning in the cereal aisle. The jeans’ waist keeps falling to my hips, but the legs are Kate Winslet in Titanic, clinging to my calves. It’s like walking through mud.
I go home, change out of the jeans, and have an existential crisis.
What does it mean that the one pair of jeans on the market specifically marketed to my body type does not fit my body?
Do I not understand my body?
Or are all the jeans just terrible?
Almost as soon as we get on the phone, Kyeshia Jaume says, “I will tell you right now, I one hundred percent hate jeans. I have maybe one pair I really like, and even then, I hate the leg opening.”
Jeans are a nearly universal pain point in the process of clothing oneself. Almost everyone I’ve interviewed or even just casually chatted with for Jeans Science has given some version of this “I hate jeans” speech. But Jaume’s jeans hatred is important, because Jaume is a plus size denim designer. She is one of only a handful of working designers who design plus size jeans and also wear them. Jaume is a senior apparel designer for Forever 21 who previously designed private label clothing for brands like Target and Walmart. She wears a size 4X. That means, for most of her career, Jaume has designed clothes that she can’t wear herself. It also means she is one of few people working in fashion today who truly understands just how terrible all of the jeans are—and how they could be better.
Some of what’s wrong with jeans comes down to gender norms. As we discussed in Jeans Science Part 1, women have been wearing pants, and especially denim pants, for much less time than men. And because the cultural conversation around our ability to wear jeans has always been so much more fraught, it is perhaps no surprise that, most of the time, women’s jeans just don’t fit. “Men have about 72 sizes to choose from when you consider every combination of waist and inseam measurement,” says Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, PhD, a fashion historian and author of Worn On This Day and the forthcoming Skirts: Fashioning Modern Femininity. People wearing women’s straight sizes have eight, maybe nine, options if a line runs from 0 to 16. Folks shopping for women’s plus sizes have about six, since most plus size denim lines cap at size 3X or 26. Even brands that offer more nuanced sizing — a petite and tall length in addition to “regular,” say— often don’t offer those lengths in every waist size. And almost nobody designing women’s denim has figured out how to accommodate the myriad ways our waists and hips can relate to each other.
But jeans are also uncomfortable and impossible to fit because the fashion industry has such a complicated relationship with the fundamental concept of “fit.” At the couture level, clothes are made to measure. But when the rest of us buy off the rack, we are buying an item that was designed for the measurements of a “fit model,” someone who the brand has hired because they have the body of their average or ideal customer. Mall brands like the Gap and J.Crew use fit models who are a size 6 or 8. Brands that offer a plus line should (but don’t always) have another fit model who is a size 18; if they were to offer above a 26 they would need a third fit model, explains Jaume.
Right there we can start to see the problem: Human bodies come in all sorts of proportions, as well as all sorts of sizes. Two people who ostensibly wear the same size will be shaped quite differently from each other. At Forever 21, Jaume has advocated to use two such fit models: “One carries little more in her front, and the other is more of an hourglass and thicker in her thighs and butt,” she says. “Being able to fit on both models gives us a little bit more diversity in how we can fit garments. And I still feel like we have to do more.”
But many brands don’t do that. And they also don’t stop to consider how bodies change as weight increases. In order to make all the other sizes—the ones bigger or smaller than their fit model—technical designers take the model’s measurements and “grade” their patterns up or down. This means that every measurement point in the garment gets changed. The hip, waist, ankle, inseam, and so on are all increased or decreased depending which way the designer is sizing the pattern. The goal of grading is to maintain the same fit and proportions in the pattern for each new size. But a size 16 body is not simply an inflated size 6, so brands that try to simplify grading by adding say, an inch per garment size to every measurement, wind up with larger sizes that don’t fit. “People don’t realize how difficult this is. A skilled tradesman adjusts every piece of the pattern proportionally,” explains Maggie McGrath, a design consultant based in Oxford, England and a former knitwear designer for The Gap. The goal, McGrath says, is to have “as little distortion as possible.” You can’t just uniformly stretch a size 6 pattern in every direction and hope it will fit your size 16. And you also can’t stretch your size 18 and assume it will fit your size 28. Imagine a rubber band: The more a pattern stretches, the more distorted its shape becomes. As Corinne Fay, creator of @SellTradePlus, and I discussed in a recent podcast episode: “The typical problems you see are things like the sleeve on the upper arm is too tight or the ankle is, like, weirdly big and not in line with the original look of the pants,” Corinne explained. “It turns out that ankles don't get fat at the same rate as butts.”
Brands that take grading seriously develop their own idiosyncratic formulas for adjusting each measurement. “Yes, grading is just up and down,” explains Mallorie Dunn, a designer and founder of the made-to-order fashion brand SmartGlamour. “But good grading ensures that how much a pattern goes up and down is based on a variety of data and measurement points. A good technical designer will work from the brand’s size charts, but also from other body measurements like front and back rises, inseam and so on, to ensure that their patterns will work for the majority of folks.”
When Dunn says “front and back rise,” she means something different from the way “rise” is currently marketed (as in high, medium and low-rise jeans). To technical designers, “rise” is the distance from your pants’ crotch seam to the top of the waistband. Ever since high-rise jeans became trendy, brands have marketed heavily around the concept; Madewell, for example, even advertises a jeans’ rise in specific inches (9, 10, 11 inches). But this isn’t telling customers anything we need to know, says Dunn. For one thing, a 10-inch rise is going to hit differently on everyone, depending on how big their belly is; it might be high on one person and barely medium on someone else. And that 9, 10 or 11 inches only tells you the jeans’ front rise. Most of us have a different distance from our crotch to our belly button than we do from our crotch to our lower back because butts and stomachs are not the same. “If you have a long or short torso, you need a longer or shorter rise,” Dunn explains. “Otherwise your jeans won’t come up to the right spot, and when they don’t come up to the right spot, that throws off everything else.” To get jeans with the wrong rise to fit your waist, you’ll inevitably sacrifice some other aspect of fit. This is especially true if your body dares to defy the standard assumption that pants need more rise in the back. “If you have a big belly, you might need the same rise front and back, or you might need a bigger front rise and smaller back rise,” Dunn notes. “No one is making pants with that kind of rise. They’re just not doing it.”
That’s true even at companies that do invest a significant amount of time and money in developing what is known as their brand’s “grade rule.” McGrath, Dunn, and other designers told me about detailed fit testing, involving customer try-ons, wear tests, and a year or more of revisions to ensure that a brand’s grading formula works for their clientele. “The design team needs to know who their customer is, where do they live, how old are they, how do they shop, what styles do they wear and so much more to land on the right size chart and fit,” says Dunn. Major mall brands may go as far as to test every design with what’s known as “jump size sets,” where they make the pattern in a range of sizes and see it on a variety of fit models, not just their size 6.
But even brands putting this kind of time and money into developing their grading system will often miss the mark on plus sizes. “Too many brands sample everything off a medium and then act like plus bodies are an alien species instead of the majority market,” says Dunn. By the time they reach the “jump size set” stage of the process, a brand is mostly just checking to make sure their factory can manufacture the garment in every size. As such, they only cast fit models who match up with their pattern’s already established grading system, rather than continuing to tweak the grading to fit the models’ bodies. “I’ve had to go on 50 go-sees to find one model with the right measurements,” one designer told me.
And all of this data is collected and analyzed by the straight-sized women who make up the majority of designers. “They don’t get it,” says Jaume. “You can do all the surveys you want. If you don’t have someone in the room who is in that body, you don’t know what will and won’t work.”
A big part of Jaume’s job as a plus designer is to review designs from the straight-sized team and figure out how to make them work for her customer. “I have to say, pretty often, ‘this isn’t going to work; she isn’t going to feel comfortable with that,’” she explains. Jaume will send back a sketch suggesting tweaks to “enhance” the design, as she puts it. But what would it be like if more of Jaume’s job was designing for her customer, first and foremost? If plus size customers make up more than half of the market, why aren’t our designs the default that straight-sized designers have to tweak to make work for smaller bodies?
Grading systems exist because in order for brands to sell at scale, they have to sort bodies into cost-effective categories. And the quality of this grading process will vary significantly by brand, which means the accuracy of their size charts will also vary—as well as the relevance of their size chart to your actual body. Because no matter how much a company spends on grading research, the fundamental fact of this system is going to leave a lot of us out in the cold. “When a brand doesn’t fit you well, the answer could be as simple as: The fit model’s body isn’t anything like yours,” says McGrath.
One obvious solution would be for brands to show us their fit models. Even if you weren’t the same size, if you could see that your basic proportions matched up to the person they’re fitting all their clothes on, you’d know the brand has a better shot of fitting you. I’ve studied a lot of size charts while conducting Jeans Science and have learned that if the brand replicates a 10-inch difference between their waist and hip circumference for every size, it will not fit me, because my waist is only 6 inches smaller than my hips. (And that’s what designers call my “natural waist,” meaning the place where I crease when I bend sideways. On me that happens to fall just a few inches below my boobs. Since I don’t wear jeans pulled all the way up to my bra, I want them to hit a “waist” that is really just a random spot on my torso maybe only four inches smaller than my hips.) But: A lot of denim brands use hourglass-shaped fit models with that 10-inch waist/hip difference. This makes sense because, beauty ideals. And it’s also loaded with anti-fat bias because, beauty ideals. A designer who didn’t want to be named told me that when Banana Republic poached a creative director from J.Crew, the brand’s ability to fit even their core customer fell apart because the creative director brought J. Crew’s skinnier aesthetic with her: “She would say, ‘I just don’t get hips!’ which was a fiasco because Banana Republic customers have hips.”
McGrath tells me that successful fit models are a kind of stealth power player in any retail brand’s business model. Someone whose body results in clothes with high “sell-through” rates is incredibly valuable to a brand, and might charge as much as $300 per hour for their fit modeling services. This helps explain why most brands rely on that one person (or the small pool of people they use for their jump size sets) rather than having a fit model for every size bracket, let alone fit models with different body types within each size. (I suspect—though my sources have not been able to confirm—that the Torrid midfit jeans failed so spectacularly because they don’t actually have an apple-shaped fit model on retainer; they are using their regular hourglass-shaped fit model and tinkering with the pattern on a computer to invent an apple option.) It’s cheaper. But it’s also more confusing. We’re left to wonder why we don’t measure up to the cool jeans brand everyone else seems to be wearing effortlessly. We blame our bodies, even though our individual bodies are not, and have never been, part of the design equation at all.