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Women’s Clothes in the Twenty-First Century

January 14, 2009 by · 3 comments

Anca Vlasopolos

Photo: Rudolfo Nunez

I’ll confess: I shop for my husband. I buy him shoes, underwear, shirts, ties, slacks, jackets, belts, even overcoats. It’s easy. Shirts: 16×32; pants 36×32; jackets 42 regular; shoes 11 and a half B. I cannot shop for my daughter, who’s a willowy 5’9”, 115 pounds, with broad shoulders, a visible but not huge bust line, a tiny waist, no abdomen protrusion, small hips, and long legs.

The sizes of her clothes vary between 6 and 10. When she buys slacks, they’re usually too short, too tight in the thighs, too loose at the waist. If she tries on a fitted shirt, it’s sure to be loose around the torso if it fits her shoulders; if it flatteringly hugs her torso, then it’s tight in the shoulders, and the sleeves are too short. She received a gift card for the holidays and attempted to redeem it. Here’s her description of what happened:

Photo: adampniak

I went to take the T downtown to go to a J.Crew store so’s to use up some of this gift card from returns from stuff Annie’s mother got (and, my god, I tried *so hard* to find things that I was willing to buy, but even when the pants fit, in some ways rather flatteringly, they were so poorly tailored near the waist that either I couldn’t sit in them because the pockets/hips pouched out so much or they had that sticking-out triangle at the waist, puffing out from my body so that it would look like a triangle was attempting to emerge, alienlike, from my abdomen–and the prices, even on sale–!); gave up.

Photo: bbaunach

I’ve long puzzled over why we women accept this state of things. Why don’t we demand that pants be sized by waist and length, or shirts by neck size and sleeve length? While these measurements for women become further complicated by breast, hip, and thigh size, at least we’d get closer to more rational ways of standardizing clothing and making shopping less of a nightmare.

Is it that we don’t want to let the world know our waist size? I very much doubt it since we do go into lingerie shops or departments and disclose “cup” and ribcage measurements so as to be fitted with bras. And when we shop for garments, we have to go to the Medium or Large or X-Small rack, despite the reality that these monikers have very little relation to the body sizes they’re supposed to represent.

Sizes by numbers are equally deceptive: a 10 in Ralph Lauren is a 12 or 14 in Karen Kane. And even if a 10 fits around the waist and hips, the leg length is usually too long or short. Since few women do their own sewing anymore and alterations add a good deal to the price of a sale item (and many women only buy on sale), I see us walking around with even dress slacks that trail in the rain and snow.

Dry cleaning is not only expensive, but it’s environmentally damaging, and it’s dangerous for the workers and customer. So, should we be condemned to wear salt stains on our slacks? It’s bad enough that our sleeves fall in the soup and that even women wearing nice jackets roll up the sleeves so the lining becomes a sort of cuff.

This seems the ideal time for women to start a minor revolt and demand more accurate and reasonable sizing from the fashion industry, which, like other manufactures that depend on the illusion of economic prosperity, is badly limping.

Photo: bbaunach

Not only are numbers and designations nearly meaningless, but the retail personnel seems not to have heard either of the economic recession or of the necessary training for selling clothes. For the fun of it, I walked into a Max Mara boutique and asked whether they had a navy blazer. The young woman who greeted me looked at me blankly and went to the rack, pulled out a silk navy blouse, and held it out to me. I repeated, “blazer.”

Photo: argenberg

She clearly had never come across the word, although the shows a navy blazer labeled exactly that. And the indifference, nay, hostility many a customer encounters when entering a near-empty shop makes me wonder whether salespeople have just given up as they wait for their pink slip or they just haven’t learned to adjust to an economy that requires a bit more from them than standing around looking bored.

But are women ready to start this revolt? Will the women of today have the strength of the feminists who showed up in pant suits at the Plaza and demanded admittance despite the dress code that was meant to keep out such “cross-dressers”? I doubt it.

Photo: ntlam

In the parking structure of the most upscale mall (even the word “mall” is prohibited—one is supposed to refer to the place as “the Collection”) in suburban Detroit, I saw two women, one in her forties, the other in her twenties, walk together, embrace, and separate. They looked like mother and daughter, equal height, similar physique. Both were wearing miniskirts that barely came to mid-thigh, both had on dark opaque tights, and both had waist-length jackets.

These were women who with mid-calf skirts and long boots would have looked very nice. As it was, they looked like the hippopotami in Disney’s animation of “The Dance of the Hours.” We women follow fashion instead of making it. And thus we continue to condemn ourselves to walk dragging our hems through the mud, having to roll up the fine fabric of a good jacket, letting our silk sleeves trail into the sauce.

Unless, like the brave souls who swelled the ranks of the Audubon society at the end of the nineteenth century, we put a stop to idiocies like wearing birds on our heads.

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