Fit model proportions: Who are clothes made for?

The world of fit modelling is a mystery to most people outside the industry. Today, I wanted to talk a little bit about it, and what it means for petites trying to find clothing in our size.

First, what is a fit model, anyway?

Designers love to showcase their clothes on glamorous, tall, thin runway models. But they know that these women represent a tiny fraction of those actually buying their clothes. When it comes time to actually manufacture the clothes that will end up in stores, they need to size them for their target consumer.

Enter the fit model: a human being whose job it is to try on clothes all day, to see how they fit, move and wear, and to make sure they’re sized accurately.

Fit models are not runway models, or even catalogue models. They don’t need to be particularly attractive or photogenic, and they aren’t required to be as tall or rail-thin, either. They won’t be seen or photographed. Their job is to be the human mannequin for designers and clothing manufacturers to “fit” the clothes that actually will end up on the racks.

That means that their main job requirement is to have — and maintain — the exact proportions of the average size of a line.

So what size do fit models need to be?

Fit models need to fit the size charts of the clothing line in question. In general, a fit model is the median size of a particular clothing range. So, for example, let’s say the manufacturer makes clothes in US sizes 0-16, the median size would be 8. Manufacturers fit their clothes to the median size of the range, and then “grade” their patterns up and down from there for the rest of the sizes in the range.

There are different size ranges used for misses, petites, plus sizes (also called “women’s), petite plus sizes, tall sizes, and juniors. Each line or manufacturer has its own fit model proportions — there’s no industry standardization. It all depends on what consumer the fashion line is targeting, and what size ranges it wants to offer. But most at least claim to base their sizing on statistical averages in their geographic market. Though, as we’ll see below, that argument doesn’t always hold water.

Here are a few real-world examples, taken from actual classified ads for fit modelling jobs:

  • Elie Tahari: Size 8: Height 5’6″-5’8″, bust 36, waist 28, low hip 39
  • Kasper: Size 8: Height 5’7 1/2″-5’8″, bust 37.5, waist 31, high hip 36.5-37, low hip 39-39.5, thigh 23, across shoulders 15.75, bra size 34C-36B
  • Fresh Produce: Height 5’6″-5’7″, bust 35, waist 28, hip at fullest point 38, thigh 22, bicep 10.5, across shoulders 15.25, inseam 30”, bra size 34C-36B
  • Abercrombie & Fitch hires fit models in multiple sizes:
    • Size 0: Height 5’5″-5’7″, bust 33, waist 25, hip 33
    • Size 2: Height 5’6″-5’8″, bust 34, waist 26, hip 36
    • Size 4: Height 5’6″-5’8″, bust 35, waist 27, hip 37
    • Size 6: Height 5’6″-5’8″, bust 36, waist 28, hip 38
    • Size 8: Height 5’6″-5’8″, bust 37, waist 29, hip 39
    • Size 10: Height 5’6″-5’8″, bust 38-39, waist 30-31.5, hip 40-42
    • Size 12: Height 5’6″-5’8″, bust 39-41, waist 31.5-32.5, hip 42-43
  • Pearl Izumi also hires fit models in multiple sizes:
    • Size S: Height 5’5″, bust 34, waist 26, hip 36.5
    • Size M: Height 5’6″, bust 36, waist 29.5, hip 38.5
    • Size L: Height 5’6″, bust 38.5, waist 31.5, hip 41
  • Lands’ End: Size 8: Height 5’6 1/2″-5’7 1/2″, bust 36, waist 29.5-30, hip 39, thigh 22.5, across shoulders 15.5, bra size 34C-36B

As you can see, fit model sizing varies by designer, line and size range. But there are some commonalities, especially when it comes to height and proportion.

Okay, so why does this matter to petites?

When we consider all of the above, a few industry assumptions about petite-friendly clothing become immediately apparent:

  • The average fit model is 5’7″. The average woman is 5’4″. The industry justifies this discrepancy by claiming that it’s easier to shorten too-long clothing than to lengthen too-short clothing. Which is true… except that hems are the least of a petite woman’s problems. Most alterations to make the proportions of clothes fit properly are far more complicated.
  • It costs 3 times as much to have fit models of 3 different heights. Even just hiring a “regular”, “petite” and “tall” fit model for your line increases costs threefold. Then, scaling each of those to fit the full range of sizes increases manufacturing costs correspondingly. Retail is a volume game; if you can’t sell enough of any single size to bring down per-piece production costs, you’ll lose money. This helps explain why so many brands focus on the middle-height range of the bell curve and ignore the shorter and taller ends of the spectrum.
  • Most fit models are US size 8. Clothing manufacturers tend to use fit models at the median size of their range — a US 8 / UK 12 being the most popular size — and then they “grade” their designs from there. Therefore, the size 8s of that particular line might fit really well, and the sizes on either end of the spectrum will be “graded” up or down from there — with sometimes less-than-ideal results, especially if you go more than a few steps in either direction.
  • As sizes get bigger, they also get taller. The industry assumes that taller women are also proportionally bigger all around. As most women know, that’s not always the case. If you’re short and wide — or tall and narrow — you’ll have a harder time finding clothes.
  • Each manufacturer has a slightly different “ideal” fit model. There’s no standardization in women’s sizing in North America; one brand’s size 8 can be vastly different from another’s. Less expensive brands tend not to use fit models at all, to save costs. Which is another reason why cheaper clothes often fit poorly on everyone.
  • More expensive brands use taller fit models. Our society associates height with wealth, status and power; more exclusive lines tend to target taller consumers, and turn their noses up (literally) at shorter ones. There is some evidence to suggest that wealthier people are, on average, taller, which is how the industry actually justifies this. But this mostly applies to men; where women’s fashion is concerned, this height-ism is pure fashion industry snobbery.
  • More expensive brands also use thinner fit models. The theory is it’s because wealthier people also tend to be thinner, which statistically is true (in North America, anyway). But the same snobbery about height is at work when it comes to weight, too; more premium brands simply don’t want shorter or heavier women to wear their designs. They’re not interested in consumers who will — in their narrow-minded view — water down their brand’s image, exclusivity or prestige.
  • Even petite fit models are usually at least 5’3″. If you’re on the shorter end of the petite spectrum, i.e. 5’2″ or shorter, the industry isn’t even interested in making petite clothes to fit you, let alone regular ones.

Getting a good fit

For those of us shorter than average, the key is to find a brand whose clothes are fit on a petite fit model. There aren’t many out there but a few do exist: Banana Republic‘s fit models, for instance, must be 5’2″ with measurements of 33/26.5/36.5 — actually pretty close to my measurements, give or take an inch of height or so. Which may help explain why the fit of their clothes is usually pretty good on me.

Overall, though, most brands still fit their clothes to a model who is 5’7″-5’8″… which means that the 50% of us who are petite will struggle to get a good fit. And, unfortunately, this isn’t showing any sign of changing anytime soon.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in becoming a petite fit model, check out this blog post by Sable Yong, a working petite fit model who is 5’2″. It doesn’t sound very glamorous, I have to say.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *