Retailers, you're selling more to women than clothes

Clothing factory. (David Harrison, M&G)

Clothing factory. (David Harrison, M&G)

You try on dresses that seem ridiculous on your body. Your bottom hangs guiltily over the ill-fitting pants that are stretched over your thighs and refuse to go up any further. You have to suck in your stomach to fit into a blouse and then you wonder if your body is disproportionate. Eventually you blame the mirrors, you blame the lighting, and you blame the store for not understanding what a size 36 is meant to be. More importantly, you are inclined to blame your body and this is devastating to many women. 

Shopping for clothes is a reality of life, but an increasing number of women experience some sort of internal struggle and heartache when they try to buy clothes. 

For women, clothes are not just a basic necessity to cover their nakedness or provide warmth. What a woman wears tells the world something about who she is, who she associates with and what she believes in, referred to as “personal values” by Lenda Jo Connell, an associate professor of consumer affairs at Auburn University in the US. But for most women, finding clothes they like that also fit well and look good is difficult. And when clothes fit badly, most women are upset: they have failed to communicate their personal aspirations through that item of clothing. 

Despite women being major clothing consumers, little is known about their emotional experience or the role personal values play when they shop for ready-to-wear garments.  

It is important when buying clothes that the item fits a woman’s body well. However, due to the different types of body shapes and proportions in South Africa — combined with a lack of information about their different measurements — most women struggle to find clothes that accommodate their curves. 

Previous studies have indicated that most sizing systems are based on three body measurements: the bust, hip and waist. But this system does not accommodate the large variations of female body shapes in South Africa. This means it is impossible for the many women who have body proportions that do not fit into this three-measurement system to achieve a desirable fit.

Another reason that clothes do not fit properly is the irregularities in the methods of sizing. Sizing of clothes seems to be a rather difficult task with few guidelines. It can be assumed that the majority of the clothes manufacturers in South Africa do not follow a standardised sizing system, because a detailed survey of the shape and size of the South African consumer has never been done before, says Tsays Reena Pandarum, a lecturer in the department of life and consumer sciences at Unisa, and chairperson of one of the International Organisation for Standardization’s technical committees. Many clothing manufacturers borrow the standards from developed countries such as the US, or they estimate measurements. As a result, a skirt that claims to be a size 34 may not have the same dimensions as a skirt in another store or as another garment in the same store. To complicate matters further, a dress with the same dimensions may be labelled a different size in another shop or even in the same one. 

A woman may also hanker after a certain dress style, but unfortunately not all the fashionable styles accommodate their body shape. These women are unable to purchase fashionable styles — and with it the idea of themselves in those clothes — because the clothes do not suit their body shape, and these consumers are often frustrated that this limits their clothing choices. This means that they avoid certain shops where they know they are going to stare in the mirror at themselves in a possible new purchase and be disappointed. (If a dress fits poorly, it robs the woman of all the personal values and ideas of herself that the dress symbolises.)

To make matters worse, most clothing manufacturers still base their sizes on the assumption that women’s bodies are naturally hourglass or slightly triangular. These body shapes have a proportionately smaller waist when compared to the hip and bust measurements. Unfortunately, this does not accommodate the various female bodies. In reality, triangular and the oval bodies are currently the most prevalent shapes, according to a study of more than 60 black and white women in South Africa, aged between 18 and 56 years old. 

An added complication is that most women in South Africa do not find their sizes on the racks when they go for shopping. In the study sample, most women said that if they liked the clothing item but couldn’t find it in their size, they would knowingly buy it in the wrong size even though it fit poorly. They also complained that fashionable clothing styles were limited to smaller sizes while clothes meant for a larger body type were plain and loose-fitting styles. Often women have to settle for boring unfashionable styles, leaving them feeling ugly and unfeminine.

So when manufacturers and designer are making and sizing clothes, they must realise that, for women, clothing are not just strips of fabric sewn together, but they could be a woman’s unique dreams of herself. 

Josephine Kasambala is a MSc candidate at the University of South Africa.