It Can Be Hard to Find Your True Size. Here's How to Always Get It Right

Letter sizes — like S, M, L or XL — are essentially useless unless you know your measurements.

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When you’re trying to nail down the right size for clothing, it’s easy to morph into the math lady meme real quick. But instead of floating formulas for calculating the volume of a cone, it’s sizing charts for jackets and jeans. Letter sizing (S, M, L, XL, etc.) tries to simplify the process, but basically every brand has its own definition of those letters. Sizing between garments within a single brand complicates the issue even further. How often are you one size in a button-up shirt, but a different size in a T-shirt from the same brand?

Why do I wear a medium with one brand but a large with another?

Products described as true-to-size are, in my opinion, a waste of time for both the customer and the copywriter. Unless you’re talking about shoes with respect to a Brannock device, which is a hairy subject to begin with, true-to-size basically means nothing. There’s no empirical standard for a size medium, as far as I’m aware. Although you could take measurements of every human, graph the data, look at the bell curve and take the median value as the Scientific Size Medium™.

What is vanity sizing?

Then, there’s the added variable of vanity sizing. Most often used when referring to jeans, vanity sizing is when a brand labels a pair of jeans as a certain numerical waist size when the true waist size measurement is different. For example, a pair of jeans labeled as a size 32 waist may actually measure 34 inches. This is mostly because jeans with lower rises measure larger than the natural waist size. Rather than label these lower-rise jeans as a 34, brands will play to the customer’s vanity and label them as a 32. I’ve got trust issues, y’all.

How do I always order the right size?

That's why I really only refer to the garment’s actual measurements. Though size charts have to be taken with a grain of salt since measurements are a reflection of a single copy of a garment, if not an average of several copies, seeing quantitative size descriptions is much more accurate than letter sizing. This is why it’s helpful to know your own body measurements.

Knowing your measurements proves helpful in sizing overall, but especially when shopping online. Because you’re not able to try clothes on before you buy them, you miss out on the realtime fit analysis. It’s more of a gamble with online retail. Whether it’s shopping for new stuff or secondhand and vintage, you’re more likely to avoid returning your new purchase if you have your measurements recorded.

You also should know the measurements of your favorite garments. If you have clothes that fit you well already, you can simply measure those and reference them as a baseline when shopping online. Your favorite garments implicitly tell you how you like your clothes to fit, but also give you other metrics your body measurements do not. For pants, this is the inseam, outseam, thighs, front and back rise, and the leg opening. For shirts and jackets, this would be shirt length and body width.

How and What to Measure

All you need to take your measurements is a tape measure and someone to help measure you. And, once you’ve taken all the measurements you need, save that information in a document or on your phone.

Top Measurements

Neck

Starting at the base of the neck, where the shoulders meet the neck, wrap the measuring tape around. Leave enough room to fit a finger between the neck and the tape. This allows for a comfortable fit that’s not restrictive.

Shoulders

Place the measuring tape right at one of the shoulder joints and span it across the back to the other shoulder joint.

Sleeve

The length from the shoulder joint, down to the wrist bone.

Chest

At the fullest part of the chest, usually about two inches below the armpit. Be sure to keep the tape snug enough to not fall off the chest, but also not so tight as to be restrictive.

Wrist

More applicable for dress shirts, this is the circumference of the wrist, around the wrist bone. If you wear a watch, it’s helpful to leave about a finger’s worth of space between the tape and the wrist.

Shirt Length

The length of a shirt, measured from the base of the collar to the hem.

Pants Measurements

Waist

The natural waist sits about level or just above the belly button. Measure the circumference here. It’s worth noting that if your pants do not sit right at the waist, however. For that, it’s helpful to know how well-fitting pants that you already own. This measurement is also helpful in sizing for shirts and suit jackets.

Hips

The circumference of the body at the hip bones. For this, do not measure over a belt, but against the skin.

Seat

The circumference of the widest part of the butt.

Thighs

The circumference of the thickest part of the thigh, usually in the middle of the thigh.

Inseam

While standing without shoes, this is measured from the inside leg starting at the crotch, down to the floor.

Front Rise

From the crotch of the pants to the top of the front waist.

Back Rise

From the crotch of the pants to the top of the back waist.

Leg Opening

The width of the hem of a pair of pants, laid flat.

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