This is a true story.

A woman walks into an American department store to buy a pair of slacks for a business trip. She sees a cute pair of  pinstriped slacks as she’s walking by the Juniors department. She tries several pairs on but becomes frustrated as she discovers the sizes she used to wear are all too small. She leaves the dressing room pledging to exercise more. She walks by the Sportswear department and spots a pair of plaid pants. She tries them on, fits into yet a different size, and passes on the plaids. Moving on, she rounds the corner to the Women’s department and sees a pair of classic gabardines. Sure, the styles are a bit stodgier in this department, but she fits into a size smaller than she wore a decade ago. Gabardine it is.

Her size? Somewhere between 6 and 12, depending on the style, the department, the store.

Maybe this has never happened to you. Maybe you’re always the same size—in every store, in every clothing line, in every brand. If so, you’re a minority. The rest of us spend a fair amount of time in America’s dressing rooms wondering “what size am I really?”

Of course, men have trouble finding pants that fit, too. But at least when a man shops for pants, the apparel industry gives him crucial information: his measurements.

In fact, inseam and waistline measurements that appear on the labels of menswear have prompted many a woman to shop in men’s departments. There, at least you can find specific measurements rather than irrelevant numbers like 6 or 8 or 10 or subjective words like small, medium, and large.

So why won’t  the American apparel industry get a clue? Consumers know all too well there’s a lot more to a body than small, medium, and large. Why don’t American clothing sizes reflect that more?

“Women have for generations allowed the apparel industry to sell optical illusions with sizing that means nothing and [with] the notion that if their clothes don’t fit, their body is wrong,” says Washington State University apparel design professor Carol Salusso. “It’s blame the body. Blame the consumer. Blame yourself. What a sad cultural commentary.”

Though you wouldn’t know it by the tags on your clothes, Salusso’s research shows there are 15 commonly occurring body types for women and 12 for men. She’s also discovered that one of the main determining factors for good clothing fit is posture. Yet posture indicators like pelvic tilt—the slope that extends from the small of the back to the curve of the buttocks—and spine curvature are rarely factored into patterns, designs, and sizes.

In one national study of 7,000 women aged 55 and older, Salusso tested a method she developed for apparel sizing while taking body form variations into account. The method classified six frame sizes and five heights. Later, she factored in posture with “slight, medium, or full pelvic tilt” body types, then tested garments sized according to these criteria on her subjects. Ninety percent of the women in the study fit successfully into the sizing system.

Unfortunately, the system used today in the United States is not nearly as scientific. The 1958 sizing standard, which was more specific, was revised in the 1970s to reflect fewer sizes and accommodate the flowing fashions of the times.

To make matters worse, clothing patterns are usually designed on dress forms that are not shaped like actual people. The most commonly used dress forms have straight spines instead of S-curved ones, for example, and lack any pelvic tilt, which most humans have. Such body forms are used because it is cheaper than using real people when mass producing clothing.

Even when a live model is used, he or she represents just one size and just one body type. To make sizes smaller or larger, manufacturers use an archaic process called grading—a technique of shrinking or enlarging—to adjust the pattern. The problem with this sizing method is that it takes a pattern based on a “culturally ideal” dress form—which usually isn’t even the size of a full-grown adult—and simply makes it smaller or larger, without changing proportions.

Before the mass production of clothing became common—it emerged in the late 1800s with the mass production of military uniforms for sailors and soldiers—tailors and dressmakers created clothing “tailor made” to the customer. But as clothing became increasingly manufactured on a mass scale, tailors and dressmakers disappeared.

Designers in couture do, of course, nip and tuck their creations to fit each model perfectly. But that kind of personalized fitting is largely saved for the runway and for wealthier customers. In fact, the fashion industry is part of the problem. One reason clothing manufacturers balk at reforming the sizing system is that it’s cheaper to have fewer sizes if they expect to keep pace with rapidly changing fashions. Fashion trends once lasted decades. Today, by the time a trend reaches a small town department store, Elle and Vogue are already listing it in the “out” column. Even classic lines of clothing are no longer a predictable fit each year.

“They don’t want to be terribly committed to the fit,” says Salusso, “because they are more committed to the fashion.”

Additionally, she says, manufacturers sell more clothes when consumers must guess at vague sizes rather than rely on specific measurements. As a result of this poor sizing, and the time investment necessary for finding a good fit, consumers have grown more willing to tolerate a large amount of “misfit” in their clothing.

“See, look at the space around your shoulders and amount of fabric here,” she says, tugging on the baggy sleeves of a suit I bought a few sizes too big so it would be long enough for my tall frame.

“For most people, either you take it to a tailor, you alter it yourself if you have the skills, or 5 percent of the time it fits you well. Mostly, you just put up with it.”

Salusso stopped putting up with it long ago. She began sewing her clothes as a child growing up along the Big Hole River in rural Divide, Montana. Like many farm kids in the West, she learned to sew her own clothing from patterns in 4-H.

For her, it was often “an exercise in horrible frustration to use a pattern, spend the time and money, and then have it look crummy.”

The patterns were made for the tall, thin women on the back of the pattern envelopes. Salusso needed patterns to fit a large chest, but a small hip. “The more I sewed, the more I got frustrated with the fact that the patterns didn’t fit me.”

So she began designing her own. Over the years, she has become fascinated with designing pants, which she considers “the ultimate way of being comfortable and looking good.”

Unfortunately, pants are also the piece of the wardrobe that most people, especially women, report finding most difficult to fit.

In response, Salusso began experimenting with her pants patterns—adjusting them to accommodate different pelvic tilts, waistline angles, and crotch curves. A number of women who tried the pattern wrote her back to say the pants not only fit better, but also improved their range of motion.

Now the specialized pants patterns have developed their own following. Hundreds have contacted Salusso for copies.

In the meantime, Salusso continues to call for changes that introduce “real body proportions and posture” into the industry’s sizing system. Implementing such a sizing system would require explanatory labeling, such as body type hangtags with body measurements indicating the range of fit, much like menswear. Will manufacturers be willing to pick up the tab for extra labeling and more varied inventory? Not so far. But as sizing technology advances, it may become easier for manufacturers to change.

“There’s multiple errors in the system,” Salusso says. “But new computer technology brings new hope.

“If your body isn’t what you want it to be, does it still deserve clothes? Industry says ‘no.’ But I say you don’t have to go to your grave with
bad fitting pants.”