For an early post I'll touch on something that is a nice intersection of technology and sociology and anthropology...
No one has successfully accused me of being fashionable, but I'm interested in apparel and fashion for a variety of reasons.
In the mid 90s I found myself consulting for an Army project designed to lead to better fitting uniforms. It turns out sizing is an artifact of mass production that is anything but perfect. It would be nice to create individual made to measure uniforms, but to mass produce them. Our approach was to build a fast body scanner that created a 3d model of a person that was then used to create a custom two dimension digital pattern. This pattern would be used to drive automated cutting machines and the result would be sewed together (the last step probably by people).
The military scanned a large number of soldiers and created an excellent anthropometric database. For a variety of reasons the idea of using scanners for measurement never caught on, but several firms have experimented with the idea of practical paths to semi mass produced made to measure clothing.
I mostly forgot about this work until a few years ago when a very tall young woman became a friend of the family. Colleen's height is something more than five standard deviations out from the female mean*. The practical result is many manufactured items that need to fit don't. Watching her frustration with mass produced items started me down the path of thinking about the problem again. In another blog I discuss the general problem in two posts.
There are several interesting possible apparel industry disruptions. Not only is better fit possible along with some customization, but the idea of what a design is becomes more fluid. A curious thing about practical design is that copyright doesn't apply - at least not in the US and functionally not in the EU. One reason the fashion industry has survived in its current form is fashion is dynamic and the time to manufacture has traditionally been long. This is changing and there is some worry in the industry - shades of another industry that obsesses about copyright.
More important is the idea that design might be distributed and design mashups are possible. This begins with customization, but it can go much beyond that. Few of us are Jean Paul Gaultiers, but there are thousands of great street fashion designers who can modify existing designs into something that you might find more to your taste. At some level you can also participate - perhaps choosing to customize from a safe palate of choices.
This may not happen with traditional labels, although there are models where they might participate. It also has the ability to break the current byzantine and inefficient distribution and sales model. You might select a pattern from a great designer and modify it yourself or use the modifications of others. It may be possible for you to specify materials as well as the manufacturer and the resulting garment would be shipped directly to you.
The technology and business models haven't emerged yet, but the industry is huge (larger than entertainment and sports) and massive change seems likely as there is need for something better - perhaps starting with fit.
Currently the social component of fashion and design fascinates me. This wasn't on my screen fifteen years ago, but it may be a significant driver of the disruptions that may confront the industry. Those with serious platforms - Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google and a few others - may be in an interesting position to participate. It is also possible that new players might emerge.
These days many people are interested in 3d printing. A very neat technology that has completely changed prototyping, but there are serious scaling and material issues for final products that move this well beyond the current time horizon. I'll have more to say on mass customization in the future and particularly the low hanging fruit of apparel - I generally refer to mass customization of apparel as two plus epsilon dimension mass customization. stay tuned.
I spend a lot of time talking with and observing people in their twenties - a time of life when there is considerable experimentation and it happens to be the group where change often emerges. A friend I consult with is Jheri - another difficult to fit young woman in her mid twenties who lives in Copenhagen. Our conversations caused her to write a piece on the history of sizing and she has graciously allowed me to quote it here. It was originally targeted at difficult to fit women to provide a bit of background on why the current fashion industry can't help, but it also shows why even average people can have a difficult time with fit.
so thank you Jheri!
I’m curious about fashion and have spent a bit of time studying the industry. There are basically three ways clothing is made: ready to wear, made to measure and bespoke.
Most clothing is ready to wear. A design is made and turned into a pattern which can be made larger and smaller. It is up the the manufacturer to define the "fit" to a given size. In fact the concept of size is quite arbitrary. In North America the standard size, which turns out to be very different from the average size, is a size 8. The designs are made into patterns that will fit a size 8 fit model very well and then they are adjusted incrementally up and down to make other sizes. Adjustments are made for talls and petites and a different type of sizing usually happens around size 14 or so. A brand may have different lines each with their own fit. So even if you are a perfect size 8 fit model for one line another line from the same manufacturer may have a very different fit.
The problem is women are curvy and the shape of our curves vary a lot. For me I am very flat on top, but I have a nice curve from my waist to my hips. The length and shape of that curve can vary a lot as well as how big my butt is or what shape it is and a hundred other things. We don't need perfectly fitting clothing, but the specification of what a size 8 is only gets you in the ballpark.
Average sized women can shop and try on different pieces of clothing until something fits. Even there they don't get exactly what they might like. A friend of mine is an 8 and maybe about 5'5, which is average height for a woman. She tells me about half of the clothing she tries are terrible fits and she knows what lines are likely to fit her shape. But there are so many clothes that she can usually find something she likes and sometimes there are good sales. She will tell you shopping can be a bit frustrating, but I think she is in paradise.
If you are a manufacturer you want to be able to sell everything you make. This means you need a good design - that is up to the designer, but you need to know the distribution of women's sizes. You don't want to make as many size 0s as size 8s or 10s. If 20% of your customers are size 8 you should make 20% of your line in size 8. If 5% are size 4, you make 5% in size 4 and so on. At some point it doesn't make sense even stocking sizes where there will be few customers On the small side you rarely see many size 0s or 2s in stores. It gets worse when you add tall sizes and that usually means something like 5'8 to many manufacturers.
You have probably seen the bell shaped curve in your math class. These are often called gaussian distributions and many things in nature, including human height, come very close to following them. I won't go into the math, but we are at the right end of the scale. Depending on how you count, only about 1 in 20,000 women are my height or taller in the US. This sort of makes sense when I travel around. I have two very tall friends. One is 6'7 and the other 6'8 and at that height we are talking about one in more than a million. It does not make financial sense making manufactured clothing even at my height. But you may be able to mix and match pieces that fit here and there. My 6’7 friend can get by with short sleeved tshirts and jeans are ok as long as she wears them as cutoffs. But dresses, nice slacks, and jeans that really fit simply don’t exist in stores.
But it gets worse.
Most women in America are a bit on the heavy side. About two thirds are considered overweight and a third obese. This means that plus sizes are the common size. Why is it so many women who are size 14 and up can't find clothing that fits if the average woman requires these sizes? A lot of women blame the manufacturers and models for an image that is super thin and unrealistic. This isn't true. There are marketing reasons why models are tall and thin, but not reason for a manufacturer to leave money on the table by not offering clothing to a large number of women who want to hand over cash for something pretty.
The problem goes back to how clothing is made. I mentioned ready to wear. That started to become popular in the early 20th century. It became very cheap to mass produce large number of clothes in sizes that would sort of fit the majority of women. Before then you had to sew or use the town dress maker and clothing, for most women, was expensive and lacked style. Few dressmakers had the skill to make beautiful togs. With ready to wear quality improved and the price dropped. It caught on.
Before mass produced and sized clothing caught on there were two basic ways to make it. Bespoke and made to measure. Bespoke is what it sounds like - you "speak" for a piece of fabric and, and in the hands of an expert, a piece is made to fit perfectly. There is no pattern and no concept of sizing. It is still done today and in the hands of masters is the summit of clothing. It is also mostly reserved for mens suits; suits that start around $5,000. There are a few who will craft women’s clothing using this technique.
Made to measure is where the fabric and design is known but your measurements are taken. The fit is much closer than ready to wear, but a pattern is involved. If you are wealthy and go to a designer's Salon you can often have designs made to your measurements. It usually takes a month or two of waiting along with a boatload of money. Much more than I have.
For ready to wear it was necessary to find a way to scale patterns. Remember our size 8 fit model? For hundreds of years - going back to the 16th century in Italy it had been known that women of average weight varied in a predictable way. If a certain amount came off the bust, there was another amount that came off the hips and still another than came off the waist. As long as these jumps were not huge you could make patterns, which can be very complex and hard to make, that would scale easily. In made to measure adjustments could easily be made and you may have done this yourself if you have done dressmaking from patterns. Additionally there are other parts of a design that can be altered, usually by a tailor, for the final fit. But we are still waiting for something that fits heavier women, right?
The first real attempt for mass produced larger sized clothing was pioneered by Lenna Bryant in about 1910. She had a dress shop and a client asked her for a maternity dress that could be worn on the street. It was a big success, but it was considered unfashionable and no one would run ads. Bryant and her husband decided this was a real business and started a mail order catalog. Mail order was becoming popular sort of like the Internet of its day. It turned out many, if not most, of their customers were full-figured rather than pregnant.
Bryant's husband was an engineer who designed railroads. He knew how to design curves in the tracks and used this knowledge with measurement statistics from thousands of life insurance records to define three or four basic full figured body types. This made it easier to get a dress that mostly fit a woman of average stature and that was in a day when women could sew and alter or lived close to someone who could. It was a pretty big advance. The Bryants refined their designs and became millionaires when a million was a huge amount of money.
But there is another problem. Why aren't we just scaling from size 8? It turns out the fuller figured women have very different curves and the range of those curves varies hugely. There may be a size 16 fit model, but rather than fitting half of size 16s, she might only cover 10%. The concept of size doesn't work anymore because the curves themselves are not being properly fitted. There is far too much variation. Plus sized manufacturers try to do as best they can and try to find ranges of fit models that give them a better chance at making money, but for the majority of plus sized women the sad truth is they can't get the off the rack fit that their smaller sized sisters get. The manufacturers would love to solve this as they could mint money. There are even some good ways to do it, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves.
Of course none of us are of average height. We have curves, some of us more than others. But we also have legs, arms and torsos that tend to be longer than what "tall" sizes account for. We have a few speciality manufacturers. They are faced with the same problem a regular manufacturer has but it is worse. Not only do they have to guess the right size range if they want to sell enough to stay in business, but they have to know what percentage are. 5'10 to 6'0, 6'0-6'2 and so on... You get a sheet of paper and draw a horizontal line with that bell shaped curve for size distribution. Depending on your line maybe most are size 6 through 12s. Now you draw a vertical line and for each one of those sizes you try to figure out how many will be in each height range. The space for 6'3 and size 0-2 has such a small number in it that you decide not to make anything specifically for that woman. At 5'10 and size 8 or 10 there may be a large enough number that you want to have several designs. For the fuller figured women it is very tricky as now as the type of curve becomes a more important variable. And there is long and short waisted, etc. This is really really difficult and risky business. You will please a few customers, but many won't have great fits and there can't be a big selection.
Ok, so far I've mostly given problems and things may sound hopeless. But they aren't. Most of us manage by putting together something even if it doesn't fit great or have the fabrics and designs we would love to have. If one of the speciality companies has a line that fits, support them! None of these places makes a lot of money as the costs are high for low volumes. We have to acknowledge that clothing is going to be more expensive, so buy it and take good care of it. If the fit isn't fabulous get to know a good tailor. I have a great one. She is about 70 and I bribe her with cake and chocolate even if I don't have something for her to work on. Be creative and look at vintage and used clothing and work with your tailor. Sometimes you can put together very interesting outfits for not a lot of money and it is much more your style. Perhaps you can find a dressmaker or even learn yourself. One of my extra tall friends was complementing her neighbor on a beautiful dress and learned it was homemade. Now that neighbor is making a made to measure dress for her and is making a little money on the side too.
Made to measure is the holy grail assuming the patterns can be matched well enough. It is beginning to happen. You may have seen shops that take a lot of measurements and turn them into clothing. Indi is one that does semi-custom jeans. What they do is create a pattern in the computer that is unique to you and then that information is used to run a machine that cuts the fabric. People sew it together and if that is done right and the measurements are good, it should fit well. These places offer a bit of customization. Now your height and shape are much less important. It is expensive now, after all it is competing against designs made in the third world by women who only made a few dollars per day at most.
This is a developing area and there are problems, but it will probably get much better. In the mean time develop an eye for style, find a good tailor or dressmaker and learn a bit of sewing.
* 5.6 sd is very rare and a good illustration that the distribution of human height is only approximated by a gaussian. Specifically it implies that she is taller than all by one in about ninety three million women in this age range. Looking at women's basketball teams this clearly isn't the case and a more realistic number based on other work is probably between three and ten million women with six million being a good guess.
A male her height is much more common at 3.6 standard deviations from the mean - about one in sixty three hundred men in this age range. The male curve is only slightly non-gasssian that far out if you use the largest data sets.
It turns out most of the error in the tails in induced by sampling. The study of rare events demands extra care with normal techniques and tools often breaking down unless unless you have a good fundamental understanding of what is going on under the hood.
If you want to probe human height more deeply an excellent non-technical article appeared in The New Yorker in 2004 - The Height Gap by Burkhard Bilger (fortunately not behind their paywall). Having a tall friend opened my curiosity on the subject and I have spoken with some of the researchers mentioned and then branched out a bit. It turns out the height of a population (not individual height!) is a good proxy for health. In the US female height has been falling in the past few decades and male height is relatively stagnant.