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Why do women's clothes never fit quite right? An Edmonton researcher has a theory

Dr. Anne Bissonnette opens 'Misfits' exhibition at Edmonton's University of Alberta.

Dr. Anne Bissonnette shows off her new exhibition at the University of Alberta's Department of Human Ecology Wednesday.

Kevin Tuong / Metro Order this photo

Dr. Anne Bissonnette shows off her new exhibition at the University of Alberta's Department of Human Ecology Wednesday.

A University of Alberta researcher is unravelling why some women have such a hard time finding clothes that fit.

Dr. Anne Bissonnette with the Department of Human Ecology has launched an exhibit called Misfits: Bodies, Dress and Sustainability, that argues women’s clothing designs are impractical and outdated.

“When it comes to clothing and textile, the one problem that most women encounter is that you cannot find a garment that fits you readily,” she said.

While men’s sizes are usually numbered in ways that are government regulated – like a 30-inch waist or a 14-inch neck – women’s clothes tend to be coded by unregulated sizes.

For example, a Size 6 doesn’t have to mean one specific thing.  

The problem, Bissonnette said, dates back to 1939-40 when when the U.S. department of agriculture measured women to create the coded size system.

The measurements were mostly done on young women, who were often wearing corsets or girdles to reduce their hips or eliminate their stomach or buttocks – things women don’t usually wear today.

“(Women) think it’s them, that their bodies are not right, when in fact it’s an antiquated body type that is continuously being re-used and used in ways that we can’t make sense of when we go into the dressing room,” Bissonnette said.

She is advocating for regulated size measurements similar to men’s clothing, but also for clothes that accommodate different body shapes, arguing women have a “greater variety of bodies” due to muscles and fat tissues.

The changes would require a significant shift in attitudes, she said, from both consumers and manufacturers.

“If you say, for example, that this is plus size, and you never thought of yourself as plus size, then you will panic at the thought that you have to buy something in a plus size,” Bissonnette said.

“So sometimes manufacturers are afraid of the stigma that would be attached to actually putting real measurements on a waist size.”

Accommodating a wider variety of bodies would also create a glut of inventory for manufacturers.

She noted some have jumped on board, however, by giving the styles names that avoid stigmatizing – one woman might fit a “Margaret” style, for example, and another might fit the “Sally” style.

While it might seem burdensome for manufacturers, Bissonnette said there is an appetite for change.

“If there was somebody that decided to have a more efficient, organized, rational system, they likely would have women that would go to them and be very loyal to them, because they could find something readily without feeling depressed and trying things on forever,” she said. 

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Misfits: Bodies, Dress and Sustainability runs through Sept. 13 at the University of Alberta's Department of Human Ecology.

It will feature examples of corsets and dresses from the 1930s through 1950s to highlight a lack of adaptation in women's clothing designs over time.

Bisonnette co-created the exhibition with Josee Chartrand, Meg Furler, Yara Sayegh and Patricia Siferd as part of the graduate course "Material Culture and Curatorship."

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