Why retailers overlook women who aren’t quite plus or straight size

The rise of curve models like Ashley Graham hasn’t necessarily given customers who wear cusp sizes more visibility.

Fashion’s struggles with size inclusivity have spanned decades. For far too long, women who didn’t fit into “standard” clothing sizes had difficulty walking into a store and leaving with something they could wear. While that problem is still very much a reality, a growing number of retailers sell plus-size clothing or have extended their size ranges to accommodate a variety of women. Now, whether you wear straight sizes, plus sizes, or need a petite fit, you can probably find at least one retailer that specializes in serving you.

For women who fall into the zone colloquially known as “in-between” sizes, which range from roughly size 10 to 14, this may not be the case. These shoppers generally find themselves at the larger end of straight sizes or the smaller end of plus. More often than not, they get short shrift from straight-size retailers (which usually cater to sizes 00 to 12), but they may be too small to wear the offerings available from plus retailers (which generally offer sizes 14 to 32).

If you want to know what it’s like to shop as an “in-betweener,” look no further than Huffington Post’s 2013 investigation into Lululemon. The website found that at a Philadelphia outpost of the athleisure company, size 10 and 12 clothes were rarely restocked and were moved to a separate area of the store, “clumped and unfolded under a table.”

The founders of Ava James say they started the brand to be inclusive to women who wear cusp sizes.Ava James
Ava James is a retailer that caters to women sizes 8-18.

And the issue goes far beyond Lululemon. In her 2016 piece “Why Is Inclusive Sizing So Hard?” Britt Aboutaleb, then editor of Racked, recalled having to beg for size 8 and 10 clothes in New York’s indie boutiques. She said sales associates would often reassure her, “We have bigger sizes in back!”

The fact that in-betweeners are not the preferred demographic of straight-size retailers means shopping still poses challenges for these customers. One new brand, Ava James, launched last year specifically to meet the needs of women sizes 8 to 18, a range that includes the oft-overlooked cusp sizes. And body positivity influencers like Renee Cafaro, the US editor of Slink magazine, focused on fashion, fitness, beauty, and lifestyle, are discussing the unique needs of women of all clothing sizes, including in-betweeners.

Why retailers keep overlooking women on the cusp

Eugena Delman says her sister’s struggles with retail as a size 14 were one reason she created the premium clothing brand Ava James, which she co-founded in 2018 with Saena Chung. With a size range of 8 to 18, Ava James offers mostly dresses for $215 to $250. The average American woman wears between a size 16 and 18, and Delman said she wanted to give the women straight-size retailers ignore more options in the high-end category.

“We think in-betweeners have been overlooked due to the costs and time associated with getting the fit right for a wide range of sizes,” she told me. “The typical designer will usually create their designs using a sample size of 2 or 4. The pattern for this sample will be used to make multiple sizes; however, there are only so many sizes that one can make from this pattern before the pattern gets distorted and fit becomes a major problem.”

That’s why many straight-size designers will stop at size 10 or 12. But plus retailers also have a finite number of sizes they can make from one pattern, so they begin at a bigger size to service the full plus range, usually falling between sizes 14 and 26, Delman explained.

“By starting at a smaller size, plus retailers would run the risk of distorted fit or have to invest in new patterns that enable them to service a wider range,” she said.

Retailer Ava James wants to be size inclusive.Ava James
Ava James sells high-end clothes to women sizes 8-18.

Because of the types of manufacturing limitations Delman described, in-betweeners lack the clothing options that their counterparts who fall squarely into straight or plus sizes have. Since it’s more cost-effective to manufacture clothes from one pattern, as Delman said, a cusp-size garment from a plus retailer may run larger than one of the same size from a straight-size retailer.

“My friends who are a solid 14 — they complain of being just a little too big for the straight-sized 14 but too small for the proportions of the [plus-size] 14” Cafaro said.

Just last year, brands like Reformation, Mara Hoffman, and Cynthia Rowley extended their size ranges, as have brands from big-box retailers like Walmart and Target. But as Delman points out, “The vast majority of smaller designers won’t necessarily have the resources or the desire to extend their size range.”

This is especially the case, she said, with higher-end clothing brands, notorious for not offering a wide range of clothes beyond about a size 10. Cafaro says her family members and friends who wear sizes 10 to 14 never know if they’ll be able to fit into the clothes from high-fashion brands. (The lack of standardized sizing across the industry doesn’t help — more on that below.)

“I think many people have no idea about the challenges of the in-betweener,” Cafaro said. “Or they lump the in-betweener into the plus-size category. The two groups face different issues: In-betweeners may find options with straight-size designers, but those options will be limited in terms of sizes and styles, whereas plus customers have no options with straight-size designers but there are retail options that cater specifically to them. Both groups are still massively underserved!”

Irregular sizing only makes shopping more complicated for in-betweeners

The lack of standard sizing in women’s apparel can make clothes shopping challenging for everyone, especially women in the low double digits. Last June, H&M announced that it would change its sizing to be more in line with North American standards — so that a size 12 would now be a size 10 and a medium a small — after customers complained that the clothes fit too tightly. When clothes fit smaller than expected at straight-size retailers, in-betweeners may be unable to find anything that fits them since they’re already at the higher end of the size range.

“It’s particularly tough to be a 12 or a 14 when that may be the last size a brand carries,” Cafaro explained. “If you are usually a 10/12 in one brand but another runs small, you are stuck leaving empty-handed.”

True Fit, a company that helps customers find their best size across a spectrum of retailers, found that waist sizes in women’s jeans can deviate by up to 5 inches. According to the company, the average woman fluctuates between three different clothing sizes because of inconsistency from retailer to retailer, though customers have complained of their clothing size varying at the same retailer too. Online shoppers are particularly vulnerable to this since they can’t try on clothes beforehand.

“As a new brand, this was the one thing that really drove us crazy, the lack of standardized sizing across the industry,” Delman said. “We spent hours trying to figure out the best way to create our size guide. At the end of the day, we decided to average and extrapolate the measurements from a number of different brands.”

Delman says the only solution is to get the clothing industry to standardize sizes or to make sure that customers know their measurements. That said, size 28 jeans in one brand still may not fit the same as size 28 in another.

Curve models are typically in-betweeners, but they haven’t made these customers more visible

Some of the biggest plus or “curve” models, like Ashley Graham and Robin Lawley, are actually in-betweeners. Graham has said that she’s a size 14, and Lawley wore a size 12 when she appeared in the 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Despite the mass media attention both of these women have received, they are widely regarded as plus models and have not necessarily influenced retailers to serve the needs of in-betweeners, Cafaro said. Curve models are typically used to represent all women considered curvy or plus rather than just those from size 10 to 14.

Curve models like Ashley Graham have grown more popular, but they aren’t necessarily making retailers focus more on “in-betweeners.”Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Model Ashley Graham says she wears a size 14, making her an “in-betweener.”

“There are certainly more conversations around body positivity and inclusivity [now] that weren’t happening 10 years ago,” she said. “Having said that, I don’t think using curve models has necessarily drawn attention specifically to the in-betweeners; rather, it’s more about how insular the fashion world has been in using only super-slim models and raising awareness around the plus movement generally.”

In addition to models like Graham and Lawley, actresses such as Mindy Kaling and Amy Schumer reportedly fall into this category, but they are also often lumped into plus by media outlets, despite their objections to the label. Schumer has openly resisted being described as plus, and Kaling has described herself as “normal American woman size.”

By ignoring women above a size 10, Cafaro said that retailers are “leaving a lot of money on the table.”

“I think the idea is to expand the profit margins by being more realistic and serving all women,” she said. “Sixty-seven percent of women are over a size 14 in America, and brands must allow an inclusive range to ensure all customers have the flexibility to find the fit they desire.”

But beyond the profits that can be made from in-betweeners, society is slowly accepting the idea that there’s more than one kind of physical standard of beauty, Cafaro continued. She argued that retailers need to recognize this by expanding their styles and sizes for all women.

“With the majority of women in America being considered plus size, it is absurd to me that we are considered the outliers,” she said.

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