Ground Report: Size India


Ground Report: Size India

The truth about size zero is that it is a lie. Zero in the US is size 4 in the UK but if translated to “Indian”, it would mean the raised eyebrows of a store salesperson. That is just the tip of the confounding arithmetic of apparel sizing that confronts every consumer—male or female, adult or child, extra small or plus-sized. Many countries—like Thailand, the UK, US, Mexico, Italy, Sweden, Japan, China and Korea to name some—have standardized sizing charts. India has none.

It is particularly perplexing in our country, where average body sizes in Mizoram, for instance, are totally different from those in Kashmir. A standardized sizing chart is a gradation of body measurements in the range of extra small to extra large based on averages derived after measuring the body diversities of a population. These are peculiar to a country, race and region. For instance, neither do a small-sized Indian woman and a small-sized German look similar, nor can they wear the same-sized garments. Similarly, a large-sized man from Haryana and a large-sized man from Nagaland won’t fit into the same “large” shirt.


Sizing issues, though, are not just limited to fashion and apparel. The absence of size charts results in a skew everywhere. Someone finds a slab in a modular kitchen too low; another a latch on a door too high.

A fireman may be given a fire suit based on his approximate size but unless it fits him perfectly, it could have repercussions on safety, creating obstacles in his speed and efficiency.

That’s why last year, when the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, organized a seminar on “National Sizing Standards for India”, it not only invited product and garment designers, but ergonomic experts as well as representatives from the Indian Army. “It’s about linkages. From shoes to suits of firefighters, working garbs of ambulance and hospital staff, soldiers’ uniforms to cars, knives, ramps for the disabled, to knee caps—one thing connects the other and standardized sizing is needed to make a crucial difference to the quality of services in the country,” says Krishna Amin-Patel, centre head, principal designer and coordinator of apparel design at NID’s Gandhinagar campus.

In apparel, sizing issues befuddle just about everyone. Many of us may be small-sized according to one clothing brand but medium or large in another. Or we may need clothes in different sizes in the same brand, because fits differ in Western, Indian and fusion clothes. For women, the sizing issue is trickier as the logic of bust-waist-hip ratios needs to be balanced. For men too, though shirt collars are standardized and you may know what to expect from a size 40 across brands, there are sleeve-length differences, suiting one body type but not another. In the US, three sleeve lengths are available for each shirt size. Besides, new slim fits in menswear (shirts with darts) and ready-to-wear jackets by Indian brands, now among the top-selling categories, have created unforeseen sizing issues in retail experiences.

Sounds familiar? Welcome to the frustrating world of small, medium, large.

Prof. Noopur Anand, chairperson, department of fashion technology at New Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift), has been researching “Size India” and has published a paper titled Size Does Matter—National Sizing Survey Of India. “Indian sizing charts are an enormous, rocky terrain. It needs technology, anthropometric surveys, human management, funding and large-scale efforts to take measurements of men, women and children across the nation,” says Prof. Anand. Nift is still looking for ways to implement this project. Despite numerous academic debates, no institution, brand or retailer group has been able to push or complete the work on standardized sizing charts. Lack of private or public budgetary allocation is just one of the reasons.

According to Prof. Anand, it needs a mammoth exercise to map India’s diverse ethnic groups. For reliable representative data, at least a few thousands samples are needed from across the country. To do that, a number of trained volunteers are required to handle measurement events. Prof. Anand says body measurements are best taken by sophisticated 3D body scanners. “These are like huge X-ray machines run with scanning technology, where an image avatar gets generated. This is a cleaner, faster, no-contact process compared to people manually taking sizes by measurement tapes and getting tired within hours,” she says.

In the marketplace, most brands manage with self-created sizing charts and a trial-and-error process based on customer feedback and sales analysis. Fabindia was the first to create sizing charts in the early 1980s. “There was no organized retail then, we took our own measurements within the staff, then graded and tweaked them through long-term customer feedback,” says Charu Sharma, a product director at Fabindia who has been with the company for 35 years. The sizes of Fabindia’s Khadi kurtas for men became a standard for other retail brands.

“Fabindia is known for slightly generous sizing but we have adapted over the years. Competition in the market, the willingness of older age groups to wear fitted clothes and the introduction of fusion wear urged us to evolve our sizing,” says Sharma. While the company always sold XL, it introduced XS in the 1990s. Now, Fabindia makes slim fits across women’s ethnic wear and men’s clothes.

Stiff competition from fashion portals is pushing retailers to prioritize the resolution of sizing dilemmas. Most online stores offer smart options through videos with personalized mentoring to help customers ascertain appropriate sizes and make informed choices. “For an Internet marketplace like Amazon, it’s important to have on board e-tailers who offer lucid and simple-to-follow size guides,” says the creative director of Amazon India, Narendra Kumar, also a well-known fashion designer.


Interesting anthropological anecdotes are everywhere you look. Most Indian women after the age of 50 tend to veer away from tight Western silhouettes; the most common menswear sizes are 38-40. While most brands have six sizes—XS, S, M, L, XL and free size (XXL), the two extremes—XS and XXL—sell the least. Medium is the most common size among Indian women, and large, the most common among men. From time to time, Fabindia gives price discounts on XL and XS but not for S, M, L. People in south India generally don’t prefer tight-fitted garments while women in Punjab do. Most young women are thinner than they’ve been in the last three decades but women above 50 are heavier than before.

While numerous studies indicate the rising trend of obesity among Indians, XL isn’t a popular size in shops. Plus-sized people prefer online shopping or go to tailors. Market insights explain the rationale behind Vanity Sizing, where brands label their clothes smaller than they actually are to push popularity and widen their customer base, as Prof. Anand points out. Some brands have introduced middle sizes. Not only do they have sizes 32 and 34, but also 33.

“Slim fits in menswear didn’t exist even three years back. Now they are aspirational,” says Sumeet Soni, brand director of Raymond Premium Apparel. Standardized sizing charts are a priority, agrees Soni, as they would give a brand competitive advantage in the market. But he admits that he can’t put a date on when Raymond will actually introduce them. “It is a huge consumer and trade challenge. Customers want slim fits but when they go to the market they realize slim could mean anything from sizes 40-42. But for one brand to manage a large inventory of clothes with multiple sizes in every design too is a problem,” says Soni.

Denominations like XS, S, M, L or XL, says Goodearth’s director Beenu Bawa, could lead to judgement. So they weeded them out and introduced 1, 2, 3, 4 while XS is called P, for petite. “We worked on bodices worn by Indian women and those who share our design aesthetic, then adjusted these to people across small to large sizes in a personal, iterative way,” says Bawa. While Goodearth’s in-house Sustain range has more variety in larger sizes, Bawa says their forthcoming line Malabar, with an East meets West borderless design sensibility, is petite-oriented.

Fashion designers have their own grouses with sizing. Goa-based designer and author Wendell Rodricks is emphatic about it. “At the moment one designer’s small is another’s medium and yet another’s large. So buyers who order for multi-designer stores are confused and in the end, the client is confused. Also, Indian women have different bodies. They would wear a medium-sized top in one brand but the bottom will be a size bigger. We need to accommodate these subtle differences,” he says.

“At the moment one designer’s small is another’s medium and yet another’s large. So buyers who order for multi-designer stores are confused and in the end, the client is confused.Also, Indian women have different bodies. They would wear a medium-sized top in one brand but the bottom will be a size bigger. We need to accommodate these subtle differences.”

Designers may treat fashion models as the reference point for creating a garment conceptually (model sizes are similar across the world), but they have to make different batches for different markets. Take, for instance, Rahul Mishra, who won the International Woolmark Prize earlier this year, and who showed at Paris Fashion Week on 1 October. Mishra, who now retails at global fashion stores like 10 Corso Como, Saks Fifth Avenue and Harvey Nichols, says he is just about learning to size differently for international stores. “An Indian fashion customer is, on an average, 6 inches shorter than a customer in Germany,” he says, explaining that when the size is measured from shoulder to waist, enormous differences creep up between people in the US and Europe, and India. “If a size is not exact, the fabric starts ripping upon use and can cause what’s termed as fashion malfunction. Also, while Indian fashion stores prefer garments with 2-inch margins inside, the same can get a consignment rejected in the international market,” says Mishra, adding that garments made from stretch fabrics particularly need great attention to sizing.

Rodricks decided long back that it would be derogatory to call a lady L or XL in India. “So we substituted with Voluptuous and Voluptuous Goddess instead. Shoppers are delighted with the voluptuous tag. They feel more privileged to find a designer size that fits them,” he says. He believes that if the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) leads the way in creating a standardized sizing chart, other brands in the retail sector will follow suit.

FDCI president Sunil Sethi isn’t so sure. “We have the will but it requires dealer networks and access to various markets from Surat to Coimbatore. I would enrol an academic institute in the project and join hands with manufacturers and retailers,” he says.

Prof. Anand also argues for a consortium. She cites all the national sizing surveys done internationally, be it the UK, US, China or any other—there is always a collaborative effort undertaken by retail companies, academia and government. For example, in the Caesar (Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource) study of body measurements for the civilian population in three Nato countries: the US, Netherlands and Italy. Completed in 2002, it was a collaborative effort that included partners from more than 35 companies (such as Levi’s, General Motors, Ford, and Boeing), several government agencies and representatives from six countries. “Only a large consortium made of big retailers who can fund the project, academia who would lay down the directions and analyse the results, and active government support can crack it,” says Prof. Anand.

Experts are ready with solutions. Debkumar Chakrabarti, head of the department of design at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, who was present at the NID seminar last year and co-authored a study on this subject long back in 1997, says it’s time the issue moves beyond the discussion stage. “The first step should be to collect data on body dimensions, otherwise we will continue to wear shirts based on the sizing charts of other countries but never be able to fasten the top button,” he says.

Darlie O. Koshy, director general and CEO of the Institute of Apparel Management in Gurgaon, and a former director of NID, adds that data collection is possible if we go back to regional tailors from Kolkata to Gandhinagar who have been stitching garments for years. He suggests including the measurement data gained from new-generation tailors (who also stitch and sell their own ready-to-wear), alteration tailors and make-through tailors (a term used for those who manage the entire process—sizing, cutting, stitching, finishing). Koshy, like Rodricks and Prof. Anand, emphasizes that mannequins used in fashion institutes to educate students about pattern-making and tailoring need to be locally manufactured based on Indian body types. “We use mannequins from the UK for teaching. No wonder our students have little clue about Indian sizing,” she says.

Bangalore-based Kunal Sachdev, managing director and chief executive officer of Caravan Craft Retail Pvt. Ltd, a contemporary ready-to-wear line of fusion garments launched last year with stores in Bangalore and Pune, says that for entry into the Indian market his brand largely followed European sizes, with some tweaks borrowed from Indian brands. “But those who aim to attract a large part of the local population must consider different size sets for different markets. And one for exports. If we don’t recognize that petite and big-built mean different things in different states, we will lose customers,” he says.

Sachdev’s logic is that similarities will soon emanate from the sales experience. For instance, an Indian brand exporting to Korea will realize that the same sizing chart works in the North-East or find similarities between the US and Punjab, thus eventually making inventories manageable.

If charts for the Indian body sizes are standardized, customers of fashion and apparel won’t need to hunt for perfect fits each time they shop. And brands that adopt such a chart won’t lose customers owing to incongruous fits.

This long list of challenges in sizing could, however, take a conclusive turn if the Clothing Manufacturing Association of India (CMAI) goes ahead with implementing its Size India sampling project slated to begin before the end of this year. “We are working on a four-pronged project having joined hands with the Indian industry, Nift and international clothing associations,” says Rahul Mehta, President of CMAI. Expected to take over as the president of the International Apparel Federation, a body of clothing associations from 45 countries, Mehta says that the statistical analysis will be possible because of measurement tools, principles and new technology brought in from other countries with standardized sizing charts. “The body scanners we are bringing in will neither require people to take off their clothes nor wear tight fitting clothing to get measured. We are tying up with malls and large retail spaces to introduce gift vouchers and other motivating schemes to attract people to volunteer for measurement analysis,” he explains adding that it is undoubtedly one of the biggest projects that CMAI has ever taken up.

“The concept of size India is the need of the hour. It will address everything from specialized sportswear to prosthetic legs, from forensics to fashion,” reiterates Prof. Anand.

A fitting way to size up the issue.