Should clothing prices vary by size?

Aside: Over the next few weeks, as the holidays approach, I’m giving away several great toys and children’s products—all from brands I believe in.

This week, I’m giving away two Lottie dolls with accessory packs to my blog readers. You should enter to win! It’s easy.

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Have you ever wondered why clothing is priced the way it is? Sometimes, people wonder if it’s fair for companies to price clothing of various sizes uniformly. After all, the materials costs vary from size to size, so those differences should be passed on to consumers—right?

For example, someone recently asked me this question:

“As a male who wears a size 50-52 suit, I am offended I ‘subsidize’ those wearing a size 58 suit… all that extra fabric for the same price. My wife wears a size 4-6. Shouldn’t she be offended she has to ‘subsidize’ a size 10-12?”  —Commenter responding to our Lululemon petition

His question seems to be a rhetorical one, but as I’ve heard others ask earnestly about how sizing and pricing work, I’d like to address it anyway.

The most basic answer to his question is: No. The cost of fabric is only a small portion of the cost of manufacturing clothing. Expenses incurred in manufacturing, shipping, and marketing clothing are substantial. So, there’s no need for people to be offended. There’s far less “subsidization” going on than this fellow thinks.

It’s also worth mentioning that this commenter is comparing apples to oranges re: his clothing vs. his wife’s clothing. Men’s clothing items above a size 44″ are generally considered to be plus sizes. In contrast, in women’s clothing, “plus sizes” in the US generally begin with size 14 to 16.

Plus sizes usually do cost more than the “regular” sizes do. So, too, do clothing for “petites” and for the “big and tall”: in most stores, anything that isn’t “regular” costs more.

So, bearing those points in mind, let’s consider the question of how much manufacturers’ costs vary when they produce clothing of different sizes.  Jenna Lourenco is a performing arts instructor at Emmanuel College who was previously a professional costume designer. So I asked her for an explanation: what are the cost factors in the clothing manufacturing process?

“While the difference in fabric use between a 50″ and 58″ suit is fairly significant,” Lourenco explained, “the difference between fabric use for a women’s size 8 or a size 14 in workout clothing is quite minimal by comparison. Fabric yardage is not really a full measure of how price points are determined in retail clothing, as there are several factors of which the public is completely unaware.”

According to Lourenco, the cost of a yard of quality fabric for suiting can easily be $20-$40/yd or more, depending on the fiber blend. In contrast, stretch fabrics are generally in the $10-$20/yd range at retail value, and companies that purchase in bulk receive tremendous discounts.

But, Lourenco insists, the difference in pricing has less to do with fabric than with labor: how quickly a factory can produce units, and how much a company can minimize their pay per worker and per hour.

“Clothing manufacturers use slopers,” Lourenco explained, “a basic pattern that is enlarged or shrunk without altering the original silhouette of the pattern pieces in any way. This is why pants that fit you in the hips & thighs gap graphically at your waist or why your yoga pants wear out where your thighs rub together; size 2s generally are believed in the industry not to have curves.”

She said that the basic slopers for most commercial women’s clothing are designed for a size 2, 4, or 6—but that bodies of different sizes don’t have identical proportions. Once manufacturers get into the “plus” size range, then, these slopers aren’t as transferable. “In the plus-size range, you have to have slopers created by skilled and experienced pattern technicians for every 3-4 sizes,” Lourenco says, “rather than for 6 or 7 sizes. These slopers have to go through extensive testing and adjustments before they can be used to create pattern pieces in each size, so having them created is a significant investment for a company.

“The manufacturing of larger garments does take longer than the exact same garment in a smaller size,” she continues. “It requires more thread and notions, and the larger patterns can, at times, present challenges that require more experienced and higher-paid sewers to handle.

“Really, it’s the labor involved that raises the pricing on larger sized clothing,” she adds. “Your sewers might only be able to finish 6 garments in a size 20 in the same time they could produce 10 of a size 2.”

So, the commenter is correct that larger clothing items cost more to produce than smaller sizes do. But the difference in production cost isn’t just due to the amount of fabric used; it’s about the expense incurred in adjusting the pattern, and whether more time and skill are required for specific sizes. (This is why petite clothing, which use less fabric, cost more than their “regular” counterparts. Whenever it comes to specialty sizes—whether plus sizes, “big and tall” sizes, petite sizes, and so on—there are different costs involved. )

So, no: It doesn’t make sense to charge more for a size 12 than a size 4. They’re close enough in size that the fabric is, in most cases, going to be the only additional expense—which, when purchased in bulk, isn’t likely to be much of a cost difference at all.

It also sounds legitimate for retailers to charge more for men’s sizes 44 and up than for smaller items, as these sizes are above the “regular” men’s clothing sizes that the slopers would be used for. So as far as the commenter’s own sizing goes, he should be less focused on the fact that a size 58 pays the same as he does, and focus more on what he’s being charged in relation to, say, a size 40.

I also opened this question up to members of my facebook community. My colleague Darlene Crone-Todd, a psychology professor at Salem State University, made a smart observation. She remarked: “We would often expect in mass production that the mean is the price we would pay for—and yes, the smaller sizes do ‘subsidize’ the larger sizes. However, the fellow who is a size 50 is just ‘paying it forward’ from the size 42 who subsidized him.”

All this raises another question: Is it right for plus sizes to cost so much more?

My friend Angela Jajko, a professional opera singer, argues that it is not. “Plus-size designs are generally kept pretty simple, and the fabric quality is generally absolutely awful,” Jajko observes. “But women are still charged a pretty phenomenal premium, simply because there’s so little supply. Anytime I’ve accompanied someone to the plus-size section, they walk out feeling terrible about themselves, because the clothing is such low quality that it looks terrible.

“So, anyone who complains about ‘subsidizing’ larger sizes has never experienced the kind of market discrimination that women over a size 18 experience in a mall,” Jajko adds. “Their choices are often either Lane Bryant or the Women’s section at Macy’s. That’s it, and then it’s $200 for a dress that will fall apart after six months. It’s ridiculous.”

Readers: What are your experiences buying clothes of various sizes? How do you feel about the fact that costs are generally averaged out? What are your thoughts on other factors that account for pricing (like branding and style)?

P.S. Don’t miss this week’s giveaway!

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Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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5 thoughts on “Should clothing prices vary by size?

  1. Thank you for really examining this in detail. It drives me mad when people comment on stuff like this in a dismissive manner, because the notion that smaller folks are “subsidizing” larger folks is inherently tied to beauty standards in this country & our obsession with thinness. If voluptuous figures were prized, and that were the “norm,” then it might be the other way around—those who fit into larger sizes might be “subsidizing” the minority who required a smaller size. Any way you chalk it up, it’s size/weight/age (since most people expand as they get older) discrimination.

  2. I think it’s not right, because as a plus size woman I can’t go find something in the regular size then go and find the exact item in the plus size. Plus size clothing is generally not just terrible in how it’s puts together meaning that they aren’t really hiring skilled sewers to make these plus size clothing, but it’s often in garish colors, horrible shapes, designs that just look horrible so what me and others do is go into the regular size and then buy the largest size they often because one it’s cheaper, two it’s nicer but then we come out not wearing something that fits right. But again the plus size clothing I find doesn’t always fit right either. Ugh I’m really going to have to write my own post about this now.

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