"It can be very intimidating trying to wrap your head around the sizes that are in the marketplace," says Stephanie Sack, owner of plus-size boutique Vive La Femme in Chicago. "Plus, there are a host of grades that average consumers don't know about; boutique grade, department store grade, not to mention the various grades in the plus sizes."
Sack says a few years ago, designers started changing their sizes to make customers think they'd started to shrink.
"So what used to be a size 8 was reading as a size 4 on the label," she says. "You may see some decide to make a purchase based on this, but to what end do you deceive people into this false sense of being a certain size?"
"There are two kinds of customers who come into my store," says Corina Fallbacher, owner of Trill Boutique in Lisle. "There's the one who doesn't care what size the tag says as long as it looks good, and then there's the one who insists they won't buy anything over a size 8. This can be very frustrating since the designers and sizes are all over the board. And the European sizes in general seem to intimidate some."
So to break it down, a European size 34 might be the same as an American size 4, a 36 would be a 6 and so on. But experts say that even European sizes are all over the map, with some German and Italian sizes running larger than those from Paris. And if it's from Asia, it's likely going to run small.
"There's a line we call 'Junior Plus', because they're Asia's idea of what plus size is," says Sack. "But they aren't really big enough for real plus-size women. More like sizes 12-18."
As if that weren't confusing enough, some designers here and abroad have started skipping double digits altogether and are labeling garments sizes 1, 2, 3 or 4.
"That's basically just the equivalent to small, medium, large and extra large," says Sack.
Fallbacher says she doesn't carry European sizes, except for jeans. "And they also have the American sizes on the tag so people aren't confused," she says.
"A woman might buy a pair of 42 jeans, and they are a great fit," says Sack. "But if they have a size phobia and realize that could be translated into a double digits [in an] American size, they might not buy them. Like it makes them less of a person. It's a shame."
"The best advice I can give anyone to figuring all this out is just ignore the number on the tag and try on a variety," says Fallbacher. "Grab two sizes smaller than usual, and two sizes bigger, and just see how they work for you. There's always someone in my store versed in what designers run big or small and you can find what you need so much faster with a little help."
"There's a commercial for exercise equipment out there saying 'Now I don't to wear double-digit pants,' " adds Sack. "It's just so sad that the idea of wearing a 10 is a deal-breaker for some people. I know shopping is such a psychological experience, but if it fits like a glove, and you look fabulous, let go of that number and work it! That's much more attractive than someone who's walking around [ashamed]. When you rock an outfit, nobody cares what size it is."