Alpha sizing aims to simplify clothes shopping for casual wear

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
| Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

Try this trend on for size ­— just make sure you know what size.

Alpha sizing is a practice that's being seen across the board — from athletic garments to ready-to-wear to intimate apparel, fashion experts say.

Alpha sizes, such as small or medium, replace two or more numeric sizes, says Amy Moore, a women's apparel merchant for L.L. Bean. At her company, for example, small includes sizes 6 and 8 while a medium is 10 and 12.

Because it reduces the number of size options, Moore, says it's easier for a company to keep sizes in stock, and customers are more likely to find their sizes available.

Chico's, for example, has created its own alpha sizing, which runs from 000 to 4.5. As Chico's website says, “Size is just a number. The simpler, the better.”

“Alpha sizing works best for garments that naturally have a more casual fit, not as well for garments designed for a tailored fit,” Moore says. “Casual brands, including L.L. Bean, use alpha sizing for knit tops and sweaters that inherently have more give in the fabric and easily accommodate a range of fits. We use numeric sizing for most woven-fabric pants, shorts and skirts, as they have less give and many more critical points of measure for the customer.”

Alpha sizing is nothing new, but there is more of it these days, says Pat Hill, a professional fit model in New York City who works with clients such as Sears, Lord & Taylor, Victoria's Secret and Jones New York.

A perfect size 8, Hill may be a small or medium in alpha sizing, depending on the designer, she says.

Hill says stores tend to buy more mediums and less in the smaller and larger categories.

“It really helps sales in a unique way, because when a woman looks through a clothes rack and doesn't see her numeric size, she generally walks away,” says Hill, a Norwin High School graduate and owner of South Broadway Manor in Scottdale. “But she may look at alpha sizing, and even if she is a medium and there aren't any, she will look at the small or the large and see if that might fit. So, in the long run, it helps the store and the manufacturer and the customer.”

Alpha sizing expands a company's selling range, Hill says.

“All of the spandex and stretch fabrics that allow us to be comfortable go into alpha-size clothing,” Hill says. “A negative is that alpha sizing makes it so easy to gain weight because you have a lot of elastic and give in some of these garments.

Even casual bras are getting into the alpha-sizing game.

It's less complicated, says Bernadette Wallace, senior manager of public relations for HanesBrands, which has introduced the Playtex Play collection. With the flexibility and custom shaping, five alpha sizes replace 19 traditional cup-and-band sizes ranging from 36B to 44D.

“Success of the these bras has been driven by women who want to take off the bra they have worn all day after they get home and put on a more simplified bra,” Wallace says. “But they still want to have the support they need, and this gives them flexibility.”

Alpha sizing is not recommended for fitted pieces, such as jackets, trousers, suits and coats. But for items such as capes, ponchos, shirts, knit sweaters and leggings that don't necessarily need to be numerically sized, it works well. It also is being used because, as a society, we tend to dress more casually in the type of fabrics that lend themselves to being alpha sized, experts say.

Alpha sizing doesn't affect price, says Ed Gribbin, president of Alvanon, an apparel, sizing and fit consultancy based in New York. “The price might be affected favorably depending on the material that went into making the garment, but not because there are less sizes.”

The apparel industry recognizes that some products are not fit-sensitive, Gribbin says. Brands can make fewer sizes and be more efficient and fit the same amount of people in the marketplace, he says.

Gribbin cautions consumers to keep in mind that every brand fits differently, based on the target customer. A size small for one designer that sells to Kohl's might be a medium or even large for another that sells to Hollister. Fitting a 20-year-old is not the same as fitting someone who is 40.

“Customers can do their homework,” Gribbin says. “They can check a sizing chart and see which alpha size corresponds to their number size. There is more alpha sizing out there, partly because we have become a more casual society.

“Another area to consider is, as we get older, we usually get bigger, so instead of taking people into plus sizing, there is a way around it so that people won't be focused on the number that is increasing as they go up in size.”

Carol Kinkela, owner of Carabella, a women's clothing boutique in Oakmont, isn't so sure she agrees with the alpha approach to sizing.

“While it may make a customer ‘feel' like she's a smaller size,” Kinkela says, “it is often misleading and confusing.”

George Simonton, assistant professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, says alpha sizing was called vanity sizing at one point, because women sometimes get caught up in the number on a garment and don't want to go to the next size.

While he admits alpha sizing works well in the mass market, he says you usually won't see it in couture.

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7889.

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