In the U.S. men's pants are typically sized in inches, with one figure for the waist circumference and one for the length of the inseam. But as this Esquire piece by Abe Sauer rapidly making the rounds demonstrates, mass-market clothing manufacturers don't like standardized units like "inches" and have decided to make "36 Waist" mean whatever they want it to mean.
Sauer believes this is the migration of vanity sizing from the domain of women's wear into men's clothes.
The pants manufacturers are trying to flatter us. And this flattery works: Alfani's 36-inch "Garrett" pant was 38.5 inches, just like the Calvin Klein "Dylan" pants — which I loved and purchased. A 39-inch pair from Haggar (a brand name that out-testosterones even "Garrett") was incredibly comfortable. Dockers, meanwhile, teased "Leave yourself some wiggle room" with its "Individual Fit Waistline," and they weren't kidding: despite having a clear size listed, the 36-inchers were 39.5 inches. And part of the reason they were so comfy is that I felt good about myself, no matter whether I deserved it.
Such an interpretation is plausible enough, but I think retailers' facilitating the illusion that we are thinner than we are is a by-product of their chief goal, which is to force us to try on every item of clothing we are considering buying and let the endowment effect work its behavioral magic. Trying something on invests us in completing the purchase to a much greater degree -- we've gone to all that trouble already and want something to show for our effort -- and it also habituates us to the idea that we already own the thing we put on, and to not buy it feels as though we have lost something or had something taken away from us. So the sizes are just very vague guidelines to help us know which items to take to the fitting rooms.
Sauer also raises a different question, whether "comfort" has anything to do with the physical fit of clothes anymore, whether it has been entirely displaced and is now derived from what we think others will see or believe about us on the basis of our clothes. That we even have to wonder about this is a testament to the kind of commonplace alienation that consumerism fosters, muddling self-consciousness and the need for a specific kind of surface-based recognition with our physical awareness of our body in space. Less cryptically: we are always aware of our need to signify something with even our must mundane practices, and this puts us at an inescapable analytical remove from what we are actually doing and experiencing. There's no direct way to know even something as straightforward as how our clothes fit, since the standard is not absolute but has instead become mobilized, made into something affective, based on emotions and reactions and fantasy. Or to put this yet another way: every moment of communication in consumerism, even something as ostensibly straightforward as a waist measurement, must be exploited for its symbolic potential. It must be separated fro the real and made to function as part of a cycle of dreams and disappointments.