When a Size 0 Isn't Really 0: The Psychology Behind Top Designers' Big Secret

Illustration by: Ben Kirchner

Not quite Hollywood’s teensiest size? Don’t worry! Designers know that as Americans get bigger, so does their desire to feel thinner: "The smaller the size that fits, the more likely a shopper is to buy it"

This story first appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Recently, a major celebrity stylist called in a round of resort 2014 French and Italian designer dresses: gilded sheaths, cut close to the body in that chic, new, over-the-knee length only hipless sylphs can wear. Fortunately, her 40-something star client has the body of a 25-year-old; daily yoga, Pilates and personal training have seen to that. Said star is about to do morning and late-night TV appearances to promote her new movie; she'd been out of the limelight for too long, in her opinion. Looking sexy, stunning and stylish isn't optional at this juncture: It's a requirement of the job -- and her comeback.

But sample sizes, what most actresses are sent, are mostly zeros -- whatever that means, as French and Italian zeros are often equivalent to a U.S. minus 4. Not only that: Every designer brand cuts samples on their own fit model and garments are scaled up to the larger sizes from there. If said fit model goes breatharian (i.e., a diet of air) with a bout of modelrexia after a bad break-up, an entire season's collection will reflect her wasting-away waifiness and could make real women sartorially suicidal.

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Case in point: The actress, weigh­ing all of 110 at 5 foot 5 and wearing double Spanx, attempts to shimmy into the first dress. No go. Then a second. Then a third. The stylist is getting nervous. If the actress feels humiliated, she might fire her. "I've got this new MaxMara that's stunning," the stylist suggests, grabbing a tight white dress from a box. Bellissima! It fits like a Sermoneta glove and the star loves it. Then she looks at the size -- 8! "I'm not an 8 -- I'm a 2 at best!" she says in tears, ripping off the tag. "I can't wear this! Somebody did something wrong here!"

The answer to the age-old question "Does size matter?" is, of course, a resounding yes. But these days, European sizes are inconsistent even within their own countries (generally, a U.S. size 2 equals a U.K. size 8, Italian 40, French 36, Japanese 7 and Russian 42, according to, confusing the issue. And with "vanity sizing" -- designers tagging clothes with smaller sizes to make consumers feel better about themselves -- seizing designer and department stores, almost anybody can be a size zero.

Size queens: Rejoice! Why kill yourself working out like Jennifer Aniston if in Marc Jacobs, a 4 is a zero? And if your holiday dress is by Donna Karan -- another notorious vanity-sized brand that runs large -- you might be gaining weight, but you'd never know it. The same goes for French/Belgian brands Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela, which are always drapey and voluminous. A Lanvin size zero, with Alber Elbaz's soft, feminine, flowy cuts, would fit on a regular U.S. size 4 or 6. Though Italians are notorious for their tiny cuts (why don't they allow for pasta?, we might ask), MaxMara always runs pretty generously (but don't tell that 40-something star that).

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On the other hand, you could waltz into Dolce & Gabbana, Prada or Dior, try on the European equivalent of size 2 or 4 pants and discover your inner (no, in this case, outer) size 10. Collective gasp from the size queens.

In her new book, I'll Drink to That: A Life in Style, With a Twist, famed 86-year-old Bergdorf Goodman personal shopper to the stars Betty Halbreich declares: "Never ever trust the size tag on a piece of clothing." It's her No. 1 rule of shopping.

The fact is, 15 years ago, size zero and 2 did not exist in American clothes. "They are really a new precept," acknowledges Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing. You can thank American designer Nicole Miller, who is unofficially credited with inventing the size zero: "One year, our sales manager wanted to size the clothes bigger and we started calling the size 8s a 6," she recalls. "Then the result of that was losing the smaller customer, so we had to add the zero. We also occasionally made some 00s." Downing adds that back during World War II, store founder Stanley Marcus worked with the government on standardized sizing to conserve fabric, but now "there isn't a standardized size anymore. I can put models in size 2 to 10 in all our fashion shows: It just depends on the maker of the clothes." This same size downsizing has occurred in Europe, too: European designers used to have as their smallest size a 38, but now they also have 36 and 34. A model on a shoot for a major magazine was recently called "a monster" by the photographer -- because she wore a 38. She is 17 years old.

"Some years ago, designers and brands figured out that the smaller the size that fits, the more likely a shopper is to buy it," explains JoAndrea Hoegg, a professor of marketing and behavioral science at the University of British Columbia. "That's when the numbers started going down. It is strategic. There were guidelines, but not now. And what's odd about it is, people are getting bigger. A size 14 is now an 8, [resulting in such sizes as] a double or triple zero. I mean, how useful is that for people?"

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Hollywood stylists roll with it. "We learn which designers have bigger samples and which ones have smaller," observes stylist Elizabeth Stewart (who works with Jessica Chastain, Julia Roberts and Cate Blanchett). "I'm sure it's the same for seasoned shoppers: They learn how their favorite designers run. Vanity sizing has been a time-honored tradition! At any rate, I have a tailor on every fitting." And, she adds, "I think shoes run the most inconsistently. We often ask, 'What size are you in Louboutin?' and use that as a guide."

Of course, none of this is lost on retailers. "It's such a conundrum," says Downing. "A woman who can afford a $3,000 dress is probably more shapely: She's a grown woman, probably has had children. But many designers won't make clothes past 12 or 14. We're always talking about how bodies have changed in the last 30 years, the last 10 years. We are often asking designers to go above 14. Bigger women don't want to shop in a 'larger woman' area, same as petite women. And now with Internet shopping as prevalent as it is, size ranges should standardize."

Not every store is as democratically minded as Neiman Marcus is. It's a long-standing rumor that Fred Segal Melrose carries no size above a 6. One fashion insider went in looking for a Chloe blouse in an 8 and got the kind of looks reserved for a shoplifter.

To ward off shopper frustration, Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, thinks it's important that her staff impart this useful information: "Know your brands. The French and the British are pretty true to size. Italians run a size smaller. Americans run true to size or a little more generous. In different parts of the world, body types are different: Italian skirts and pants are where one might need to size up. This is different with denim brands: You may end up buying the 27 even if you're a 28." (Jeans designers caught on to vanity sizing a long time ago.)

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On the other hand, vanity sizing can hurt a store, asserts Hoegg. "Abercrombie & Fitch wants to associate with only slim, gorgeous people -- the CEO has actually said that. That will intimidate many shoppers into not going there. Our appearance is a large influence on our overall self-esteem. Size can become a very strong criteria for self-worth. Your size becomes your label. 'Who am I?' We do compare ourselves in this way."

Years ago, the urban myth goes, Sharon Stone was shooting for W magazine, and the clothes the stylist brought were of sizes … not to her liking. Not that Stone has ever had a bad-size day. But she didn't relate to this numerical system. Stone sent an assistant up to her house to fetch her own clothes -- with all the sizes cut out.

One celebrity stylist thinks this is a valid approach: "If I had time," she jokes, "I'd cut out all the tags before the actress gets there and have them all read zero. Even if they weren't in consistent fonts, I doubt they'd question it!"

With this roller-coaster retail-size ride, perhaps actresses, models and the hot-yoga- and spinning-addicted will finally stop bragging about being size zeros -- because zeros don't really have any meaning anymore, unless they're on a check. Or at the box office.

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