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The question of men’s and women’s sizing is a much more complicated question than it may appear, in part because the whole concept of sizing is not standardized. It is, in fact, so fungible that it would send Hamlet around the bend.

If we take the Gap as a sample subject, men’s trousers are generally sized according to the inseam and waist, which results in four possible lengths (28-34) and multiple waist sizes; women’s trousers come in 00-20 sizes and three lengths: tall, regular and cropped/petite. At Brooks Brothers, men’s chinos are offered in three inseam lengths, while women’s chinos are simply available in 0-16.

It is also true that some brands offer men’s and women’s pants in basic ready-to-wear sizes, and most big denim labels offer men’s and women’s jeans according to waist and inseam numbers.

So though it may seem that men have a lot more options in sizing than women do, and that may seem obvious latent sexism (sort of like the fact that most men’s clothes have functional pockets, and most women’s clothes do not), there is a bigger issue at work. And that has to do with history, self-image, social standards of beauty, consumer psychology and the sheer ridiculousness of the current state of sizing.

As Carla Sozzani, the founder of 10 Corso Como, the concept store in Milan, and a retailer who has been buying women’s and men’s wear for decades, said, the sizing of “pants is rooted in cultural shifts.”

Put simply: Though women had pushed to wear pants for centuries, and the cries became especially loud during the women’s rights movement of the 1850s (enter Amelia Bloomer) — and despite the fact that Coco Chanel made pants part of her wardrobe in the early 20th century, and movie stars and working women adopted them with alacrity in the 1930s and ’40s — pants were not a part of the regular woman’s wardrobe until the 1960s.

That meant that women’s trousers came into circulation around the same time as ready-to-wear as we now know it. Which means that, unlike men’s wear, which came out of the tailoring tradition in which suit pants were measured according to waist and inseam, women’s trousers were absorbed into the trend for standardized sizing — what we now know of as 2, 4, 8, 12, etc.

Yet, as anyone who has tried to comparison shop can attest, when it comes to women’s sizing, those numbers are more concept than reality. They can vary widely from brand to brand, in large part because there is so much social prejudice around body size, and conventional wisdom has it that brands will move more product if they make consumers feel smaller than they actually are.

As Janice Wang, the chief executive of Alvanon, a company in Hong Kong that uses technology to update fit patterns to adapt to contemporary body types, once told me: “Women’s sizing is arbitrary. The range varies depending on the age demographic of a brand, the lifestyle tribes that the brand is aspiring to, the silhouettes of the designer.”

In a study titled “Sized Out: Women, Clothing Size and Inequality,” the academics Katelynn Bishop, Kjerstin Gruys and Maddie Evans went so far as to call clothing size a “floating signifier.”

While this absurdity is most visible in women’s fashion, it is also present in men’s wear, a phenomenon that has been called “manity” sizing. Indeed, if you talk were to professional basketball players, they would tell you that no brand makes pants long enough for their taste.

All of which suggests that, whatever your gender identity, there is only one real answer to finding the best-fitting pants: Free yourself from the strictures of size and just try them on till you find a pair that feels right to you. If you can, get them tailored to your own specifications. Then, if someone asks what size they are, you can just say: mine.

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.





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