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My Small Problem

Minus-size shopping in a plus-size country.

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As usual, spring took me by surprise, and I realized a few weeks too late that I should really stop wearing inky New York colors every day. I needed a pair of light-colored trousers—not white, since I’m not prepared to move to Boca Raton, but something summery. But as I browsed the usual stores, I found myself muttering, Oh, God, not again.

By way of explanation: I’m a small guy. I take a size 29 or 30 waist, and a 141⁄2 or 15 shirt collar. These are not circus-freak dimensions but standard off-the-rack sizes—or were, until America started supersizing itself. As has been endlessly reported, more than half of Americans are overweight, and a quarter are obese. The garment industry is slowly but surely recutting everything to fit. To fit everyone but me, that is.

“You might buy what you need now,” a shirt salesman at Paul Stuart, on Madison Avenue, told me during a recent sale. “We’re phasing the 141⁄2’s out—we don’t sell very many.” (A subsequent phone call revealed that they’re not being entirely dropped but fewer are being made.)

Even on my last trip to Brooks Brothers, the salesman furrowed his brow when I asked for khakis in my size. “Do we sell those?” he said. “I’ve bought them here for years,” I replied. “Try the catalogue,” he said. (For the record, the catalogue does have them. In minuscule quantities, always back-ordered.) Just by standing still, I’ve become a special order.

Arnold J. Karr, executive editor of the men’s-clothing trade journal DNR, confirmed my worst fears. “One, Americans are getting bigger,” he told me. “Then there’s the trend toward relaxed-fit. And also, the teen and young-adult segment of the market, in emulation of hip-hop style, has spent the last decade looking to arm themselves by wearing a larger size.” So mass-marketers cut their clothes to be loose and droopy—and look awful on a slight frame.

It’s a humiliating state of affairs, a reverse of the problem plus-size women face. A guy who needs a big-and-tall shop may be intemperate, but at least he’s manly. There’s no such thing as a scrawny-and-small boutique—and if there were, who the hell would shop there?

I do, I’ll admit, have fallback options. Banana Republic produces decent amounts of small clothing, though the shirts tend to be boxy and the sleeves are always too long. (I occasionally hit a jackpot—a forlorn rack of marked-down size-29 pants.) I also do great in vintage shops, which overflow with unclaimed small jackets. H&M’s trim Swedish designs come through sometimes, though the company seems to have cut back on the small stuff.

The real answer lies with the elite European designers, like Agnès B. Homme, where shirts go down to American size 14. (All that smoking must keep people thin.) The British designer Paul Smith’s clothes are cut so close to the body that blousiness is never an issue. Likewise Prada—though at those prices, it’d be cheaper to bulk up with daily trips to Bouley.

But these won’t do for every day, and mass-market clothiers get less helpful each year. If America’s growth trend doesn’t pause to catch its breath, I foresee a weird parallel to those Jerry Springer stories about people too obese to leave their homes. While the rest of you stuff your faces, I’ll be trapped in my apartment, wandering around in an XXL T-shirt, its hem dragging along the floor.


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