Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

Adults Who Wear Kids' Clothing: Saving Money Through Size

Taylor Quimby

I’ve got a little confession to make.  For about three years now, I’ve been buying and wearing boys' underwear.  Not toddler-sized briefs with Iron Man or Thomas the Tank Engine plastered on the butt, I’m talking about plainly colored, Boys' XL boxer briefs. The waist is the same as what I used to buy (a Men's Small) and the differences in style are negligible, but the price is another matter. In the case of one brand for example, Fruit of the Loom, a package containing three pairs of men’s small boxer briefs is $12.99.  A boys' XL of the same brand contains four pairs, and is priced at $9.99

Sizing Up The Clothing Industry

Ask around and you’re sure to discover plenty of adults who buy children’s clothing – women mostly, who save on shoes, athletic or winter-wear, and basic items like socks and t-shirts.

Sarah Palermo is a reporter at the Concord Monitor, and the proud owner of a North Face rain jacket, a boys' large that she says was about fifty dollars cheaper than the adult alternative. I asked her if she gets a feeling of satisfaction when she saves money buying clothes in the kids' section.

Yeah, it’s definitely a little rush… Makes up for having to use a stool to get stuff in the kitchen. It’s one little victory for short people.

Credit Taylor Quimby
Can you correctly guess if this pair of boxer briefs is a Men's Small, or a Boys' XL? Taylor is betting you can't. Find out the answer by scrolling down to the bottom of the post.

At 4’11”, Sarah is fairly petite.  However, fitting into kid-sized clothes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re kid-sized. Ed Gribbin is the president of Alvanon, a company that does research around how clothes fit, and advises brands on sizing measurements.

Over the last approximately 30 years, brands and retailers have tended to increase the sizes of their clothing. So dramatically, that in womens’ wear, what use to be considered a size “8” in 1978 is today considered a size “0”.

In other words, the average American is getting larger, and retail brands are adapting their clothing lines to keep up.  It’s a trend the industry calls “vanity sizing”.

“But [retailers aren’t] offering any more sizes, so the people who are at the smaller end of the size scale are somewhat disenfranchised. They can’t find clothes that fit them.

Whether they can’t find clothes that fit them in adult sizes, or like me they can find the same sizes for cheaper in the kids' aisle, there are enough adults buying kids' clothes that at least a few major brands have taken notice.

There’s a clear decision on the part of many of those brands to stop making larger children’s sizes because they have a tendency to lose margin when an adult will buy those sizes. They might stop at a size twelve – as opposed to a 14 or a 16. Or they might stop at a large and not offer an extra-large.

Credit Taylor Quimby
Can you correctly guess if this pair of boxer briefs is a Men's Small, or a Boys' XL? Taylor is betting you can't. Find out the answer by scrolling down to the bottom of the post.

Why Men Aren't Quick To Join "The Boys' Club"

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the men I spoke to were less willing than the women to admit to buying clothes for children. Some women may take pride in fitting into girls' sizes, or snagging an especially good deal. Not so for men.  Owen Iselin of Nelson, New Hampshire, says he once found a pair of men's corduroys on a rack labeled “Young Men's” at a used-clothing store for children. Even though there was nothing indicating the pants were specifically for boys (they were sized 33-32) Owen was a little embarrassed when he went into the dressing room.

I’m not sure I would try something on again in that same store knowing the reaction that I would probably get. I sort of felt like I got caught doing something.

Ultimately, Owen went home with the corduroys, but the anxiety he felt about buying them may be the best explanation as to why it’s mostly women who are willing to go for kid-sized garments. 

Neuro-psychologist David Lewis explains:

So much of our shopping is done more or less on autopilot, so we sort of have a set routine of steps in our shopping program and we follow them almost blindly.

Lewis says anything that interrupts our shopping autopilot can stop a potential sale in its tracks: a long line at the register, a rude salesperson, or an otherwise perfect article of clothing with a tag that says Boys'.

Credit Taylor Quimby
Can you correctly guess if this pair of boxer briefs is a Men's Small, or a Boys' XL? Taylor is betting you can't. Find out the answer by scrolling down to the bottom of the post.
You see this pair of pants for example and you think, “oh that’s a great price”, and then you see it’s labeled for boys. That would introduce a “disrupt” to your thinking. You then have to switch to the more conscious part of your brain to say, “Do I want to wear something which is actually kids when I’m no longer a kid?”

The irony, of course, is that there’s no reliable way to pick out kids' clothes from the adult variety without glancing at the tag. Smaller men who willingly spend more on adult sizes  may be doing so purely for their own piece of mind, and men who save money by purchasing kid-sized clothing need never admit it. Unless someone else is doing their laundry that is... in which case they may be better off coming out of the kids' closet, and into the light of day.

Ok, are you ready to find out if you can correctly pick out the boys' undies from the men's?  Well, only one pair of the boxer briefs pictures above are for men: the green skivvies with the blue waistband.  The rest are all Boys' XL boxer-briefs. If you could tell the difference, congratulations!  For the rest of you, maybe it's time to start browsing in the kids' section.

Related Content

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.