At first blush, that seemed awesome, but it turned out there were a lot of problems with Madewell's size 20 claim. Based on Madewell's own size chart and some very confusing information from its customer service reps, those "size 20" jeans would only fit a size 14/16 body — which is not very body positive.
So we ordered Madewell's controversial "curvy" jeans in three sizes to figure out, once and for all, what's ACTUALLY going on with these jeans. Here's our honest review.
First, a refresher: Here's Madewell's original size chart, showing the size conversion for all of its sizes. Note the 35-inch waist measurement beside US size 20.
Good American, Lane Bryant, and Universal Standard's size 20 denim all fit a 42-inch waist. Torrid's size 20 has a listed waist measurement of 42 to 44 inches. According to all of these brands, plus others that I consulted for research, a "body" waist measurement of 35 inches is more consistent with a size 14/16 than a 20.
After Revelist called out this sizing issue, all hell broke loose. Understandably, a LOT of people were unhappy about a major brand like Madewell doing the least and calling it "size inclusivity."
Madewell has since changed its size chart. The size 20 was changed to a 20/22 with a 35-inch waist and a 38-inch "natural waist." This still falls below industry standard for a size 20, not to mention it's very confusing to list two waist measurements.
Unfortunately, many of the extended size jeans appear to only be available online. There's confusion about which plus sizes will be available in which stores, and when — if ever.
So Nicola and I decided to put our asses on the line — literally — and see how Madewell's controversial curvy denim really fits.
I've been a Madewell denim fan for years now. With a waist measurement of 26 inches, I wear a size 26 in Madewell jeans. I am the control in this pants-periment.
Nicola is a size 14/16 — the average size of a woman in the US — and though she admires the brand's denim, she's never been able to wear Madewell pants. "They've never made denim anywhere near big enough to fit my size 14 butt," she said. "I’ve *always* yearned for a pair."
According to the size chart, Nicola will wear a size 32 (defined as 14/16) in Madewell jeans. So she'll be trying her natural size and the biggest size Madewell offers, size 25 (aka 20/22).
We asked our size 20 coworker Jessica to be the model for the size 35s, but the jeans would not go over her thighs.
These are the jeans we tried on first: Madewell's curvy high-rise skinny jeans in black sea ($128 each).
Pictured: Madewell's "curvy" high rise jeans ($128, Madewell) in black sea, size 26 (left) and 32 (right).
The curvy line of Madewell denim has a special cut for "hourglass" shapes. According to Madewell, they have "a narrower waist with a contoured band, a longer rise (for a rounder booty) and a little extra room at the hips and thighs."
The curvy line of jeans are available in sizes 23/000 through 35/20-22.
I'm trying these jeans in a straight size 26 (defined as size 2), and Nicola is trying them in a size 32 (defined as size 14/16).
As a straight size woman, it's not hard for me to find jeans. I've been a fan of Madewell denim for a long time now, and it's always sucked to know that the limited size range has excluded so many of my friends.
Madewell has always made denim specifically for my body type, so I was unsurprised to find the small modifications in the "curvy" fit made the straight size denim fit slightly better. I *was* surprised to find that the fit differences were so minor.
Madewell's "curvy" high rise jeans ($128, Madewell) fit me almost exactly the same as the standard high rise skinny jeans fit do. The waist was a little narrower (which I liked) and the denim was a little stretchier than any other Madewell jeans I own, but the fit changes seemed to end there.
Though the waist of the "curvy" Madewell jeans was slightly smaller than Madewell's standard fit denim, the size 26 still gapped at the waist on me. And because the denim was so stretchy, these jeans got even looser around the waist as the day progressed.
Overall, the straight size "curvy" Madewell jeans were fine on me — but if you're curvier, or not an hourglass shape, you might be out of luck.
For me personally, cool, this is another pair of skinny black jeans that makes my butt look cute. But that's kind of the point: I already have those jeans. Every brand makes those jeans. Straight size women with small waists are not an underserved fashion population — we have more denim options than we know what to do with!
So I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. Part of me was expecting a re-imagined "curvy" fit that was REALLY different from Madewell's usual, not more of the same. I wanted this "extended" line to not just be about larger sizes, but also different body shapes — because body diversity really matters.
Next, it was Nicola's turn to try Madewell's curvy high-rise skinny jeans ($128) in a size 32 (aka 14/16). "I've never been able to wear Madewell jeans," she said. "All the denim in that store is designed for straight size women who have far fewer curves than I do."
"My first thought looking at these jeans ($128, Madewell) was, 'Oh no! These are NOT going to slide over my hips.' The size 32 looked tiny," Nicola said. "Stylish, high-end jeans have always been just out of reach, given that I ride the fine line between plus and straight sizes. I've experienced too many dressing room kerfuffles with jeans that looked just like these to think that Madewell's denim might actually fit me."
"I thought these Madewell curvy jeans looked fantastic and fit me really well," said Nicola. "As a size 14/16, that can be a struggle — but these jeans were just tight enough that they felt supportive of my thighs and butt, but not so much that I felt constricted."
"I was also extremely chuffed by how high-waisted they were, because I ONLY wear high-waisted bottoms," said Nicola.
"The waist was VERY stretchy, which I also liked."
"And even after wearing them all day, these jeans didn't stretch out much at the waist — but there's one thing plus and curvy shoppers should watch out for."
"For someone of my height and body shape, I thought Madewell did a bang-up job making size 32 jeans," said Nicola. "But I can’t say I could recommend them for size 14 ladies with rounder body shapes or thicker thighs. The fabric, though mighty comfortable, is quite thin — I could feel my thighs eating away at it not four hours after putting them on. You'll probably have holes in the inner thighs after a few months."
"Overall, I liked these jeans!" said Nicola. "It’s fantastic that Madewell wants to give me more denim options because even at a size 14/16, I really need them. But I’m also on the smallest end of the plus-size spectrum (and relatively hourglass shaped), so making jeans that fit me is less of a challenge."
"If you're not hourglass-shaped, the Madewell jeans might not work for you," said Nicola. "I'd say plus-size people should try them on first, but it's unclear if the extended sizes (32 through 35) will be available in Madewell stores, or just online."
We were all ready to call the Madewell extended size jeans a win for smaller plus-sized people, when Nicola noticed something bizarre.
Nicola is holding the Madewell high-rise skinny jeans in carbondale wash ($128, Madewell) in a size 35 — the biggest size the brand makes, and which will supposedly fit a size 20/22 person.
These jeans have the same rise, and a similar denim composition to the size 32 pair Nicola had previously tried on (this wash has 4% elastane, which means they're meant to be a bit stretchier).
"We bought these jeans because I was expecting to have to size way, way up to fit in them," Nicola said bluntly. "But when I held up the size 35 jeans, they were almost the exact same size as the 32s."
This is the difference between a size 14/16 and a size 20/22 in Madewell's world.
Laying the size 32 Madewell jeans overtop the size 35 revealed how close in size Madewell's "extended" denim sizes are.
"I looked at these jeans and I actually heard an abrupt record scratch in my head," said Nicola. "Like, 'No, there’s no way those could fit someone who's a size 20/22.' Those might actually fit ME."
Laid perfectly flat, there was a one inch difference in the waist between a size 32 and a size 35 in Madewell denim.
According to Madewell's current size guide, a size 32 will fit someone with a 33-inch waist. A size 35 will fit someone with a 38-inch waist. That is FIVE INCHES OF DIFFERENCE accounted for in this tiny amount of denim.
That is absolutely wild — and Nicola was quick to point out that it doesn't make much sense.
Even accounting for the slightly different denim compositions — the size 35 jeans have 4% elastane, while the 32s have 2% — both product pages instruct shoppers that the jeans fit true to size. It's fair to assume both the 32 and the 35 are accurate representations of their respective "extended" sizes... otherwise why would Madewell put that size on them?
"The size 35 jeans still look like a size 16, max," said Nicola, who bet me $5 that the size 35 Madewell jeans would still fit her, a size 14/16 woman.
Reader, she took my money.
"The size 35 Madewell jeans, which are meant to fit a size 20 person, still fit me!" said Nicola.
"They were slightly looser in the legs than the 32s, but I still could have worn them around all day and been completely comfortable in them. Going up four numerical sizes shouldn't have given me a fit that's this close," said Nicola. "Again, I'm a 14/16 — these jeans are meant to fit a 20/22!"
"Fitting almost perfectly into two wildly different jean sizes made for two completely different bodies made me feel like Madewell thinks all bodies above a size 10 are the same," said Nicola. "I’m being pandered to and ignored at the same time. These jeans made me confused, and a little angry."
"If you looked closely at the ruching at my knees, along my thighs, and near my ~special parts~ you can vaguely tell I’m not wearing the right size in jeans," said Nicola. "They feel like they're one size too big for me. All in all, they fit WAY too closely to be a true size 20/22."
All of this sizing weirdness wasn't just annoying for shopping reasons — it has an emotional toll, too.
"If I felt finally of worth in the size 32s, the 35s took me all the way back to square one," said Nicola. "This made me feel like it's my body that's the problem for Madewell, even though it's clearly the size of the clothes."
"At the very least, I know this is only a starting point for Madewell, and I’m hopeful they’ll use this as an opportunity to listen to plus-size women and give them what they *really* need, which is NOT denim designed for thin women that’s just a little stretchier."
So, after all this, what was our verdict on those controversial Madewell jeans?
If you're already a straight size Madewell denim fan, you probably know exactly how the "curvy" jeans will fit — and it's a very minor adjustment, in my opinion. So if you're straight size and hourglass-shaped, congratulations, you have yet another denim option in the sea of jeans already made to fit your body type.
If you're within the size 12 through 16 range and hourglass shaped, Nicola says you CAN buy Madewell's extended size jeans — but wonders if you SHOULD. "If you're on the smaller side of plus, you'll probably look nice as hell in these jeans," she said. "They fit me really well. But these jeans are $128, and you might be better off spending that kind of money on a brand that specializes in plus-size denim."
"Anyone over a size 16, or who isn't hourglass shaped, is going to really struggle with Madewell's extended size jeans," said Nicola.
"It's great that bodies like mine are now included by Madewell, but anyone larger than me is still left out. That's not size inclusivity, and it's not OK in my book," she went on.
"It’s like Madewell is doing a complete disservice to plus-size women, and maybe made a hasty attempt at body-positive marketing before doing the proper research or hiring plus-size women to help with sizing and fit," said Nicola. "There are a LOT more plus-size women who are going to keep missing out on cool girl jeans. Making jeans for my mainstream plus-size body is great, but you can’t pat yourself on the back for inclusion until that size 20 denim ACTUALLY fits a size 20."
"Madewell has made an important but very small step toward body positivity and inclusion," said Nicola. "Hopefully the company realizes how far it has left to go."
As we observed at the time — being "inclusive" doesn't mean hiring a curvy model and calling it a day. If huge corporations like Madewell want plus-size money, they need to actually SERVE the plus-size market.