Geek Feminism Wiki

Kathy Sierra demonstrates one of the problems with conference t-shirts.

When geek groups or events, such as technical conferences, user groups, etc, produce t-shirts as "swag" ("stuff we all get") for attendees, to sell to members, or to promote products such as software or online services, those t-shirts are often produced in straight-cut ("men's" or "unisex") sizes only. On the rare occasions that fitted ("women's") t-shirts are provided, only smaller sizes are usually available.

Kathy Sierra illustrates the first issue in this blog post, with the illustration shown to the right.

Not having clothing that fits is yet another reason women feel unwelcome at geek events. This can be free t-shirts at conference, clothing on sale at geek fan events, and clothing to be worn by employees at trade shows.

Fitted vs straight-cut shirts

There are two main styles of t-shirts available: straight cut, often known as "men's" or "unisex", and fitted cut, also known as "women's".

(Note we dislike the use of "men's" and "women's" as labels, because it assumes that all women prefer one type of shirt and all men prefer another; this is Gender essentialism. The term "unisex" is also problematic, because straight-cut shirts are far better fitting for most men than for most women; the label implies that they fit any gender equally well, but that's simply incorrect.)

A straight-cut shirt has wide shoulders and a body which is almost square. The side seams, descending from the armpit to the hem, are absolutely straight and perpendicular to the hem. The sleeves are usually cut loose, and are quite long when measured from the shoulder seam to the cuff.

A fitted-cut t-shirt has a curved side seam which comes in at the waist and goes out at the upper and lower ends, to make room for curvy hips and bust/chest areas. The shoulders are also cut narrower, and the sleeves are shorter and more fitted relative to a straight-cut shirt. The neckline may be slightly scooped in front.

A worked example:

  • When a woman (or anyone else) with a curvy body wears a straight-cut shirt, she has to choose a size that will fit her widest point. Say she has a 44" bust: she will probably choose a men's L or thereabouts, which has a 44" circumference measured at chest level.
  • It is also 44" at the waist, meaning it will be baggy around this area. Since most women's clothing is fitted in this area, the largeness in this area will make her look fat, which many people find undesirable. (This is problematic in other ways, of course. See also: Body image, Fat acceptance)
  • Its shoulders are set about 20" apart, designed to be proportional for someone whose chest is measured around the ribs. On someone with a curvy bust the shoulder seams will look "dropped", i.e. will hang down on the upper arms.
  • The sleeves are quite long -- perhaps about 6-8" -- and so will descend to almost the elbows from the dropped shoulders. The sleeves will also be baggy.
  • A woman with a 44" bust may have slightly wider hips, and so this shirt (which is 44" all the way down) will fit tightly around the hips, and may roll up and bunch around the waist because of this.
  • Choosing a larger sized shirt to fit at the hips will exacerbate the bagginess at the waist, the dropped shoulder effect, and the long baggy sleeves.
  • Choosing a smaller size to reduce bagginess will make the shirt pull tight across the bust, and may make it bind uncomfortably at the underarms, or raise the neckline so that the collar constricts the throat.

As you can see, having fitted shirts available for people with curvy bodies is important to their comfort.

Fitted shirts are commonly made of thinner (more transparent, less sturdy, more stretchy, cooler) fabric than straight-cut shirts. A woman who picks a straight-cut shirt based on its measurements and expecting the same amount of stretch as a fitted shirt may find the shirt fits tighter than expected, and does not shed heat as well, which can be uncomfortable in a crowded and already overly warm room.

Sizing issues

Limited range of sizes in fitted shirts


American Apparel women's 2XL tshirt, laid over a men's L. The women's shirt is 41" in diameter, measured armpit to armpit.

Fitted t-shirts are generally made in a narrower range of sizes than straight-cut shirts, and larger sizes (meaning anything over about a 42" chest/bust, the equivalent of a straight-cut M or L) are hard to find.

Example: Taking ThinkGeek's sizing info as an example: men's tshirts are sized from 36" chest measurement (size S) to 56" chest measurement (size XXXL). Women's tshirts are sized from 32" (S) to 42" (2X). The largest available women's size has a chest measurement between men's M (40") and L (44"). A woman whose bust measurement (which is not just the size of the underlying frame, but the breasts as well) is equivalent to a men's XL (48") will find that a woman's 2X is 6" too small for her.

Many women who prefer fitted shirts are thus forced to make an unpleasant choice:

  • wear a too-small shirt, emphasising the breasts, or
  • wear an ill-fitting straight-cut shirt

Either of these options may make women feel uncomfortable, and can compound any discomfort they might already feel at being in a minority at an event or in a group.

In addition to having a small range of bust/chest measurements, fitted shirts often have issues with length: even more than straight-cut shirts, fitted shirts often assume that all wearers are the same height; also, many fitted shirts are cut short, which can expose the midriff especially if the wearer is wearing low-cut pants.

T-shirt sizing also ties into Body image issues for many women in geek communities.

"Girls'" or "Juniors" sizes

Some conference organizer, after learning that women want fitted shirts, ask their vendors for t-shirts in "girls' sizes." What they don't take into account is that girl is a term of art to clothing makers, and the result is shirts where S fits a 6 year old, M an 8 year old, and L a 10 year old.

Conferences can then get the take-away impression that while women request t-shirts, when they're provided, they don't actually want them—so for the next conference, they don't bother to get any sizes besides men's.

Tip: when ordering shirts, ask for "fitted" or "women's" styles, not "girl's" or "juniors".

T-shirt designs

Sometimes, the printed design of tshirts can have implications for women.

For example:

  • Text or images across the chest area of a shirt draw attention to that area. Many women are uncomfortable having attention drawn to their breasts in this manner.
  • Logos where words (especially cute slogans) will be hidden under the bottom curve of the bust. It may make some women uncomfortable, if they notice males squint at their bust all day. Are they trying to make out your company name, or pretending to do so in order to take a gander? Plus, your company loses because no one can make out your name.
  • Vertical lines in the breast area will not appear straight up and down, but will stretch outward with the bustline, leading to the impression that the wearer is "too fat for the shirt." If using boxes or vertical lines in the design, consider what it will look like stretched this way.
  • The text/image itself can have body-specific implications. For instance, a tshirt that says something about "the BIGGEST servers" or something like that right across the chest, would be particularly horrible for a large-breasted woman to wear, while not being a problem at all for someone with small or no breasts.
  • Some designs draw attention to nipples. For instance, Ubuntu's "Karmic Koala" tshirt was a grey tshirt with black dots representing a koala's eyes, which were placed so that they fell around the location of the nipples of someone with breasts wearing the shirt. Although the tshirt came in women's sizes, it reputedly sold poorly for this reason.
  • Ill-fitting tshirts (see section on sizing, above) can cause printed text/designs to stretch and crack across the bust area. Some kinds of printing are more prone to this than others. Large swathes of plasticky-feeling printing are the worst.
  • It should go without saying that women may be unwilling to wear tshirts with sexist or sexualized messages on them.

Some ideas for less-problematic designs:

  • All-over designs, or large designs not centred on the bust line.
  • A small design printed or embroidered in the upper left is a good understated/professional choice especially for company tshirts etc. (Note, some women think this makes their bust look lop-sided, and may prefer a centered logo.)
  • Designs on the back of t-shirts can be good, except for people with long hair. Be warned that having your logo/text too low may draw unwanted attention to the rear.
  • Designs that minimise solid areas of printing -- line art, for instance -- will stretch better than large solid designs.

Underwear issues

Let's be up-front about this. T-shirt choice has important implications for women in relation to their choice of underwear. This might sound ridiculous, but can become a big deal quite easily.

Here's a true story:

I once organised a hack day and delegated the ordering of t-shirts to another person. I ordered a fitted t-shirt in my size. The t-shirts we were getting were bright orange with white printing. When I arrived on the day of the event, I found out that the vendor hadn't been able to provide my size t-shirt in orange, so our t-shirt guy had decided to print my t-shirt -- and only mine -- in orange on white. They were like, "Surprise! You get a special shirt because you're the organiser!" Unfortunately that day I had worn a black bra, in the expectation of an orange t-shirt. I was also going to be standing on stage and doing a lot of public speaking. My choice was to spend the day wearing a well-fitted t-shirt with my underwear showing, to wear one of the orange t-shirts in a size that didn't fit me, or to not wear the hack day t-shirt at all. I chose to wear an ill-fitting shirt, but felt uncomfortable all day when I should have been relaxed and enthusiastic about the event I was running.

Women generally don't want to walk around geek events with their underwear showing, unless they're cosplaying or have otherwise signed up for that sort of thing. Light coloured t-shirts, shirts with thin fabric, and some other t-shirt design choices can put people in an uncomfortable situation.

To avoid this:

  • choose medium to dark coloured t-shirts (most geeks seem to prefer this anyway)
  • publicise your t-shirt designs in advance (which at least lets people know if they might want to wear a different colour underwear or an undershirt)
  • don't spring "surprises" on people with regard to what you expect them to wear

Professional implications

Geek employers (tech companies, etc) often provide t-shirts in men's sizes only. Female employees who do not wish to wear ill-fitting t-shirts can experience various problems related to this:

  • not being seen as a "team player"
  • lowered self-confidence when wearing the t-shirt
  • appearing to be poorly groomed while representing the company (eg. at a trade show or conference).

Any of these can lead to a perception that a woman is less good at her job -- a very subtle form of discrimination.

Modifying t-shirts to fit

There are many ways women (or others with curvy bodies) can modify straight-cut t-shirts to better fit them. Some of these can be done with minimal skill and equipment, while others require considerable reconstruction and the use of a sewing machine.

Organisations/events that provide only straight-cut shirts sometimes advise women to modify shirts to fit themselves. There are some problems with this, however:

  • This puts an unfair burden on people with curvy bodies and/or large breasts.
  • Assuming women have the skill or desire to sew or be crafty is a case of Gender essentialism; although some women are crafty, others may have no interest in it.
  • Modifying a t-shirt takes time and equipment which people may not have available, eg. at a conference. Is the event also offering to provide sewing machines and a couple of hours before the conference begins for this to happen?
  • Quick modifications (such as slashing off the sleeves and collar, leaving unfinished edges) may have a "punk" look to them that is inappropriate in a professional environment, or which some people are uncomfortable wearing for various reasons.

In short, although some women may enjoy "hacking" their t-shirts to fit, it's not reasonable to expect them to do so.

Things people say

"But you can sleep in it"

Often, when women decline an ill-fitting t-shirt, they are told they should take it anyway because "you can sleep in it".

Sleep is a time for relaxing and being comfortable. Does dressing in that shirt from the conference where you felt unwelcome make you feel relaxed and comfortable? No.

How many sleep shirts does anyone need anyway? For those who do sleep in t-shirts, the sleep shirt (or the bumming-around-the-house shirt) is an honorable retirement for old favourites from the A list. There's usually a more than adequate supply without adding dozens more from every hack day, convention, or start-up promo.

And that's even assuming you sleep in a t-shirt at all. Many women prefer to sleep in a tank top, a long nightgown, or nothing. Not that it's anyone's business.

"We have women's XXL, so what are you complaining about?"

See "Sizing", above.

But in short: A fitted XXL is most likely not the same size (diameter) as a straight-cut XXL. You might think you're providing a wide range of sizes for women, but they probably max out at about the equivalent of a men's M to L.

Even if one knows their female attendees beforehand, one should not succumb to the thought 'well no one's that large. Men, as well as women who have never dealt with clothing a large-chested female figure, may have little context to the measurements such a figure can have. A woman with a 44" chest measurement does not necessarily "look the part" for a 5XL shirt.

And a number of attendees will probably prefer a looser rather than snugger fit, and look for a size larger than their personal measurements.

"Our t-shirts are unisex"

There are many things that are designed for men that women could use if they wanted to. For example, urinals are designed under the assumption that the user (an assumed cisgender man) will have a penis and be able to use it to urinate standing up, but cis women and other people without penises can learn to use them. However, we don't usually expect them to.

"Unisex" t-shirts share similar properties: even though they can technically be worn by anyone, they were designed to be most comfortable for men (who are assumed to not have breasts or large hips), and are physically and socially uncomfortable for many women.

In short: labelling doesn't equal reality.

"We don't have women's shirts; we have standard shirts"

All points in the previous item, but with a worse choice of language. Saying that women's shirts aren't "standard" or "normal" shirts is exactly the message you don't want to send -- that men are the standard and women are unexpected, unusual, atypical.

"You can give it to your husband"

My reply: "Maybe you prefer my husband would be the one who's actually working here?" This is no different than asking if my husband can come to the phone to speak with the bank, or any other "money related issues".

"Our vendor doesn't offer the kind of shirts you want"

See the list of suggested vendors/t-shirt brands below. You should be able to find someone who can print on Hanes, Gildan, Port Authority, or other such popular blanks. Appealing to limitations in what your vendor offers sends a message that you do not value female employees/participants/guests enough to take their needs and wishes in account when choosing a vendor in the first place.

"We can't get fitted shirts in the colour we want/We can't print this design on a fitted shirt"

So you're saying your graphic design is more important than having your event be welcoming and inclusive to women? Get your priorities straight.

Advice for t-shirt providers (event organisers, etc)

Quick tips

  1. Make sure t-shirts and other clothing are available in "fitted" styles.
  2. Don't make the fitted/women's t-shirt a special/different design or colour (pink! gah!).
  3. Have the fitted t-shirt available in as wide a range of sizes as possible, at least up to the equivalent of a straight-cut XL (usually about 48"/120cm). A list of vendors is provided below.
  4. Vendors may have more flexibility if you contact a person rather than going through the automated process on their website.
    1. Ask vendors if set-up cost for multiple similar products can be waived if it's going to be the same design on all of them. (For example, if offering two styles of t-shirt, a fabric tote bag, and a water bottle, the vendor might be able to waive the set-up cost for the second style of t-shirt and possibly the fabric tote bag.)
    2. Ask vendors if you can get volume discounts across different styles of a similar product such as printed t-shirts. (For example, if you have 74 straight-cut shirts of brand 1, 24 fitted shirts of brand 1, and 10 shirts of brand 2, the vendor might be able to offer you a small per-item discount as if you had ordered 108 items of the same type.)
    3. If a vendor does not have stock in the requested size/color, ask if it's possible for you as the customer to provide shirts to be printed on.
  5. Ask attendees/members to pre-register their t-shirt size, rather than guessing at how many of each size to order, to ensure everyone gets a well-fitted t-shirt.
    1. Decide on your vendor early, so you can give the size chart that this vendor uses, rather than making people guess which size goes with their measurements.
    2. Treat identifiable individual shirt sizes as moderately sensitive information; store who gets what size in a more private place than making everyone sign up on the wiki.
    3. It may seem tempting to ask attendees/members for their measurements, instead of their named shirt sizes. Resist the temptation: it is orders of magnitude more fraught for anyone who feels the effects of body size/shape discrimination. Also, not everyone has that information readily available or the means to get it easily.
  6. When dealing with vendors, order women's sizes (for adult women), not sizes for "girls" or "juniors".
  7. Consider offering alternative swag (see below).
  8. Design your registration form or t-shirt order form to provide as much information as possible without making assumptions about what people want. (see below)

Alternatives to t-shirts

  1. Offer different, non-t-shirt swag: eg. bags, insulated travel mugs
  2. Offer a few styles of shirt that all overlap the average range, so that you avoid the problem of "this is the shirt, and this is the fat people's shirt" or "this is the shirt, and this is the women's shirt": there are several shirts that the average conference attendee is in too
  3. Offer a t-shirt and other goodies as a paid additional extra, so that it's not positioned as a badge of membership that 'almost everyone' (except women and people with less usual bodies) gets, but instead is something that a smaller number of really interested folk get
  4. Colored or printed badge lanyards

Note that most clothing has some sizing problem: hats are not one size fits all, for example, despite what many hat vendors would have you believe. (Adult head circumference varies in about the 50cm–65cm/20 inch–25 inch range.)

Web form patterns and anti-patterns

Some notes on how to design your event signup form, t-shirt order form, or whatever you're using for people to request t-shirts.

  1. Make ordering a t-shirt optional. Do not require someone to choose a t-shirt in order to sign up for your event or whatever.
  2. If you collect gender on registration form (for instance for demographic purposes or for planning accommodation), don't assume people's t-shirt style preference based on their gender.
  3. When offering fitted and straight cut t-shirts, don't refer to them as "women's" and "men's", but simply say "fitted style" and "straight-cut style" or something along those lines. Some women prefer straight-cut t-shirts, and some men prefer fitted t-shirts, and they shouldn't be made to feel as if that preference is wrong.
  4. Provide a decent range in sizing. Bear in mind that not all your female guests will be slim, or want the smallest size they can fit in. Bear in mind that women's measurements and body types do not necessarily correlate. Choose range based on actual measurements.
  5. Provide sizing charts. "XL" means very little, especially in women's sizes, where it can vary by as much as 12"/30cm depending on vendor. Your shirt vendor probably provides sizing charts, but if not, you can make your own by measuring the shirts. Lay them flat on a table, measure from armpit to armpit, and double the measurement. Also measure the length from shoulder seam (near the collar) to the bottom. Make a table showing these measurements for each size t-shirt you provide. Easy!
  6. Show the t-shirt design in advance, if possible. This will help people decide whether they really want one or not, eliminating wastage or perhaps (if your design is really cool) encouraging more people to order one. If you can't show the design (perhaps because it isn't finalised yet) at least say something like, "A black t-shirt with our logo on the front, in full colour" or whatever. Fabric colour is perhaps the most important thing to advertise.
  7. Allow people to ask questions about t-shirts or add comments to their order, via a freeform text field on your registration form.

Shirt vendors

Recommended: fitted styles up to 60cm/24in+ chest measurements

This list contains vendors who have at least one fitted style with a half-chest (armpit to armpit around the front of the torso) measurement of at least 60cm/24in. If shirts are going to be printed it is recommended to contact the finishing company before bringing in the shirts, as certain brands are more suitable for screen printing or direct-to-garment digital printing.

  • Biz Collection (Australia) have a wide range of women's/fitted sizes and colours. OSDC used them in 2010 and their t-shirts were great.
  • Sarah Mei recommended these shirts by Port Authority, which were used at the AlohaRails conference, saying they fit better than American Apparel. They come in women's sizes ranging from 32" to 60".
  • Hanes make various t-shirts for custom printing use, some of which come in larger sizes. SL04 is one recommended women's style.[1]
  • Open Source Bridge was able to provide t-shirts ranging from women's XS to 3X and men's S to 5X at the 2011 conference. The t-shirt blanks used were Gildan 2000/2000L. The women's 3X size measures 28" across the front.
  • Printfection makes a wide range of women's sizes, up to 3XL which is 27" across the front.
  • Bella Canvas Relaxed V-Neck - They offer up to a 2XL, which has a bust measurement of 26" across the front. In particular, they are often more flattering than crew-necks on women with ample busts.

Not recommended: fitted styles, but maximum chest <60cm/24in

  • American Apparel, who make the tshirts favored by many conferences, sells women's tshirts with a chest size range from 26" (XXS) to 46" (XXL) full chest. Note, however, that their XXL is roughly equivalent in size to a men's M, and so the fitted style only fits smaller women. Also, American Apparel has been criticized for their use of sexualized and sexist advertising, as well as misogynist statements made by its former CEO (Dov Charney).
  • Continental Clothing makes very nice women's shirts in cotton and bamboo blends, which are used by some custom tshirt printers. However, their largest women's size is only 45–50cm.

See also