Big women, the battle is over at last

We've been fed the hype for years - but finally it's really happening. KIRSTY ROBINSON on the high street's new love affair with our curves
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Something revolutionary happened quietly this week on London's Oxford Street. In a small leap for Kookai (and an Olympic triple jump for womankind), the fashion chain replaced its skinny, size 6-8 mannequins with curvy, size 10-12 versions, all with breasts big enough to give Jordan a run for her money. As any woman will confirm, this is the fashion equivalent of conquering Everest. After nearly two years of Sophie Dahl-driven hype about how big is beautiful - and nothing but Dahl herself to support the idea - it looks as though this time, finally, healthier notions of beauty and femininity have made their mark on the high street.

"The mannequins before didn't have a lot of shape, the stock hung off them really," says Jason Traves, the fashion chain's display manager and the man behind the switch. "Kookai is about attitude, glamour and feeling feminine, and before there wasn't so much glamour in the windows. I designed this mannequin myself because most of them out there don't have much shape. Curvy is more realistic for women, and it's more sexy."

Given that the average size of women in the UK is not the mythical Perfect 10 but a rather more hefty size 16, and that Britain's ladies are now acknowledged (in a leaked government report anyway) as the fattest in Europe, Kookai's nod in the direction of more realistic body image will no doubt prove popular with women more used to being force- fed pre-pubescent visions of womanhood.

Thankfully, it seems, Kookai is far from the Lone Ranger in promoting a curvier shape. A survey this week claimed that women now own more underwired bras than ever before and a quick scout around a few smalls' departments proves the point. At Top Shop, which has moved in and pinched the twentysomething underwear market from right under M&S's nose, almost every bra is boned. Similarly at Knickerbox (or as a friend suggested, Knockerbox), 85 per cent of stock is wired. "More structured bras obviously give a lot more shape and support, and the plunge look is definitely in," says buyer Rachel Hatten. "You get more non-structured designs elsewhere in the teen market or for the over-fifties, whereas our customers want a far sexier, curvier look."

In fact, even the already voluptuous want to become more shapely. Hatten explains: "We've added more sizes to our ranges this season - our biggest size now is a 38D - and it's not like the bigger sizes want to minimise. Women are wanting to emphasise their shape whatever their size, so plunge bras are popular across the board. Women are quite happy to show off that they're womanly."

It's being appreciated. Sophia Loren, owner of some of the world's most outrageous curves, has just been voted the most beautiful woman of all time. And latest Bond girl Maria Grazia Cucinotta's canyon of a cleavage and monumental curves quite literally put fellow femme fatale Denise Richards in the shade at the premiere of The World is Not Enough this week, at a time when the likes of Posh Spice, Calista Flockhart and Liz Hurley - all knocking around the size 8 mark - are under fire for being too skinny.

Sizing itself is a big grey area that has been rather haphazard since the fifties. Most women know that, for example, they could go in one store and slip into a size 10 but in another a 12 or even 14 is a squeeze. For years the high street had designed and manufactured clothes according to design blocks (templates) created in the post-war years, but that's all changing.

The Arcadia Group, which includes Top Shop, Dorothy Perkins and Evans, has spent substantial sums of money investigating its cuts. After years of grown women struggling red-faced as they attempt to pull hipsters further than mid thigh, the cuts have become more generous. So a woman who is currently a size 14 may well find she is a size 12 in the new scheme. The old 36-24-36 so-called ideal has now moved closer to the 36-28-38 mark.

For toy manufacturers, who are in some ways right at the beginning of the fashion food chain, proportions are bearing a direct effect on sales. Last week reports emerged that Barbie, at around 5ft 8in and a size 8 in real terms (she's said to have got increasingly slimmer since she was launched 40 years ago) is finally getting the cold shoulder - last year saw a 14 per cent drop in sales. Worried parents are taking heed of psychologists' warnings that dolls like Barbie and Sindy have greater influence on children and the rapid rise in anorexia and bulimia than stick-thin supermodels.

As Sindy is ditching her hybrid Baywatch shape, supermarket chain Tesco announced last week that it has approached Mattel, makers of Barbie, to produce her in a size 14 or 16, and Asda has asked the makers of its biggest- seller, Steffi, to design a more socially responsible and realistic doll. "We are reacting to the concerns of parents, worried about the influence of model shapes on their children," says Asda toy buyer Barbara Anglim. "The new Steffi won't have such a scrawny face and legs or such a tiny waist; she'll be around a size 12, without a huge chest in comparison to the rest of her body."

A few steps on, the true dimensions of clothes are beginning to be reflected in the media. Ad campaigns for labels such as Evans, featuring larger models, are sexy, sensual and proud, and no longer banished to the realms of mumsy mags for the blue rinse brigade - they can be found among the pages of many of the glamorous, glossy women's monthlies.

At the leading edge of fashion too, where reality is sometimes difficult to come by, more ample curves are easing their way in. Steph Wilson, fashion editor at industry title FW, explains that streetwear is also being designed so that larger women can feel sensual and feminine. "Labels like YMC, Duffer and Carhartt are particularly good at it. The clothes are a smaller version of the men's but they're sized in a way that can still allow a woman to feel sexy. Take the way for example, a low waisted pair of trousers works with a top that just skims across the stomach to reveal a tiny glimpse of belly button."

Probably the best way to describe the emerging approach to fashion and women's bodies is "wholesome". Knickerbox's winter ad campaign features ruddy-faced models with ample bosoms heaving out of satin corsets teamed with denim and wellies. After a hard day's graft down on the farm these women, we imagine, will probably feast on a hearty dinner (plus seconds), knock back some local wine and revel in their sexuality for dessert.

It's the kind of image that's going down well with female shoppers. "Women's perceptions are changing, they're accepting themselves," says Hayley Penfold, 29, who works in the city, "They're saying let's eat healthily, let's get fit. I want to go into a shop where I feel proud about my shape, knowing that something will complement my curves. Maybe retailers are starting to realise it."