'There is a misconception that women who are a size 16 or 18 must look like the back of a bus,' says Helen Teague, one half of 1647, a shop that offers stylish clothes in sizes 16 to 47, 'But if you're tall it's easy to take a large size even though your proportions might mean you look like a willowy 12 or 14.'

But apparently most designers and manufacturers don't see the potential for beauty in the large female frame. With a few honourable exceptions most rails stop abruptly at 14. Ask the stores' managing directors why, and they mutter explanations about larger sizes being a specialist market, or say there isn't the demand.

According to the London College of Fashion, a good authority on these matters, anyone with 42in hips is a size 16. That means between 40 and 50 per cent of the female population, according to Ms Teague and her partner, Dawn French.

Market research for Evans - with 307 branches the largest chain in the country to stock sizes beyond 16 - suggests that those aged 35 or more, who form the mainstay of the consumer market, are gaining weight as they get older; and that, in addition, young women are bigger boned than previous generations. So why can't all these large women buy elegant large clothes in the shops?

Joy Weinrabe, at Wardrobe, whose two shops offer an unusually wide range of sizes, says: 'We could sell far more large-sized clothes if only we could get hold of them. The trouble is that too many designers still fantasise about seeing their clothes worn by sylphs.'

As well as being sold short by most shops, big women have few positive role models - which makes finding a successful formula for dressing that much harder. No wonder that, according to Audrey Winkler, editor of Pretty Big magazine, 'up to 70 per cent of girls in Britain have been on a diet by late adolescence and that at any one time one in eight women is trying to lose weight.'

A straw poll in the office suggests that latter figure should be more like one in two.

Perhaps the real reason why so few shops stock a wide range of sizes is to do with preserving profit margins, since it's clearly cheaper for manufacturers to produce four sizes, rather than 10.

Still, things are beginning to look up, at least at the higher end of the price range. Apart from 1647, where chocolates are dispensed free alongside the fashion, and women are encouraged to enjoy their size rather than lament it, Wardrobe provides a valuable personal service to all its customers (sizes eight to 20), offering advice on how to build up a serviceable wardrobe, and suggesting flattering styles. A handful of other designers are starting to offer fashionable clothes in large sizes (see panel, right).

The principle adopted by these companies is simple: that large women care about looking good as much as smaller women. It's just that half the time they are not given the chance. 'What they don't want,' says Ms Teague, 'is to be patronised or treated as if they're abnormal.'

If enlightened attitudes are starting to alter the landscape upmarket, customers on a tight budget remain, for the most part, marooned halfway between resigned frustration and despair. Treated like pariahs by arrogant shop assistants, they are denied the pleasure that most size 10 to 14s experience when they discover that perfect something they just have to have.

Well-built teenagers must want to scream when they're told in boutiques that patterned shirts and tunics - high-fashion items that could easily be scaled up - only come in three sizes, all of them skimpy.

'Too many big women lose their consumer confidence at an early age,' says Ms Teague, 'because they become so used to not finding what they like that they tend to buy when they need, rather than when the desire overcomes them.'

There are glimmerings of progress, however. Last year Burton appointed Stuart Rose as Managing Director of Evans. In his office on Oxford Street, Mr Rose and his team enthusiastically compare new Evans designs - Versace-inspired print shirts, leggings, soft suits, swingy car coats in emerald, sunflower and papaya, and a good array of underwear - with the Crimplene and polyester horrors that recently passed for stock.

The Outsize tag that was part of the store's logo has long since been dropped, and in October the chain launches Profiles, a more upmarket range, in 30 of its stores.

'Larger women are certainly demanding more fashionable clothes,' says Mr Rose, 'and we've realised that apart from obvious no-nos, such as very short skirts, very tailored garments or skinny rib tops, old rules about what you can't wear when you're large no longer apply.'

But before large women have anything like the choice available to smaller women they may need to shed a few cherished assumptions. For one thing, meek acceptance of inadequate service should be abandoned. Second, don't get hung up on sizes: the sizing system is a sham anyway. In the United States many companies deliberately size down their clothes - so that women get a psychological boost from being able to fit into a 12 when they're normally a 14 - thereby persuading them to buy the garment.

Finally, large women would benefit from taking a cool look at themselves in a full-length mirror now and then, not to indulge in self-hatred, but

to get a good overview of their


'The main thing is to stop thinking in terms of 'I can't wear such and such because I'm big',' says Ms Weinrabe. 'Proportions are what count. If your height is in your legs, no matter what your build, you'll still look good in trousers.'

Colour is another area where larger customers and manufacturers have been timid, yet strong shades can look great on big women, as can tapered, knee-length skirts (in fact they'll look much better than the voluminous variety) and long, pared-down jackets that cover bottoms and thighs.

It may sound like twisted logic, but Ms Weinrabe says the thing that seems to reassure most big women is being told that they're not alone in hating bits or all of their bodies. 'I tell them that I don't think the woman who is completely happy with herself exists. At least that makes them feel they're not outcasts.'

Perhaps the biggest comfort, according to Deborah Hutton, Vogue's health editor, comes from new medical evidence showing that within reason, it is healthier to carry too many pounds than too few, provided they are stored around the hips or thighs and not the waist. The much-denigrated British pear could turn out to be the ideal after all.