Goodbye, size zero. Hello, normality

Student designers will have to use models who actually resemble the average British woman

Size zero could be banished to the back of the closet under plans to encourage future Alexander McQueens to design clothes for real women. Fashion students will have to use size 18 mannequins under a government-backed proposal to be unveiled next month. Those behind the initiative hope it will force designers to remember the average British woman is a size 16-18.

The idea came from the fashion trio of Erin O'Connor, pictured right, Caryn Franklin and Debra Bourne, and is the latest salvo in a two-year-old campaign to stamp out fashion's obsession with youth, perfection and size zero.

The first institution to promote the new approach is Edinburgh College of Art, home of the new All Walks Centre for Diversity, which wants fashion to recognise that clothes are worn beyond the catwalk as well as on it.

Mal Burkinshaw, who heads Edinburgh's fashion course, said yesterday that linking students with real people was like "switching on a light". "There has been a disconnection between fashion students and the person who'd be wearing their clothes, the consumer," he said.

"Pairing students with someone helped them to understand their issues, their bodies, and their likes and dislikes. Students really learnt that fashion was beyond the catwalk."

Ms Franklin, the one-time BBC Clothes Show presenter-turned-fashion commentator, said getting students to embrace diversity would teach them about more than just learning to cut patterns.

"Students don't recognise the power they have: the power to change how corporations think. The fashion industry is criticised for the pale, rail-thin and young images that it sends out, yet consumers aren't all pale, rail-thin and young.

"Middle-aged women have more money to spend than anyone, if only they can find the right clothes to buy."

The All Walks Centre will be unveiled on 7 June during graduate fashion week, which is held at London's Earls Court exhibition centre and features the work of student designers from 50 universities and colleges.

Lynne Featherstone, the minister for equalities, who spearheads the Government's body-confidence campaign, said: "Too many people feel pressured to focus their energies on how they look. I want to shine a light on initiatives that celebrate a range of body images as diverse as the society we live in."

The Arts University College Bournemouth and Southampton Solent University have recently added body-shape projects promoting diversity to their courses. More colleges around the country are expected to follow suit.

Success for the campaign would bridge the divide between the fashion industry and its critics, which culminates in regular global hand-wringing at images of emaciated models during fashion weeks in London, New York, Milan, and Paris.

Psychologists said banishing size zero would have important repercussions for the population's mental health. Phillippa Diedrichs, of the University of the West of England's centre for appearance research, said: "Research shows consumers react better to images of more realistic models. It's really refreshing that this is coming from within the fashion industry, suggesting it understands the need for more diversity."

The initiative comes as new research reveals that British women are five times more likely to have a bulky rectangular-shaped body than the stereotyped hour-glass curves of a Marilyn Monroe. Alvanon, clothing fit analysts, based its findings on 3D imaging technology to measure 50,000 women across the UK and Europe.