the human condition: the sizes they are a-changin'

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Indy Lifestyle Online
BURSTING zips, straining buttons, bulging seams: there is a new excuse for all of them. It's the sizes that are wrong, not you that's an odd shape. British Standard clothing sizes are still based on a survey conducted in the 1950s, when the average, girdled, pointy-bra'd woman had an hourglass figure of 36-24-36. And although women today are far bigger, taller and thicker-waisted than they were 40 years ago, many designers persist in making clothes for outsize Sindy dolls.

But probably not for much longer - unless, of course, they wish to go bust. The Manchester-based mail order company J D Williams received so many complaints from female customers about ill-fitting clothes that it decided to carry out its own research.

The researchers found the differences in shape between the 1950s British Standard woman and the 1990s woman to be so extreme that they "threw away the old templates" and introduced completely new measurements. And there's some good news. Crack open your corsets, girls: the 36-24-36 perfect size 12 figure is a myth.

The company's quality control manager, Carole Smith, explains: "We were having a lot of fit problems with our clothing, but we were doing no different from any high street retailer. Our size specifications were in line with the established standards. We decided the standards were out of date. The comments of customers indicated that people thought that they were the oddity."

The pounds 100,000 survey, conducted by Manchester Metropolitan University, took a total of 50,765 measurements from 710 women aged from 18 to 70 years old. The research showed that the average 1990s woman is two inches taller than her 1950s counterpart, and her waist is approximately two inches thicker. Her bottom is flatter and bigger. Ms Smith adds: "Women's busts have also got bigger and lower, and they have much fuller tummies. We had to increase the waists of our skirts and trousers and restructure all our patterns."

Yet the majority of women remain baffled. In haute couture, they can still buy clothes in size 6 - for hips that measure a mere 30 inches. The labelling suggests that sizes 6 and 8 are small, sizes 10 and 12 are medium, size 14 is large and size 16 is outsize, a preposterous misconception given that 47 per cent of British women are size 16 or over. Helen Teague, partner at 1647, the fashion company for this 47 per cent, asks me what size I think I am. A 12, I say.

She replies: "Sizes go up in two-inch jumps. Size 16 is a 40in hip, so if you think you're a size 12 then you should have a 36in hip. I bet you haven't. I bet you have a 38in hip. Everybody thinks they're something that they're not. They think size 16 is a big, fat girl with rolls of flesh. In fact size 16 is actually more like a sturdy looking size 12."

The tendency of manufacturers to adapt sizing to please themselves confounds the confusion. J D Williams's technical manager, Paula Percival, says: "We found there was a lot of variation within sizing in shops. Some stores try to flatter their customers by making clothes bigger, but a lot of cheaper stores skimp on fabric so you'll get a smaller fit. A lot of manufacturers seem to use whatever measurement they want. If they offer a size 12 it should be aimed at a woman with hips between 36in and 371/2 in, but they can add a lot on to that for style or casualness. As long as you don't go under those measurements, technically you're obeying the law."

So when will the high street stores catch up with the times? They claim that they already have. A spokeswoman for Next says that after detailed research into sizing, a trial collection for women over 5ft 9in was introduced last season: "It did so well we are introducing it again." An M&S spokeswoman claims: "We don't do a standard size. We do a wide variety of skirt lengths and tailoring, and people can buy a skirt with a different jacket size. We try to cater for as many people as possible."

While women have evolved from wasp-waisted wisps to sturdy Amazons in just 40 years, playing havoc with the clothing industry, whither the blokes? Dr Caroline Pond, of the Open University in Milton Keynes, says that men have also grown bigger and taller: "The main reasons for this are better diet and vaccinations against childhood diseases like measles and mumps, which means that they no longer have periods of arrested growth during childhood."

But Andrew Ramroop, managing director of Maurice Sedwell , of Savile Row, disagrees. If anything, the vital statistics of men have diminished, he says: "Our clients are fitter and smaller-waisted, which gives the illusion of a bigger chest - although this is not the case. And no, they haven't grown taller."

Helen Teague reckons the changes are evolutionary: "Men don't have to be so strong because they don't have to go around with big clubs protecting women any more." If present trends continue, it may soon be the other way round.