Only in the past 15 years or so have the leading brands introduced designs especially for women that don't ignore the existence of hips, and a lot of the high-street chain stores also make their own ranges. But unless you happen to conform to the "standard" proportions used in mass production - which are, after all, only an average, and a Fifties average at that - then you may as well give up on the idea of buying jeans at all. I certainly had.
Until just over a week ago, that is, when I walked out of the Original Levi's Store in Regent Street, London, wearing a pair of jeans that fitted impeccably, feeling extremely happy (I used to walk out of jeans shops feeling there must be something terribly wrong with me). For in the basement of that shop is a corner devoted to the new Personal Pair scheme, which brings the techniques of mass-customisation to the clothing market and enables women to find the perfect denims cut for their combination of waist, hip and navel-to-back-waistline (through the legs) measurements.
First, you ring to make an appointment for a fitting. At the store, in a special section rather than in the middle of the shop floor, you are measured up (waist, hip and rise) by one of the specially trained saleswomen. From a wall of drawers, she selects a pair of jeans that seems likely to fit your shape; if that's not right you try another (including leg length, there are close to 7,000 possible combinations). When you have a pair that's a perfect fit, the legs are turned up to the length that you choose. Then all your details are entered into the computer and sent by modem straight to the factory in Belgium. And having paid up your pounds 65, a premium of around pounds 15-pounds l8 on off-the-peg styles, you walk out.
Delivery to the store is promised within 21 days, although Levi's hopes to complete all orders within seven working days - and mine was ready in less than a week. I left the shop wearing my new jeans and have been wearing them every day since then - amazed by this revolution in clothes- making. But why has it taken such a long time for mass-customisation to be applied to clothes, when the car industry, for instance, has been using it for quite a while?
Bart DeBouvier, special projects manager for Levi Strauss & Co Europe, thinks it's because trousers are much more complex. "Tailoring has existed for a very long time, but no one's ever really ventured into doing mass- customisation in clothing, primarily because it has to do with fit, the whole feel of the cloth and so on."
The idea for Personal Pair was triggered in the mind of Sung Park, an American software developer, by a visit to a tailor in Hong Kong who made him a suit in 24 hours. Sung Park began to wonder whether the principles of individual tailoring could be made to work on a much larger scale. After some research in the US, he discovered that jeans were something that most women owned and wanted to wear but found it hard to buy. He spent the next three years, together with a small group of people, putting together the technology for Personal Pair, as well as thinking how it would work in the store, in manufacturing and so on. Then he got in touch with Levi's, who showed interest in the idea and ran a test in the US in the spring of 1994; when that test proved successful, they launched the scheme in America.
It's taken another two years to bring it to Europe. De Bouvier explains that they wanted to see how the whole project continued in the US. "As the success in the US increased and a lot more people heard about it, we started hearing rumours in the trade that it was something that was needed," he says, "and at that point we decided to launch here in Europe. We consider what we've launched in the store in London and in another Levi's Original store in Sheffield a test for the European market as well. It's a test of whether we have the right styles, what other colours and fabrics customers may want us to do. So there will be a trial phase for about four months, and then we will decide where we go."
For the moment, Personal Pair is available here in stonewashed indigo and a slightly tapered leg only, and with a choice of zip-fly with a high waist or button-fly with a slightly lower waist. In America there are six colours available, including black, the most requested colour so far in the comments book at the two British stores. "We are in the process of preparing to add the black, and potentially other colours as well, as of next year," says De Bouvier.
At last it seems that the phrase "consumer choice" will start to mean something. And the concept could spread to other clothes. Someone in America is even doing an experiment with shoes. DeBouvier is optimistic: "It's potentially the beginning of a whole new era. Every consumer wants to be seen as an individual ... Personal Pair is one way to express that."
So it seems that from now on the biggest problem women will have in finding jeans that fit is deciding what to do with the time they used to spend in changing rooms being told by Prof Higgins's disciples that their waist was "too small".
The Personal Pair service is available at the Original Levi's Store, 174-176 Regent Street, London Wl (0171-287 4559); and at 19 High Street, Meadowhall Centre, Sheffield (0114-256 8471). Call for appointments.Reuse content