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The communal changing-room has gone. The designer cubicle has arrived. But are things any better? By Monique Roffey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
We Brits are particularly shy about flashing the flesh in public. Topless sun-bathing, nudist beaches and communal showers are all concepts that make us flinch. The same goes for communal changing-rooms. From its introduction in the Seventies, the communal changing-room became a mandatory test for British women. It was a case of grin and bare it as you exposed your sagging tummy, greying bra and fraying knickers before 18 strangers. They hit their peak in the Eighties, but the good news is that finally the communal room seems to be becoming outdated.

"They're absolutely forbidden in our shops," says Robin Hunt, for Oasis. "We know from research that communal fitting-rooms are appallingly unpopular."

Rasshied Din, who has designed shops for Next, Ralph Lauren and Nicole Farhi, agrees. "Communal changing-rooms are old hat. No one wants to see their body reflected a million times in wall-to-wall mirroring."

But this is not to say that changing-room hell is a thing of the past. For the communal changing-room has simply been replaced by a number of equally undesirable and impractical ideas. Which is odd, because these ideas are overtly design conscious. Shops have introduced smart and attractive new ways of letting women try on clothes - and have still been getting it wrong. During a recent high-street shopping trip we came across the following horrors: leg-revealing saloon doors, claustrophobic screens, designer lighting that was either too harsh or too dim and cubicles without any mirrors at all.

This was true in Jigsaw. For a shop that has won awards for its high quality, affordable clothes, it seems strange that the same degree of design ingenuity is missing on the shop floor. Jigsaw's cubicles not only lack mirrors, but they are also set out like stables, complete with the detested saloon doors. The idea is that you get changed inside the cubicle and then slink out to see how you look in front of one gigantic mirror. Not only does this mean you have to show the world your pop socks, but I suspect another reason for the set-up: the staff rely on commissions for much of their salary. I tested may theory by trying on the ugliest thing I could find - a pale cream bubble-wrap type camisole that made me look like a sausage in a meringue. "That looks great!" gushed the sales assistant.

"We're planning to change," says Kate Douglas, for Jigsaw. "We realise that having mirrors in the cubicles is a much better idea. The new changing-rooms will be a lot bigger and the doors will be in line with the new concept."

Next stop, Hobbs. No over-keen shop girls, and the mirrors are inside the cubicles. You can come out for a longer look, as mirrors are also nailed to the front of the cubicle doors. However, the cubicles themselves are placed right in the middle of the shop, in this case next to the shoes. Wandering out in your socks, you provide a live act for those waiting for their size 37s in green.

Warehouse had also come up with a new concept in changing-room design: hessian screens. These did successfully block my bra and pants out from the world, almost too well, in fact. No light came through the screen, and changing behind it was a bit like getting undressed inside a huge potato sack.

Now came the experience I had been dreading: Miss Selfridge which, with Top Shop, is the remaining bastion of the communal changing-room. Miss Selfridge is still decked out in pink and grey - those oh-so Eighties colours. Pink carpets, grey walls. Actually, the pink carpet was turning grey, too.

I dived into one of the three cubicles for the shy. But this did not stop me peeking out to see what the other women were trying on. And herein lies the big problem with communal changing-rooms. Voyeurism. Everyone is so busy eyeing up each other's choice of clothes, as well as their bulges and stretch marks, that they don't look at what they themselves are trying on.

A few days later at Benetton I came across a new hazard. Three spartan changing-rooms faced a glass shop wall, and the curtains in them were only about 1ft wide. A free stripshow for passing Japanese tourists. It was like changing behind a deck chair. Added to which the lights were ruthless. Bad lighting, in fact, was a problem in every shop. Too bright, and it makes you too depressed by your reflection to buy anything, too dark and depression sets in once you get home, and you find that your outfit doesn't actually fit.

"Good changlng-room design means good lighting and good light fittings," says Rasshied Din. "In recent years, light fixtures have been developed which can reproduce virtual daylight. But any shops fitted in the Eighties or early Nineties won't have them."

But not all changing-rooms are a nightmare experience. Oasis and Next are two shops that have got it about right. Designed by the Conran team, the Oasis changing-rooms are a delight to disrobe in. They are sunk discreetly underneath the shop and are even air-conditioned. The cubicles are roomy, clean and have large mirrors. For a wider look there was a mirror outside. There was even a table and chair set for jaded mothers and boyfriends.

Next had a long row of immaculately kept cubicles with curtains so thick they were almost soundproof. They did not have just one mirror, but two, the second being a kind of demi-mirror which allows you to see what that strappy dress looks like from behind.

"Changing-rooms should be a pleasant experience not a horrible one," says Robin Hunt. "Above all, a customer should have privacy and security. The last thing they want is bruised elbows, a burnt head from harsh lights and to have lost weight by the time they've finished changing." Rasshied Din agrees: "The whole process should be stimulating and attractive. It doesn't have to be a cramped and mean experience."

Miss Selfridge: communal rooms, generally grubby 2/10

Jigsaw: no changing-room mirrors, so customers have to provide a floor show for shoppers and staff, awkward saloon doors 4/10

Benetton: savage overhead lighting, curtains that don't fit 4/10

Warehouse: good mirrors, relaxed staff, seating for jaded boyfriends but harsh lights 6/10

Hobbs: decent mirror, cool staff, but changing rooms bang in the middle of the shop 6/10

Oasis: air-conditiong, seating for boyfriends, but dim lighting 7/10

Next: two-way mirrors, curtains that fit, good lighting 8/10