The new winter fashions have arrived in Madrid's trendy shops, and women are flocking through the doors to admire this season's glitzy party dresses and chic monochromes – and brace themselves for the clothing size lottery. Unsure whether they are size 38 or 42, M or XXL, they head for the changing rooms clutching armfuls of the same model in different sizes to see which – if any – fits.
"I take a 38 or 40 [UK 10 or 12] depending on the store", says Maria Jose Castilla, 32, checking new arrivals at the high street Sfera store. "In Mango the 38 trousers fit fine, but they're tight in the waist. H&M is more generous. Here they are too big, and far too long."
Maria Eugenia Pena, 44, browsing for a new outfit, says: "Twenty years ago I took a 40. Now after three children, I take a 38, but I'm certainly no thinner. They put smaller sizes on bigger clothes, which makes us feel thinner even though we aren't," she smiles. "I know I can get a more generous fit in stores offering classic designs. But I'm still looking for style. I'm not ready for mature fashion yet."
Spain's changing room doubts could soon be outmoded. Following years of complaints from frustrated consumers, the Spanish government has acted to bring order to the chaotic disparity of clothes sizes. The socialist health ministry, which has responsibility for consumer affairs, has struck an unprecedented deal with big Spanish retailers, manufacturers and trade associations to standardise clothes sizes and end consumer confusion.
Companies who have signed up include the Inditex empire – owner of the fast-fashion giant Zara – its rival Mango, the ubiquitous department store El Corte Inglés, and clothing chain Cortefiel. Since these names not only dominate the Spanish high street but also sell strongly abroad, the initiative is bound to have an international impact.
Last month technicians from Spain's health ministry visited the first of 59 towns across the country to measure 10,415 Spanish women, aged between 12 and 70, to find out what size and shape the nation's females really are. The nationwide measuring operation continues until 21 December, and results are to be announced next spring.
Women are chosen at random from the city's census and invited to participate in an "anthropometric study", which the state-sponsored National Consumers Institute claims to be the first in the world. The aim is to promote "a realisable image of healthy beauty – neither Rubens women nor anorexic girls", according to the health minister, Bernat Soria. "It is our commitment that beauty and health go hand in hand."
The government has also extracted a promise from retailers to banish skeletal plastic mannequins from shop windows – said to encourage unrealistic ideals of beauty – and replace them over time with those sized at least 38 – a British 10.
Some stores have taken immediate action, and many of today's window models seem less cadaverous than before. Retailers have also agreed to incorporate the Spanish size 46 (UK 18) clothes into their normal ranges, and no longer consider them "a special size" often hidden away.
The scheme is the first hands-on example of government action against idealising the skinny and aims to strengthen the hand of women against marketing vagaries. It follows Spain's pioneering stand last year when five sickly thin fashion models were banned from the catwalk.
"This is not a tactical, superficial operation," Mr Soria says, "but a deliberate policy to provide information for the consumer to make an educated choice about the clothes she wants to buy, and to help her reconcile nearly impossible fantasy with possible reality." Sizes must be "accurate and comparable" across the market, Mr Soria insists.
Manufacturers have been surprisingly cooperative, he says, and most are eager to project the image of a healthy woman.
Others who have pledged to standardise sizes include the powerful Galicia Textile Association (Galicia is Inditex's heartland), the Textile Technology Foundation of Andalucia, the Spanish Federation of Tailoring Companies, the Spanish Knitwear Association and the Carrefour supermarket chain. Designers Roberto Verino and Adolfo Dominguez have also signed up. Plans are afoot to present the idea Europe-wide, where resistance to anything but a voluntary code remains fierce.
The classic Spanish female shape – short, small on top, with broad hips and stumpy legs – has been transformed by decades of prosperity and plentiful food.
The average Spaniard is now up to six inches taller than in Franco's day. Towering slender women and strapping curvaceous ones stride every street in Spain, as in the rest of Europe.
The trend in recent decades towards fuller and lower breasts, broader shoulders, rounder midriffs and wider ribcages is common to all European women – as anyone who tries to squeeze into retro Twiggy-sized sixties frocks or tailored suits can testify. In Britain, dress sizes are no longer based on vital statistics gathered in the 1950s when a size 12 was decreed to be 34-26-36.
That system lasted into the late 1990s, long after our bodies had filled out and women had binned restrictive girdles and corsets. But it gave way to a sizing free-for-all, when firms could cut their cloth to flatter customers, making clothes more generous so you could fit into a reassuringly smaller size. Many ditched sizes altogether in favour of vaguer S, M or L labels.
The British designer Wayne Hemingway, founder of Red or Dead, gave the game away when he argued some years back that standardisation wouldn't work. "Sizes are all over the place because when samples are fitted, different companies use a different person as the model. We used to just fit our clothes on whoever was an average size and in the room at the time. Nor is every garment cut the same, so it's impossible to make each size 10 fit the same – that would be like saying every car has to have the same seat width."
Zara already incorporates bigger sizes into its normal ranges, collar to collar with doll-sized equivalents. It aims to win back maturing customers who have despaired of squeezing into the youthful styles of their once favourite store. A chic houndstooth jacket with generous lapels, roomy sleeves and cinched-in belt, was on show at the front of one of Zara's central Madrid shops recently from XS to XL, the largest on offer. At Inditex's teenage outlet Bershka, next door, you had the choice of a pair of skinny jeans ranging from 32 (UK 4) to 42 (14).
Barcelona-based Mango has launched an advertising campaign called "Why not?" featuring the American model Crystal Renn, muse of Jean Paul Gaultier, who is a UK size 16, the biggest size Mango sells. "Mango presents clothes for women with curves. Fashion is not just for the very thin figures usual for models, but belongs to everyone," the company says.
Mango's prominently displayed collection, signed by Spanish screen goddess Penelope Cruz and her sister Monica, comes in sizes ranging from XS (a UK 6) to L (12), with jeans up to size 44 (UK 16). But even with this recognition that larger women exist, sizes vary so widely both within and between stores that you still never know which garment will fit your actual body.
Limited surveys of women's shapes have been conducted before in Spain – the last one in 1964 – but only for marketing purposes. In Britain, the Department of Trade and Industry co-operated with some leading retailers to conduct a size survey of British women in 2004. But that study was limited to three regions of the country, and acceptance of the results was only voluntary.
No one has ever before measured a nation's height, weight and curves, enabling fashion houses to promise to fit their clothes to real women, rather than the other way round.
They are not using old-fashioned tape measures either, but a special cabin equipped with hi-tech laser body scanners that zap 130 measurements in 30 seconds. The scanner produces three-dimensional, longitudinal and perimetral images around 15 points of the body, taken with participants standing up and sitting down.
Manufacturers will use the results from this pioneering study to make clothes tailored for real women at each stage in their life, rather than idealised, eternally youthful models, and in sizes consistent from shop to shop.
"We want to find out what the Spanish woman is like, and avoid having the same person taking several clothes sizes according to where she shops," says Angeles Heras, director of consumer affairs at the Health ministry – as 262 women were measured in Madrid.
At present, a size 12 woman (Spanish 40) might squeeze into an XXL in some stores, while in others a 10 might fit.
Psychologically, this might encourage anorexic women to feel reassure to fill a skimpy size 10, while plumper ones feel triumphant if a roomy 12 fits. Some complain they are between sizes, and that nothing fits.
Critics say the yawning disparity in sizes fuels women's anxieties and encourage eating disorders, and many women believe manufacturers manipulate sizes to exploit wishful thinking about their body shape and weight.
But firms deny that clothes are sized up or down to favour an unrealistic body image.
The designation of size is none the less totally arbitrary and unregulated, offering every opportunity for what Americans call "vanity sizing".
More than 80 per cent of Spanish women say they fit several sizes, and many have a precise knowledge of what size fits them at which shop. Manufacturers like Zara admit the company adjusts size internationally according to regional body types, to accommodate athletic Scandinavians, and smaller Asian frames. Many Brits complain that Spanish clothes seem skimpy.
Retailers and manufacturers who support the Spanish initiative reckon they will benefit from standardised sizes.
"Anything that makes life easier for the customer is good for us," says Raul Estradera, a spokesman for Inditex which runs seven clothing brands apart from Zara, including Bershka, Massimo Duti, Oysho, Pull&Bear and Stradivarius. He said the company would apply uniform sizing to stores worldwide, which might mean relaxing or nipping in some sizes, but he expected only minimal pattern changes would be necessary.
Miriam Nolan and Catherine Vesey, two Dubliners in their early 30s, flicked expertly through Zara's latest offerings in Madrid and reckoned Spanish sizes were smaller than at home. "I take a 'small' from Topshop, but 'medium' in Zara or Mango. But the trousers are much longer," says Miriam.
"You have to make a mental adjustment."
Opinion polls show that Spanish women overwhelmingly favour ending the size confusion.
"It's time we knew where we were on sizes," says Ms Pena, the stylish mother of three. "For too long we've been sold the skinny ideal, and this plan marks the first step in our fight back.
"We should expect that clothes fit the shape we really are. I think it's a great idea."Reuse content