In a famous luxury store, I try on two gowns. I’d like more to choose from, but they are low on stock in my size (14). The first dress I put on, a gorgeous sweeping maxi dress, strains across my back. The zip edges are so far apart I feel like I’m wearing an argument. It’s also about 3ft too long (I am 5ft 6in). The other dress, by Erdem, however, fits like a glove. It’s a bit long, but designed to fall to the floor. With a heel it’d be fine. What you do if you’re shorter (given the average height of women in the UK is 5ft 3in), I don’t know. Find a good seamstress I guess.
In a high-end high-street store I have a similar experience. Nothing in a 12 or 14 (sometimes I’m a 12, sometimes a 16, sizing is fun that way!) is out, so to try anything on I have to wait for it to be fetched from the stock room. I get bored and walk out. It clarified one thing in my mind – this is why I rarely go clothes shopping and when I do, it’s online.
So what size is fashion? Like my wardrobe it’s a little confused. The catwalk and campaign imagery we are sold is full of tall, sample-size models. The resounding message is that high fashion prefers its reflection when it’s modelled by a size 6, 5ft 10in girl. But there is another reason, which is one of pure economics and logistics. Sample sizes are made initially to be worn in a fashion show, so need to be produced in a uniform size – models are often confirmed the day before a show so there’s no time for made to measure. Samples are also expensive to make (especially for smaller brands). So bigger models = more fabric = more expensive.
These same sample clothes are then used in fashion shoots – usually created before the clothes are on sale. They’re all you can get hold of to debut the new-season fashion. In reality then, a magazine couldn’t shoot a model bigger than sample size midway through the ‘season’ when the clothes simply aren’t available to use.
So there are practical reasons for the dominance of sample sizes. But do clothes actually look better on skinny women? The fact that Kim Kardashian now sits front row at Givenchy proves this whole idea is perhaps getting old. On Net-a-porter.com you can buy a Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane-ordained, blazer in a size 18. You could wear this with Stella McCartney trousers and a Gucci blouse – all available up to an 18.
This might not be something you’d glean from the glorified, idealised world of the catwalk (which shows pieces that often aren’t even put into production) but these ‘commercial’ items which make up the rest of the real collections do exist and are very much on sale.
At Harvey Nichols – which stocks designers including Roland Mouret, DVF and Armani Collezioni from a size 6 to a 16 – Rebecca Attrill, assistant manager style concierge, tells me that for clients at the higher end of sizing, ‘There are always certain styles and pieces that, pulled together with a classic tailored trouser from Osman or fitted jacket from Stella, will transform their silhouette.’ While Matchesfashion.com explains that it’s, ‘seen increasing client demand for sizes at either end of the spectrum – we often sell out of the smallest and largest sizes first and so we buy across all size ranges wherever we can. The majority of brands are working on offering broader size ranges.’
Vikki Kavanagh, head of buying for Veryexclusive.co.uk, says, ‘We will buy up to whichever size a collection goes up to, usually a 16. We do have 18s where possible.’ For more petite frames she recommends French brands such as Iro, Kenzo, Red Valentino, Maje and Sandro, as they are cut for a smaller size. If designer brands went up to a size 20 or beyond, she would definitely buy them. ‘There is a huge market for sizes 14+,’ she says. ‘The high street is definitely offering more choice than ever before, which is great, but it’d be nice for luxury brands to follow.’
So while it’s perhaps taking a little longer for the luxury end of the market to be honest about the sizing of their customers, on the high street, the plus-size market (worth a reported £6 billion) is booming. Demographically speaking, this is the world that speaks to the 60 per cent of UK women who are a size 16 or over. There are countless high-street stores that have an extensive size range; Evans, Dorothy Perkins, H&M, ASOS Curve, Mango, Boohoo.com, Missguided.com, Phase Eight, New Look, Forever 21 and Simply Be all sell trend-led fashion for women over a size 16 (as well as for petite sizes, too). A new label called Studio 8 (sister label of Phase Eight) has some very chic, wearable pieces.
For the past two years, Evans has run ‘The Cut’, a competition for fashion students to design a capsule collection to be sold in store (inspired by their collaboration with Clements Ribeiro who, having only ever designed for a size 10 model, had to be retrained to think about print placement on bigger sizes). Tom Doran, PR manager for Evans, explains that, ‘It made us think, “What are the next generation of fashion students being taught at university? Realistically the jobs they’re going to be applying for will be on the high street, so having an extra skill can’t hurt. We’ve had really positive reactions from students.”’
Undeniably, the rise of bloggers such as Nadia Aboulhosn (225,000 insta followers) and Gabi Fresh (230,000 insta followers) in the US and Callie Thorpe (60,000 followers) and Danielle Vanier (35,000 followers) among many others in the UK, alongside the popularity of the so-called plus-size models Ashley Graham, Tara Lynn, Robyn Lawley and Candice Huffine has pushed the issue into the mainstream. They all bristle at the tagline ‘plus’. A lot of these women point out that they’re not overweight or unhealthy, they simply have bigger proportions – they’re taller and bigger framed than the ‘norm’. Together with some of her counterparts, Ashley Graham has set up the Alda Women collective, which promotes positive body image. It’s about inclusiveness and support for all women – something the rest of the fashion industry is increasingly going to be under pressure to follow.
Felicity Hayward, a stylist for ASOS’s fashion-forward Curve line, which launched in 2009 (most popular size: 20), admits, ‘Because of the rise of curvier woman in the spotlight, people have realised we need more fashion in large sizes. I tend to go for shapes that work with my silhouette. But if it’s acceptable for a smaller-sized woman to wear oversized pieces it’s definitely OK for a curvier-sized gal to wear tight pieces.’
But not all trends are created equal. If you’re shorter, then sweeping 70s maxi-gowns may drown you, and if you’re tall, miniskirts end up looking indecent. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. So in the face of an increasingly homogenised global production model, there’s opportunity for niche brands with a specific offer to thrive.
Personally speaking, I find Whistles, Joseph and MaxMara brilliant for tailored trousers, Current Elliott, J Brand and Ida the best denim brands for those with wider hips and generous bums while Jonathan Saunders and Mary Katrantzou do great boob-accommodating sweaters and blouses. I love Isabel Marant, Stella McCartney and Preen for dresses, and I have various pieces from Christopher Kane which fit perfectly.
So what would I like to see? Fashion imagery that reflects every type of woman. I’d like to see magazines use different-sized models without having to create special ‘shape’ issues; for it to be incidental; for it to go unsaid. To not just feature ‘curvy’ girls in underwear or swimwear or fetishise them in clichéd ‘sexy’ styles, and for stylists to really consider the practicalities of dressing different-sized figures (FYI string bikinis that only go up to a size 12 aren’t ‘best for big boobs’.).
But ultimately fashion is a social mirror. What we see in fashion is a response to what happens in our culture. If there’s a problem with perception of body shapes, that’s everyone’s issue to solve, not just the fashion industry’s. The sooner we accept and embrace all shapes and sizes and are more supportive of women who are proud of their shape and less ‘OMG did you SEE her arse?’, then the fashion industry – which is a business, after all – will sell us what we need.