In her last exclusive for WhichPLM this year, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, explores the issues in our current sizing landscape. Emma has worked in retail for over 3 decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.
It’s very nearly the end of the second decade into the second millennium, and this is what today’s average UK womenswear consumer looks like: she’s 5’6” tall, with a bust measuring 36”, waist 29”, and hip 38.5”. She’s twenty-two years old, white, with size 5 feet, perfect hair, skin and teeth. She wears her clothing in exactly the way that the designers intended (in other words, she has predictable preferences) and she aspires to wear new clothing in a selection of the latest mainstream styles. She works full-time in a job with above average pay, and she is free from insecurities about her body. She has no physical blemishes, no disability, no religious or cultural sensitivities or other special requirements that might affect her choice of apparel, nor does she have any interest in where her clothing comes from or how its ecological footprint affects her environment. Oh, and she rides a unicorn to and from work.
Women’s fashion has always had a problem with the unrealistic mirror it holds up to its consumers. Over the course of the last century, if this reflection were to be believed, the ‘typical’ woman has gone through repeated re-modelling.
Take one of the most instant and drastic changes, which happened in 1947, as an example. That was the year that Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ appeared out of nowhere and thundered into the fashion scene, crashing and burning the somewhat masculine, natural and militaristic physique of the ‘typical’ 1940s woman. In this new post-war epoch, if you didn’t have the tiny ‘wasp’ waist or the wherewithal to have a skirt made out of 25 yards of fabric (not the easiest thing to do when it was still on wartime ration), as far as the fashion world was concerned, you didn’t exist. Back then, the physical, financial and lifestyle standards a woman had to live up to if she stood any chance of being taken seriously as a fashionable person were extremely onerous. But then again, the fashion industry as it existed then had a tiny customer base and didn’t actually need to cater to anyone else.
It certainly didn’t need to know what all the fashion ‘rejects’ were doing at that time. As it didn’t sell apparel to just anybody, there was no need to even acknowledge the existence of, for example, women on lower incomes, or taller, larger or older women. Nor need it concern itself, generally, with women of diverse ethnicities, or those who had jobs that did not allow them to wear these fashionably restrictive outfits. These groups, alongside women with disabilities or ‘non-standard’ bodies, were airbrushed out of fashion history. In apparel design terms, we know little about them.
But, surely, all this has no relevance to what is happening today?
It’s easy to say that things now are very different. The present generation of women do not have to sign up to any particular style: indeed, differing stylistic looks are indulged and celebrated by a fashion industry that (in theory at least) is open to all. A woman can opt for a sport-influenced or a goth-inspired persona, cover herself in bling, or decide to join any of a hundred other fashion ‘tribes’.
And it would appear that women are ‘allowed’ to have different body shapes now, too. They are to be seen advertisements and editorials for plus size clothes, modelled by larger women, and there are increasing (yet still tiny) numbers of brands and designers who show their apparel on models with disabilities. At long last, it’s also slowly becoming unacceptable for a brand to restrict its images only to one race: a new generation of consumers have expectations of inclusivity.
But are these images not evidence of an enlightened era of diversity, but actually an echo of the same restrictive forces that have always been at work in the fashion industry? My area of expertise, for example, size inclusive apparel, is still exceptionally poorly represented in advertising and fashion journalism. Although it would no longer be true to say that larger women are invisible, their appearance is substantially shrouded. The sheer number of plus size women in the population is woefully underrepresented by fashion’s visual output.
Worse still: the very character of the larger female cohort is distorted by the images we see. ‘Curvy’ women have far more diverse body shapes than their smaller-sized counterparts. Due to the nature of women’s bodies, any extra weight is not usually spread evenly over the entire physique but concentrated on those areas where the woman is inclined to store it. This means that differing body shapes become more exaggerated as women grow larger. There are at least six or seven main body types in the population – not that we would ever guess this by looking at plus size women in the media.
The two basic body shapes that are ‘acceptable’ to the fashion industry are Perfectly Proportioned and Hourglass, and images of these are ubiquitous, despite the fact that they are rather rare types. I would challenge anyone, for instance, to find an image of larger size fashion that is being advertised on a model who has an Apple-shape body. It would be unheard of to use a model of this body shape in a national campaign, despite her figure being far more numerous than an Hourglass shape, for example. In the plus size world, incredibly, there has been a return of the ‘wasp’ waist.
Indeed, it would be extremely difficult to find images being provided by the fashion industry that include four out of six of the most common body shapes of real ‘curvy’ women. As we are living in an era where a much higher proportion of the population are larger sized with diverse body types, this means that our fashion industry still ‘disappears’ a huge proportion of the population.
But does it really matter if apparel images do not reflect the reality of women? After all, fashion is about aspiration, exclusivity and beauty, which by definition, are not the perquisite of the average person, and there can be no surprise that fashion images are more about the ideal than the actual. These are promotional images, directed towards the public, and not the industry, yet I would argue that whereas they are not an accurate representation of the female population, they are an all too accurate representation of how the fashion industry sees its customers. Just as it always has, the apparel world peers into its broken mirror and the fanciful image of the consumer that it sees is extremely telling. The evidence is there to see.
It’s extremely difficult to obtain accurate figures for the exact proportion of UK women that are size 16 and over (due to the way that everything to do with size is complex), but it is likely to be about half the female population. Yet, from a financial standpoint, the ‘Curve’ sector is about half the size of its ‘mainstream’ counterpart, and is thus extremely poorly served, with restricted design, price-point and quality, and a severe fit problem (evinced by a horrendous garment return rate). Larger women are almost never seen as the muse for top designers; the entire sector is underdeveloped and ripe with untapped opportunity.
Any objective observer would, judging solely by what our fashion industry is sending out (both in terms of product and image), conclude that the average size woman in the UK is a size 12. They would certainly not guess that women in the UK have such a high proportion of larger sizes with diverse shapes, any more than they would guess the range of ethnicities, ages, fit preferences and physical, political and social differences that exist in our population. In many ways, it is still working on principles and methods developed in the past century, and the apparel business is (quite literally) the poorer for that.
In the third decade of the second millennium, for the first time, technology is being developed to gather accurate information about today’s consumer cohort on a range of issues. The fashion industry is on the cusp of huge change, and there’s not a unicorn in sight.