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Last Updated: Monday, 29 September, 2003, 09:51 GMT 10:51 UK
Chaos in the changing room
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online

The question "does it come in my size?" can result in a bewildering array of options for women - a 10 in one shop might be a 12 in another, and a 38 around the corner. Men, too, face confusion over what is meant by "medium". Why so much variety?

Our bodies are becoming taller, broader and more "plumptious" than ever before. But when once going up a size signified one's expanding girth, today it need not mean a thing.

Gone is standardisation in sizes. No more are dress sizes based on vital statistics gathered in the 1950s when a size 12 was decreed to be 34-26-36. Yet this sizing system persisted well into the 1990s, long after bodies had filled out and women had ditched restrictive foundation garments such as girdles and corsets.

In that time, breasts have become larger, hips wider, tummies rounder and bottoms flatter. Upper arms are fuller and rib cages wider - and women are taller. Men, too, are growing upwards and outwards.

So now some firms cut their cloth to flatter their customers, deliberately making clothes more generous so customers can fit into a reassuringly smaller size; while cheaper stores - particularly youth-focused brands - scrimp on fabric for a smaller fit.

What is 'medium'?

Others, lest they offend delicate sensibilities, have ditched the numbers game altogether in favour of words - petite, regular, missy (junior), plus. For rare is the woman who wants to wear a garment labelled "big" or "large".

We used to just fit our clothes on whoever was an average size and in the room at the time
Wayne Hemingway
The arrival of Continental chains such as Zara and Mango confuse matters even further, with a proliferation of sizes - each for a different country - bunched on one label.

But do shoppers buy it? "I bought a size 14 top yesterday and a size 12 today in different shops, and they both fit the same," says Lorraine Geater, 35, of Glasgow.

Glaswegian shoppers
Sharon and Lorraine: Varied sizes means more time trying clothes on
"I can fit size 10 in shops like M&S or Next as their clothes are huge, but in Topshop I'm at least a 14 as they do tiny stuff."

Her shopping buddy Sharon McGinley, 33, says that sizing can help make a sale. "People like to think they can get into smaller sizes. But I know the number - or word - on the label means very little. So long as it fits, that's all that matters."

While men rarely encounter such confusion as many companies stick to measurements when sizing clothes, the rise of smart-casual gear - in which unreliable terms such as "medium" and "extra large" are used - has many a male shopper scratching his head and heading for the changing room.

New you, same size

Attempts have been made to establish a new, more representative set of sizes.

The home shopping giant JD Williams tired of its customers returning ill-fitting garments, and so organised a mass "measure-in" of nearly 1,000 women of varying ages and body shapes to gather data for a new sizing system.

Now the company's garments have bigger waistbands, repositioned darts to accommodate lower and larger busts, and more fabric in skirts and trousers. But a size 12 is still called a size 12, even though it is larger.

In the fitting room, Corbis photo
Some shops only stock small sizes
The European Union wants to introduce uniform sizes, with a pictogram featuring metric measurements, but this has encountered some resistance.

What's needed, says Keith Shortland, of the British Standards Institution, is a comprehensive sizing survey from the main member states.

"This has not happened; that's the reason we're held up. Manufacturers want to do their own thing - some try to make their sizes meet the Europeans halfway or the US halfway - and so each invents their own system."

Designer Wayne Hemingway, the founder of Red or Dead, says standardisation just doesn'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."

And who wants to try to squeeze their seat into space decreed to be "standard"? Clothes sizes, it seems, can be as much about flattery as fit.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

One look at eBay highlights this plight. Many item descriptions contain phrases such as "says it's size X but would be more suited a size Y" and some enterprising sellers now include actual measurements, which I find to be by far the most useful selling tool.
Ellen, UK

Nothing is more arbitrary and mindboggling to me than women's clothes sizes. A size ZERO? What is that? Men's pants and dress shirts are done right - with a measurement. This simple fact stops me from ordering online or by mail, since I never know if something will fit me.
Joshua Spltiner, Houston, TX, US

Standardise dress sizes? Please NO! In the real world this would leave the majority of us unable to find well-fitting clothes anywhere. Who else has tried a size 12 dress and found it too small, yet the same dress in a 14 is too big? Try another shop or two, and chances are you'll find a similar style that does fit - irrespective of the numbers on the label.
Shirley Munro, Cheshire, UK

French Connection is one of my favourite stores, but their sizes are from another planet. I own one pair of size 10 trousers which fit like a glove, another in the same size but a different style that are slightly too big, and yet I can't get size 10 FCUK jeans past my knees! It's frustrating enough that different shops' sizes vary, but when the same store cuts styles differently, it's enough to make a girl reach for a king-size chocolate bar in despair.
Helen, Newcastle, England

Hmm, I've noticed this problem myself, being a male in that awkward mid-twenties fashion limbo. Office wear at M&S and Next, medium; High Street casual, extra large. It's crazy, because blokes can't stand shopping at the best of times, so to have to try everything on just adds insult to injury!
Jon, UK

Try living as a 5'1", size 16 expat in Malaysia where XL fits my tall, slim 14-year-old daughter. M&S here is very limited and ultra expensive and everywhere else a joke. Occasionally factory outlet shops have shorts and trousers (never skirts) which sort of fit.
Sheila, Malaysia

I am (or was) a slim size 10 and now find anything in a 10 from the chain stores is way too big as they want to flatter their slightly larger customers. Being 42, I don't particularly want to dress in Top Shop.
Linda Gorton, UK

This upsizing thing is great. Children's clothes attract a lower rate of VAT that adults' clothes so soon we can all shop at Gap Kids and laugh at finally get one back at the VAT man!
Kevin, UK

The clothing industry has strung me along far too long. I now wear tailor-made clothing, as do my children. I sew everything we own, except some underclothing. This has worked to our advantage, although I know not everyone has the same option.
Kim, US

The real problem is that designs are based on a classic size 10. What suits a size 10 figure doesn't suit a size 14 or 16, yet all they do is make the garment bigger to fit! Companies should make clothes that compliment different sizes, not just take the easy way out with "one design fits all". They charge enough for the clothes!
Catherine, UK

If women are getting curvier, why are all the fashions tight, low-slung and belly-exposing or dowdy and shapeless?
Emma, UK

Lots of women suffer from 'dimension denial' and are brainwashed into the ideal of the perfect 10. Some of the shrewder stores even have circus mirrors that make you look slimmer. We need to campaign for more accurate labelling, especially as more people are purchasing clothes over the net.
Jane Laidler, Hertfordshire, England

I'd have thought that technology might have come up with a barcode which - when exposed to a scanner - produced a rotatable screen image of how that garment fits a body scan of the shopper, stored on their own shopping card.
John Latusek, Wales

I am 6 foot tall and have to wear the small length of trousers in Gap, Burton and many others.
Matthew Jelves, UK

Shops should make clothes that reflect the fact that people are different shapes. I've got reasonably broad shoulders, but a slim waist - shirts for work have enough material around the waist to make another shirt.
Leigh, UK

Why does no clothes brand realise that women have hips? I have a curvy figure in that I have a fairly narrow waist and wide hips. Unfortunately trousers seem to be cut with the idea that we all have boyish figures and long legs.
Sarah, England

It's not just the women's sizing which deceives to flatter. My waist measures 35 inches but most of my trousers are "32 inch waist" and fit well, not tight. So either my torso is an exception to Euclidean geometry or clothing companies think I can't handle the truth.
Dominick Tyler, UK

Whenever I buy clothes, I invariably have to add another tenner to the cost, just so I can get someone to take things in and up.
Sara, UK

Some ridiculous person has come up with the idea that all women are 6ft tall, yet my wife is 5' 1" and can't find a pair of trousers where the legs don't flow all over the ground.
Mayoui, England

Mayoui, 5'10 seems deemed to be the maximum. I am 6ft without any shoes on. No company that I can find make tights for people my height - and certainly not my size. If I was 6ft and skinny I'd be well catered for. Instead I live in men's clothes simply for comfort.
Sharon, UK

It's not just that labels are wrong, there isn't a big enough range of sizes. Once I asked for a size S for a shirt in Debenhams; they didn't do small in that shirt. With sizes all over the place, catalogues and the internet are of no help.
S Mori, UK

The only solution is to try on different sizes and find a good fit instead worrying about what the label says. After all, no one can see the label, but they can see the unsightly bumps and lumps when people try to squeeze into a top that's too small.
Helen, UK

My wardrobe ranges from size 14 to 22 - now that's ridiculous! I like to buy from catalogues for convenience and so have to order two of each garment in different sizes.
Heather Jeeves, UK

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