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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 September, 2004, 10:12 GMT 11:12 UK
Not-so-little Britain
By Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Online Magazine

Gone are the curvy-but-slender figures of the 1950s: A computer mapping survey showed that today, Britons are taller, straighter, and, yes, larger than ever.

World War II was over and Christian Dior's New Look was the definitive fashion statement.

His dresses, tight at the waist, moulded around the bust and with metres of luxury fabric swirling about the legs, were an attempt to bring back femininity after the austere war years. But they were also perfectly flattering to the typical figure of the time - the curvy hourglass.

Think Marilyn Monroe instead of Kate Moss.

In 1951, when the look was still all the rage and was being copied by fashionistas all over the globe, the average British woman stood 5ft 2in (159cm) tall. She probably had a bust measurement of 37 inches (94 cm)and her hips were 39 inches (99 cm).

And in figures gleaned from the last wholesale survey of body shapes, conducted in the UK in 1951, the typical British woman had a waist that spanned just 27.5 inches (70 cm).

But no longer.

A long-term survey, using high-tech 3-D scanners which mapped the body shapes of more than 11,000 Britons has revealed that the average woman is now taller by about two inches and has slightly larger hip and bust measurements.

But it is in the waist where the real difference - of almost seven inches - shows.

Rounded stomach

Instead of that slim 27 and a half inch waist, the average measurement is now 34 inches. There may be a bit of a paunch. And that means that British women are no longer curvy - and that Dior's New Look would, well, look terrible.

The survey was undertaken by SizeUK, a consortium of retailers, scientists, and academics. A similar study was done in the United States and, like the UK project, hoped to answer the elusive question of who is really a size 12.

Shoppers on Oxford Street
They found some things that fit

Elizabeth Fox, assistant director of the British Clothing Industry Association, says the project will give the 17 clothing retailers - which includes Debenhams, House of Fraser, Monsoon and Oasis - a clearer idea of what their customers actually look like.

"I think what's very important about the survey is that it should help clothing manufacturers and retailers make their garments fit better, for different segments of the population," she says.

"I think what was difficult before was you had hip measurements and waist measurements, but you didn't have the relationship between all of those measurements."

So while it's unlikely that the study will make a size 12 in Marks and Spencer the same as a Calvin Klein size 12 - so-called "vanity sizing" is unlikely to go away anytime soon - it will give clothing manufacturers a starting point.

Philip Treleaven, professor of computer science at University College London, says the mapping, which used scanners looking eerily like a photo booth, measured 130 different parts of the body, accurate to 2 mm.

Heavier, too

He says the survey showed British women have a much straighter body shape - the hourglass has run out - and that there's a more obvious stomach. The last study of British body shape was done with people being measured by hand, and men weren't included.

This time, more than 1.5 million measurements were taken on the 11,000 people from all parts of Britain who participated in the survey.

Prof Treleaven says there are many possible uses for the technology, including commercial purposes such as custom-made clothing, but it also has the potential to be used for health and lifestyle-related research.

"So, for example, I could use it to screen children for the propensity to obesity," he says. "But I could also scan a child or adult to see if they've changed because of some diet they're doing."

Chanel models
Expensive clothes usually equal smaller sizes

And airlines will be able see exactly why many travellers don't fit in those economy-class seats; furniture manufacturers can make those sofas even more comfortable.

"The scope for using the data is extensive," a spokesperson for the consortium says. "The results of the SizeUK survey will affect not only the retail market, where improved fit and shape should reduce customer returns and increase production efficiency, but will also assist the motor and travel industries through better understanding of ergonomics."

In the US study, findings were similar.

"We can see the US population has grown taller and heavier, but we are growing heavier faster than we are taller," says SizeUSA's director Jim Lovejoy. "If you look at the grade rules for most manufacturers today, they do not reflect what we are finding in our size survey."

With such focus on the growing issue of obesity, the surveys also provided data on how much the average person weighs. In the UK, a woman's average weight is 10 stone 3.5 lbs (65 kg); in the United States, an average woman weighs 11 stone 1.5lbs (71 kg). In 1951, the average weight of a woman was 9 stone 10lbs (62 kg).

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