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Last Updated: Monday, 10 December 2007, 14:52 GMT
One size fits all
By Mukul Devichand
More or Less

Graphic of tape measure and people's bodies
The inconsistencies in women's clothes sizes are all too familiar to many. A size 10 in one shop is a size 14 in another. But will a new system of sizes eliminate all the confusion?

Women who wear a UK size 12 might fit into a Norwegian size C38, a French size 40, a German size 38 or an Italian size 44.

But there are no guarantees, because they are all slightly differently sized from each other. In fact, there's even inconsistency within the UK system itself, so a size 12 in one shop could be a size 10 in another.

These flaws in the sizing system may explain men's difficulties in shopping for women's clothes. But I can't rely on this excuse for long because agreement on a new pan-European standard - under the name EN-13402 - has reached its final stages after years of wrangling. It will apply to men and women.

Diagram showing new bust, weight and height measurements
Bust, weight and height would be subject to different measurements
"The European Standards Committee solution is a system based on a pictogram - an outline of a body on which certain body measurements are marked," says Elizabeth Fox of the British Standards Institution, which has been negotiating with European standards agencies about the new sizes.

The pictogram - an outline of the human body - will be displayed by shops on individual garments. For trousers, for example, the diagram will have precise waist and inside leg measurements, and for bras, it will show undergirth and cup size.

There was, however, disagreement between the 37 participating countries over "intervals" - the gaps between different sizes. The UK, which uses old-fashioned imperial measurements of two inches (around 5cm) between sizes, was outvoted - intervals between the new sizes will be in centimetres (either 4cm or 8cm).

Six-digit sizes

It's taken eight years to settle on this pan-European standard, but one sticking point remains: a standard numbering system.

For the sort of people who actually go shopping, particularly a husband going shopping for his wife, it's a very, very complex nightmare
Author Warwick Cairns

Some countries favour replacing the current two-digit systems with codes that could be as long as six digits. So instead of simple numbers, like 12, 14 or 38, in future there could be sizes like "805523" or "956247".

The aim is to encapsulate several of a person's measurements, like chest or neck measurements, in one long number. But the plans have attracted severe criticism.

"It's all very accurate," says Warwick Cairns, an author who writes about measurement. "But for the sort of people who actually go shopping, particularly a husband going shopping for his wife, it's a very, very complex nightmare."

Despite the shortcomings of the current "folk" systems for sizing, they at least capture the variation in body types in a way that shoppers can relate to, he says.

Scepticism

The British sizing system was designed by tailors over hundreds of years and codified in the 1950s by the British Standards Institution.

The sizes are even-numbered (8, 10, 12 etc) and while odd numbered "half sizes" like 11 and 13 technically exist, in practice they are rarely manufactured.

Elizabeth Fox of the British Standards Institution shares this scepticism about the new codes. She is arguing at the European level that that the pictogram should be the main labelling used, and the codes are too complicated.

The new system - like the old one - will be voluntary, so manufacturers simply won't use it if shoppers find it incomprehensible, she says.

It seems that the size 10, 12 and 14 system, however confusing, may be with us.

BBC Radio 4's More or Less will be broadcast on Monday 10 December 2007 at 1630 GMT.


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