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Why Size Is More Than a Number

Fashion's thorny relationship with body size is dispiriting for consumers and bad for business, argues Alexandra Shulman.
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  • Alexandra Shulman

LONDON, United Kingdom — Size is a highly emotional issue. Size is not simply a number, it is a state of mind. Surely I am not the only person who feels happy when I fit into a wardrobe item on the smaller end of the size spectrum, and less content when I have to give in to the larger pieces. I am probably not the only person who feels like this while simultaneously knowing, in the finer reaches of their intelligence, that it is a ludicrous way to think. Surely I am bigger (pun intended) than this. The size of my jeans should not determine my self-worth or mood. So why does size have such a big impact in our lives?

One of the advantages of being an editor, whether of a magazine, newspaper, website or blog, is being able to use that publication to address your personal concerns and interests. It follows then that being a woman working in fashion, who has never been slim, the miniscule sizing that fashion designers regard as the best way to showcase their work, and the disconnect between this and the way much of the rest of the world looks and feels, has long bothered me.

Eight years ago, while I was editor-in-chief of British Vogue, I wrote to a large number of leading international designers asking them to consider the matter of size when it came to the samples they sent out to magazines, to be used in fashion shoots. Could they contemplate producing these samples in a size that would make it easier for us to feature a more diverse range of personalities in their clothes? If this were achieved, it would expand who could be shown wearing new season fashion, rather than be limited to the slenderest of models and actresses. It seemed, to me, to be a desirable ambition. I received many polite replies but nothing changed.

At VOICES 2017, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, I was delighted to hear LVMH's Antoine Arnault discussing the models charter, an initiative brought about by last year's emotional plea to end the 'cruel and sadistic' abuse of models from casting agent James Scully, who this time shared the stage with Arnault. On what he hoped to achieve with the landmark charter, a rare collaboration between LVMH and Kering, Arnault said this was not about demonising very thin models but about ceasing to expect them to fit into the tiniest of clothes. Size 32, he said, would be banished from the catwalks — and so, I imagine it would follow from the sample collection.

Size 32 is a UK 4, equivalent to a US size 2 and an Italian 36. Whatever the number, it is extremely small and I would hazard a guess that most people don’t even think clothes are made in such a size. But if Arnault and his fellow corporate signatories commit to this small but significant step, then hopefully further progress will be made. While magazine editors possess a certain amount of power, in terms of which fashion designers and brands are featured in the pages of their publication, the people who really determine what happens are those who pay the bills.

How infuriating is it to eagerly await an order, only to discover that none of it fits and you are left standing in a sea of wrapping, with the hassle of returns to deal with?

The physical size of humans is one of the definers of society at any given time. The way we regard the ideal body is a marker of the way we live and reflects the state of any given nation. Are we at peace or war? Are we industrial or agrarian? Are we prosperous or economically poor? When times are hard and food is difficult to come by, to be rounder and larger shows you are privileged.

Today, there is a glut of cheap, high-calorie and nutritionally poor food available to most. But the most basic level of the notion of the ideal body tends, perversely, to be something that is harder to attain. Slim denotes education, sophistication and the ability to control our appetites when it is all too easy to gorge on full-fat caramel Frappuccinos and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Yet as we theoretically evolve, we seem to be no more able to deal with the variances of the human body, valuing the notion of size over fitness and individual comfort. This is particularly the case within the fashion and clothing business.

At a most basic level, the terminology of size is baffling and lacking in any kind of universality. I could be a 44 in Italy, a 40 in France, an 8 in the US and a 12 in the UK. Even within the regional sizing, there is huge discrepancy: a Marks & Spencer 10 could be the equivalent to an Erdem 14, and MaxMara's 42 could be akin to a 46 in Dolce & Gabbana. What other standard measures are subject to such confusion?

The lack of consistency is both time-consuming and dispiriting, making clothes shopping an exercise in experimentation. Consumers’ increasing adoption of e-commerce makes this issue even more relevant. How infuriating is it to eagerly await an order and tear the extensive packaging apart, only to discover that none of it fits and you are left standing in a sea of wrapping, with the hassle of returns to deal with? And how wasteful in time and transportation for retailers, who are now shipping orders in multiple sizes, which will certainly lead to multiple returns.

To combat these challenges, retailers and brands are now researching and investing in new technologies that could help dress people, such as dedicated algorithms to improve logistics, R&D or even design. All of them attempt to make the hunt for clothes that flatter and suit our bodies, with all their lumps and bumps and completely individual shapes, work more efficiently in our one-click buy world.

The truth is that the structure of sizing is less relevant than the notion of fit. Whereas sizing is rigid, fit is flexible. Size imposes restrictions while fit is a more positive and unique concept that appeals to the individual in all of us. If something fits, it has a personal relationship to our body and allows us a degree of ownership in finding clothes. We want to feel comfortable and attractive in our clothes — and the better they fit, the more likely this will be. Fit shouldn’t be about ticking a number.

Of course, at the most exclusive tier of fashion — in haute couture, for example — these criteria have been used from the outset. It is the greatest of luxuries to have a garment made individually for you, taking the exquisite vision of the designer and adapting it to your own requirements. A little longer in the hem and a slightly narrower sleeve. A slimmer skirt and a wider higher neckline. With these adjustments, the Chanel couture gown that looked appealing on the miniscule Lily Rose Depp but would be utterly tragic on anyone over 40 is made wearable to a broader demographic. Yet this is only achievable at a substantial financial cost, and one that is unsustainable at a mass level.

Industrialisation saw the beginning of the end for individually tailored clothes but now, several centuries later, the dream of clothes that properly fit may not be so far from a reality. With the new possibilities that lie in 3D printing, AI-driven personalisation and more, that moment might come again. In the meantime, however, the sooner the finest brains in fashion take a more diverse approach to the question of size, the happier we will all be.

Alexandra Shulman is an author and the former editor of British Vogue.

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