Rachel Watson: Are we cutting our cloth to suit vanity of shoppers?

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As a new report shows clothing sizes disguising increasing waistlines, Rachel Watson considers this growing trend on the high street

WHEN it comes to fashion there’s a lot for a lady to think about. Are the colours in season? Is the style right? Do I have any matching shoes?

However, perhaps the most important point is the dress size – and how small it is.

An obsession with “size ten” is a well-worn joke amongst women, but it seems that the last laugh may actually be on those petite princesses who like to brag about their tiny label size – after it emerged that today’s size ten is actually yesterday’s size 14.

A study by The Economist has revealed that woman’s clothing sizes have grown in the last forty years, with research showing that the average pair of women’s trousers has increased by four inches since 1975.

And the process of “size inflation” has seen an average size ten grow from 24 inches in 1975, to 28 inches today. This means that what we consider to be a size ten today, was actually a size 14 in the 1970s.

So are we getting bigger, or are savvy designers massaging the figures in a bid to make more women feel good about their dress size?

Well, it might just be a bit of both – while the research has suggested that the average person’s weight has increased over the last 25 years, clothing manufacturers have also “stretched” their sizes to encourage woman to buy their clothes under the belief that they will feel better should they fit a smaller size.

Lynn McCrossan, style columnist for the Evening News, agrees that there is undoubtedly a marketing reason behind the change, and that it works – with most woman more inclined to buy clothes if they fit a smaller size.

“I think there is psychology behind it,” she says. “From a styling point of view, I always buy bigger, as the clothes hang better, but with friends I know they won’t buy bigger sizes.”

Vintage fashion expert Gemma Seagar certainly has no doubt that the shifting sizes are all about fashion houses playing to a woman’s vanity.

“There’s definitely an element of trying to flatter women,” she says. “This research undoubtedly reflects what is happening. Retailers know it’s a bonus if a woman finds an item she likes and it’s a smaller size than she generally wears. If you’re buying vintage clothing you have to ignore the sizes, as they bear no resemblance to today’s sizes.”

Becky Rawlinson, owner of Athena Boutique in the Grassmarket, says she has definitely noticed a difference in the sizes of vintage clothing being sold in her shop.

“I’ve noticed that vintage bits are a lot smaller,” she says. “For example, someone came in yesterday who is normally a size 12 and tried this in a vintage piece, and it was far too small.”

The ever-changing labels are adding to another problem on the high street. Newly-made clothes vary in size depending on who has made them and what country they come from – and, with no clear standard in Britain, sizing from one shop to another can be significantly different.

However, Becky believes that this has actually helped make people notice the inconsistency of dress sizes. “I think people are quite aware there are different sizes, and that they can be a size ten in one shop and a size 14 in another,” she says. And it is not only woman who are affected – studies in the UK and the US have found some brands which have labelled men’s clothes up to five inches smaller than they really are.

However, despite size inflation aiming to flatter customers, there are concerns that it may do more harm than good, as it may remove at least one incentive for weight loss. With three fifths of British adults being overweight, it is feared that it may also discourage those who are overweight to dismiss associated health risks.

However, Lynne McCrossan believes that, despite links between the fashion world and weight, it can’t be held responsible. “I just don’t see it,” she says. “You can perhaps blame them for anorexia, but not this.”

The idea of “vanity sizing” may look to boost sales by making customers feel slimmer, but companies cannot continue to increase the actual size of their clothes without people eventually cottoning on.