Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Bottom Line

As you might imagine, I can idle away hours sighing over bloggers' beautiful wardrobes and lusting after their style, their choices, the way they put things together. Envying their knack, perhaps. However, 9 times out of 10 the closet envy is entirely hypothetical because their shape is entirely different to mine. (This is not always the case - Carrie at wishwishwish for example is a fantastic advocate for the curvy and stylish, and I adore her blog - but I digress).

It is a constant source of annoyance to me that the kind of edgy, androgynous style I adore on others and would naturally gravitate towards looks awful on me. Have you tried pairing a beautifully cut, sheer, Helmut Lang-esque mannish shirt and big boobs? I have, and the result wasn't overly gratifying. I have stood in changing rooms more times than I can count, festooned with clothes that bag in unexpected places, cling where they shouldn't, and make me look like a kicking cat in a sack, and concluded that my figure spoils everything. Or, everything with a modern cut.

Now, if the internet is to be believed, this is a common complaint. I have more than a passing interest in vintage (particularly 40s-70s...the 80s and 90s are not decades that I am ready to look over with rose-tinted spectacles yet) and an awful lot of the forums dedicated to vintage and rockabilly dressing tend to be filled with ladies who gravitated towards those styles of dress because they suit their body shape and because they fit. Some of the best-fitting clothes I own were made in the 1950s and 1960s. Whilst I am very glad that this is the case, I have a selfish annoyance that most clothing I can find on the high street doesn't conform to my body anywhere near as well.

Why? Well, according to this 2004 survey, as reported by the BBC (from whom the below image is from), mean body shape has changed quite a bit since 1951.

When I first stumbled across this data, I remember being immensely relieved. It's obvious why I can't buy clothes; I'm way off the average, with a 36" bust, 25" waist and 38" hips. The survey is to be taken with a pinch of salt (in my day job I teach survey methods and statistics, so I am perhaps more nerdy and suspicious about these things than most, a wonderful trait I pass on to my students), not least the because the BBC makes no reference to how the 1950s data was obtained. It is probably fair to say that it was a bit more difficult to gain access to subjects and ensure adequate randomisation then. (Although don't get me started on internet surveys, the curse of the modern age). I have no idea of the sample size, or how they measured them, so for all I know 'average 1951 women' may mean 'average 17 year old girl in Swindon'.

The 2004 data processes are far better publisised (11,000, which is a pretty decent sample for the population of 40m UK adults or so). The data is owned by various retail groups who sponsored the survey. I'd be tempted to buy a copy and have a trawl through it, but I expect it will cost me quite a bit of money, and I'd frankly rather spend it on shoes. I'm a nerd, but I'm not that dedicated to my cause.

But what I really would like to see is what the range of data was like. Without knowing the standard deviation, interquartile range and suchlike - basically a measure of the spread of responses - it's very difficult to tell how average the average is. It may be that there are lots of people clustering around that set of measurements stated above, or it may be that there are several distinct clusters (what we would call a multimodal distribution) representing apples, pears, hourglasses, plus size, petites, and so on and so forth, all in the melting pot, which combined produces that 2004 woman. That is what everyday observation would lead you to expect. But more often than not, if you fit into one of these categories, you will be fighting the natural tendency of retailers to pander towards the 'average woman' with the above average measurements. We'll call her Miss Size 12, for reasons we'll get to in a minute.

What I found interesting was that the selling points of the survey, as communicated to retailers:

 Improve the fit and specification of your garments 
 Optimise the efficiency of your size charts 
 Maximise the percentage of your target customer profile that can fit your clothes. 
 Increase sales by understanding the demand in certain size categories e.g.outsize, petites 
 Reduce size related returns
 Improve buying ratios and size allocation to retail branches.

The really fascinating bit is the one in bold - maximising the percentage of the customers who will fit in your clothes. This is very interesting for two reasons. The first relates to customer demographics and clothes sizing.

People often trot out the dubious statistic that the 'average UK woman is a size 16'. (For evidence that this really does do the rounds, see this Daily Mail article - they can always be relied upon to report on any canard you can think of). This claim is most likely nonsense - and not just because of the 2004 measurement survey. 'Average' means absolutely sod all in this context, for reasons which you may remember from GCSE maths: 'average' can mean one of three measures of central tendency (mean, median, mode) and without knowing which one this popular figure (ha, ha) is referring to, you might as well whistle. It may mean 'modal' in that 'a greater number of women in the UK wear a 16 than any other size'. It may mean 'average' in that (as above) 'if you take the measurements of all the women in the UK and calculate the mean, that mean would fit a UK 16'. Except they don't. Because 'UK 16' measurements don't exist in any collective sense.

The reason for this is that stores set their own sizing, which is why the survey talks of targeting your sizing to your demographic. And part of this targeting is persuading people to buy your clothes, which means making them feel good about themselves. As Melanie Rickey explains in a fantastic article for the Times, what is typically termed 'vanity sizing' is actually a manifestation of something far more interesting - sizing to the demographic. She quotes Malcolm Ball, of the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry (ASBCI), who said that:
 “what we have found is that people with identical measurements may have completely different body shapes, and even if you have an identical body, then you have different requirements from your clothing, so the feeling in the industry is that, by necessity, each store has to have an idealised shopper. And that they should use size 12 as the standard – the norm.”  
So the numeric mean measurements, so far as retailers are concerned, should be a size 12. And they make a size 12 to fit this average measurement, within their target demographic. This means that a Topshop size 12 will be sized to fit the average lean, mean 20-something who buys their clothes and wants to don something see-through and sequined. The average M&S size 12 on the other hand is probably a good decade or four older and wanting something that flatters a more lived-in body shape. Horses for courses.

This is why I am personally delighted that there is no standardised measurements for UK stores, a fact that is constantly moaned about by women everywhere. It means that for those of us who are outliers, we at least have half a chance of funding clothes that fit us, provided we can find a store that caters to that kind of demographic. In my case, I buy a lot of things from independent retailers who cater for much smaller markets and can therefore push themselves further into the 'minority shape' territory. But, I generally find that stores like Mango and Zara cater pretty well for the curvy. Topshop is usually a disaster. But then, my blogging brethren (if that's an appropriate word) mostly seem to find sartorial gems in Topshop, because they have body shapes that match the target demographic. It's pleasingly circular.

Unless, like me, you look like a lumpy potato in that stuff.

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