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Plus-size mannequins – realistic or aspirational?

As Abercrombie & Fitch announces it’s to provide a plus size range for the first time for spring 14 and Debenhams unveils its new size 16 mannequins, Drapers fashion director Ian Wright argues aspirational body shapes are preferable to more realistic mannequins.

One thing I’m sure we can all agree on is that it’s definitely a positive move that Debenhams has decided to use size 16 models. The average British woman, if such a person exists, is reportedly 5ft 3in (161.6cm), 11 stone (70.2kg) and a size 16. So far, so reflective of society. Harriet Walker wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian taking Debenhams to task for its “weirdly super-human” mannequins that are “every bit as unrealistic as the stick-thin limbs of a teenage model”. They have flat stomachs and relatively toned legs and arms but full busts and wider hips.

I appreciate Harriet’s point, but, despite the negativity around these plastic figures, I still think the manufacturers are right to not create 5ft 3in mannequins that have all the lumps, bumps and rolls of someone who is 11 stone. Designers design and grade garments to enhance and flatter the “average” person’s shape, so why would anyone want to see a pound-for-pound mirror image of themselves wearing a top they like? It may be accurate, but I believe it would actively put you off buying something styled on a more rotund mannequin.

Robyn Lawley, the Australian plus-size model who is the first plus-size model to appear in a campaign for Ralph Lauren and on the cover of Australian Vogue, is an actual human being who is larger than the average size 8 model but who just so happens to look great in clothes. Take a look in the gallery of some of her fashion editorial shoots above. She is just like the Debenhams mannequins, only prettier and with more to say for herself. And hair. How is looking at her wearing a dress going to put off someone buying it?

Fashion is an aspirational business – I am realistic about the appearance and limitations of my own body but I also want to buy into an idealistic image of myself. It’s escapism, plain and simple. As a man, I cannot attempt to pretend I know anything about a woman’s psyche, but I too shop for clothes, and when I go into Topman, for example, I am aware that the slender-limbed real models in the advertising and plastic ones in store are not reflective of me, nor will I look anything but ridiculous in a pair of spray-on jeans. But that doesn’t stop me buying into the image, whether that’s a desire to appear younger, or slimmer, or more popular, or better looking.

I’ll use Jacamo as an example. It is telling, that for all the “real” men – we’re all just as differently proportioned as women by the way – the brand uses in its advertising, the face of the retailer is Andrew Flintoff, a former professional sportsman and a big bloke but who isn’t the proud owner of a beer belly.

Despite us being the most intelligent and informed shoppers ever, I’ll always maintain I’d rather see David Gandy, or indeed Freddie Flintoff, wearing something than Johnny Vegas, even is this makes me complicit in what’s perceived as some kind of patronising conceit.

Readers' comments (4)

  • This will only be a success if mannequins display the right body shape! The styles that suit a pear shape in size 16 will differ and sit / suit differently to that of, for example, column and apple shapes.

    For more information on women's body shapes, see www.myshapestylist.com

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  • Don't forget Ian... women have more bumps and lumps than men and a greater range of body shapes as a consequence. Dressing a man is easy by comparison, not least men rarely wear close fittings unless their cycling!

    I'm afraid this challenges your statement that there is an 'average' woman's shape...

    I also challenge whether designers design to enhance and flatter. Although I am sure the intent is there, the extent of styles that don't suit certain body shapes (yet are promoted that they do!) remains significant.

    In my opinion it's one of the key reasons returns are high, supported by consumer insight published by Drapers / Joanna Perry last week.

    Sorry to be outspoken, however retailers can and really should do better.

    All the best. Cx

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  • No need to apologise Christina - the debate is very much a valid one and we welcome your views.

    Ian

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  • darren hoggett

    16 isn't a 'Plus Size'.

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