A Which? report grabbed the attention of UK clothing retailers last week when it announced new European Union guidelines to do away with our arbitrary clothes sizing system. Size 8 could be out - to be replaced with size 74cm-78cm.
The snappily titled EN 13402 Size Designation of Clothes is a result of research into body sizes undertaken by CEN, the European Committee for Standardisation, and proposes replacing the various European ad-hoc sizing systems with a model based on metric measurements of the body.
"The main point of EN 13402 is to create freer trading within the EU through the standardisation of all men's and women's clothing," explains Frank Brown, chair of CEN's apparel and textiles committee. "Many retailers manufacture clothes for several countries with different sizing systems. Creating one common model will mean easier manufacturing processes."
The new measurement system does away with the confusion surrounding what constitutes a size 10 or 12. To find a perfectly sized item, the only thing consumers will need to know is their metric body measurements.
Each item of clothing would have a primary body measurement, and then one or two secondary dimensions if needed. For example, an empire line top would just need a bust fitting. A skirt would have the waist size as the primary dimension and the hip size as the secondary dimension, while a fitted dress would need all three. To avoid confusion, these measurements would appear on the label in the form of a pictograph, a simplified body image with the measurements and their position marked on the body.
At first glance, this system seems to be the perfect solution to the size discrepancies found between UK retailers (see box 1). This vanity sizing seems to arise from stores purposefully cutting clothes larger to appeal to the female desire of fitting into a smaller size.
Unfortunately, the EU's proposals would not wave a magic wand to eliminate this. Despite the measurements being taken in centimetres, each will actually cover a four-centimetre range. For example, a top with a bust girth of 76cm will actually refer to anyone with a size 74cm to 78cm bust - roughly the same spectrum as you would get with a size 8 top.
"The point of this system is not to eliminate so-called vanity sizing," admits Brown. "There is no way you could produce garments with a 1cm difference between each size - you would have to make far too many items of clothing. Instead, this will give consumers a better idea of what size will fit them, and will make it easier for manufacturers to produce standard-sized clothing across more than one country in the EU.
"You will always get shops that will cut towards the smaller end of the range and those that will stick to the upper end. It is dependent on their customer base and the style and closeness of fit of the product they are producing."
What will also interest retailers about the move is the cost implications. Although the scheme aims to reduce manufacturing costs, by ensuring retailers only need to produce one set of pattern cuttings and labels to cover all countries, the combination of size permutations leaves manufacturers at risk of having to produce far more sizes than they currently do.
Dresses in particular pose this risk, because they would need to include a vast combination of hip, waist and bust measurements. Brown admits this is an area of concern, but says the number of combinations would be down to the manufacturer and the size and shape of its customers. "It would still be the same amount of product, it would just be split into more size options," he says.
In this case, it could be argued that with more size combinations to choose from, consumers would have a better chance of finding a size that fits, leading to more chance of a sale.
Prior to the Which? sizing report last week, Brown says a number of retailers had already shown an interest in the new scheme, including Swedish retailer H&M. A spokeswoman for H&M says it is still exploring the possibilities of the scheme. "We are participating in the European project to co-ordinate sizes within Europe, so we don't exclude the possibility that we'll rename our sizes in the future if the EU implements a common sizing system," she says.
However, she adds that it would not be a case of changing its sizes, only renaming the sizes according to the European system.
George at Asda says it will take its lead from consumers and the high street. "It is something we would consider, but what is most important to us is whether it suits our customer base and whether it is good for business," says a spokeswoman. "If it follows suit with the high street and keeps us up there as a successful clothing retailer, that is the most important thing."
Independent brands have more serious reservations about the proposed changes. "We have seen the new proposal and would have real concerns about its implementation," says Lindy Maddock, head of merchandise for British heritage brand Daks. "We follow the British standard for base measurement specifications, but these are modified to reflect cloth performance and stylist fit requirements. The new guidelines would also have to accommodate a standardisation in manufacturing tolerance and grade increment, which may be more challenging to quantify and enforce."
Philippa Lakeland, area manager at contemporary womenswear brand James Lakeland, also believes too much importance is placed on stringent sizing. "The extra information is useful for customers, but it is really about what fits you best. If you have a good salesperson in store, they should be able to look at a customer and tell them what size or style will suit them best. Whether it is a size 6, 26 or 106cm, the size is just a number. What really matters is finding something that fits well and looks good."
Despite early reservations, there are also benefits for brands, says Marco Tripoli, sales and marketing manager for womenswear brand Almost Famous. "As we sell all across Europe, it would be better to put in standard sizes that all our consumers can relate to. We would consider adopting it. Manufacturers should already be using standard sizing mannequins and patterns, so there shouldn't be any problem with the transition in terms of measurements."
There are also plans to assign letters to different sizes to make sizing codes shorter. For example, a dress with the measurement 100-104-176 (bust/hips/height) could read as 100BG (where B is 104cm hips and G is 176cm height).
However, in research this was unpopular with the UK consultants, who felt it was too complicated to explain to consumers. Although not disregarded, this is now a provisional option for the future.
For now, the system is open for industry consultation. While Brown says he does not believe it will become mandatory, the potential for a fullroll-out will be dependent on the level of backing given to the proposals by the European Commission.
UK SHOPPERS: THE FACTS
The UK National Sizing Survey carried out a study in 2004, which measured 11,000 people using 3D body scanners to extract 130 measurements. It found:
- 60% of UK shoppers have difficulty finding clothes that fit
- The average female has a 98cm bust, 86cm waist and 103cm hips
- The average waist measurement has increased by 15cm since 1952, while height has increased 2.25cm
- The average male has a 107cm chest, 94cm waist and 102cm hips
- The tallest women are aged 25 to 34, the heaviest are aged 45 to 54
- The tallest men are aged 20 to 24, the heaviest are aged 55 to 64.