Women's fashion has always had a problem with the unrealistic mirror it holds up to its consumers

Fashion's broken mirror

In her last exclusive for WhichPLM this year, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, explores the issues in our current sizing landscape. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 10 December 2019.



It's very nearly the end of the second decade into the millennium, and this is what today's average UK womenswear consumer looks like: she's 5'6" tall, with a bust measuring 36", waist 29", and hip 38.5".  She's twenty-two years old, white, with size-5 feet, perfect hair, skin and teeth.  She wears her clothing in exactly the way that the designers intended (in other words, she has predictable preferences) and she aspires to wear new clothing in a selection of the latest mainstream styles.  She works full-time in a job with above average pay, and she is free from insecurities about her body.  She has no physical blemishes, no disability, no religious or cultural sensitivities or other special requirements that might affect her choice of apparel, nor does she have any interest in where her clothing comes from or how its ecological footprint affects her environment.  Oh, and she rides a unicorn to and from work.

Women's fashion has always had a problem with the unrealistic mirror it holds up to its consumers.  Over the course of the last century, if this reflection were to be believed, the 'typical' woman has gone through repeated re-modelling.

Take one of the most instant and drastic changes, which happened in 1947, as an example.  That was the year that Christian Dior's 'New Look' appeared out of nowhere and thundered into the fashion scene, crashing and burning the somewhat masculine, natural and militaristic physique of the 'typical' 1940s woman.  In this new post-war epoch, if you didn't have the tiny 'wasp' waist or the wherewithal to have a skirt made out of 25 yards of fabric (not the easiest thing to do when it was still on wartime ration), as far as the fashion world was concerned you didn't exist.  Back then the physical, financial and lifestyle standards a woman had to live up to if she stood any chance of being taken seriously as a fashionable person were extremely onerous.  But then again, the fashion industry as it existed then had a tiny customer base and didn't need to cater to anyone else.

It certainly didn't need to know what all the fashion 'rejects' were doing at that time.  As it didn't sell apparel to just anybody, there was no need even to acknowledge the existence of, for example, women on lower incomes, or taller, larger or older women.  Nor need it concern itself, generally, with women of diverse ethnicities, or those who had jobs that did not allow them to wear these fashionably restrictive outfits.  These groups, alongside women with disabilities or 'non-standard' bodies, were airbrushed out of fashion history.  In apparel design terms, we know little about them.

But, surely, all this has no relevance to what is happening today?

A new generation of consumers have expectations of inclusivity, but are these images not an echo of the same restrictive forces that have always been at work in the fashion industry?

It's easy to say that things now are very different.  The present generation of women do not have to sign up to any particular style: indeed, differing stylistic looks are indulged and celebrated by a fashion industry that (in theory at least) is open to all.  A woman can opt for a sport-influenced or a goth-inspired persona, cover herself in bling, or decide to join any of a hundred other fashion 'tribes'.

And it would appear that women are 'allowed' to have different body shapes now, too.  They are to be seen advertisements and editorials for plus-size clothes, modelled by larger women, and there are increasing (yet still tiny) numbers of brands and designers who show their apparel on models with disabilities.  At long last, it's also slowly becoming unacceptable for a brand to restrict its images only to one race: a new generation of consumers have expectations of inclusivity.

But are these images not evidence of an enlightened era of diversity, but actually an echo of the same restrictive forces that have always been at work in the fashion industry?

My area of expertise, for example, size inclusive apparel, is still exceptionally poorly represented in advertising and fashion journalism.  Although it would no longer be true to say that larger women are invisible, their appearance is substantially shrouded.  The sheer number of plus-size women in the population is woefully underrepresented by fashion's visual output.

Worse still: the very character of the larger female cohort is distorted by the images we see.  'Curvy' women have far more diverse body shapes than their smaller-sized counterparts.  Due to the nature of women's bodies, any extra weight is not usually spread evenly over the entire physique but concentrated on those areas where the woman is inclined to store it.  This means that differing body shapes become more exaggerated as women grow larger.  There are at least six or seven main body types in the population – not that we would ever guess this by looking at plus size women in the media.

Does it matter if apparel images do not reflect the reality of women? After all, isn't fashion about aspiration, exclusivity and beauty?

The two basic body shapes that are 'acceptable' to the fashion industry are Perfectly Proportioned and Hourglass, and images of these are ubiquitous, despite the fact that they are rather rare types.  I would challenge anyone, for instance, to find an image of larger size fashion that is being advertised on a model who has an Apple-shape body.  It would be unheard of to use a model of this body shape in a national campaign, despite her figure being far more numerous than an Hourglass shape, for example.  In the plus-size world, incredibly, there has been a return of the 'wasp' waist.

Indeed, it would be extremely difficult to find images being provided by the fashion industry that include four out of six of the most common body shapes of real 'curvy' women.  As we are living in an era where a much higher proportion of the population are larger sized with diverse body types, this means that our fashion industry still 'disappears' a huge proportion of the population.

But does it really matter if apparel images do not reflect the reality of women?  After all, fashion is about aspiration, exclusivity and beauty, which by definition, are not the perquisite of the average person, and there can be no surprise that fashion images are more about the ideal than the actual.  These are promotional images, directed towards the public, and not the industry, yet I would argue that whereas they are not an accurate representation of the female population, they are an all too accurate representation of how the fashion industry sees its customers.

Just as it always has, the apparel world peers into its broken mirror and the fanciful image of the consumer that it sees is extremely telling. The evidence is there to see.

It's extremely difficult to obtain accurate figures for the exact proportion of UK women that are size 16 and over (due to the way that everything to do with size is complex), but it is likely to be about half the female population.  Yet, from a financial standpoint, the 'Curve' sector is about half the size of its 'mainstream' counterpart, and is thus extremely poorly served, with restricted design, price-point and quality, and a severe fit problem (evinced by a horrendous garment return rate).  Larger women are almost never seen as the muse for top designers; the entire sector is underdeveloped and ripe with untapped opportunity.

Any objective observer would, judging solely by what our fashion industry is sending out (both in terms of product and image), conclude that the average size woman in the UK is a size 12.  They would certainly not guess that women in the UK have such a high proportion of larger sizes with diverse shapes, any more than they would guess the range of ethnicities, ages, fit preferences and physical, political and social differences that exist in our population.  In many ways, it is still working on principles and methods developed in the last century, and the apparel business is (quite literally) the poorer for that.

In the third decade of the second millennium, for the first time, technology is being developed to gather accurate information about today's consumer cohort on a range of issues. The fashion industry is on the cusp of huge change, and there's not a unicorn in sight.


In this post (first written for WhichPLM) At Last founder, Emma Hayes, explores the issue we have with fit and returns – especially as it relates to the plus-size sector

Fashion fit and the returns covenant

Following on from her last exclusive for WhichPLM, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, explores the issue we have with fit and returns – especially as it relates to the plus-size sector.  Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

This article was first published in WhichPLM on 20 September 2019.



It's no secret that online fashion is today grappling with a huge product returns problem: a conservatively estimated 25% of all clothing being sent back to the retailer. This rate of failed sales is causing a host of problems – from disruption to the inventory, through customer dissatisfaction to damage to the environment.  And it is also a heavy financial burden to the industry: last year, customers in the US alone returned about $351 billion worth of items, according to estimates by National Retail Federation.  The vast majority of these refunds are reported by disappointed customers as being caused by poor fit, and, as with every business inefficiency, it is ultimately customers who foot the bill.

For e-commerce, selling stretchy, baggy and loose-fitting items is fairly easy, but obtaining the more specific fit required by the variety of fashion styles being retailed today is a complex undertaking.  Even a cursory glance at a random group of people offers an illustration of the magnitude of the fit problem faced by fashion e-tailers.  Human beings are extremely diverse when it comes to size and body shape.  How can the correct items reliably be selected by consumers when they buy online?

Clearly, it is necessary to find out everything possible about a consumer's fit requirements before stock is sent out to them, but the solution to the e-commerce fashion returns problem doesn't begin and end with an individual customer at the point of sale.  It starts with recognising the wide range of appropriately sized and shaped apparel that needs to be manufactured to suit the cohort of consumers in each distinct market worldwide.  Data that the fashion industry gathers today will power the next phase of e-commerce and help it to become more ecologically responsible, profitable, and of better value to the consumer.  It's clear that, such is the pressing need, e-commerce fashion should be gathering and deploying customer information wherever and whenever possible, but as yet this seems to be occurring only sporadically.

Take plus-size womenswear, for example, which represents about half the womenswear market (the half, in fact, that suffers from the most profound fit problems).  My research found something of an 'all or nothing' gulf opening up between websites in this sector.  On one hand, there are many fashion websites that still employ the 'tried and failed' sizing grid which abandons users to their own judgement, doing nothing more than outlining the size constraints of the brand in question and not harvesting any useful customer data.  At the other extreme, e-commerce retailers dash headlong into an interrogation: presenting the customer with questions about height, weight, age, bra size, body measurements and the customer's 'usual' apparel size.  These enquiries can show a breathtaking naivete, not only with regard to the sensitivity of the issues in question, but seemingly also with the accuracy of the responses.

Data that the fashion industry gathers today will power the next phase of e-commerce and help it to become more ecologically responsible, profitable, and of better value to the consumer

Most plus-size women do not wear just one dress size: rather, they wear a bewildering range of sizes according to different clothing brands (or even the same brand), and many – if not most – plus-size women are presently wearing the wrong size bra.  A considerable proportion of larger people spend years avoiding a weighing scale, and report finding it traumatic when required to face one, even in the enforced privacy of a doctor's surgery.  Nor is it at all unusual for plus-size women to experience harsh criticism and social prejudice about their size and measurements, which can result in a strong dislike of being monitored.  And this intimate questioning is taking place against a background of recent online data misuse, such as the recent Facebook scandal, which hardly reassures them about the confidentiality of their inputs.

Even when a consumer is willing to co-operate with all of this, some of the information gathering needs skill and basic equipment she may not have to hand (many larger people do not possess a tape measure or set of scales, for example).  The quality of the metrics can also be in question, as a customer may find there is an emotional toll for facing up to the reality of her ever-changing body, ending up with her inputting 'tweaked' or 'aspirational' metrics.  This then is a list of inputs which can cause discomfort, distrust, embarrassment, inaccuracy, practical difficulty, inconvenience and confusion – all at the delicate point of making a sale!

This is a big ask, when all that is being offered in return is the ability to buy an item of clothing that fits properly, in a market where any number of garments can be sent (and, if necessary, returned) for free. It's hard to see what, exactly, is being offered to make it worthwhile.

So far, fit data that the fashion industry keeps on individuals has been a covert business: what happens from now on is going to matter more as we start to gather body metrics in the quantity and quality necessary for the purpose of making a serious dent on the returns problem.  As a society, we are used to dealing with personal data, and most countries have laws that necessarily require confidentiality when storing information such as birth dates, addresses, bank details etc., but body metrics have to be different.  In order to prevent the damage done by a mountain of stock returns, there has to be an entirely different way to deal with consumers' physical measurements which will, by necessity, always have to accompany them when shopping online, well before they have even clicked onto a website.  The fashion consumer needs to be browsing by bodyshape and size.

The fashion consumer needs to be browsing by bodyshape and size

As yet, the population is not being kept informed about (or allowed to benefit from) the advantages of preventing unnecessary returns.  It's clear that this situation is unsustainable, so at a time when the fashion industry needs to be restructured, it is necessary to have a more advanced, open and mature relationship with people about their physical data and provide genuine incentives to give the fashion industry what it needs.  There should be no problem in sharing with consumers the financial riches gained from returns prevention – nor should there be any secrecy in what is occurring in order to facilitate this: rather, it is necessary to do both in order to incentivise the consumers' co-operation.  In the near future, we may see a covenant between the fashion industry and its customers that puts the latter at the centre of the fit process.

The customer's contribution:
  • Provide body metrics
  • Allow purchase/return history to be monitored
  • Participate with return reduction strategies
  • Undertake conscious measuring systems
  • Allow ongoing passive measuring
  • Respect genuine data
  • Tolerate social media access
  • Contribute photographs
  • Allow in-store data gathering
  • Allow body metrics to be shared

The industry:
  • Be clear and upfront about everything at all times
  • Inform the consumer as to the real price of returns (including the ecological damage)
  • Share rewards with participating consumers according to their contributions
  • Never take information without permission
  • Educate/provide consumers with different input methods
  • Give consumers a choice of which body metrics they are happy to reveal
  • Provide all body data held on file easily and promptly when requested
  • Do not feed-back data to the consumer unless asked
  • Allow the customer complete control over who has access to the information
  • Keep information completely secure
  • Keep body data quarantined from all other data
  • Do not allow use of metrics for any purpose other than that intended by the consumer
  • Remove data/allow customer accounts to be closed when requested

Bodyshape and sizing information is a valuable commodity.  It is needed to transform the fashion industry, and, in doing so, it will help solve one of its most intractable and damaging problems: that of product returns.

It should be controlled, understood and traded by its rightful owner: the consumer.


Why not incentivise consumers to provide the fit information that the fashion industry needs?  Imagine a credit account whose currency is information; a consumer will ‘pay into’ this account by adding her data.

E-commerce fashion fit and the data credit card

In the era of e-commerce fashion we are suffering from an epidemic of poor fit.  Consumers do not know which, out of the sizes being offered, are the correct ones to choose, and sometimes this results in their decision not to buy anything at all; the issue of so-called ‘abandoned baskets’. 

When they do decide to take the plunge, too often confused consumers fail to select the size that would fit them best, and the process ends up as an apparel return.  Worse, this return often leads to a disgruntled customer deciding never to try this brand again.



In addition, many apparel companies create product that simply does not fit the figures of their clients.  The problem, all too often, is about body shape (otherwise known as ‘grading’). 

Fit is as much about shape as it is about size, but the fashion industry largely exists in a state of ignorance as to the body shapes in the population. 

Ultimately, this can lead to an inventory that offers no ‘right size’ for a consumer: nothing fits, because the shape is wrong.  Shockingly, this unsuitable new stock can end up in landfill.

To solve this problem information is needed.  Firstly, the body shapes of the customer base need to be gathered and studied so as to create an improved inventory, comprised of the correctly sized and shaped garments.  Then individual clients’ body shapes need to be ascertained, at point of sale, so that the appropriate sizes are picked from that selection and sent out to them when they buy. 

Information is the name of the game – and it is incredibly valuable, yet it isn’t easy to get.  Going out into the population to find meaningful data is a huge task, fraught with problems.  Firstly, there has to be a big enough sample (which needs to be substantial and widespread: there is no inhabited continent where we can afford to make assumptions as to body shape and size).  This study has to be on-going (body shapes change over time: for example, right now the waistlines of our population are growing and, simultaneously, certain demographics are changing – such as average age, which is rising).   

Then, the sample has to be accurate and representative.  When testing the cohort, those groups who are happy to donate their time to undertake testing for, for example, financial rewards, may have distinct features (they may be a younger sub-group for instance).  And other considerations also come into play.  In the plus-size sector, many women who have ‘non-standard’ body shapes (ironically, body shapes such as ‘Pear’ and ‘Apple’ shape are far more common than the figure that is assumed to be the ‘norm’, but which is actually rather rare, the ‘Perfectly proportioned’ shape) are super-sensitive about having their bodies analysed.  Many people contaminate their data by miss-reporting it, so the manner of gathering has to be bullet-proof.

Then there is the small matter of obtaining metrics from individual customers at point of sale.  It all sounds perfectly easy: how much of a problem can it be to ask women about their weight and body measurements?  (I’m being sarcastic, in case that’s not obvious: to many women, there can hardly be anything more fraught with complication and sensitivity than asking for these details.)

All this data is valuable; so who deserves to benefit from that value?  Money flows back and forward in the fashion industry.  It enters via the consumer when a sale is made, then some of that flows down the plug-hole of customer returns, wasted stock and lost trade.  Would it be possible to divert some of that money away from these expensive (and ecologically damaging) causes, and send it back towards the provider of the data?

Imagine, if you will, a credit account whose currency is information.  A consumer will ‘pay into’ this account by adding her data. 

She might input her weight, height, bra size – or any of a significant number of metrics.  This gives her a credit.  With just these inputs, it may be enough to qualify her for free delivery with participating retailers.  At the point of sale, she is reminded that if she would like to also earn free returns, she might wish to ‘top-up’ her information with extra inputs.  She could, for example, opt to visit a body scanner in her nearby sports or shopping centre in order to make a major deposit of information.  If she is able to visit and be re-scanned regularly, she would be able to enjoy all free postage – and she would also be eligible for entry into prize draws, get early notice of sales events and discounts: a whole cornucopia of rewards could be opened up to her if she were to provide enough data.

And the method of payment could be endlessly flexible.  Each time she returns items, if she were to run through a thorough survey as to why the garment does not fit – then this will also earn her credits.  If she would like to link her social media account photographs to the system, this will pay into her account as well.  Each picture uploaded into the process represents a credit.  If she chooses to allow her anonymised information to be sold on to product developers who are analysing cohort data, this would raise some more credit for her.

She can also build up a good ‘fit credit rating’ by having a minimal returns footprint.  A woman found to use a returns service sparingly in comparison to how much she has purchased, may indeed end up being offered free returns as a reward.  Information has a sell-by date, so any data that she inputs will become stale and will need to be renewed, and she will be informed about this as it happens.  Regular upkeep will earn her rewards.
So who would want to give this data?  Wouldn’t it be risky to be giving away all this personal information?  Not at all.

The data information credit service would work very much like a credit card.  Every piece of consumer data would be confidential and held ‘in quarantine’.  Just like payment with a credit card, the information would be applied as and when it was needed only through very carefully controlled channels.  All the retailer would get to retain about the consumer is what is agreed with that individual.

The argument in favour of this system is a strong one.  For a start it's system that pays for itself: there would be no rewards offered that are not covered by the savings obtained, and it enables brands to make a significant dent in the ecological damage that is being done by the fashion industry.  It puts the consumer in control of the data – and, if anyone is to make money out of her information, it is only fair it is the owner – and provider – of that material.  It incentivises the customer to give the kind of data that is so desperately needed (and which is not as yet forthcoming in sufficient quantity and quality).  And it also encourages individuals in the population to take responsibility for their own carbon footprint, by making them aware of their history of returns.

Information is valuable and it belongs to the consumer.  Accurate, up-to-date data is desperately needed by the fashion industry.  A system where the customer is paid fairly for their participation is equitable and beneficial to all.


Free postage – the big, bad idea dogging fashion e-commerce?

Free postage – fashion’s big, bad idea

This is a copy of an article written for WhichPLM.

In today's guest post Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and founder of At Last, shines a light into the hole we seem to have created for ourselves with free postage. Emma has worked in retail for over three decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.



On the face of it, the offer of free postage (and particularly of free returns) on e-commerce fashion has got to be a win-win service.  Consumers are given the freedom to purchase their choice of apparel without too much worry about what they are getting themselves into, meaning that the retailer benefits from a quick and easy sale. This is particularly helpful for online retail, as it relies on the customer buying items based on trust.

Yet arguably, for customers, ‘free’ postage has led to increased costs, disappointing fit, frustration, time wastage, and harm to the environment.  And for the retailer damaged margins, havoc caused to the inventory, and stunted innovation.  Free postage has become a trap from which many brands cannot break free without risking market share.  It is right up there with the ‘free plastic carrier bag’ as one of retail’s big, bad ideas.

Free postage is allowing consumers to buy product that is likely to be returned, with no apparent financial penalty, contributing to a situation where retailers are battling a huge and ever-growing returns problem.  Statista, for instance, estimates that in the US alone, returns costs will amount to $550 billion by 2020 – that’s 75.2% more than in 2018.  If we allow this to happen that would be a lot of money draining out of any industry – and, of course, it all has to come from somewhere.  Once a brand has cut its margins down to the bone, the slack is taken up by the consumer.  So much for it being free!

One well-acknowledged downside of free postage – and a favourite journalistic obsession – is returns caused by customers abusing the system, either by buying items always doomed to be returned (caused by chronic dithering or ‘buyers’ remorse’), or worse, wearing and returning apparel: so-called ‘wardrobing’.  Some people may indeed be overly click-happy, and it’s also clear that there is a problem with individuals who use their retailer’s website as if it were their personal wardrobe, wearing and then returning stock – all for free.  Retailers are beginning to grasp the nettle to deter this expensive behaviour; ASOS, for example, has recently caused a ripple in the news cycle by sending out an email to its customers warning: "If we notice an unusual pattern of returns activity: e.g. we suspect someone is actually wearing their purchases and then returning them or ordering and returning loads... then we might have to deactivate the account."

And ASOS is not alone: research from Barclaycard has revealed that 20% of retailers said they had made their returns policies more stringent in the past 12 months, with a further 19% of retailers saying they plan to do so in the next year.

That free deliveries encourage this kind of detrimental customer behaviour (which, by the way, pre-dates the internet, when bricks and mortar stores were not immune from what is – and always has been – an irritating minority activity) is undeniable, but whether punishing it actually makes a statistically significant impact on the overall level of returns is a moot point.  One would have to be convinced that it is rife.  Most likely, the real cause of most failed sales is not widespread and overwhelming consumer culpability, negligence or ineptitude; it’s more likely to be an endemic industry problem: about 70% of all returns are actually reported as an issue with fit, and such a high statistic speaks for itself.

Free postage doesn't have to be a damaging proposition; it could be a very powerful tool for good if deployed creatively

If (just for the sake of argument) free delivery were banned, and instead all consumers were openly billed for the real cost of any return (postage [both ways] as well as all other costs, like issues caused by the disruption of the inventory, credit costs, administration, picking and re-stocking, stock shrinkage and packaging – not to mention a ‘green tax’ for damage to the environment), the hefty charge would mean a great disincentive for customers to buy product unless they were really sure that it was suitable.

Of course, this situation could only happen if all brands adopted the same methods.  Many retailers simply would not be able to stand up to their competition if they had to go it alone.  It’s why the industry has become ‘addicted’ to free postage.  The pressure against retailers being the ‘first to blink’ is immense, and many brands would not be able to afford to hand their rivals such a competitive advantage on a plate.  But, hypothetically, if this method were employed throughout the sector, there would be a huge downward pressure on returns: every brand, retailer, manufacturer, investor, politician, consumer, journalist, and anyone interested in protecting the environment, would put the subject under the microscope in a national debate.  And, inevitably, that microscope would focus in on the number one reason for apparel returns... fit.

Overnight, those brands that still don’t use any technology to establish the fit of their consumer at point of sale or, worse, aren’t even developing a fit strategy, would be placed under scrutiny.  Consumers will realise that they have the right to expect a much better system of fitting them effectively, as it is they who pay for any failures.

So far, so hypothetical.  Back in the real world, the high costs of deliveries and returns are spread equally around all consumers: those who do and those don’t frequently return items, and the cost is concealed under the banner ‘free’.  Few consumers really understand the downside of this expensive habit.  But, at last, things are changing.  The fashion industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined [source] and the damage to fashion’s carbon footprint by all this extra transport and other wastage is weighing heavily.  It’s likely that in the future, pressure from a population that is becoming more informed about these issues will come to bear on the industry.

In order to tackle e-commerce’s fit problems, it’s vital to engage the consumers’ co-operation.  It is their participation that is necessary to make any ‘fit tech’ work at point of sale, and it is their accurate data that is needed to develop the new sizing and grading strategies necessary to better suit their needs.  Yet with free postage there is very little leverage that can be brought to bear on consumers to use a fit tool at all.

My research with plus-size female subjects (the cohort that suffers worst with fit problems) shows that few of them engage sufficiently with the available fit technology.  We don’t know how much more effective today’s fit tools would be if they had the benefit of higher participation levels (it’s likely to be ‘very’); we don’t know what, if anything, those who do use fit tools have in common (they are a self-selected group, and are likely to share certain characteristics); we simply ‘do not know what we do not know’.  Without the penalty of paying for deliveries, consumers do not presently have enough incentive to bother interfacing properly with that tech, meaning that the efficacy of the tools is diminished, and some brands are not taking them seriously enough, or are kicking them into the future.

Radical as it sounds, there is a highly convincing argument that free postage, where it is offered at all, should be done so only on the condition that the consumer genuinely engages with fit tech provided by the retailer.

If this were to happen then it is likely that the technology would immediately take a giant leap forward.  Today’s fit tools are effective, and some such solution should always be deployed, but the ‘nudging’ of all clients to use the fit technology offered to them as a matter of course (using genuine ‘input’ data) would be of tremendous benefit to a range of developers, giving them access to the information needed to exponentially advance tomorrow’s fit solutions – starting at the point of sale – with benefits all the way through to a much improved sizing and grading offer.

So, contradictory as it seems, free postage doesn’t have to be a damaging proposition; it could, in fact, be a very powerful tool for good if deployed creatively.  Indeed, it seems incredible that the fashion industry actually has at its fingertips such an effective way to persuade customers to use the fit tech each time they buy – and yet they are not using it for this purpose.  Far from the fashion industry coming together to use postage charges as a precious tool to effect change, it is being squandered in the cause of internal struggles over market share.

Free plastic carrier bags were dispensed with as a result of changing social attitudes, which ultimately resulted in legislation.  As things stand, it’s only a matter of time before informed citizens turn their attention to free postage and see not a win-win service to the customer, but another one of fashion’s big, bad ideas.


Many plus-size women have no real idea what size they are – for the excellent reason that they do not conform to any standard size

Plus-sizing tech: a fatal glitch

'Be careful what you wish for' is a cliché, but (ironically, as is often said), all good clichés exist for a reason, and this one is particularly relevant to those developing new retail tech.

The advances in technology for e-commerce (particularly for plus-size) womenswear are a good example. It seems that the prevailing intention is to provide the 'in-shop experience' for consumers (of all sizes), synthesised in their own homes – or wherever they do their shopping.  That is to say, the industry is now in the process of developing systems which ultimately will be capable of 'scanning' a consumer using her device (her phone or tablet say), thus creating a realistic three-dimensional avatar of her body, complete with all her measurements. This avatar will then be able to virtually 'try on' garments in a naturalistic way (showing the fit, the drape of the fabric – even believably reproducing movement), allowing her to make an informed choice as to her fashion purchase, without ever having to set foot inside a changing room.



So far so excellent: there can be no doubt it is preferable to enjoy what is best about the in-store shopping experience, while offering the benefits of a massive (and almost magically always-available) inventory to all: that's seemingly a huge improvement to anything bricks-and-mortar can offer.

So, where's the rub?  I was struck very heavily with a problem when I was discussing the concept with an entrepreneur, busily engaged in developing this very concept.  He told me, enthusiastically, that when his new tech is developed, the consumer would be able to 'treat her own bedroom as changing room, with her own device as a mirror'.  In the context of the plus-size female consumer, I felt instinctive horror at this thought.  In my long experience of styling larger women, I discovered that the very last thing they require is to be left alone and isolated.

Plus-size women, famously (or rather, infamously), suffer from horrendous fit problems.  Their diverse body shapes do not slip easily into any range of standard sizes, and many women have no real idea what size they are – for the excellent reason that they do not conform to any standard size at all.  Many plus brands have differing grading, created to offer more diversity of fit.  This, although a necessary step, has only added to the general confusion around plus-sizing.

On the face of it, all of this would appear to add weight to the need for the kind of sizing tech now being created: the consumer will click on her chosen piece of apparel, and the avatar will graphically show her whether it will fit or not – helping her to choose a good match for her body if one were available; warning her off if nothing suitable can be found.  This should at least prevent the customer adding to the mountain of returned stock that is afflicting the industry – the very expensive problem that is driving the development of e-commerce fit technology in the first place.

However, this system is likely to create a train of unintended consequences, which can all be traced back to those pesky fit issues.

Let's say a plus-size woman is shopping on a website that sells a brand that is not graded to fit her body shape: whilst browsing, she is likely to experience an irritating Groundhog Day.  She clicks on a blouse: "Computer says no" is the result.  She clicks her next choice, a pair of trousers "It says no".  Finally, she looks at a dress: "No".

And this problem is not just going to afflict the 'one brand' website.  It will also affect the multi-brand retailer.  The customer (even when she has the opportunity of picking from a spread of brands) will as likely as not will still be reliving a repetitive experience.   Why?  Because the reason why she chose the first item is the same one that's behind her subsequent choices: her taste.  She is unlikely to use a scattergun approach, choosing one item from each brand.   Rather, she will be attracted to the aesthetics of one design story, and the lion's share of her choices will come from that.  If she is lucky enough that this is a brand that suits her body shape (and, with the diversity of these shapes, statistically speaking, this is unlikely), then she'll be fine.  Otherwise, it's going to be a miserable experience.

This is a system that relies, firstly, on the retailer stocking a range of differing grading – carefully selected to suit the six main body shapes.  And secondly, it needs the customer to happen to want to shop the brands that suit her.  You might say that what we are expecting to happen is what occurs every day with the very best plus-size retailers (who succeed in providing the correct spread of stock), but with one fatal exception: at home, the customer has no guide.  There is no helpful stylist by her side: she is expected to do this all alone.

Let's say that the pieces of clothing she clicked on will physically go on her (which is often impossible), but simply will not suit her body shape: they will cling in all the wrong places, and flap loose in other areas: all in all, it would all look horrible.  The avatar is there to show her the truth: the 'realistic' look of the apparel.  Will the avatar sugar-coat the pill, and make the clothing look acceptable?  It should not, because that would risk encouraging her to buy something that is not going to be suitable.  Will it give her a 'warts and all' image?  If it does, it's likely that the repeated experience of ugly clothing (again and again and again) is going to make her feel depressed.   When clothing does not fit plus-size women, it shows up their bodies in a poor light: she is likely to feel depressed, not just about the clothes, but about herself.

It is extreme cruelty to leave a plus-size woman all alone while she is trying to find something that fits her: I would hope that this fact alone is enough to give developers pause.  If it does not, then it may be worth mentioning that this glitch may well lead to the overall failure of their fit tool.

Sizing tech and curated content go hand-in-hand with the plus-size womenswear customer.  Each time a woman is told that something she has selected is not going to fit her, she needs to be shown something that will.  It's not a problem that should be underestimated – depending on her size, it's likely that most clothing will not fit her adequately.

A consumer will need to be triaged at the earliest point of the interaction, and a story that will fit her should be collated.   A lot of effort should be given over to being able to gather a selection of apparel that suits her body shape, and every clue that she gives off should be used to discover stock that makes sense to her aesthetically, and is practical, relevant and useful to her.  Many larger retailers will be in a position to provide what is required to fit all these needs, but for smaller retailers, it would be better for them to buddy-up and pass on their consumers to partner companies with whom they share a platform.

The real issue is not whether it's feasible to recreate a realistic facsimile of an authentic in-store experience using cutting-edge tech.  Unfortunately, it's all too possible to accurately synthesise the miserable encounters that legions of plus-size women have had in mediocre, failing stores over many decades.

The true issue at hand is how to provide a system based on excellence.  This should be what we focus on, and what we wish for.

The size-16 2019 woman is confronted by a bewildering array of sizing, grading, labeling and other confusing solutions

Plus fashion sizing – help or hinderance?

In 1960, the average US woman weighed 140 lbs, so in the mid-twentieth century, most US women took a dress size between a 6 and a 14: anything larger than that was often dubbed ‘Outsize’.  A size-16 woman at that time was considered rather a large person, and with the particular pressure to conform that existed in that era (which was even more severe than it is today, hard as this is to imagine), she may have felt freakish, embarrassed or even ashamed to admit to not fitting into a ‘regular’ size.  If she was guilty about her own body, she had low expectations as to what clothing she would be able to purchase, which was just as well, because the choice was dire.

By 2010, the average US woman's weight had grown to 166.2 lbs, and has been on an upward trajectory ever since.  Roll forwards to 2019: if a woman were a size-16, she would probably not feel embarrassment, and almost certainly not shame.  But then again, today's size-16 woman may not believe this is her size: actually, she might not have any idea what size she really is.  As the population has grown heavier, the standard sizes being retailed have stretched their seams and become more generous, and some brands have gone even further and adopted so-called ‘vanity sizing’, whereby they have been sneakily moving their sizes upward, in tune with the waistlines of their customers.  They have capitalised on the fact that virtually all people would prefer to think they are a smaller size rather than a larger one, and that a size label can be used as a subtle tool of flattery.  Indeed, some women will not even think of trying on a garment if it is labelled as larger than the size they relate to.  So, for some brands, what would have been a size-14 in 1960 has unceasingly crept upwards and would fit (an already stretched) size-16 today.



This explains why a 2019 standard size-16 woman (who is already larger than a size-16 lady of the 1960s), often wears a 14.  Such a person, when she takes a selfie in a crowded place, notices that she looks like everyone else in the background: she certainly doesn’t appear to be ‘plus size’, if that's supposed to be larger than everyone else.  She looks ‘average’, she feels ‘normal’, and she relates to being a size-14 – why shouldn’t she be wearing a ‘mainstream’ size?  Her expectations for fashion are not as low as her grandmother's, and she’s wondering why she – an average person (an ‘everywoman ') – is having such difficultly finding something to fit her properly.

But then again, is she really a size-16?  If we examined this particular woman, she is revealed to be a size-14/16 bust, a size-14 waist and a size-18 hip (a ‘pear’ shape).  Her sizing mismatch is entirely normal: very few women have what is called the ‘perfectly proportioned’ body shape (one size all over), and that matters a lot more for larger women than it does for smaller ones. This is because as female bodies put on weight, the extra mass is not usually evenly distributed.  Each woman possesses a particular body shape, meaning that, for example, if a woman is destined to wear her extra flesh on her bottom (a typical pear shape), by the time she has grown to a larger size, her derriere will have increased far more than anywhere else on her body.  This is in contrast to her friend who stores her weight on her bust, giving her an extra cup-size or two as she gets bigger, although her bottom stays relatively svelte.  By the time these different body shapes reach the top-end of the sizing scale, their bodies have radically diverged, meaning that they need to wear differently sized apparel on different parts of the body, and – crucially – although they are the same height and weight, they cannot wear the same size clothing as each other.  The busty woman, for example, may end up wearing size-24 tops, whilst still slipping into size-18 or 20 trousers, the exact inverse of her pear-shaped friend. 

It is often mentioned that our population has changed size: the critical fact that it has largely changed shape is rarely referenced; yet this has had the greatest affect on the fit and size requirements of this generation of shoppers.

Some plus-size brands have reacted to this diversity of shape by developing grading to fit a particular version of woman, their ‘muse’.  When consumers find a brand that tailors to their own body shape, this will usually become a firm favourite, while those for whom the fit doesn’t work will often learn the hard way never to order from this range again.

This is not to say that the plus-size sector has made concerted attempts to find out the body shapes of their consumers and match them with a proportionally correct array of diverse gradings.  In fact, it is extremely difficult to gather body data from this cohort (who dislike being analysed and sized) – and it has not yet been achieved anywhere near satisfactorily.  In any case, until the correct fit technology has been developed, targeting a very diverse inventory to the correct sections of the customer base at the point of sale would be impractical.  Many of the brands that have adopted a grading based on a ‘non average’ body shape have just opted for the ‘hourglass’ figure: probably one of the rarest of all the variants, and hardly a breakthrough for fitting ‘everywoman’: it simply replaces one impossible ideal (ultra-slimness) with another (perfect hourglass).  Doubtless this body shape has been singled out because the fashion has embraced the myth of the 'curvy' woman: a sexy uberwoman, who exudes an exaggerated femininity and makes 'body positivity' more palatable for an industry that finds the sight of extra female flesh very difficult to stomach – if it is in the wrong place, such as, for instance, the stomach.

But the variations in cut in larger apparel are not always deliberate.  Occasionally, the plus-size sector suffers with the same trouble that afflicts each sector of fashion: instances of random variability.  Sometimes there are technical problems in the production of garments, meaning that items are cut too small, too large, or a strange shape.  This is exacerbated by the sheer difficulty in correctly grading larger garments. 

When the pattern cutters struggle with those plus-size issues (which is surprisingly common), this also muddies the water with some consumers' understanding of their size.  The person trying on a garment may believe that the size is too small when a pair of trousers is not long enough in the rise, for example, or, if there is no bust darts in a particular blouse, she may conclude that all that loose fabric is evidence that the garment is too large.  She may choose a different size the next time in the mistaken belief that she has learned something about her size.

Retailers have also had to grapple with a greater – internalised – level of plus-sized customers’ own ‘size acceptance’ issues.  The problem of garments being rejected because they are labeled with sizes that consumers find unacceptable or depressing has driven some in the sector to alter their whole system to make it less obvious.  Some have sized their garments S (16–18), M (20–22), L (24–26), and so on; others, L (18), XL (20), XXL (22), XXXL (24), etc. – actually, the permutations of these are mind-boggling and the antithesis of standardization: the actual object being to make the sizing more opaque and anonymous.

A traditional industry response to this 'size resistance' conundrum has nothing to do with sizing or grading, but nevertheless brings a little more confusion into the scene.  For generations, many specialist plus-size designers have resorted to force majeure, and used fabric tech or design to bear on the problem.  Fabrics with extreme stretchy qualities are used to create ‘easy fit’ (‘fits size 16–22’) apparel, or drapy, baggy, or wrap-around styles (‘one size fits all’) creations to offer amorphous sizing.  Women who wear these garments can live in a twilight zone of perpetual ‘size denial’, sometimes losing all track of what size they really are, which can be a problem when they need to buy something else (say, formal workwear for an interview), where their latest sizing requirements come as a source of dissonance. 

So our size-16 2019 woman is confronted by a bewildering array of sizing, grading, labeling and other confusing solutions or missteps.  There may have been logical reasons as to why these diverse systems evolved, but there is none in trying to understand and navigate them: those that are not deliberately opaque are simply too complicated, random or impractical to be helpful – the long forgotten reason why a sizing system was developed in the first place.


 

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