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Home / Brunch / Cover Story: The tyranny of size

Cover Story: The tyranny of size

Surprise, surprise! Size-S flies off the shelves the fastest. Much of fashion is designed for small, lithe and lean women. Small is beautiful, or so says everyone! Read on for more...

brunch Updated: Sep 08, 2012 17:49 IST
Parul Khanna Tewari
Parul Khanna Tewari
Hindustan Times

Ever been witness to the trial-room wars? Now, these aren’t exactly sequels to The Hunger Games, Hollywood’s futuristic take on the pitfalls of consumer culture, but they come close. The arena for these Glamazon gladiators is usually a changing room in a mall.

In the red corner is a size small, with a 32-inch bust, 26-inch waist and 33-inch butt, who comes out triumphant, fitting into most clothes. Pitted against her is the medium or large ‘real’ woman, usually with a voluptuous bosom, curvaceous waist and ample hips, who sheepishly vanishes into the trial room with 11 dresses and doesn’t seem to fit well into even one.

Egging them on from the sidelines is the entourage: boyfriends/husbands/girlfriends, who either nod their approval or express dismay.

Photo courtesy: Mango (black dress) and BEBE (blue dress) Imaging: Monica Gupta

/DIVSO question is, do cool brands give preferential treatment stick-thin, girl frown upon women, who are closer to traditional Indian type? designers brand heads say unanimous “yes”. Fashion designer Nachiket Barve perception ideal beauty has changed: “A curvaceous Sophia Loren not celebrated as lean Megan Fox.” Bollywood, too, reflecting changed aesthetics. The thin, thinner and now vanishing Katrina Kaif far cry slim, yet real body say, a Sridevi of past. And that’s why at stores, small (S) fastest. Sanjeev Mohanty, MD, Benetton India, says Medium sells smaller cities but top 10 cities, S vanishes from shelves: “Small is fastest moving size in the fashion forward metros,” he affirms.

Priya Sachdev, COO, Kitsch, concurs that sizes Small and Medium go the fastest (referring to sizes 0 to 4 as small for many brands). While internationally there are blogs and forums dedicated to petite women (just like plus-sized women) where they rant about never finding their sizes, we didn’t think India would have a similar story to tell.

Desi and androgynous?
This seems like a plausible explanation. Look around and you’ll notice many girls and women walking around marketplaces and malls in the tiniest shorts, skimpy tops and showing off skinny legs.

Ten years ago, women would harangue fashion designer Rina Dhaka for making really small clothes – only for the lean and lithe. Now that she has relented, the same lot goads her to make even smaller sizes. This marks a shift in what Indian women are fitting into. Roma Manjarekar, brand manager for Spanish label Mango and American brand bebe, says, “Even till a few years ago, the most popular sizes were Medium and Large and now they are Small and Medium. Also, women have come down a size or two.”

The reasons behind the growing tribe of women in the ‘Small’ club can be traced back to the usual suspects – fashion magazines which perpetuate body myths, fashion brands that hard-sell clothes and actresses obsessed with vanity and slimness.

Popular media across the world is screaming that lithe, toned, tall, thin – a body that fits into Small and Extra Small sizes – is the ideal of beauty. “To be part of the bunch, women are now working out more, eating right and taking extra care about the way they look,” says designer Barve.

Thin and fit are the sartorial equivalents of status questions like ‘what car do you have?’ or ‘where do you live?’ Fashion designer David Abraham of the team Abraham & Thakore agrees: “India is slowly moving the America way. The rich are thin and the poor fat. If you are thin it means you have access to the best fitness and diet.”

The bare bones
The cycle of demand and supply comes full circle with the demand for clothes in small sizes influencing trends (cuts and styles that brands are churning out). Journalist Rama Vaidyanathan, 31, who has always been a size Medium, feels most European brands in India have sizes that are just too little. (American ones, which offer bigger sizes, are not that easily available here). “Imagine, me wearing a peplum, belted dresses or clingy tops that are flooding stores. I have some flab on my stomach and come out of stores feeling fat,” she rues. Similarly, Saima Arora, a 28-year-old professional dancer, says only 20 per cent of styles look good on women like her, who oscillate between a Medium and Large.

The snob report
Thirty-year-old petite PR executive Anchal Singhal, who is usually a size Small, is spoilt for choice. Till four years ago, she couldn’t find clothes that fit her. “Even a size Small was loose. My denims hung from my hips,” she says. Today, thanks to the growing obsession with petite sizes, Singhal even gets unheard of 25-inch waist denims in Levi’s. And she is laughing all the way to the trial room. “I make sure I loudly tell the salesperson the size I am,” says Singhal.

Check for your size from the sample of three brands: Benetton (Italian), Marks & Spencer (UK), Bebe (US). One tip: European sizes are smaller than the American ones. We hope it makes your trip to the store a little less painful. Photo: Shutterstock

The visual bias

Brand heads and fashion designers have no qualms admitting that everything looks good on lean people. And that a size Extra-Small person can actually wear styles across a range of designs. "There is no denying that a certain body looks more beautiful than others. That’s why you would not have a guy with a paunch sell Calvin Klein underwear," says designer Barve. He asserts that it is easier to dress a woman who is a size Small and that’s why designers and brands get lazy. "To bring out the best of a big-sized woman, a lot of thinking about cuts and fabrics is required. On a small Size, creativity is easy," he says. "Fashion is about aspirations. That’s why models are the way they are – tall and thin. This "visual bias" of what looks good and thin women carrying off clothes the best is what we are conditioned to believe, adds David Abraham.

Pooja Mehra, 24, a size Small chartered accountant, didn’t think much of fashion. Clothes were just something that she wore, until, her friends, family and store attendant began to tell her she was fashion’s favourite child. She is one of the lucky few. At the other end of the fashion compass is lecturer Vineeta Rana, 26, who has always been a size Medium or large. Rana could never wear clothes off the rack, which made her work extra hard on her fashion sense. "I am scared to go into the trial room with 10 clothes. You come out not buying anything." That explains her complicated relationship with fashion and a non-existent one with trends. Benetton’s Mohanty has an explanation: "An overweight person wearing a sexy dress will not look good. That imagery will dilute the brand value."

The exclusive club

Despite all the chatter in forums celebrating curvier women, the future of fashion is getting exclusive, with big women being kept out. Even the ‘curvy and broad’ pin-up Christina Hendricks from Mad Men went on a diet to resemble her "Hollywood counterparts". The buzz is that Hendricks was tired of being called curvy, and that it actually meant "fat". We wonder if embarrassing trial room moments had anything to do with that.

In 10 years, Extra Small and Small sizes will become more popular than Small and Medium, predicts Mohanty. Even now, not many brands make Extra Large or Extra Extra Large." Benetton doesn’t go beyond Extra Large and their XL clothes are a few loose silhouettes that fit women of all six sizes. bebe and Mango have size XL, but not in dresses.

This has made fashion fall easy on thin women. "They all can now look like mannequins," says size Medium lawyer Sanchita Khanna, 33, in a voice filled with envy. PR executive Anchal Singhal agrees, "I am guided by magazines, fashion shows, catalogues and mannequins. Before I walk into a store, I have already figured my look from visual clues." To that Khanna says, "I take 20 minutes to figure what will look good on me, then another 20 in the trial room. And, that’s when I feel like hitting the gym."

Plus size is another story (see Diary of an XL Woman). Mohanty extends a reason why brands don’t want to be chasing women who are larger than a particular size. "Almost 90 per cent of consumers fall under the Extra Small to Large brackets and that’s why there is no need for brands to be chasing the tail (plus-sized women)."

Contrast this with brands’ efforts to include women who are going smaller and smaller. "More and more brands are introducing Extra-Extra-Small sizes. We have also come up with petite sizes (size 0) for women," reveals Roma Manjarekar.

Clothes for women who have busts and waists smaller than 30 and 24 inches? Doesn’t this make you want to spend half your day in the gym and live on peas? you’re a stubborn medium or large, and still want to wear this dress? Here’s how you can

Live on peas. Or maybe, love and fresh air.

Pray and fast to get parents with better genes in the next life.

Spend 18 hours in the gym, and the rest doing yoga.

Meditate to curb hunger pangs.

For inspiration, hang out only with girls who are a size small.

Diary of an XL woman

I like fashion. But the question is whether fashion likes me. I don’t think so. Sizes are always an issue for me and there are only a handful of places where clothes for bigger people don't look like they’ve been donated. What fashion does, however, is make me aware of trendy colours and styles. I subscribe to fat-fashion blogs such as fatshionable etc, which give me a good idea of how body types behave when clothed in a certain way.

If you’re a size 0 or a 2 you’re looked at as perfect. I don't really go into trial rooms of certain stores because I know nothing is going to fit me there. I like Forever 21 because I find things I can wear that’ll fit me there. I don’t think I’ll ever want to lose weight to fit into particular kind of clothes. Maybe into a pair of good jeans but that’s all. I mock fashion victims, so I think it’ll be hard for me to be one. Do I mock them because I can’t fit into those clothes? I’d like to believe not. I just think it’s hilarious that everyone wants to look the same. I think places like Marks & Spencer, Soma and Tina Vincent are a boon.

-Rashmi Singh, 32, food consultant

Dress to suit your shape

Two leading names from the industry (both are champions of fashion for real women – yes, really) give advice on cuts and shapes to navigate size issues.

Nachiket Barve, Fashion Designer

S: A pleated bow jacket, worn with a blouson top and shorts: Shorts look most flattering on someone lean. A bigger woman can’t carry off a bias-cut blouson top, which a lean one with a smaller bust can.

M: A velvet, silk, cropped, tie-dye jacket with pleated camisole and shibori draped skirt. The focus is on layering. For someone with an 'arms' issue, there is the jacket. The pleats in the blouse hide an abdominal bulge. Take off the belt.

L: A sunset, ombre saree- inspired draped dress. The pleats are flattering on a larger body. They cover abdominal fat and the chiffon falls easy on the bust and hips. For anyone with 'arms' issues, wear a thin knit jacket.

David Abraham, Fashion Designer

S: The little black dress. Our take is in washed cotton garbardine with French knot embroidery, inspired by the bandhini of Kutch. Fitted close, it hugs the body and just hits the knee. Best on the small or petite frame.

M: This black and white long silk maxi dress has a bare back. It works well on the larger frame, and draws attention to a single feature – your back – while the fabric flows over the hip and thigh.

L: Good for larger sizes, this shift dress skims the body. The subtle reflection of silver against black cuts away the volume. Worn with a knee- length, full-sleeved jacket in sheer silk organza, this ensemble will flatter most body shapes.

Where can bigger women go?

Fashion designers in India customise clothes, so all of them reproduce bigger sizes of the clothes they showcase on the ramps for larger women, with the required changes. A tip: It is rumoured that designers (Indian as well as international) who have a lean body or are gay, envision clothes on androgynous shapes. And the ones who are curvier or bigger, make clothes keeping in mind ‘real’ women. Of the brands, Marks & Spencer and Debenhams have smart and trendy options for bigger women. Budget markets such as Sarojini Nagar and parts of Bandra are also great to scour for smart dresses, tops and even bottoms in big sizes. If you find nothing anywhere, then go to your good old neighbourhood tailor and ask him/her to copy a design.

From HT Brunch, September 9

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