French Styles Grow Up and Out

My first bout with weight discrimination in France came while I was working as an illustrator for a now-defunct fashion house, Schiaparelli. Eyeing my tiny frame, the boutique director felt it her duty to warn, “Here, there are no 34s and certainly no 44s.” Okay, I could buy a size 36 and cut it down. But what do women tipping the other end of the scale do for clothes? Buy two dresses and stitch them together?

Each attempt at researching such an article in the past drew sneers from sales clerks and other fashion adepts who refused me information on where large clothing was sold in Paris. Of course, we all know that being overweight is an American problem. But in the years since the French have discovered Whoppers, Häagen-Dazs, Snickers and crispy fries quaffed down during those non-stop Big Mac attacks, Madame La Française’s figure has undergone a transformation. Her petite Parisian shape, long promoted by the French couture houses, has mushroomed to larger, more cylindrical, “American” proportions. This has forced many fashion houses to add a new dimension to their company strategy.

Since 1975, young women here have on average grown 3 cm taller, their waists have thickened by as much as 10 cm, their shoulders have broadened and their hips have become bigger and more bulbous. According to a survey of women over age 15 conducted by the SECOP research institution, 40% of respondents reported having a bustline of 95 cm or greater and hips that measure upwards of 100 cm. Simply put: size 42. Mail order statistics, very representative of the population, confirm this. At La Redoute and 3 Suisses, the majority of clothing is purchased in sizes 42-44. Taller and broader, with thicker waists and narrower but rounder hips, the French silhouette has become, as the Journal du Textile recently put it, “Africanized.” The change might have continued to go unnoticed had it not been for the trend of close-fitting silhouettes and hip-hugger trousers, now so popular among the young. With lines being cut quite close to the body, suddenly retailers began to notice an increase of returns and unsold merchandise in the “classic” French sizes, 36 and 38.

Designers and pattern makers are aware of the phenomenon and have been searching for ways to deal with French women’s new proportions. Designer Christophe Rouxel, known for the impeccable cut of his clothes, points out how difficult it is to put women today in garments created in the 1950s and ’60s: “Women had sloping shoulders, a very narrow waist, which was 10 centimeters smaller than today’s woman, and wider, flatter hips. Women today have less wide hips but more of a stomach and rounder buttocks. They know how to fight against bulges around their waist thanks to sports, but their stomachs are rounder after bearing children. Suddenly, pants with tucks on the sides of the hips don’t go over as well.” To help women fight against nature, Rouxel cuts the waistline long on the body for a sort of trompe l’oeil of a thin waist. At Jean-Paul Gaultier, pattern maker Rodolphe Sabourdy is able to create a look that flatters larger women’s anatomy thanks to long couture experience in houses like Nina Ricci and Guy Laroche. At Amazone, technical director Albert Elbilia also decided to discreetly cheat with his patterns by increasing a half size in the gradations, emphasizing the shoulders and lengthening the jackets by 4 cm.

Experts note that evolutions in body shape vary slightly from one customer to another. Women from higher socio-economic classes are traditionally slimmer, often with the help of plastic surgery, which allows them to erase their figure faults. Hence “couture sizes” are slightly smaller than ready-to-wear merchandise. For common mortals, the most important change has occurred in the waistline. It is now thicker and shorter, and thus more difficult to belt. Some see this as the result of the abandonment of girdles, corsets and wide belts that sculpted the anatomy. If that is true, the trend may well be irreversible: after all, it’s hard to believe that active women would ever want to return to corsets. In fact, recent attempts to relaunch the belt have been unsuccessful. According to a report in the Journal du Textile, Rodolphe Sabourdy noted, “Designers present fewer belted fashions than in the past and when they do, their belts are rarely more than 5 cm wide. This means you must reconstruct the garment while redesigning the proportions of the trunk.”

Specialists in lingerie and bathing suits have also noticed strong demand for bigger bra sizes. Josette Monsainjean, a swimwear buyer for the Printemps department store, has seen the demand for bathing suits jump from sizes 38-40 to 40-42, with an increase in sizes 48-50 as well. Many professionals, however, say it is difficult to know whether this demand corresponds to a real development in bust sizes; it may simply reveal a segment of the population that up to now has been ignored.

Until recently, the fashion industry has shut its eyes to larger customers. Most designers don’t want their clothes cut in sizes larger than 42 or 44 for fear that their image will be tarnished by “distorted” proportions. But the current economic situation has forced many companies to consider niche markets. According to the NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, NY, in 1996 large-size women in the US spent $21.3 billion on apparel (up from $18.9 billion in 1994) and represented 25% of America’s overall clothing market. Sales like that have given manufacturers and designers here big ideas for staying afloat in Europe’s depressed market.

A quick glance at the major department stores and Monoprix reveals numerous brands in sizes up to 52 or 54. Givenchy, Valentino and Gianfranco Ferre have all added special collections in larger sizes. Rodier has extended its range of sizes to 54-56, and reports that its best sales are in sizes 42-44. “Women are getting rounder and accepting it better,” says Patricia Ros, director of Rodier’s collection. Women who may have struggled for years to squeeze into a 38 have now decided, it seems, to be comfortable at 40-42.

Philippe Adec, who has a moderate-priced line of ready-to-wear for women, agrees. Though he usually dresses thin women, he has become very interested in his new line, Philippe Adec Plus. “Since I have a tendency to put on a few extra kilos myself, I look at television shows that deal with the issue. Regularly, heavier women are invited to talk about their problem. I noticed that often these are young people who feel good about themselves and the way they look. But they complain about not being able to find things to wear, or that the clothes are shapeless or too conservative. They are tired of pull-ups. I want to change this.” Last autumn, Adec launched his line for sizes 48-52, including whipcord jackets zipped down the sides, straight knee-length skirts, stovepipe pants and jodhpurs. The prices are about 20% higher than those for smaller sizes, which puts skirts or blouses at about 650F. Yet, much of the merchandise disappeared almost immediately upon being hung in the boutique.

With many brands now offering a broader range of sizes, the French may find it easier to export their clothes. In Germany, the Nordic countries, the Middle East and the US, the best-selling sizes are 42-44. In fact, with all markets having substantial numbers of similar-sized consumers, the newfound harmony among European countries may translate into an opportunity to put up a united front in the face of American competition. Consumers are often confused by the differences among British, German, Belgian, Italian and French sizes. A European standard based on measurements in centimeters is planned for the near future.

Meanwhile, women who wear size 44 and over can shop till they drop at numerous boutiques around Paris. Forget about dismal shops hawking shapeless frocks. Every store I visited was elegant and filled with stylish garments from high-fashion designers and specialty manufacturers in the hottest colors, fabrics and silhouettes.

Marina Rinaldi (56, rue du Four, 6e) looks like any other trendy boutique in the St-German-des-Prés area. Within an atmosphere of Nouveau Art Deco, granite floors and brushed white stone walls, you’ll find the store’s private-label suits and sporty clothes cut in simple, clean lines and drenched in bright, fresh colors. Things are not cheap here. You’ll pay 1,080F for an unlined short-sleeved linen jacket, 820F for slacks and 3,370 for a black linen suit. At Germane (133, rue de Sèvres, 6e), Madame Landreau takes fashion seriously. She has a large stock of high-quality, elegant items, including daywear but specializing in eveningwear handpicked from Valentino’s “Carisma” line, “Givenchy Plus,” Ferre’s “Format Zero” line and the Marina Rinaldi, Eva Negri and Chantal Pache collections. Here, too, prices are high: anywhere from 850F for a simple cotton dress to about 3,300 for a suit.

Do-42-60 (46, rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, 6e) also stocks a multiplicity of brands scrupulously chosen by owner Dominique Legay. You’ll find a congenial environment here, where you can have coffee on the terrace at the back. A made-to-order service is available. Other shops that come highly recommended are Elena Miro (58, rue Bonaparte, 6e), Auteuil (86, bd Haussmann, 8e) and Coucou c’est nous (80, rue St-Dominique, 7e), a good discount shop with wool crêpe suits for 1,050F and microfiber parkas for 1,290F to 2,000F.

If you’re on a budget, your best bet is to consult the catalogs. In addition to the “Taillissime” line at La Redoute and “Une Mode Pour Moi” by Quelle (tel:, there’s Damart, which not only has thermal underwear but also carries a collection of ready-to-wear in sizes up to 52-54. Les 3 Suisses publishes “Votre Mode,” a mini-catalog with sizes up to 56. For sizes to 70, check out Allegro Fortissimo, (tel:, founded by Virgin Megastore’s mascot, Anne Zamberlain; it also boasts a catalog for extra-size beauties looking for elegance for the day, sophistication for the night, and, above all, an excuse to never be out of style.