All shapes and sizes

High-street designers could learn a lot from the world of film.

Who saw the The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, set in Botswana and shown by the BBC on Easter Sunday? It is now being made into a series, so there will be more opportunities yet to see the superb fashions in it - most notably the wonderful print dresses worn by Jill Scott, who plays the part of Precious Ramotswe. Jill is not a size zero, nor would you ever want to be again if you see her.

The dresses were designed and made - all but one of them - by the costume designer to the film, Jo Katsaras. Botswana's traditional fabric is called shweshwe or "German print" (the printing process originated in Germany). It's mostly browns, blues and reds, and I really wish someone would make me a dress in it.

From Melbourne, where she's currently working, Katsaras tells me: "The prints themselves are quite distinct in African culture and are often repeat patterns, which makes it quite tricky to cut sometimes. The designs were simple in shape and I chose to let the prints and embroideries be the feature. In fact, they had a lot of detail in that regard." They are truly magnificent.

But it raises the question rather: why don't we get dresses like that over here for bigger women? Although if we did, I wonder if they would wear them with quite the same sense of ownership as Jill Scott does.

"Jill was a dream to work with, and she carried the designs beautifully," confirms Katsaras. "I love the way Africans have a quirky sense of style, using textures and different prints and styles together. You'll see a woman wearing three different florals with a stripe, and then she'll have a checked scarf or accessory. It's uniquely African and they carry it so well."

I can't help thinking that if the high-street CEOs wanted to be really clever, they would fly Katsaras over to help them inject a much-needed bit of glamour and sexiness into their "plus size" ranges, instead of paying tiny celebrities ludicrous sums to design clothes for equally tiny people. The clothes in The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency show that it really can be done. In fact, I'm wondering why more high-street stores don't take advice from film costume designers. After all, actors are far more likely to be human-shaped, so the costumiers are used to working with curves, bumps and maybe even the odd lump.

I often find that I want the clothes shown in a film. This is because - perhaps it's my age? - I find clothes more covetable when I see them on screen, rather than lying flat, in a magazine. As costume designers clearly know what they're doing, perhaps it's time to bring their talent out from behind the screen and on to the shopping rails. Until then, I shall spend the best part of the summer trying to locate the perfect print dress for myself. No doubt I'll find it just as we slide into autumn.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

Show Hide image

The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.