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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.