Size doesn't matter

Why should tight clothes be the prerogative of thin folk? asks Annalisa Barbieri

We were looking for jeans and, because buying jeans is now more complicated than making a house purchase, we were standing in front of a shelving system containing at least 40 different makes. The assistant was a big, knowledgeable girl wearing clothes that would have made Trinny and Susannah arrest her: jeans, of course, which were merciless in their embrace, various skimpy tops, layered one atop the other, and a ra-ra skirt. My friend hissed at me: "Oh my God, did you see what she was wearing?" I thought she might be about to be unkind. "Yes," I said. "She looked great," my friend gasped, as I nodded in silent approval. "She's fearless!"

Fearless is not a word we often use to describe the way the British dress and, indeed, this girl was Mediterranean. The sad thing is, we tend to despise those who dress in clothes that are too tight. The person who dresses in clothes that are too big is seen as badly dressed or shabby, but those who dress as if they think they're at least a size smaller than they really are, are derided for their hopeful blindness. How dare they! Whenever I walk down the street and see yet another midriff bursting over the top of a waistband (a "muffin top", as it's called in the trade) I can't help but smile a bit at the abandonment of the wearer, especially if he or she is young. Because the chances are - unless in years to come they rise from the fashion dead, in the style of Carol Vorderman - they will never look as good again, however bad you think they look now.

When we had clothing made for us (off-the-peg fashion didn't take off until late Victorian times) dressing too fat or thin was virtually impossible. Until the 17th century, male tailors made clothes for both men and women (unless you had a seamstress in the family). You were strictly bound by social rules, the tailors weren't known for their frivolity, and it would have been unthinkable to have flesh showing, or seams pulling.

Although some upper-class gentlemen did test their tailors' seam-sewing skills vigorously, when they put on weight in later years, most people simply didn't have the luxury of growing fat. As middle age (if you got that far) took hold and you started to fill out, your tailor simply adjusted your clothing accordingly. There were no sizes, so you couldn't wear the wrong one. It's still the same today in haute couture: sizes are never mentioned, because they don't need to be. When I used to work for Norman Hartnell, all the regular clients had mannequins of their bodies in the workrooms. As the years passed, bits of different-coloured padding would be added to the waist and hips. The dummies were mockingly grotesque (the clients never, ever saw them), but they ensured a good fit.

Personally, I now think that if you can get it on and if you want to wear it, do so. There is only one rule: own your outfit. Don't pull at your clothes or look like you regret it, and never look in the mirror once you've left home feeling fabulous. You can get away with a lot if you show no doubt, and no fear.

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 19 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Can America go green?