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Technology Will Stop Fashion History Repeating Itself

05/06/2014 14:42 BST | Updated 05/08/2014 10:59 BST

The problems facing shoppers ordering clothes online are the same as those that faced mail order shoppers over eighty years ago

Just like history, fashion repeats itself. All fashion trends eventually return to vogue.

Padded shoulders, flares and tracksuits. They've all been at points mocked and decried as fashion crimes so awful they could never possibly return to the mainstream ever again. Yet, return they do.

But it isn't just the fashion that comes back into play, the business and shopping trends around the industry do too.

Trends from the past

The history of ready-to-wear fashion (that is 'off the peg' clothing, rather than bespoke or tailored outfits) is vastly different for men and women.

Men's ready-to-wear clothing can be traced back to the bloody war fields of nineteenth century America. The rise of mass manufacturing during the industrial revolution finally solved the military's problem of the need to clothe thousands of men of different physical statures as quickly and as cheaply as possible. The ability to base clothing on a series of 'average' male body types was exploited by manufacturers and quickly adapted for the commercial civilian market.

Women, however, stayed loyal to making their own clothes or (for the wealthier) buying custom made until the 1920s and 30s when a change in economic and social trends saw an explosion in chain stores and mail order services.

Unfortunately for manufacturers, the boom in mail order sales was met with a tidal wave of returns as women found it hard to know what size to order for themselves. The system used for men (creating a series of average body types using chest measurements as a reference point) did not produce as accurate a result when transferred to women's figures.

Using bust measurements as a basis for sizing seemed logical on the surface, but was utterly flawed in practice. Due to the economic impact of wasted produce, the US government commissioned a national survey of women's body measurements to try and address the issue. This attempt at standardising sizes was noble, but ultimately doomed. Instead, sizing terms continued to develop according to the preferences and logic (or otherwise) of the manufacturers.

A familiar pattern

Today we see increasing numbers of shoppers purchasing online. Whether for reasons of convenience, cheaper prices or simply the wish to avoid the teeming masses on the high street, our equivalent to the mail order industry of the early twentieth century is booming.

As any shopper knows, sizing across labels gives only the faintest of hints of what size to expect. For example, a size 16 for women can vary by as much as 8cm in measurement between brands. Similarly, a woman needing a size 6 in Banana Republic may wear a size 10 in Topshop. With over a century of disparity between brands and their sizing terminology, a standardised sizing system is as distant a pipe dream now as it ever was.

The inability to try clothes on when buying online is, just as it was for our catalogue using predecessors in the 1930s, causing huge problems. A survey by IMRG found that up to 23% of clothing bought online is returned. A phenomenal financial cost for the retail industry and a major barrier to wider public confidence in the platform.

While we may be no closer to uniform sizing now than 80 years ago, we now have the technology and data to all but eliminate the issue of ill-fitting clothing orders.

Cutting the cloth right first time

As for many problems in the modern world, data can be a major trump card to play in the battle. The ability for retailers to use a customer's previous purchases and records of personal physical data to help ensure correct sizes are ordered can be a massive help. Some retailers now warn a customer if they have selected an item in a different size to a previous purchase; flagging an order for a 'large', for instance, if a 'medium' was previously bought.

Virtual fitting solutions are also increasingly playing a role in making sure the cut of the cloth meets a customer's fit preference. From 2D illustrated garment-to-garment comparisons (directly cross referencing the measurement of a favourite dress owned by a customer to one they wish to buy) to 3D computer body modeling, the tools are now there to make online shopping a more reassuring journey for the wary shopper.

By improving the online shopping through allowing customers to 'virtually' try on clothes before they buy, retailers may convince many shoppers to bypass the hassle of physical fittings rooms entirely.

The perfect fit

The way we shop is evolving and maturing. Increased globalisation, combined with ever-rising smartphone and digital penetration, mean it is more important than ever for retailers to enable informed purchasing of their products to the 'point and click' shopping base. The market is too tempting in size to ignore.

In contrast to the 1930s, the technology, data and means are now there to prevent the returns that previously plagued the industry blighting its 21st century equivalent.

Unlike flares, the concept of ordering an item that doesn't fit is something that should genuinely be consigned to fashion's dustbin.