Pricewatch: Readers’ queries

What is going on with women’s clothes sizes?

Makers of women's clothes deceive to flatter with sizes

We got an interesting letter from a woman mystified by clothes sizes. "During the past week I bought two garments for myself – I am 5ft 4in and weigh 12 stones. One, a top that could be described as roomy, is labelled size 14, while a jacket that only just about buttons down the front is labelled size 20," she writes.

“I know from buying for my menfolk that men’s clothes sizes are honestly labelled.”

The vagaries of clothes sizes are nothing new. A size 10 in one shop can be a 14 in another, mostly because the numbers are meaningless. Clothes sizes only became a thing in the 1920s, when mass-production techniques allowed chain stores to sell huge amounts of ready-to-wear clothing. Back then, clothes-makers created their own sizing system without using standardised measurements. Chaos ensued until the late 1930s, when the US carried out a survey of women’s measurements to create a standardised sizing system.

Nearly 20 years later, a commercial standard size was published, and combined a figure for bust, height and hip. However the system was quickly out-of-date, as body shapes changed a lot from 1939 to the 1960s, and have continued to change, leading to the free-for-all that exists now.

Some clothes makers indulge in vanity sizing, which means making their 10s more generous in order to make people feel better about themselves. Geography is also at play, with US sizes tending to be bigger than European ones.

On the excellent website sizes.darkgreener.com, data analyst Anna Powell-Smith collected and parsed data related to clothes sizes in shops in the UK. She found that a size 16 at Jaeger has a bust of 108cm, a waist of 88cm and hips of 114cm, while a size 16 at Banana Republic has a bust of 98cm, a waist of 77cm and hips of 103cm. "That's a four-inch difference, and it's not unusual," she writes.

She assumed that the pricier stores would size smaller, "but that's not actually true. Counter-intuitively, a size 10 from upmarket Whistles, Zara, or Reiss is actually quite a bit bigger than a size 10 at Asos, Monsoon or M&S. And mass-market Next consistently has the smallest sizes on the high street," she says.

She has also found that different body shapes are flattered by different stores. "Broadly, M&S, Karen Millen and French Connection look the most pear-shaped: Banana Republic and Warehouse are best for the top-heavy: LK Bennett and Zara are cut for a fitted waist; while Oasis and TopShop seem most up-and-down."

She has also developed an app – on her website – which will help people to work out which shops suit them best.

Getting your medical files
Last week a reader contacted us to highlight the difficulty he had getting his medical records from his GP. He had been told by his GP's office that he would have to make an application under Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation. This information was wrong.

FoI applies to organs of the State and not personal medical records. Under the Data Protection Act, everyone is entitled to secure their personal data within 40 days for a small fee, writes a reader, Dorothea.

"The grounds for refusal set out in the legislation are very limited. In this context, if there was something in those medical records likely to be 'upsetting' for the person's medical condition, they might have to be supplied to another medical attendant. A Data Protection application can be made for a cost of just €6.30."

When is a credit-card limit not a credit-card limit?
A reader, Carmel, recently noticed an over-limit charge of €7.50 on her Permanent TSB credit-card statement. She called to question the limit, only to be told that "people don't read the terms and conditions".

“I have been dealing with them for years, and have always paid my bill in full, and I don’t think this has happened before. My credit limit is €5,000, and I use my card a lot. However, I assumed that if I didn’t have enough credit on the card it would be declined at point of purchase,” she writes.

“But they let me go over by €478.08, and as long as the amount is over €5,000 I will be charged €7.50 per statement. I explained that I wasn’t aware it could go over the €5,000 limit. I was told that it was up to each individual to monitor their account, but I don’t do electronic banking with them, and when you call them up it’s like doing a marathon trying to speak to a person.”

We contacted the bank, and a spokesman said its cards typically have a tolerance limit above the stated credit limit.

“The objective is to avoid customers having the frustrating and embarrassing experience of having a card declined even though the purchase may only cause the card to exceed its limit by a very small amount. The size of the tolerance level is linked to the stated credit limit on the card.”