A decade ago anyone wearing a French size 46, 48, or on up (roughly equivalent to an American 18 and 20) had an extremely limited choice of styles, and most of them were about as alluring as a khaki pup tent.
In the past five years, the number of specialty shops in Paris and outsize departments in large French stores has doubled. Sizes range up to a French 62, and these sections are no longer relegated to some obscure and dingy corner of the department stores.
The Galeries Lafayette and the Samaritaine are leaders with attractive displays, a vast choice of new fashions each season, and thoroughly understanding saleswomen who are usually selected for their own generous proportions. It has been proved time and again that most women with the "makings of a Rubens" are more inclined to buy their clothes from a salesperson whose measurements more or less match their own rather than from some wispy mannequin type who flaunts her size 36 figure.
French stylists are great on style, but sizing has often been poor, especially for "les femmes fortes." Henry Mausner, a highly competent specialist , designs more than 5,000 different garments each year for his family's firm, and his collections are retailed in 1,800 shops throughout Europe, including six major Paris department stores.
Mr. Mausner concentrates on the problems of sizing as well as the fashion aspect. He provides unconventional sizes scaled to various lengths, half sizes, and disproportioned cuts for the wider shoulder and bust, with slimmer hipline or the reverse silhouettes with fuller hips. "Our job is to relate every new fashion detail in perfect proportion for each individual size," he says.
French women who wear the larger sizes have been neglected for years, but they have always been as concerned with the change and evolution of fashion as their slimmer sisters. And they are interested in prestige names such as Pierre Cardin, the first top-ranking Paris couturier to design and manufacture (in Hong Kong, along with many of his other operations) sizes ranging from 46 on up. Cardin's genius even enables stout women to wear geometrics and certain bold patterns formerly considered sinful for anyone wider than a wand.
Other designers point out that geometrics can actually be slimming when they are cleverly handled. Vertical stripes elongate the figure, but please, no dashing, daring checks and tartans, a spokesman for another specialist says.
Gloria Vanderbilt has launched her slacks in the outsize ranges, but in France stout women have been wearing jeans for years. The practicality and comfort of well-cut jeans teamed with loose tops or long tunics is a way of live , even if the kilos on the scale are approximately the same as the number of centimeters around the waistline.
Hem lenghts? We all know they are rising everywhere, and designers insist that their clientele wearing a size 46 or larger are keeping pace. Midcalf hemlines suddenly appear dowdy-looking, and even the "fatted calf" merits a glimpse of daylight, especially when subtly veiled in sheer dark stockings. So let the hems soar, says a spokesman for Afibel, but do keep the knees covered. The memory of plump middleaged matrons clad in the Courreges miniskirts back in the 1960s is best forgotten.
Other suggestions: Avoid a waist seam whenever possible. The lightly shaped princess and chemise styles are considered most flattering and help to elongate the silhouette. And the chemise is going to have even more impact next season, since Hubert Ge de Givenchy first revived it in his spring and summer ready-to-wear collection shown last October.
All silhouettes should have some degree of flare or fullness. Tube-tight dresses, especially in the stiffer fabrics, tend to resemble sausage casings and do absolutely nothing for the wearer. Instead, the experts opt for easy gores, gentle gathers, or low-set pleats stitched flat over the hipline.
It has also been pointed out that the vast majority of women who are overweight have beautiful complexions and can wear all the clear flora shades and pastels to great advantage, even if it is only a contrasting-toned collar or trimming on a dark dress. Feminine details framing round or V-shaped necklines can set off beautiful skin.