3 November 2021

Fashion Design duo argues for the fit needs of pear- and hourglass-shaped women

by Gerrit Bester

The current fashion sizing systems that are available need to be relooked, as they are completely inadequate to meet the fit needs of the neglected pear- and hourglass-shaped women of South Africa. This is according to Prof Anne Mason of TUT’s Department of Design Studies (Fashion Design & Manufacture programme), and one of her Doctoral students, Phumza Sokhetye, who have just returned from Switzerland where they presented a paper at the 12th International Conference and Exhibition on 3D Body Scanning and Processing Technologies.

The title of their paper was Reclassification of South African Hourglass- and Pear-Shaped Women for Apparel Sizing and fit

Prof Anne Mason of TUT’s Department of Design Studies (Fashion Design & Manufacture programme) and one of her Doctoral students, Phumza Sokhetye, at the 12th International Conference and Exhibition on 3D Body Scanning and Processing Technologies that was hosted in Lugano, Switzerland from 19 - 20 October.

Prof Mason says the paper emphasised the need to relook fashion sizing systems for women. “Admittedly, the existing studies and sizing systems were developed based on a different body shape, the so-called ideal body shape. This ideal body is based on the Western ideologies that contradict the African view on what constitutes the ideal body,” she says. She further admits that it is also very difficult to isolate overlapping body characteristics of the pear- and hourglass shapes based on drop values and Western descriptions, hence the title of this research.

“The emergence of plastic and reconstructive surgery has also laid bare the urgent need for an empirically-based sizing system that speaks to the said body shapes. The historical background, starting with Saartjie Baartman and her body being preserved and displayed in France in the 1800s, was also put forward to stress the fact that the legacy of that body is still around among 60% of Black South African women. We gave brief definitions of the pear- and hourglass body shapes and a model from South Africa walked during our presentation to dispel some doubts as to the existence of these body shapes,” Prof Mason adds.

Asked where her interest in this research topic stems from, she responds as follows: “I personally struggled to find appropriately-fitting, ready to wear garments, and my knowledge in pattern-drafting forced me to search for solutions. In addition, Baartman’s body shape and how South African Black women who took after her still struggle to find correct fitting sizes (using the existing sizing systems adopted from Europe and America) also sparked my interest.”

Prof Mason continues to say that findings from the study will add to the body of knowledge in the field and provide a lasting solution to the size-fit problems faced by pear- and hourglass-shaped women in the country. “Clearly, South Africa is not the only country that has such body shapes. The reclassified sizing system will cater for the needs of such women, wherever they may be in the world.”


Feedback on the presentation was extremely positive. Prof Mason says some delegates expressed their gratitude at what they called a neglected piece of knowledge in the anthropometric phenomenon. 

“Some were curious as to how the pear- and hourglass-shaped women have been dressed, in response to which we explained that craftsmen/women, tailors, and custom-makers/designers have been creating custom-made garments for this category of the market. One delegate indicated that the presentation was very insightful as she had never thought about it before. Another one asked how the tacit knowledge of the craftsmen/women could be tapped to inform the sizing systems, to which we responded that research is progressing well and that I am also involved in action participatory research to document the tacit pattern drafting principles that can be combined with information resulting from scan data analysis. The findings will be published as Pattern Design Principles for the Pear- and Hourglass-Shaped Women.” 

Prof Mason says, much like the rest of the world, the South African fashion industry is struggling to cater for this market segment because the sizing systems used do not speak to the body shapes referenced earlier. “It was evident from the conversations and various presentations that some segments of society have been left out in as far as correct fit sizes are concerned. South Africa is no different, in this sense. Retailers are now keen on capturing this market. Our current conversations with Kingspark Manufacturers are an indication that the South African fashion industry is on the right track to find solutions. This study is well placed to guide possible interventions as retailers can rely on empirically generated sizes when designing for this unique market. With the 3-D body scanner coming to TUT soon, there will be many opportunities to explore, ranging from functional aspects of clothing to quality control measures needed by the clothing industry.”


According to Prof Mason, South Africa is best placed to devise solutions to its kind of fit and other fashion problems. “We need to embrace our uniqueness and not copy someone else’s solutions, especially if the solution does not speak to our unique and different problems. We must scratch where it itches. Fortunately, local fashion designers are making waves on the global stage. Let’s dress our own body shapes, informed by science and studies such as this one. We understand our body shapes better than anyone else,” she stresses.

Luckily, this sphere of fashion design falls within the ambit of the Fashion Design curriculum and re-imagining the future of fashion through new innovations and technology. “The teaching of pattern-drafting needs to be overhauled and aligned to anthropometric data of South African people. Results of this research will definitely be published as a book of pattern design and principles for this unique body type,” adds Prof Mason. 

She says it was quite interesting presenting alongside one of her Doctoral students, Phumza Sokhetye. “I am privileged to supervise someone whose dream and passion relate to mine. She is very interested in solving fit problems because, as she grew up, her grandmother and sister, who are both pear-shaped, could not find clothes in a retail environment. I was also fortunate to examine her Master’s thesis which resonated with my ideologies. When she approached me regarding her Doctoral studies, she came with a different topic, and I convinced her to consider what she has started and has a deep knowledge of. She too embraced the idea, and here we are doing research in the area we love.” 

Phumza is a fashion scientist and academic turned businesswoman who is part owner of Kingspark Manufacturers, a manufacturing plant based in Kwazulu-Natal. She is keen on solving societal challenges by bridging the gap between academic research and industry knowledge. Her focus is on decolonising fashion. 

Phumza says: “We cannot talk about providing solutions to sizing challenges without discussing the colonial roots. The fashion industry was built upon a colonial size system that we carry to date, and as we have seen, this is far from being sufficient for our size and fit needs.”

Prof Mason and Phumza also made use of the opportunity to look at possible scanning machine options that the University could consider buying to service its needs and that of the country. “These technologies, machines, and equipment are all recently developed and would prove useful for scan data collection for both industry and students,” they conclude.

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