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All shapes and sizes

Annalisa Barbieri

Published 03 April 2008

High-street designers could learn a lot from the world of film.

Who saw the The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, set in Botswana and shown by the BBC on Easter Sunday? It is now being made into a series, so there will be more opportunities yet to see the superb fashions in it - most notably the wonderful print dresses worn by Jill Scott, who plays the part of Precious Ramotswe. Jill is not a size zero, nor would you ever want to be again if you see her.

The dresses were designed and made - all but one of them - by the costume designer to the film, Jo Katsaras. Botswana's traditional fabric is called shweshwe or "German print" (the printing process originated in Germany). It's mostly browns, blues and reds, and I really wish someone would make me a dress in it.

From Melbourne, where she's currently working, Katsaras tells me: "The prints themselves are quite distinct in African culture and are often repeat patterns, which makes it quite tricky to cut sometimes. The designs were simple in shape and I chose to let the prints and embroideries be the feature. In fact, they had a lot of detail in that regard." They are truly magnificent.

But it raises the question rather: why don't we get dresses like that over here for bigger women? Although if we did, I wonder if they would wear them with quite the same sense of ownership as Jill Scott does.

"Jill was a dream to work with, and she carried the designs beautifully," confirms Katsaras. "I love the way Africans have a quirky sense of style, using textures and different prints and styles together. You'll see a woman wearing three different florals with a stripe, and then she'll have a checked scarf or accessory. It's uniquely African and they carry it so well."

I can't help thinking that if the high-street CEOs wanted to be really clever, they would fly Katsaras over to help them inject a much-needed bit of glamour and sexiness into their "plus size" ranges, instead of paying tiny celebrities ludicrous sums to design clothes for equally tiny people. The clothes in The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency show that it really can be done. In fact, I'm wondering why more high-street stores don't take advice from film costume designers. After all, actors are far more likely to be human-shaped, so the costumiers are used to working with curves, bumps and maybe even the odd lump.

I often find that I want the clothes shown in a film. This is because - perhaps it's my age? - I find clothes more covetable when I see them on screen, rather than lying flat, in a magazine. As costume designers clearly know what they're doing, perhaps it's time to bring their talent out from behind the screen and on to the shopping rails. Until then, I shall spend the best part of the summer trying to locate the perfect print dress for myself. No doubt I'll find it just as we slide into autumn.

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2 comments from readers

trish1968
04 April 2008 at 14:48

Dear Annie

I have just read your interesting article.I am a textile designer based in Hyde Manchester.Here we design african fabric(batik wax designs).These designs are exported to Africa where they are produced and sold all over Africa.The design that Jill Scott is wearing in the picture was designed here by my collegue (Joanne) it is an ABC batik print.I disagree with your comment about the making up of the garments.In Africa the ladies are very clever how they use the designs when they sew the dresses.The larger ladies do not hide their curves they wear very fitted colourful designs.They proudly show off their curves. I did enjoy the watching the last detective.

Patricia Mellor

naughtynajoomalaynukhaju
05 April 2008 at 07:09

At last! I moved to India six years ago from London, and although there is much that I miss about 'western' life, the one thing I dread returning to are the clothes. I am madly in love with Indian textiles - especially the colours. But how are you going to use these in Britain, where you can barely wear cotton (as you say, you are waiting for a 'summer' dress - what about the rest of the year?). And yes, I am 5' nothing, and at post late 50s getting rounder by the minute - the sari can truly hide the wrong bulges and emphasise the right ones. Trying to find anything on the high street that will fit the 'Indian' figure (short waist, wide hips) is a nightmare. Go on, Annalisa, you've got a voice - make 'em do it!

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About the writer

Annalisa Barbieri

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.

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