(Credit: Sandra Vogel)

Buying clothing can be a struggle at the best of times. Finding the right style in the right color is not always easy. And then there's sizing. Stores vary a great deal in how they size garments, and there is even variety between lines in a single store. So, having scoured the shelves for what looks right, you then have to take a chance trying clothes on. Surely this process could be easier.

In the UK, ShapeGB is a major new survey of the shape and size of real people. It aims to crowdsource measurement and body shape information from thousands of people, and feed that back to stores. This will tell retailers what we really look like today, and help them produce clothing in sizes that work better in the real world.

The free ShapeGB app is iPhone-only at the moment and it's focused on people in Great Britain. It uses your device's camera to take two photos of you--one from the front and one from the side. It's best to get a friend to take the photos, as they need to be shot from hip level and take in the whole body. And you'll need to wear clothes that show your figure and body shape well. Wear a T-shirt and joggers, rather than jumper and jeans, for example.

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Once the photos are captured and a short lifestyle questionnaire completed, the data is encrypted and saved to a secure server. Then "body volume software" calculates more than 130 different measurements in less than 30 seconds.

After the processing is completed and the measurements have been obtained, the photos are deleted and the measurements added to the National Sizing Survey database. The data is anonymized, so that no individual can be identified from it. Your contact details are only retained if you opt in to get further information.

The survey is seeking data from a minimum of 30,000 adult men and women over 18 years old. Once the app has been used for one person it can be cleared and used again for others using the same device.

Because of the way the measurements are calculated, ShapeGB can identify how different parts of the body can vary in size yet still emerge as the same standard clothing size. But when clothing makers produce clothes, they tend to give priority to one body shape within their sizing. The information ShapeGB produces could help change that, and provide the information clothing makers need to produce garments that suit our different body shapes.

This has the potential to give us a better chance of our preferred garments actually fitting when we try them on, and reduce frustration when buying clothes online. It should also help brands produce clothes that fit better, thereby reducing the amount of time and money they spend managing returns.

Getting the app together has taken two years of planning and preparation and uses a unique Body Volume system. The app is supported by a number of well-known retail brands, including Asos, Monsoon Accessorize, New Look, Next, River Island, and Tesco.

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  1. The National Sizing Survey in the UK aims to crowdsource information about our sizes, so that stores and clothing manufacturers can produce clothes that fit better. You can download the ShapeGB app to be part of the experiment.
  2. Also note that data is anonymized and individual photos are deleted as soon as measurements are calculated.

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Sandra Vogel is a contributing writer for ZDNet and CNET's She writes about mobile technology, the latest apps, Microsoft Windows, and more.