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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Confessions of a Plus-Size Fashionista

For too long, young, plus-size women only had access to dated styles, ugly knits, and ghastly floral prints. No longer!

I was in middle school when I fell in love with a pair of light-wash, glitter-coated jeans. They were so cool. When my beautiful and fashionable older sister passed them over the fitting room door to me, I knew I had to have them. I told my mom that they fit and she, happy to have found a piece of clothing for her chubby, hard-to-fit daughter, bought them for me. But she didn’t know, and I didn’t tell anyone, that my gorgeous, shiny new denim was a solid two sizes too small.

In the morning before school, I lay on my bed, sucked it all in, and used a wire hanger to force the zipper up. By the end of the day, a band of raw, red skin circled my midsection. It was sore and burned at water’s touch. Looking back, I cringe for my mistreated skin and my poor, squished internal organs. And, let’s be honest, it was not a good look. Though I tried to disguise my middle with a sweater, no-one who saw my muffin-top was fooled.

Luckily, those days are over.

Or haven’t you heard? Plus-size women need no longer toil in mu-mu hell.

Big Numbers

My fellow full-figured fashionistas have more options than ever. Gone are the days of boring, boxy clothes that hide our bodies, or worse, of squeezing into clothes that clearly don’t fit because the latest styles simply don’t come in your size. Now, through the power of social media and international trade, my plus-size sisters and brothers are being heard and served.

It seems like it’s taken forever, but designers and retailers are at long last discovering that tubby trendoids also want cute clothes. But don’t get it twisted. My favorite stores don’t sell me clothes because they have the burning desire to fashionably warm my form. Plus-size women have money to burn. And we’ve been underserved so long that it’s easy to get a little out of hand with our shopping.

Our clothes still occupy the darkest corners of Target. But I celebrate them because they exist and they are growing.

In fact, women’s plus-size clothing sales, which start at a size 12, totaled $21.4 billion in 2016. Since the average American woman wears a Misses size 16/18, it doesn’t surprise me that plus-size clothing sales are increasing at double the rate of overall apparel sales. Friendly math reminder: an average implies that there are still further outliers; popular plus-size women’s clothing stores, Torrid and Lane Bryant, carry sizes up to 26/28.

S-M-L-XL simply isn’t inclusive enough, not because retailers owe anything to me or anyone but because, as consumers, we have needs and it is in the interest of people who want to sell clothes to make them in our sizes. I give major props to Nike who, finally catching up to the times, has begun selling work-out clothes for sizes bigger than a 14.

And yet “straight sizes” are still relegated as the norm and average women are slapped with an otherness label: special sizes, plus-sizes, extended sizes. Our clothes still occupy the darkest, dankest little corners of Old Navy, Target, and Nordstrom. But I celebrate those corners because they exist and they are growing.

A Fat-shion Revolution

High fashion may continue to be ruled by the svelte and seeing plus-size models – who in reality wear sizes 6 and 8 – on runways may still be cause for gasps and hearty back-slapping, but I have seen the turning of the fashion tides. I can go into Forever 21 and make my way over to 10 square feet of fresh plus-size real estate and I don’t feel like a second-class citizen of the fashion world.

And I need not be coerced into wearing my grandma’s favorite prints and styles either.

For a long time, people thought that their thicker sisters were all alike and that their bodies were shapeless and shameful. 

In a recent interview, Mariah Chase, CEO of online plus-sized fashion retailer Eloquii, said, “This customer used to be arbitrarily told she can’t wear crop tops, stripes or oversized floral prints… [she] has a voice and demands to be heard. (Her) voice has become viral. We are finally starting to see brands react positively. In the past, a lot of what she was given was utilitarian to hide the body. Now we are trying to open up the fashion apparel market for her, leading with fashion and designing with what’s trendy.”

There are stores and genres of styles that run the gamut for “straight sizes.” But for a long time, people thought that their thicker sisters were all alike and that their bodies were shapeless and shameful. Young plus-size women only had access to dated styles, ugly knits, and ghastly floral prints.

The internet changed everything. Designers and manufacturers get direct feedback from the people they want to serve and they are responding with more, better, and faster access.

When buying online, the risk of spending your hard-earned cash on a pile of crap still exists, but reviews, low prices, and cheap shipping reduce the threat of wasted money. And soon, owning clothes may no longer be in vogue.

A Closet Full of Rentals

Three hundred sixty-four days out of the year, I don’t need an emerald green sequin cocktail dress. But when last New Year’s Eve rolled around, I slipped into this sassy number from Badgley Mischka.

By borrowing my NYE look from Rent the Runway, I got all of the utility of owning a designer garment without having to fork over hundreds of dollars to keep it, not to mention the dry cleaning costs.

And now I’m hooked on Gwynnie Bee, a new clothing subscription service. With Gwynnie Bee, I have access to high-end, plus-size brands, vintage couture, work wear, date night gear, and everything in between. Sizes range from 10 to 32 and subscriber reviews, coupled with size charts and curated suggestions, make it easy to determine what will work for me. It’s like having access to a giant shared closet.

This is how it works: I add garments to my digital closet and, based on my priority level, availability, and the number of pieces in my subscription package, Gwynnie Bee ships my preferred items right to my door. I wear the clothes for as long as I like before dropping the items into a prepaid shipping bag – no laundering required. And before my worn, returned clothes even reach Gwynnie Bee’s HQ, they’re already sending me something new. Subscribers also have the opportunity to purchase clothes and accessories at low, members-only pricing.

Subscriptions start at $49 a month, which may not be a cost that everyone is willing to bear, but for those who are, this is a fun, low-risk, commitment-free way to try out new brands and designs. I’m doing a one-month free trial and you can too (try Gwynnie Bee free for one month).

As a wannabe minimalist, having access to things that I love without the burden of storing and caring for the items is great! Access to higher-end brands also means that the clothes I buy will last longer and are less likely to end up in a landfill.

Market Access & Menswear

Not everyone can afford to spend money on subscription services or couture. Luckily expanding markets and global trade enable more low-income women to satisfy the basic need of clothing themselves. Since there is a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and obesity for black and white women, access to plus-size clothing is especially important for low-income women.

For the poorest of the poor, expanding markets mean access to cheap clothes. And for a woman who is down on her luck, that can make the difference between landing a job interview or not. And in the US, Land of Plenty (for some), we have a society that actively donates to those in need. This happens only because people can afford to be generous. Our closets are so easily filled, and for many people, they’re overflowing.

Men’s closets too. According to Money Watch,

Men’s big and tall fashions are also selling well at a time when large apparel chains such as Gap (GPS) are struggling to attract customers. Destination XL (DXLG), the largest specialty retailer of big and tall fashions for men, reported positive comparable-store sales in three out of four quarters last year, which analyst Greg Pendy of Sidoti & Co. called “impressive relative to the overall industry.”

I want everyone, men and women with all body types, to be able to clothe themselves in items that are clean, fit, and allow them to move about the world and society. I’ve been fat all of my life and not having access to cute clothes never made me any skinnier.

Through fashion, people can find avenues to express themselves, to communicate without words, who they are and who they imagine themselves to be. That is a powerful tool for living the life you want.

When it comes to fashion, forced equality is not called for. It’s not needed. The market is managing just fine on its own. Sure there are some clothing manufacturers that still ostracize my hefty brothers and sisters, but I am happy to punish them by withholding my coins and taking my business elsewhere. Though, I’d be willing to bet that, eventually, they too will want my business.

So get a clue, Karl Lagerfeld, I would rock a Chanel frock.

  • Marianne March was a Social Media Manager at FEE, as well as a contributing author. In 2016, Marianne graduated summa cum laude from Georgia State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Policy with a concentration in Planning and Economic Development and a minor in Economics. Prior to joining FEE, Marianne worked for the Georgia Lions Lighthouse Foundation and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Marianne is passionate about philanthropy, music, and art. In her free time you can find Marianne at a rock concert, sunning by the pool, or listening to a podcast.