Talking About Plus-Size Fashion

Michelle Millar Fisher and Stephanie Kramer in conversation with Lauren Downing Peters and Clare Sauro

The mathematics of different bodies: This diagram demonstrates the grading process that adapts a skirt pattern into a range of sizes. Source: burdastyle.com

In summer 2016, while researching for MoMA’s Items: Is Fashion Modern?exhibition, my colleague Stephanie and I had an informal chat with fashion historian Lauren Downing Peters. Lauren is an expert on fashion for people whose bodies are closer to the size of the national average of US 14, rather than, say, a size zero — so, the majority of us who wear clothes. The discussion ranged from the historical (we’d never heard of early-20th-century “stoutwear” before Lauren schooled us) to the political (what does it mean to call out a certain fashion conversation as “plus size” in a country where the majority of women’s bodies might be described in this way?). We also learned that the concept of plus size actually stemmed from pregnancy wear in the early 20th century.

In tandem with the discourse on plus size in fashion, Lauren identified an obsession with the theme of “temporary bodies” — how clothing may (or may not) engage with the changes in body shape during and after pregnancy, or the exhortations on the front of women’s magazines to refine or radically alter parts of a reader’s body. (We’ve all seen the bold type on the newsstands: “Slim your thighs in 30 days!” “Better with Botox?”)

Lauren sent us to see part of the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University (FHCC), where curator Clare Sauro told us why regular-sized garments (i.e., above a sample size) are few and far between in most museum collections. We invited them both to this email discussion in order to plot out a rough state of the discourse in fashion history and museum collecting specifically, and to invite comment, dialogue, and exchange with our Medium readers.

MoMA: Can you introduce yourselves so readers understand where you’re speaking from?

Clare Sauro: Sure! I am director and chief curator of the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University (FHCC). Heralded as a “world-class collection of fashion and textiles” by The Wall Street Journal, it is a museum-quality collection of more than 14,000 garments, textiles, and accessories. In addition to my responsibilities at the FHCC, I teach classes in the history of dress. I joined Drexel University in 2008 after serving as assistant curator for several years at the Museum at FIT in New York. As curator of the FHCC, I have mounted several exhibitions including Immortal Beauty: Highlights from the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection (2015) and Philadelphia in Style: A Century of Fashion from the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection (2016). Although my position requires me to be a generalist, my personal research has largely focused on the development of American fashion between the wars.

Lauren Downing Peters: I’m a PhD student in fashion studies at the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University, where I’m writing about the discursive construction of the plus-size and “stout” bodies in 20th-century American fashion media. Previously, I studied art history and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and I was among the first cohort of students to graduate from the MA Fashion Studies program at Parsons School of Design. I’m also a founding editor of The Fashion Studies Journal.

Second question — and first things first — what do we mean when we say “plus-size fashion?” What does this term mean to a museum curator? A museum collection? A scholar? The average woman (and man) on the street? Have we always used this term? How do we feel about it?

LDP: This first question is a doozy! Apologies in advance for my long response! To me, “plus-size fashion” is a historically contingent term that refers to the American large-size women’s garment industry that emerged in the early 1980s. Manufacturers and retailers have always struggled with how to refer to this sector of the ready-to-wear industry so as not to ostracize or marginalize fat, female consumers, and plus size is only the most recent “best alternative.” However, even plus size has come on the chopping block recently under pressure from the so-called “size acceptance” movement.

Before large-size garments were referred to as “plus size,” however, they were variously referred to by the industry as “fashions for larger women” or “curvy” fashions (among a laundry list of other euphemisms) and, before that, “stoutwear,” which was used from the turn of the century up until about the outbreak of World War II. In many ways, the stoutwear industry stands as great-grandmother of the modern plus-size fashion industry. Indeed, the entire large-size garment industry, it may be argued, is built upon the foundations of modern mass manufacturing and standard sizing. Said differently, while standard sizing was created in order to help achieve good fits for the largest number of women, it also, by consequence, created standard bodies. As accounting scholar Ingrid Jeacle has written, standard sizing has functioned as a powerful normalizing mechanism in the 20th century — one that has not only defined normal bodies, but also what we regard as deviant bodies, or those bodies that fall out of the range of standard sizes. It is therefore no coincidence that we refer to both large bodies and large-size dress as plus size — a fact that gives resonance to the old adage, “You are what you wear.”

Returning to what we mean when we say “plus-size fashion,” however, I think that the term fashion is key here. Indeed, the plus-size fashion industry of the early 1980s was especially designer-driven (whereas stoutwear was mostly undergirded by notions of figure flattery). In this moment (and for a number of reasons which I won’t belabor here) many American European “high fashion” designers who had previously neglected the large-size garment sector began turning their attention to fat women for the first time. Among them, Givenchy and Emanuel Ungaro created fashionable (albeit short-lived) plus-size diffusion lines that rivaled their main lines. Indeed, this is the history of plus-size fashion’s long-forgotten “designer moment.” [Author’s note: I should add here that Clare has a wonderful example of a Givenchy en Plus dress at Drexel. I was so happy to find it!]

For the average woman today, however, plus size has become a pejorative term — one which has come to symbolize the fashion industry’s neglect of the needs of female consumers who wear over a size 14 (which by some estimates makes up over 60% of the American population!). Indeed, amid the democratization of fashion over the past decade with the rise of fast fashion, plus-size fashion has been stubbornly slow to adapt, and has a reputation for being poorly made, expensive, unfashionable, and hard to procure (a few notable online retailers notwithstanding). I believe that, unless the fashion industry moves toward inclusive sizing, plus size is something of a necessary evil in that, at its most basic, the term functions as a retail signpost.

Lastly, I’ll let Clare speak to how a museum defines plus-size fashion, but I should note that, in my experience, plus-size fashion simply isn’t something that is in many curators’ vocabularies. Indeed, it is exceedingly rare to encounter museum archives that have had the foresight, resources, and space to conserve plus-size dress.

CS: Plus size is not really a term I use in a curatorial context. Commercial sizing (and body shape) has been so arbitrary over time, I learned early on to ignore the number inside and focus on the actual measurements of a garment. However, with exhibition there is a distinct bias towards the “ideal” and a preference for smaller garments that will fit a mannequin with little fuss. Padding out a form to fit a larger garment is time consuming and must be done carefully to avoid a lumpy, “stuffed” appearance. Most curators, myself included, will choose the garment that is easy to dress when faced with two equal options. This curatorial bias leads to a skewed sense of history in exhibitions. Seeing is believing, and the existing clothes on display are usually tiny!

Until very recently, the FHCC had no exhibition venue and the collection objects were acquired for their educational merit alone. This accounts for some of the more unusual items in our collection, such as the plus-size Givenchy Lauren mentioned. That particular donor had many wonderful tailored coats and other pieces with interesting textiles… the sizing only came into play when we tried to place them on a mannequin. In this capacity, our mission as a research collection has allowed us to be more inclusive and we have a number of objects that would be classified as “plus size” today.

As a professor I sometimes use the term plus size because it is a term my students respond to. In my classes I usually point out that the ideal feminine body has changed over time and I have used a photograph of the 19th-century actress Lillian Russell as an example of these changing standards.

Tell me about how the history of plus-size garments is (or is not) reflected in scholarship (Lauren) and museum collections (Clare), and why this is the case.

CS: Back to the bias against larger sizes in a museum setting…. Since the smaller sizes are easier to dress, this can lead to curatorial staff weeding out larger examples in the deaccession process. Furthermore, when larger-size garments are offered, they may be rejected as being too difficult to dress. This can lead to larger sizes being under-represented in collections. However, it is also important to note the higher survival rate of smaller-sized garments. In the past, when garments were largely custom-made, larger garments could be passed along to a larger pool of recipients and remade. This extended the natural life cycle of the garment and they naturally were worn out and do not survive in pristine condition. However, a custom-made gown made to fit a very small woman would be more trouble to remake for another recipient — and often not attempted at all. The FHCC has an exceptionally large group of objects from the estate of Amanda “Minnie” Drexel Fell Cassatt that remain nearly pristine — possibly in part because their exceptionally small size prevented later generations from wearing them!

I think what we are seeing now is the result of social media. For years the beauty ideal was fairly narrow and defined mainly by the fashion and beauty industry and Hollywood. However, today the style bloggers are often more interesting and creative than the established magazines and we are more interested in seeing creativity and personality than before. There is a greater sense of community (and horrible trolls) online, and I think women are starting to see each other and themselves with fresh eyes. Why can’t they dress fashionably? Why won’t designers make clothes for them? Women have been asking these questions for decades but now there is a public forum at their fingertips.

LDP: I think that fashion studies and all of the related disciplines (costume history, dress studies, etc.) are still struggling with how to tell those histories that fall outside of fashion’s grand (white, Western) narrative, but also those histories of non-normative bodies. Plus-size fashion has therefore been a huge blind spot for fashion scholars, not least because of the fact that it is difficult to find documentation of its history in those canonical places we typically look to first, such as the museum archive and the fashion magazine.

I think my own early stumbles and frustrations in researching the history of plus-size fashion is a testament to exactly what Clare is speaking to — that recorded/conserved fashion (not only in costume collections but also within written documentation) tends to exhibit a skewed sense of history, which has tended to privilege exceptional garments and the normative, fashionable body.

It should also be said that plus-size fashion is, in many ways, inherently mass-manufactured fashion, or an industry defined by mass-market brands like Lane Bryant. Said differently, there are few high fashion or couture designers who have created garments for larger women, and therefore it is reasonable to see why museums would pass over plus-size dress: as objects, plus-size garments tend not to be exceptional. Rather, they are typically quite conformist and poorly made (with a few obvious exceptions, including some beautiful examples of bespoke suiting and outerwear at Fox Historic Costume Collection).

Lastly, I think that stigma and bias, unfortunately, have played a big role in why plus-size fashion has been neglected by fashion scholars. As a non-plus-size woman writing about the history of plus-size dress, I have had to field a lot of questions about why I would choose to study this over a more “fashionable” phenomenon.

Tim Gunn just spoke out in the Washington Post on the subject of plus-size fashion, saying: “This [the lack of attention paid to women over a US size 14] is a design failure and not a customer issue. There is no reason larger women can’t look just as fabulous as all other women.” So, too, did Christian Siriano. The new Lane Bryant ad is on fire. Is the present moment a new flashpoint in fashion’s relationship with non-size-zero bodies?

LDP: Perhaps it’s because I’m so embedded in these debates, but I feel like we’ve been in a “plus-size moment” since at least 2010. The tipping point, in my eyes, was V Magazine’s “Size” issue, which featured Beth Ditto on the cover, and which really served as fashion’s first dalliance with size acceptance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, many of the plus-size models featured within its pages were in some state of undress (due to the fact that, as some models revealed later, the stylists had troubles procuring fashionable plus-size garments for them to wear).

Nevertheless, these debates have certainly become more mainstream recently. As Clare pointed out, social media and the Internet have had a lot to do with this. In addition to the legions of hugely influential feminist plus-size bloggers who have effected real change within the industry (e.g., Nicolette Mason and Gabi Fresh, among others), celebrities like Melissa McCarthy and, more recently, Leslie Jones have cast light on the industry’s longstanding bias against larger women. They have made it ok, if not fashionable, to talk about body acceptance, as well as to bring the industry to task.

Amid these debates, I hate to say that I was not, however, impressed with Tim Gunn’s op-ed for the Washington Post, which I think was incredibly moralistic. Gunn was coming from a position in which he had felt that the industry’s problem with plus size stems not merely from the fact that designers neglect large women, but from the fact that they make ugly, non-flattering garments for them. Gunn feels every woman “deserves” to be “fabulous,” which, by his definition, translates to “as tall and hourglass-shaped as possible.” He even said that Ashley Nell Tipton’s Project Runway win (as the first contestant to design a plus-size line) smacked of tokenism because the garments she made (i.e., crop tops and sheer skirts in muddy pastels and bold prints) were “hideous.” Tipton, however, was actually something of a hero for many plus-size consumers who longed for truly fashion-forward, body-revealing garments that ignored the tired “rules” for dressing the plus-size body flatteringly. In short, I think Gunn cast light on an important issue, but nevertheless showed his age through his preoccupation with figure flattery. In this sense, the discourse surrounding plus-size fashion has a long way to go.

What is the history of resistance, subversion, and public dissent over body size and fashion? How does, for example, mass media play a role? Are there specific individuals (designers, consumers, others) that you’d want to highlight?

“Fatshionistas,” as they’re known — or self-proclaimed fat fashion bloggers — owe much to fat activists who, since at least the late 1960s, have sought to change the discourse around fat bodies, namely through reclaiming the pejorative “fat” as a neutral descriptor. I think some of the most interesting (but under-acknowledged) forms of size acceptance have come from fatshionistas who have sought to challenge the notion of figure flattery. One of my favorite (as well as the most radical) fatshionista blogs is the community Tumblr “Fuck Yeah VBO,” which is a celebration of what is known as the “visible belly outline” that so many conventional plus-size garments attempt to smooth or hide away. Self-identifying fat women submit selfies or outfit of the day (OOTD) photos to the blog, showing themselves in figure-hugging dresses, crop tops and bikinis — or garments that fat women are typically told to avoid. Through this blog, you really come to understand how this normativizing notion of figure flattery so underpins women’s dress practices (fat or thin), while glimpsing a truly radical way to rethink why and how we dress the body.

I think another interesting historical intervention comes from the short-lived plus-size fashion magazine BBW (Big Beautiful Woman), which during the 1970s and early ’80s took a hard line against the ugly and moralizing styles of that era. The magazine featured a ton of editorials featuring plus-size models with standard-size hunks, thereby reversing the stigmatizing cultural gaze that was so often directed at large women. Further employing what can only be described as guerrilla tactics, BBW’s editors included “Mad as hell!” pull-out postcards in every issue, which they encouraged their readers to send to shops that were not adequately serving their sartorial needs and wants.

CS: Lauren seems to have covered it and I defer to her research here!

So often, when the subject of plus size is engaged with — by a designer, on the runway, even in an exhibition — there’s a tokenism rather than a wholesale embrace. Why and how can we think bigger picture/more effectively?

LDP: Two standout examples come to mind for me with this question. On one end of the spectrum — the tokenizing end — I think of Jean Paul Gaultier’s repeated use of plus-size models/celebrities to end his shows (Beth Ditto in 2011, Crystal Renn in 2005, Velvet D’Amour in 2006). Gaultier has repeatedly used plus-size women as his muses; however, his inspiration doesn’t seem to translate to his design practice more generally, and therefore his relationships with these women only comes across as insincere. Indeed, rather than the wedding dress, he uses the plus-size model as his “big finale” in what I can only assume is a thinly veiled PR maneuver designed to endear the designer to fashion critics.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, stands Christian Siriano’s SS 2017 fashion show, in which he sent five plus-size models (granted, among dozens of standard-size models) down the runway. Although it’s not many, his gesture seems more genuine for several reasons, not least of which being he actually dressed them in garments that are wearable and that he will (presumably) go on to produce. This, to me, is one way that fashion designers can think bigger picture. It is, after all, what many fatshionistas have been clamoring for: greater visibility of people like themselves within the spaces and places of high fashion (i.e., the fashion magazine and the catwalk).

You are both engaged with this area of fashion design research. Lauren, you’re writing your PhD dissertation and speaking/writing in public on this topic. Clare, you have overseen what might actually be the largest museum collection of plus-size fashion. (Do you know of any others?) What futures are you excited for in scholarship, in museums, and in public in relation to plus-size fashion?

LDP: I think that, while scholars in the humanities (from women’s and gender studies to queer studies and, of course, fashion studies) are increasingly thinking about and politicizing plus-size dress, I’m eager to see how (and if) these conversations and critical perspectives enter fashion design pedagogy and curricula. I think the “problem” has been identified, but the question now is how to really solve it, and how to move beyond the industry’s knee-jerk tendency to create token plus-size diffusion lines, which are merely extensions of standard size ranges.

Indeed, in doing this interview, I think one of the major themes that emerged for me was the moralism that surrounds plus-size dress, both historically and in the present moment. Even in instances where people are trying to rectify the situation — as in Tim Gunn’s well-meaning but tone deaf op-ed — we still struggle to move beyond what “good” or “proper” plus-size fashion design is. I would like to see how, through fashion design education (and particularly in American schools, where there persists an emphasis on commercial ready-to-wear), we can push design students to think beyond the scope of “figure flattery” — to rethink the relationship of the body to dress — in order to really break new ground in the realm of large-size garment design. I guess it’s kind of a radical perspective, but I really believe that there is vast potential for true design innovation in this area.

Speaking specifically to my activities beyond my doctoral research, I think the new journal I co-edit, The Fashion Studies Journal (FSJ), could be a space in which these conversations can happen. Too often there is an “us vs. them” mentality between design practitioners and fashion scholars, and I think spaces like FSJ can function to forge bonds between these two methodologically disparate fields to create more “intelligent” fashion design.

CS: As a curator I did not deliberately set out to collect plus-size fashion (you give me far too much credit!), but have always been interested in the women who wore the garments and how and to what degree they participated in fashion. When I worked at the Museum at FIT, one of my favorite ways to do research was to look at the original accession books and try to decipher clues about the life the donor led. When I arrived at Drexel I continued this practice and found it especially useful when trying to engage costume history students. The idea of a “real” person, who didn’t always fit the established ideal but still participated in fashion, really resonates with them.

The educational mission of the FHCC allows for a wider interpretation of fashion — personally I prefer the term dress, but it confuses people — and greater inclusiveness. In the future, this will be necessary to remain relevant.