Tag Archives: clothing for fat women

The Dark Art of Women’s Clothing Sizes

An extremely fat white woman wrapped in dressmaker's paper that says "sample size" all over her body. She also has elaborate tattoos on both arms.

Laurie and Debbie say:

Somehow, we’re just not surprised that Professor Lauren Downing Peters, who has just written Fashion Before Plus-Size: Bodies, Bias, and the Birth of an Industry, is no more able to define “plus-size” than anyone else. Speaking to Kristen Rogers at CNN, Downing Peters said plus-size is “kind of impossible to define.”

Rogers interviewed Downing Peters for a reasonably comprehensive article on not just the history but the current state of plus-size clothing but — unsurprisingly for such a mainstream source — she doesn’t address the deeper question.

True, “the largest size many retailers offer is a 12,” and

True, ” anyone, regardless of whether they’re plus-size or sample size, can be one size at one store and another somewhere else” and

Largely true, “The dearth of plus-size clothing adds to a stigma that makes people with bigger bodies feel marginalized” (a quote in Rogers’ article from Professor Carmen Keist”) and

True, “men’s fashion tends to be more size-inclusive.”

However, Rogers doesn’t drill down to the fact that women’s clothing sizes are based on completely arbitrary numbers: a 12 may have changed over time, and it can, because it doesn’t refer to 12 of anything. Men’s pants are generally sold by waist size and inseam size numbers, and their shirts by chest size and neck size, while women’s are sold by 12-14-16-18 or S-M-L-XL. So women purchasing clothes have nothing to go by except comparisons: am I smaller or larger than the person in the next dressing room? Am I smaller or larger than I was last year? (That one doesn’t even allow for the difference in manufacturer’s definition of the sizes that may have occurred in the last year, or the difference in the garment you’re buying from the one you got last year.)

Having watched the evolution of fat women’s clothing from the days of nothing but horrible polyester floral patterns at Lane Bryant’s, we would say that the situation has improved more for fat women than Rogers and her interviewees describe. As a fat woman, Debbie can now buy attractive natural-fiber clothing for anything from a sports workout through a sexy date to a wedding, with lots of choices in all categories (yes, they are usually more expensive, see below). However, the improvement for fat woman is (of course) incomplete and insufficient, and it basically comes at the expense of all women: sizing has gotten more arbitrary and more variable, and the emphasis on comparison has gotten more intense.

Downing Peters attributes the extra cost of fat women’s clothing as more “about additional materials as it is research and development.” … “What’s even more expensive,” she added, “is devising all new patterns for larger sizes, because you can’t just take the blocks upon which you’re working and make them larger, you have to completely reconceive the proportions.”

Again, of course, this misses the point: fat women’s bodies are not only differently proportioned than “average” or thin women’s bodies, but they are also much more variable than the smaller bodies (which themselves are much more variable than clothing manufacturers account for). If we could buy clothes based on our bra size, waist size, hip size and inseam, those factors would have to be taken into account, and we might — at all sizes — honestly find clothes that *gasp* actually fit.

We’d like to see Downing Peters’ next book — or someone’s next book — be about the history and current practice of sizing clothing for all women … and see it end with a chapter on what would actually work to make it possible to find well-fitting clothes for variable bodies. It’s about time.


Debbie is no longer active on Twitter. Follow her on Mastodon.

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Adaptive Fashion Can Lead the Way to Everyday Adaptive Clothing

Laurie and Debbie say:

Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird has an article in the Women’s Media Center on women designers “transforming fashion for people with disabilities.” The article starts by framing adaptive fashion:

Adaptive clothing is designed specifically with people with disabilities in mind. Adaptive clothes are intended to give freedom and comfort to the people who wear them, but many of the clothes that were offered were not stylish, and they prioritized function over fashion.

But why not both function and fashion? In recent years, along with greater visibility and advocacy by people with disabilities has come a growing awareness in the fashion world.

Stylish adaptive wear is really exciting; the world is full of disabled people who care about style and look, and who want the luxury that able-bodied people have: to think about fabric and cut, to get clothing which makes them stand out in a crowd, or blend in to a particular setting. The world is even more full, however, of disabled people who want comfortable nice-looking well-made clothing that hopefully doesn’t cost an enormous amount (just think about the phrase “cost an arm and a leg” in this context), that they can find, in their size, ideally some place local where they can try things on and make choices.

We’ve been doing this work a long time, and we remember when fat women’s clothing was thin on the ground, available either from fairly high-end, fairly expensive boutique mail-order companies who cared about hiring fat models and making good clothing, or from mass-produced national brands which favored polyester fabrics, great big flowers, and skinny models in their catalogues.

So in one sense we know that things can change: we now live in a world where most fat women, even very fat women, can find clothes in their size, in a variety of styles and colors, at a wide price range. If you live in or near a big city, or a big suburban mall, you can probably find them in relatively easy driving range.

The baseline for adaptive clothing is a lot worse than it was for fat people’s clothing. Fat women could always wear something more or less in their size; people with disabilities requiring different clothing styles often can find almost nothing, no section of the store that imagines they might have an artificial limb, a wheelchair which tears up the cuffs of their pants, or an ostomy bag that only a specially designed shirt could conceal. They wind up either buying from tiny niche providers with limited selections and the high prices caused by their size, or buying off the shelf and modifying at home: hemming, cutting off a trouser leg or shirt sleeve, wishing they knew someone who knew how to make darts around a differently shaped back.

They’re probably also wishing that the photographs of adaptive fashion weren’t so limited to people who would be traditionally attractive if they didn’t have visible disabilities–we are. However, we have yet to see that change for fat women, and it’s unlikely to change for disabled people either.

African-American man witih an artificial leg, in a blue and white hoodie (uneven vertical stripes) and white short leggings

Izzy Camilleri, one of the featured designers in the WMC article, has devoted a lot of time to thinking about wheelchair-appropriate clothing.

This is not an area that should be entered into lightly, without research, says Camilleri, explaining how ill-fitting or badly designed clothing can be detrimental to the comfort of people with disabilities. For example, a pair of pants with inappropriately placed seams or pockets could cause pressure sores for wheelchair users. …

Unlike the majority of standard trousers and pants, the back of [Camilleri’s company’s] Game Changer Pant is designed to be pocketless and seamless, features that work to prevent harmful pressure sores from forming.

Smea Gedik, founder of a German adaptive fashion company, has done a lot of work with clothing for little people.

Gedik and her team spent years constructing an inclusive size chart to properly cater to their customers and help to communicate their needs.

Gedik explains that it was important for her to include people with disabilities in every step of the process. By including people with disabilities in the research, design, and even the modeling of her clothing, Gedik ensures that she accurately creates what the consumers want.

The growth of adaptive fashion is simultaneously exciting, frustrating, and hopeful. It’s exciting because the work is being done, and some customers are reaping the rewards. It’s frustrating because only some customers have access to the clothes.

The fashion industry is slowly but surely embracing adaptive clothing, but it seems most retailers are not following suit. Owners and executives of many larger brands lack the personal experience of living with a disability, and they are hesitant to even hire people with disabilities, explains [adaptive fashion designer Victoria] Jenkins. “They don’t hire people with disabilities, so they don’t see the scale of the issue, nor do they know how to engage with us,” says Jenkins, going on to explain that she thinks this is due, in part, to the assumption that it would cost too much to make adaptive clothing and there would be no net return.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. According to Statista, an online platform that specializes in market and consumer data, the global adaptive clothing market was at $271.88 billion in 2019, and growth is projected to $348.81 billion by 2024.

And that’s why it’s hopeful. We’ve seen it happen with fat clothing, and there’s money in it. The careful, high-end work of Jenkins, Gedik, and Camilleri will — not soon enough — make its way into the price ranges of a lot more people, and probably into a reasonable selection of local stores at the same time.


Debbie is no longer active on Twitter. Follow her on Mastodon.

Follow Laurie’s Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.