Tag Archives: Lauren Downing Peters

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.


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