Tag Archives: women’s fashion

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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Bustling Around

etching of two women in green and purple dresses with big bustles

Laurie and Debbie say:

The history of European and Euro-American women’s fashion is simultaneously rich and varied on the one hand, and deeply repetitive on the other hand. The crazes and trends vary greatly, but the “invisible hand” of a power-and-money-hungry male establishment can always be found pulling the strings, doing whatever they can to objectify women, make us physically uncomfortable, and ensure that we are contained and controlled by male expectation.

In that context, we were struck by this episode of Slate’s podcast Decoder Ring. The podcast, hosted by Willa Paskin, deconstructs historical curiosities. In “The Butt and the Bustle,” the turns to the periods in women’s fashion when big, huge, and artificially big butts have been a fashion goal.

In our times, this is personified by J-Lo, whose big butt was one of the first in recent years to be admired rather than decried. As Paskin and her various interviewees point out, it’s ironic that J-Lo is more Brown than Black, as many Black women have beautiful large rear ends. This, of course, is just another example of how white sociocultural trends are so frequently borrowed from Black people and their art forms, and white trendmakers are extraordinarily good at misplacing credit for whatever it is that they stole.

Rather than focus on J-Lo and now, Paskin spends most of the show going back into history, and specifically the Victorian history of the bustle: an undergarment so prominent that it defined not only the woman who wore it but the shape and construction of the dress she wore. As you’ll see in the photographs, bustles (for rich women who didn’t have to work) were almost incomprehensibly unwieldy. You couldn’t sit down, you couldn’t go easily through a doorway. What’s more, because artificially big butts were in but small waists were also required, the upper-class woman in the bustle was not only inconvenienced in the back, she was also laced in at the waist, often so tight that it was difficult to breathe.

Paskin spends a good portion of her 45-minute show explaining the shameful and cringe-worthy history of Sarah Baartman, an African woman with a naturally very large rear end. Baartman was exhibited as the “Hottentot Venus,” a savage anomaly. Her exhibitors saw her as nothing more than a sideshow prop who could make them rich. Many fashion historians see her as part of the long-term impetus for the bustle as a fashion object.

Black and white photograph of a woman in a bustle, holding a closed umbrella out in front of her

Featured on the show is Heather Radke, who has written Butts: A Back Story (gotta love that subtitle), an amalgam of the history of butt size and her own personal experience as a woman with a large derriere.

If you don’t know the history of the bustle, you’ll find more about it on the podcast itself, and in Radke’s book. The history of women’s fashion is endlessly interesting, including bustles and butts.


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