Fashion Friday: Fashion's Invisible Woman

Normally I try to just link up to articles but this one (2009) I've seen before and decided to highlight it on today's Fashion Friday! (My thoughts/comments as you read the article)

Fashion's invisible woman
Even as Americans get larger, designers and retailers cling to the idea that style comes in one size: small. Really you could just stop reading now. Synopsis of the whole article. And it pisses me off.
March 01, 2009|Emili Vesilind

When it comes to shopping, the average American man has it made. At 189.8 pounds and a size 44 regular jacket, he can wear Abercrombie & Fitch, American Apparel or Armani. Department stores, mall retailers and designer boutiques all cater to his physique -- even when it's saddled with love handles, a sagging chest or a moderate paunch. In menswear, shlubby is accommodated.

But the average U.S. woman, who's 162.9 pounds and wears a size 14, is treated like an anomaly by apparel brands and retailers -- who seem to assume that no one over size 10 follows fashion's capricious trends.

Fashion-forward boutiques such as Maxfield and Fred Segal rarely stock anything over a size 10, and in designer shops, sizes beyond 6 or 8 are often hidden like contraband in the "back." Department stores typically offer tiny sections with only 20 or so brands that fit sizes 14 and up -- compared with the 900-plus brands they carry in their regular women's wear departments.

I'm're how old?
That leaves style-loving full-figured women with a clutch of plus-size chains including Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug, Avenue and Torrid. Or big-box stores such as Target, Kohl's and Wal-Mart, the No. 1 seller of plus-size apparel in the country -- though most of its selection consists of basic, often matronly items. Beyond this, plus-size clothing is largely relegated to the Internet, where customers who already have a complicated relationship with clothes are unable to see, touch or try on merchandise. In my opinion of the seven stores listed above Fashion Bug and Torrid are the only one's who accommodate for the younger plus-size crowd. Lane Bryant, Avenue, etc must think that only women 40+ are full figured. Or you have ads like this Target one that make adult woman look child-like and adolescent. 

It often seems that it's easier to find and buy stylish clothes for Chihuahuas than for roughly half the country's female population. Holy crap!! I loved this line.

This is what a plus-size model looks like
Americans are getting larger, and 62% of females are already categorized as overweight. But the relationship between the fashion industry and fuller-figure women is at a standoff, marked by suspicion, prejudice and low expectations on both sides. The fear of fat is so ingrained in designers and retailers that even among those who've successfully tapped the market, talking plus-size often feels taboo. The fraught relationship between fashion and plus-size is far from new, but seems particularly confounding in a time when retailers are pulling out all the stops to bring in business. Carrying a range of sizes that includes the average female would seem like a good place to start. Or even those places that do carry larger sizes start showing their clothes on larger women and mannequins. Ever walk into a Lane Bryant and look at the mannequins? Their clothes are pinched behind the backs and held together with pins. So while that may be a size 14 blouse it's being shown on a size 8 headless, armless, legless model.

"Plus-size has been a challenge for the industry for decades," said Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst for the research firm NPD Group. "When I interview plus-size women, there's really nothing [in the market] that the consumer says they like. Because of this, women in this demographic have learned to make fashion not a priority." The longing for style is strong, but the hopes of finding it are low, and shopping is less fun than frustrating. Maybe if we had options it'd become a priority!!

The message board at, the online incarnation of Figure, a magazine for full-figured women, reads like a laundry list of ways that brands and retailers aren't connecting with the demographic.

"Are all big girls supposed to dress like Midwestern farm wives?" asks one reader. "We have money -- why don't they want to sell to us?" Midwestern farm wives of the 1800 - long skirts, shapeless blouses...might as well just become Amish when you reach size 10+

Another adds, "I don't want any more polyester, hip-hop gear, frumpy jeans and themed capris! I want the designers not to assume that I am a frumpy 55-year-old, middle-management employee. . . . Is anyone listening to us?"  Thank you!! What is with the giant Hawaiian themed capris in every catalog I get. I have a big ass I don't need a big-ass-flower highlighting it thank you.

It's a which-came-first scenario, Cohen said. Because plus-size women have been ignored for years, they've stopped actively looking for shopping opportunities. But when retailers bring savvy style to the plus-size game (as Gap Inc. did with its short-lived concept, Forth & Towne, which carried fashion-forward clothing for career women in sizes 2 to 20), they often shutter their efforts before they have a chance to bloom.

"Retailers don't have the patience to allow it to evolve," he added. "This is a market that's been underserved for 50 years. Customers are saying, 'For 50 years, you've ignored me and now you expect me to react to it instantaneously?' No."

It's true that the development phase of a plus-size collection is costly, because fitting bigger bodies is more complicated than simply making smaller sizes larger. When bodies get larger (especially over a size 18), they take on a different proportion -- there's generally more girth in the middle -- and the ratio between hip and waist changes. Yes, we are shaped different and true, it's not a matter of just "making smaller sizes larger" but that's what often happens and that's when we get formless pieces of polyester with no form (when we're not just having a potato sack thrown over us). Our bodies are shaped differently, and frankly with the clothes I see designers putting skinny girls in I don't want them to just make it bigger for me. I want shape. I want structure. I want DESIGN.

But the payoff for sustaining a successful collection is worth the investment, said Rachel Pally, perhaps the only designer who sells a contemporary collection in trendy boutiques and a plus-size line -- Rachel Pally White Label -- in department stores. Pally's full-figured collection is one of the top-selling vendors for Nordstrom.

Crystal Reen - GORGEOUS
"Fashion-forward plus-size women have no options," she said. "They're so thirsty for the product." Why others don't jump on the bandwagon, she added, is a mystery. "It's like, 'Hello? Don't you guys want to make money?' " Apparently not which is why I'm assuming I have such a shoe/purse/jewelry fetish.

Many retailers aren't even game to discuss "plus." When contacted for this story, nearly every major retailer -- including Nordstrom, Macy's, H&M, even Wal-Mart -- declined to give interviews on the subject or didn't respond to requests. It's an odd silence, considering how ripe the market is. With hardly any high-end resources at their disposal, full-figured women still spent $18.6 billion on apparel in stores and online from December 2007 to November 2008, according to NPD Group.

That's only around 20% of the $109.7 billion spent in the regular-size ranges, but bricks-and-mortar plus-size retailers comprise far less than 20% of the total women's apparel retail industry -- and high-end options in the category are extremely rare, so purchase prices are substantially lower.

At the crux of the inequity, according to some plus-size designers, models and retailers, is prejudice toward women the industry doesn't find particularly glamorous or sexy. Like fifth-grade girls who secretly live in fear of being ostracized from the cool clique, they don't want to be caught talking to the fat girl. Don't even get me started here. This is a whole other can of worms!

Don't tell me fashion &
full figure don't mix!
Full-figured supermodel Emme sells her own plus-size collection, me by Emme, on QVC, and will be debuting Emme Style, an online clearinghouse for plus-size fashion resources, this year under the same name. Top fashion magazine editors and designers, she said, are guilty of perpetuating the idea that full-figured women and fashion don't mix.

"It really does come from very few edicts from a few people," she said. "You have to ask yourself why they are [defending] against this. Seriously, there are issues there."

Fear of the full-figured runs through every cog of the industry once you leave the realm of retailers and brands that are exclusively plus-size. "My sales team was adamantly opposed to me doing a plus-size line," said Pally, because they feared it would cause her signature line to lose cachet.

"There was a lot of resistance, but I did it anyway. I used to say my brand was for everyone, but it really wasn't." She's not concerned, she said, with "the few . . . who are offended that I'm accommodating women who make up the majority of the population." Thank you.

Designers whose bread and butter rests on their ability to create an aura of cool exclusivity (basically, the bulk of designers seen on the runway, save brands with lifestyle extensions, such as Michael Kors and Calvin Klein) worry that sallying into the market will dilute their brand's mystique and, ultimately, their sales. Prada designer Miuccia Prada may have had these concerns in mind when she stated that she would not sell clothes over a size 10.

And it's on these loftiest of perches that the hypocrisy of the fashion industry seems most glaring. Some of the world's most lauded designers and fashion critics are -- or have at one time been -- too broad in the beam to fit a leg into the designs they create and coo over.

Still, compassion is in short supply. When Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, who spent most of his adult life battling a serious weight problem, created a capsule collection for H&M in 2004, the newly svelte designer was incensed that the retailer manufactured the collection in larger sizes. "What I designed was fashion for slender and slim people," he said. And in an interview in the March issue of Harper's Bazaar, he sniffed, "The body has to be impeccable . . . if it's not, buy small sizes and less food." Issues, indeed. I almost stopped reading here. Karl Lagerfeld can kiss my curves.

While it was heartening to see that Vogue's influential editor Anna Wintour styled plus-size British chanteuse Adele for this year's Grammy Awards, we probably won't be seeing the singer on the cover of the magazine any time soon ("Most of the Vogue girls are so thin, tremendously thin, because Miss Anna don't like fat people," Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley told Oprah Winfrey in 2005.) According to Adele she doesn't want to be on Vogue anyway.

Far From Fat!
Whitney Thompson, the only plus-size winner of "America's Next Top Model, " said: "I just want to see a size 6 model once on a runway." A perfectly proportioned 5 foot 10 inches tall who wears a size 10 or 12, depending on the garment, she's the first plus-size model to win Tyra Banks' TV modeling competition, though growing up in Florida, she considered herself to be on the slender side. "I'm not a plus-size person, I'm a plus-size model," noted the 21-year-old. "On the street, I'm skinny. At castings, I'm a cow."

But it doesn't take a casting call to make plus-size women feel like cultural lepers. They just have to cruise into any of L.A.'s trendiest boutiques, which create the illusion that this is a town of size 0s and 2s. Fraser Ross, owner of the Kitson boutiques, said he wishes more trendy brands would manufacture 12s and 14s -- but he adds that he doesn't have the square footage to carry true plus-sizes. Because carrying a 12 or 14 suddenly means you need extra space? It's clothing not armor.

"Stores feel they don't want to give in to women with more flesh," Emme said. "There's this idea of slovenliness and all those stereotypes and myths that have been embraced since the '50s. It's ridiculous." I'm sorry but just because you don't want to carry clothing that fits me doesn't mean I'm suddenly going to do anything I can to trim down to a size 4. Just won't happen. And if anything I'm going to rebel and stay a size 26. So take that sucka.

Certainly, there are enough retailers out there to ensure that plus-size women won't be walking around naked any time soon. But resources for fuller-figured women looking to follow trends (and even dabble in the avant-garde) are close to nil. The perception in the industry, said Cohen and Pally, is that full-figured women have less disposable income, and are less concerned with current styles. LMAO. Let us walk around naked....wanna see my fat ass and cellulite. Might start carrying clothes my size then won't you?

This may or may not be another Catch-22. Did the demographic give up on fashion before fashion gave up on the demographic? Or was it the other way around?

Jaye Hersh, owner of the L.A. boutique Intuition on West Pico Boulevard, discovered that the fashion-conscious plus-size customer -- who has money to spend -- is one of the most underserved markets around when she started stocking designer jeans in sizes 32 to 38, and upping her inventory of one-size-fits-all merchandise.

Kiss My Curves!
What started as a slow trickle of customers has ballooned into a voracious new client base. " 'Enthusiastic' is an understatement," she said of the reception. The business has helped buoy Hersh's company, while other boutiques in L.A. have shuttered en masse this past year.

Similar tales of success would no doubt blossom should more companies decide to start thinking big.

Emme, who was once called a "fatty" by a photographer who refused to shoot her (she was 5 foot 11 inches tall and a size 10), said responsiveness to the average woman can't come quickly enough. "The market has to change -- fashion can't be just for the exclusive few," she said. "We're responsible for ourselves. They're responsible for clothing us." The market and all the narrowminded size-ist people it in can just keep doing what they're doing. Someone will realize that fashion for full-figured woman is a giant market (no pun intended) and then everyone will jump on board.


  1. amen to it all.

    i am a size 18, and i HATE shopping. everything looks like mumus and animal print. sometimes, i just want to look like everyone else in cute jeans and tee that fits. is that too much to ask?!

  2. This is why I got into reading fashion blogs, and why I ultimately decided to start my own. Independent fashion bloggers much better represent what real american women look like, and I have discovered so many new retailers through blogging. It does suck that most of them are online only, but I am glad to see stores like H&M and Forever 21 starting to carry sizes 14+ in store.

  3. I disagree with the comment about the Lane Bryant mannequin's having size 14 blouses pinned tight to a size 8 mannequin. The Lane Bryant store that I shop at has very large and tall mannequins. My husband was with me shopping just a few days ago and we couldn't believe how big and towering the Lane Bryant mannequins were. My husband stands a little over 5'11" and weighs 185 pounds and he was dwarfed by these mannequins...all of them! He had tennis shoes and shorts on and these mannequins were in their bare feet, solidly on the floor, but standing in a tip-toe position and they were at least 5-6" taller than my husband! I asked him to remove his shoes and stand barefoot on his tip-toes so I could take a picture of him next to two of the mannequins and he was still 4-5" inches shorter! Standing flat footed his eyes were below the mannequin's shoulders! These mannequins were "big boned" too. While my husband is kind of a thinner man, his legs looked rediculously skinny compared to the mannequins. His calves and knees looked 1/2 as big. His thighs were barely bigger than the mannequin's calves! I'm not sure what size these mannequins would be if they were real women (they were very shapely and athletic looking), but my husband and I both guessed they'd be somewhere in the 6'2" to 6'3" tall and 240-260 pounds range. Far from needing the clothing "pinned" behind as the previous poster stated. Must be a big difference between Lane Bryant stores.


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