The Plus Size Problem

If you were to sift through the selection of most plus-size clothing—that is, if you are clever enough to find stores that offer plus-sizes at all—you would be hard-pressed not to see their similarities to the giant blankets used to hide cars on The Price is Right. “There’s something big under there, but what could it be?”

Plus-size clothing is often an aimless, outdated attempt at draping fabric over top of women in order to hide the parts of their bodies society has deemed unworthy. It is misguidedly targeted toward women who apparently want to cover every inch of skin with layers of tapestry. Plus-size often doesn’t account for women who embrace their curves and fashion-centric individuals who want to look vibrant and make a statement with their clothing. For too long, plus-size clothing has been about covering up, hiding out, and blending in. It is safe. It is quiet. And most of all, it inexplicably ignores a huge part of its market.

Before a plus-size store will decide to incorporate a trend in its line-up, it waits to see what sells in the standard stores (after they fashion their ideas off of the runway). By the time it recognizes the successful trends and commissions creation for plus-size, you can already say goodbye to the skinny jeans, braided belts and riding boots.

Fashion-forward plus-size woman and recent Ryerson fashion grad Rachel Holt wonders, “Why can’t you take a risk with us? Plus-size women want to take risks, too, and they want to be on trend when the trends are out.”

It defies the laws of supply and demand, which dictate, “if you build it, they will come.” In this era of abundance, shopper’s law usually dictates, “if you seek, you will find.” But when it comes to plus-size fashion, forget it. With the few exceptions like Jessica Biffi’s collections with Addition Elle and stores like Forever XXI, The Answer, Gussied Up, and Torrid in the U.S., stores often downright refuse to carry plus sizes.

Why? Well, designers will tell you that they need to work off of a different foundation block for plus-sizes. Generally, they use a size 10 or 12 and size up or down from there to encompass sizes 6 to 16 using basic grading rules. Anything bigger (or smaller, for that matter) needs to begin at a different block. They will tell you it takes more time and effort to create plus-size versions of the same clothing. But that doesn’t explain why I see hangers full of double extra-smalls and size 0’s while trying to squish into a contorted size 14—extra-large? Yeah, right!

Some stores will tell you that there is no money in the plus-size market. Yet in 2010, one third of Canadian women were overweight. Reitmans, who supplies a large chunk of the plus-size clothing in Canada, is the most profitable clothing store in the country. Biffi’s 2010 fall capsule collection launch at Addition Elle saw clothes fly off the racks (I was there throwing ‘bows with the rest of them). The absolute truth is that there is a gigantic void in the plus-size market, which is why business advisors recommend stores incorporate them to boost sales.

So, what then? The real answer: the fashion world has a stigma about plus-size. “People are trying to break that trend, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” Biffi says, listing off several fashion icons dedicated to using plus-size models, like Gaultier and Ben Barry. It is one thing for big-name designers to sprinkle in some plus-size models for shock value, but high fashion is far removed from regular retail outlets. It would take years for plus-size trends on the runway to break into the clothing stores.

That’s why Holt is starting her own boutique in Toronto later this year. She’s going for an edgy, risky look, all in plus-size. She wants architectural designs, custom tailoring, premium denim and, most of all, to be on trend. She wants it to be special; she wants her customers to feel special.

This is the type of grassroots movement that needs to take place if plus-size women want to participate in fashion. We need to build the stores from the ground up and we need to build our own clothes, like Biffi.

“Plus-size women need to start becoming their own advocates,” says Holt. “Nobody else is going to do it for us. Ask. Keep demanding it. Eventually we have to be heard.”

text by Whitney Wager
illustration by Katrina Cervoni

12 thoughts on “The Plus Size Problem

  1. I love this. Having worked at a mens’ clothing store which charged extra for ‘oversize’ (as they called it), I was often left embarrassed and frustrated with the company when all that was available in these sizes were outdated dad-esq sport coats. There were so many times when customers walked simply because we had nothing ‘trendy’ in their sizes. Meanwhile the company is putting pressure on it’s employees to increase revenue, when they are missing out on a sizeable amount of clientele that could be added (like your article points out) just by offering the same trend based products in plus sizes.

  2. YES! Thank you! I’m between stores, and can’t find much unless I buy vintage (fine by me!) or alter things… but you can’t add fabric that isn’t there, and most of the stuff in plus stores is really not worthy of my tailoring time because its pretty nasty stuff. Having been in this size bracket most of my life, its been a real struggle; I work in the industry too – being off-trend is not really an option for me. Having worked in retail in the past though, I can tell you its just as hard finding the right fit when your really tiny as well. What the industry really needs to start realizing is that diversity needs to be embraced. Not everyone can, or is willing to afford custom garments or tailoring. I’m tired of being excluded from the same system which employs me!

    *by diversity, I’m not just referring to sizing issues, what about religious, cultural, or activity limitations? Did you know that seated figures (people in wheel chairs who have lost feeling in their lower limbs) can actually die from the bedsores caused by the pockets on the back of jeans because they can’t feel the pressure and wounds form and get infected, etc. How about tall women who can’t find anything but flood pants and men’s shoes? Religious observance sometimes dictates covered limbs and chests – lucky for the maxi-dress trend this year… what happens next year when micro minis come back?

    I’m ranting now, but you get the picture…. and its not pretty.

  3. This is a great piece–well done. I have long been mystified at the seeming reluctance retail operations have to MAKE MONEY BY SELLING THINGS TO PEOPLE WHO WANT THEM.

    And it’s exactly as the writer describes–a pointless (and unprofitable) refusal on the part of many retailers to recognize their markets based on an outdated idea of who is “worthy” to buy. When massive, global chain retailers say they can’t profit by selling plus-sizes… well, they should be embarrassed to suggest such a stupid thing at all.

    And we should be embarrassed to believe them.

  4. Side Rant: I do a lot of plus-size clothing ordering online, and the part that drives me CRAZY is that they use models at the very bottom bracket of what might possibly be considered plus-sized. It’s really hard to tell what these clothes will look like on an actual fat person, you know?

  5. I think the plus-size discussion often is hard to understand, there are so many kinds of plus-sizes. There are those who are big, tall and broad, those who are curvy, and those who are over-weight. And everyone is talking about plus-sizes like it´s only about them. And it´s not just about sizing, is it? It´s about proportions as well, about how the current trend can´t just be transfered, but must be translated onto a person with a bit more substance than a boyish, skinny one. I understand (not defend) designers turning their back on the larger persons, their bodies offer challanges that isn´t just about size, but design too. It´s hard and I think the plus-size issue is much more complex than just being about size.

  6. I think sizing is different depending on one’s height (height is another thing ignored by the fashion industry, but that’s for another post). If you’re 6’2″ tall and size 14, you’re not proportionately as “plus” as a woman who is 4’11″ and a 14 just like a 5′ tall woman who weighs 95 lb is not “too skinny” but a 5’10 woman at the same weight is.

  7. Not to mention the high cost of these garments, they (designer) at as if every person is a size 2. The average size if a woman in america is 14. Why don’t we see more flattering, affordable clithing? Get with it designers! Nobody would actually be caught dead in most of the runway designs. I know in my town, even if I had the bod & even if I could afford then, I would be the laughing stock of my city. Perhaps in LA, NY or Paris, but not in in a little-big city in Florida.

  8. Viktoria, Cynthia you make good points about size/shape varieties.
    I think Sarah Portway, you make an excellent point about embracing diversity.
    Myself, I am 5′ and have the same BMI as someone 5’6′ and 230 lbs. Once upon a time there was a size category known as half-size found in vintage sewing patterns. For a shorter more developed woman..basically petiteW. I would love to see fashion embrace more sizing standards for the various shapes, sizes and curves…so the hourglass, the apples, and the applebottoms were all being designed for. And I believe it could be taken a step further than being on trend with fashion major fashion houses targeted to a 6-16 range, but DESIGN FOR THESE SHAPES…let the body shape and the fabric make majic that them skinny girls suddenly want emulate what we’ve created for our bodies. Voila!

  9. Great article. As a plus woman who works for a large fashion retailer I’ve seen first hand how narrow the designers see the fashion market. They repeatedly refuse to carry size 14s even though customers email requesting them. There is no formal statement why they do this but at my company I’ve heard that plus sizes are not consistent with the ‘brand’ they’re trying to build. In short, they don’t want us ‘fatties’ in their clothes. Not only that but they size their ‘fashion’ items even smaller so that average women can’t fit into them without going up 2 sizes!This sickens me to no end! The only solution? We need to start our own brands and leave them in the dust. Whether it’s weekend casual styles or cutting edge styles, we need to make and buy our own lines. Forget them! They’ve already forgotten us!

  10. About fifteen years ago the small city I (then) lived in had a local, independent fashion designer open a boutique. This was a huge deal — most of the rest of the retail clothing options were chain stores. The designer made suits and dresses that would have been very flattering on the figure I had then — I am 5’9″ and had a traditional hourglass figure, but with broad shoulders and a not-so-big bust (think Joan Crawford). I took a size 14-16.

    I went into the shop and asked about sizes. They only carried up to a size 10. I offered to pay for a bespoke version of one of the suits, and the clerk very snootily told me, “we don’t do that.”

    “But aren’t the clothes made here in town? Your sandwich board on the sidewalk says so.”

    “Yes, but we don’t do that.”

    The clerk’s explanation didn’t make much sense to me (still doesn’t), but what it came down to was that the designer felt his clothing wouldn’t look good on bigger people. Which is weird, because the shapes he was using were flattering to larger shoulders and hips — that is, bigger-framed women.

    The boutique only lasted a couple of years. Go figure.

  11. I’m a UK designer. I design bespoke leather corsets, lingerie and dresses that are bought internationally. Until recently there was no top limit to my sizing, I’ve just finished a size 28 leather wedding dress. However, it’s broken my heart to have to stop doing this, and I’m now stopping my range at UK size 16. Here’s my reason: a bespoke design toile, sent out to anyone size 16 and under will probably need just 2 fittings to get it perfect before we go to leather. When I analyzed my sales, it was clear that the plus sized fittings were taking 7 or 8 fittings. Bras, the same, sizes up to a 36d all perfect, we then noticed that 90% of all bras over the size had been returned because they didn’t fit, sometimes twice. Our sizes are calibrated, but there is no universal accepted bra size pattern. Each bra takes 4 hours to make – plus size customers were taking up to 12 hours to make the same item. We were losing money on some orders, barely breaking even on a good day. If our sole market had been plus sized we would have been bankrupt. I can even be more specific about the problem, a size 6, 8, 10 and so on, we know what shape they are going to be, I can draw a pattern in my studio and it will fit with the odd tweak here and there. However, a size 22 or 24, then everything changes, people can be the same measurements but completely different shapes, carrying weight in front or behind, some have gorgeous waists, some are barrel shaped. And the consequence of this is, if you are plus sized and want gorgeously tailored clothes, it might be the case that you need to visit a designer to have a hands on fitting. Expecting a brand range to carry a beautifully tailored suit in all sizes for all shapes, ie 4 or 5 versions of a size 22 is just too big an ask. Who could carry this much stock and stay in business? BUT, if anyone can see a solution then I’m all ears….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>