Fashion

The best argument against the evidence of democracy in fashion is a conversation with a fat woman

27 July, 2010

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the thrill of being involved in an arena of fashion I have never sought to enter. Threadbared have been discussing the issue of democratisation of fashion recently, and my invitation to cover fashion awards as a blogger could well be evident of this new democracy in action, but the thing is… I still don’t fit in. Literally. There is a spectrum of people that fashion caters to, and I do not fit within it, so even though I have been an invited blogger and my involvement and views were welcomed and paid for, I still felt like somewhat of an impostor. Let me flesh it out.

One sits quite comfortably within the spectrum of fashionability if one is young, slim, of average height, with no visible disabilities, socially well-connected, and can afford to look fashionable. The fashion industry caters to the spectrum and seeks to make people within it feel welcome and included. Fitting in is not just easy, it’s taken for granted, and that’s part of the privilege people within the spectrum enjoy. It may not be so apparent to those people that there are people outside the spectrum who might find it difficult.

As a tall plus sized woman I might think it’s fairly obvious that I sit well outside the spectrum that the fashion industry caters to. In my mind, it shouldn’t take a great deal of observation to see that I am sized out of straight size fashion. My clothes look different, for better or for worse, and my possibilities for self expression are narrow. However, I’ve been utterly amazed by the amount of people who deny that my access to fashionable garments is limited. It’s not usually vicious either! An acquaintance whose partner runs a vintage clothing store recommended I check it out, and when I mentioned that vintage clothing to accommodate a 52” bust was scarce, well, he was surprised. Those who are catered to by fashion assume that pretty much everyone has the same degree of access – and that’s simply not the case.

Those outside the spectrum on the fringes are Othered and essentially excluded from enjoying the benefits of existing within the spectrum: for those with a disability, clothes may fit poorly or inhibit movement; garments could well be out of one’s price range; language, even a strong accent, may be a barrier to establishing social networks; or one may simply just not fit into fashionable garments due to being too tall/ short, plus sized/ petite. To many operating from within the spectrum of fashion, they might not be aware that many are just not comfortable socialising within the spectrum due to occupying the space of The Other.

Being othered by fashion affects one’s chances of networking further within the fashionable spectrum and in most everyday social contexts too, beyond complaints of clothes not fitting and being too expensive. If fashionable garments are not available, one has to make do with what is available. As a fat lady, I’m painfully aware that I have a handful of clothing options in Australia and online options in the UK and US. Plus size fashion usually lingers a couple of seasons behind the local fashion industry, so the outfits I roll up to events in are likely to draw a few questionable glances, and let’s be honest, a bit of “OMG what is she wearing!“. And that’s what I’m used to. It doesn’t make me feel welcome or included – it makes me feel like I oughtn’t be there. So by not ticking many boxes that gain me inclusion within the fashion industry I’m disadvantaged, but by making do with what is available and still turning up – I attract more derision which in turn makes me feel even more of a fraud! Many may choose not to get to know me further just because what I wear doesn’t meet a fashionable standard, or because my body doesn’t display clothes in a fashionable way.

It might be true that human beings make sense of the world by exercising judgment and grouping human beings together by characteristic, but that doesn’t mean it’s ideal or helps contribute to a better, more inclusive world. Fashion has a long way to go before it is democratised. It’d be great if fat people could wear amazing clothes, shit it’d be a good start if my husband could find a collared business shirt that fit his neck! While some fashion industry participants might be ignorant of barriers to involvement, I know a lot of the decisions leading to othering are financial too. I think we need to talk about that, as a community of human beings that are required by social convention to be clothed, because if we’re going to have standards just so human beings on the fringe can be looked down on – that’s pretty horrific and unjust. By blogging about the problematic parts I hope to contribute to a wider discussion of the issues, because I see democratisation as a pretty nice goal – but it’s certainly not happening right now just because a couple of bloggers sat in the front row of a runway show.

And at the end of the day – I still don’t have anything fashionable enough to wear to the Chambord Shine finals. It’s pretty bloody frustrating and upsetting.

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  • http://corpulent.wordpress.com Frances

    “it’d be a good start if my husband could find a collared business shirt that fit his neck!”

    My brother has the same problem! He's short for a man and has my sort of build but, because he works out a lot, he's really muscular. He can never do up the top button on his shirts. What fits his upper arms balloons around his waist. He had to get a suit custom made for our sister's wedding. Luckily, his job allows him to wear tshirts and shorts but he has told me he hopes for a store called “Clothing for the Stocky, Muscular Gentleman”.

  • http://randomette.blogspot.com ErinAree

    I'm still new to the fasion/Fatshion scene, but from my limited observations of fashion over the years (always as an 'Other'), it seems to me that fashion actually THRIVES on the 'Othering' of people. Maybe I'm wrong, but it looks like the fear that you are going to be the one that is snarked at is what drives people to purchase the 'it' garments and (sadly) try to conform to the 'it' body mould. It feels like the fashion industry thinks that it is creating a market for its current design by excluding certain people from it.

    I think that your inclusion in these events goes a long way to dispelling this myth – that somehow the only way to create a market for anything is to exclude some people so that there's always a jostling for position. The truth is, there is an almost infinite market out there. Okay, so maybe not infinite, but people will always want to buy clothes. Most people limit their wardrobe only by their budget, not by the number of garments they own. I can't see myself ever saying 'I already own 12 dresses, I can't buy another one'.

    Sorry, I digressed there for a moment. I love dresses.

    I also think that your blog and blogs like it, and your inclusion in events like this are beginning a discourse on the availability of fashion to people. I know exactly what you mean when you talk about the guy who said his partner ran a vintage store who was surprised when you said that very few stores cater to fat women. They just assume that because they've seen a well dressed fat woman somewhere, then the clothes are out there, the rest of us are just lazy for not going out and finding it. When I explain to straight sized people that I have one store I can buy business clothes from, one I can buy casual clothes from and one I can buy 'going out' clothes from, they look at me as though I'm from another planet.

    By being out there, you're at least making a start at combatting those blank stares when dialogues like this are opened.

    You probably feel like a drop in the ocean right now, and I know how frustrated you must be at being invited to fancy parties with nothing to wear. But I really believe that you're making a difference, and I'm glad that we have you to speak for the fatties of the world.

  • KateF

    I know, I know, it's all hideous isn't it!

    I know that this might be out of your budget range (but they do have a sale page)

    http://WWW.TOWANDA.COM

    has some absolutely stunning stuff. Definitely front row worthy.

    Love

    Kate

  • KateF

    The other thing you might want to consider is top-to-toe all black. NOT because of the crap argument that it's slimming, but because I notice a lot of “fashionistas” do the “all black” thing and layer with light weight jackets in the same black fabric and then dress it up with 1 or 2 statement pieces of jewelery and incredible sleek hair. It looks great and no-one can tell that you haven't spend hundreds of dollars

  • http://twitter.com/fashion_hayley Hayley Hughes

    I don't have anything yet either. I did buy a whole bunch of new stuff in New York though which I'm sure will do for the event. I'm sure you will find something amazing, you looked fab at all the events so far. Maybe you can make something? I know how you feel though, its so so so hard here in Australia to find good plus size fashion that fits and looks amazing. I must say City Chic do have some nice new dresses atm, but I know they can be a bit too expensive when your on a budget. What about online? Are there any sales on right now at Evans, Torrid, ASOS curve or anything? Actually I think ASOS curve are having a sale at the moment, some stuff is really really on trend and amazing there. I love this, its the most fashion forward plus size item I have EVER seen http://www.asos.com/Asos/Asos-Curve-Mesh-Jersey

    Anyway believe me I agree with you on all your points. Its so hard to find cool clothes here for us fat folk. Don't let it get you down, by being invited to events your right, things are changing for the better. Anyway I can't wait to catch up at the awards xxx

  • Katef

    BTW – What you did wear looked amazing and certainly more fun than the “fashionable” stuff on the runway that night.

    Ultimately, Fashion is fluff, I know, I know, the freedom to choose _not_ to be a part of of it would be nice, rather than having to opt out because there isn't stuff in our size. But honestly Nat, so many people look like morons and cookie-cutter versions of one another when dressed in “fashionable” stuff. You have real style and genuine glamour about you. I am always envious of your style, genuinely envious. You have style and flair that seems innate.

  • http://www.project-kathryn.com kathryn

    Another thought provoking post. It's not just the fashion world either. I work in a corporate environment and totally sympathise with your husband's problems with finding a collared shirt. It's the same for women – plain, collared cotton shirts and other basics are impossible to find unless it's part of the current plus size look. Without these basics, it's hard to fit in. Fair enough if you decide you want to opt out of all that, but it should be your own choice, not dictated to you by someone who decides fat ppl can't be fashionable/can't be corporate or whatever.

  • http://www.definatalie.com definatalie

    Aw thanks Kate.
    I'm just totally fretting over fitting in… I normally dress to stand out, but for some reason I don't want to do that for these events. All black is probably the best way for me to go!!!

    Your link to Towanda wasn't the right one, but I googled them and remembered the name from years ago. I'm glad they're selling online now! But yes, alas, far too spendy for me :(

  • http://www.definatalie.com definatalie

    You've really hit on a point that I don't think I made effectively enough! The fear that you're not going to fit in (by masking your otherness?) could well be a fear that the fashion/ marketing machine plays on. I know that to be true for me, even though I'm well aware of the mechanisms that are trying to make me buy stuff!

    I hope that my involvement means starting awkward conversations that have been avoided but yeh, it's hard slog right now :(

  • http://www.definatalie.com definatalie

    I reckon the weird neck sizing is a problem for lots of men and it baffles me that it doesn't seem to be taken into consideration! I'm pretty sure Nick would be one of the first customers of “Clothing for the Stocky, Muscular Gentleman” :P

  • http://www.definatalie.com definatalie

    I'm so SO glad that you're one of my fellow bloggers at these shindigs. I really think that if you hadn't been at the events with me, I'd be climbing the walls with anxiety!

    I totally can't afford new clothes right now because I'm waiting on various invoices and cheques, so when I can afford it I'll probably be out of time in terms of online shopping, grrr! I saw the Asos top too (and everything else, god I love Asos!) and if it was all black I'd probably be buying it straight away and living off tinned spaghetti :P

  • http://randomette.blogspot.com ErinAree

    I know what it's like to have the awkward conversations and ask the difficult questions. I came back from a volunteer trip to Kenya burning with passion and enthusiasm about helping people in developing nations to a world which patted me on the head and 'admired my courage', but who essentially wanted me to settle back into the place I was before I left and not stir them up. I know what it's like to ask questions that have people looking askance at you and really wishing that you would just go away.

    But I also know that if you believe in the message you're sending, these things may deter you for a little while, but they can never make you stop.

    You are doing an amazing job.

  • http://www.definatalie.com definatalie

    I totally agree, professional workwear for fat people is so hard to find and it's really hard to wear corporate outfits while selecting from the abysmal stuff available for plus sizes.

  • http://nobubblegum.blogspot.com The Raisin Girl

    Do they have Lane Bryant and Torrid in Australia? I admit, it's only two stores, but a lot of the stores here in the US have plus-sized sections, and most of the clothing retailers I know of have plus sizes online. They're not necessarily haute couture boutiques, but they're not fashion graveyards, either.

    I generally don't see myself as an other. I wear a size 18 jeans, but I've never thought of myself as “fat.” At least, not since I gained some self esteem about my body. To me, fat is a pejorative used to make me feel inferior, make me feel other, make me feel ugly. That's how I'm sure the boys on the playground always meant it anyway. But at least since high school, I've never had a problem finding clothes that fit, and that I like. Admittedly, I stopped shopping in regular sizes at ALL awhile ago, and more than once I've left a store nearly in tears because they didn't have an item in my size and it made me feel gross somehow…but this hasn't happened in awhile for me, and I'm bigger this year than I was last year, or any year before. Perhaps it's simply that clothing retailers in the U.S. are more tolerant and inclusive to plus-sized people because there are (at least according to statistics) more people in the U.S. that are plus-sized?

    I like to think that my size is like any other aspect of myself: it changes how I see the world, it makes my perspective more interesting, it expands my creativity. Would I ever have become creative with clothing if I could walk into Abercrombie & Fitch, grab a pair of jeans in “my size,” and buy them without even trying them on? I doubt it.

  • http://authoraiink.wordpress.com/ anwa

    Even though I wear what would be considered a “straight size”, I hate the word 'normal'. Once that word is involved, everyone who doesn't fit its narrow definition — an extremely narrow definition, in regards to the fashion industry — is, by association, strange. It bothers me that people who care for nothing more than profit can decided whether or not my body is 'normal'.

  • Kat

    Looks like lace is “in”, so maybe something black with lace?

  • Miss C

    This sums up so much of what I have been feeling about fashion, being a plus-sized person. I just couldn't do anything but cuss about it. Part of what I have decided to do is sew a lot of my own clothes to try to circumvent trying to buy clothing that I don't like enough. I know this isn't an option for everyone, and to be honest, even when it comes to sewing I have to take extra effort to up-size patterns because the only plus sized patterns (for the most part) pattern companies want to make are drapey, droopy, and tent-like. (Like this sexy number: http://mccallpattern.mccall.com/m6125-products-…). Thank you for putting into words what I couldn't :)

  • http://fauxfuchsia.blogspot.com/ Fauxfuchsia

    Dear Natalie,
    I'm sorry that you will unsubscribe from my blog but I respect your decsion. An excess of mindless comfort eating, cocktails, butter, cream, puddings, cakes and junk food has rendered most of my wardrobe unwearable. I used to walk home from work all the time and it made me feel better mentally and sleep better (am an insomniac). I'm going to try healthy living for 2 weeks and see how I feel about it. It's not extreme, I'm introducing stuff I've neglected like water and veges ad lean protein and and I'm going to exercise portion control. I understand your decision, and I hope you understand mine. I feel sluggish and tired and need to make some sensible changes.

  • http://chelle-shock.tumblr.com Michelle

    I hate that the awkward conversations are even considered awkward. Like, ugh, I feel like there should be a guide to conversing with people about clothes, for people whom clothes aren't an issue, you know? Protip: looking mortified and changing the subject isn't really an okay response when I say “Oh, I don't shop at ____ because I have a hard time finding things that fit there” or when I say something about not wearing heels because of pain issues. That just makes me feel like an ass, when I didn't do anything wrong.

  • Alicesturdivant

    hear, hear! Well said.

  • shu shu

    Good luck finding something to wear! I've spent many mornings crying and tearing my hair out in front of my wardrobe so I do understand (even though I'm a normalish size) how hard it can be to find just the right thing to wear. Something black is usually the answer. Have you ever thought that maybe your Otheredness could be your Point of Difference. Fashion loves something/someone with a Point of Difference.

  • http://blissinateacup.blogspot.com beckajayne

    This! Thank you so much for this post, you have totally spoken to how I have been feeling lately and it's just so disheartening. The fact is, as plus size women we have to shop at whole other shops. Ok, sometimes at the same shop but then it is usually in our own special section. That right there (even if I do find stuff I like at the plus size store) is enough to make me both stabby and tearful. Why should I have to go to my own store? Why can't the 'regular' stores bloody well get over themselves and start making stuff in a range of sizes?? I realise that in some ways I have learnt to be more creative, etc, etc but there are days where I just want to go in and grab a few tops, bras, pair of jeans, etc without having to figure out how to wear them so they're fashionable or without having to have bought them online in the first place.

    What always amazes me (and what I've been thinking of writing about, despite fears of sounding like a raving commie) is that you would think that living in a capitalist system businesses would do anything to make a buck. I mean, having plus sizes in their stores would bring in a huge amount more in revenue for them, yet othering and punishing people for daring to not conform to a narrow body type is even more important to them than raising their profits. Of course, othering and marginalising people is also what the capitalist system is built on, so…yeah. *cries*

    On a more positive note, you always do and will look gorgeous at this event. I wish I could say something that would make you feel better and less nervous about this, but I know its easier said than done and when you're 'in it' it isn't always easy to agree with those telling you that you're beautiful and fashionable and worthy(!!). But, it's true.

  • http://fashionforwriters.com/ Jenny Z.

    Hey Natalie, thanks for this post for all its insightfulness (and delightful puns and word play throughout!) I think one of the more frustrating things when talking about privilege and barriers is the one who have the privileges are always so painfully unaware. I feel the same as you when it comes to racism and sexism, often the response is an astounding, “Really? No way!” as if a privilege, white male would have had the opportunity to experience the racism and sexism I and others have experienced. It makes it all the more painful to have to be the brassy bitch to break it to him that the world truly blows for people unlike him. I've been thinking a lot about your posts, especially about the idea of a 'flattering outfit' and how awful and oppressive and the very opposite of expansive and wonderful that idea is. Thanks for being thought provoking as always. xo

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  • Barb

    I completely agree with you, as another tall, plus sized woman (with bonus tiny boobs and funky feet). Moreover, I also get the “well this company has so and so business practices, you have to shop _responsibly_” nevermind that I'm just trying to find decent clothes at all. Most people just seem to assume that everyone can shop everywhere, and have no concept of how hard it is to find plus size clothes (let alone ones that fit well & look good).

    It took me a long time to realize that I was allowed to like fashion, and care about clothes even though I wasn't “normal” sized. It's great to hear more people talking about the problems with plus sized fashion.

  • Schmallwoo

    This blog is interesting, because it's so contradictory. One minute you're talking about being a non conformist, but another moment you're talking about wearing trendy items (like skinny jeans) and complaining because trendy items arent always made in your size. You do realize that wearing trends is a form of conformity? And it's letting someone else dictate what you wear just as much as those flattering outfit articles do.

    And another thing you should keep in mind is that fashion is not about the masses, nor should it be. Fashion is not a necessity, and you are not “entitled” to it — the day that it is for everyone is when it loses it's luster, therefore no longer making it “fashionable”. Not every designer is going to be able to cut a dress up to a size 22 (which poses another question, where would you draw the line size ways anyways?) and not every boutique will have room enough to stock all of those sizes. Especially considering the fact that most “trends” don't flatter larger body types; it would end up being a waste of money.

    And ultimately, it seems a bit entitled to ask the world to change to make you feel more comfortable, especially if you have an unhealthy lifestyle

  • HeatherElisabeth

    Australia should be more tolerant of plus-sized individuals. They passed the U.S. up a few years ago in obesity rates and became the “fattest” country in the world. I doubt with that increase in a larger population, fashion there hasn’t caught up to cater to them. It would be silly, the industry there would completely fail without tailoring to the population and sticking to what is more widely accepted as the “normal”.