Whenever a fashion brand announces that it’s offering extended sizing—or newly entering the market with a focus on dressing plus-size women—the general reaction is usually one of celebration. Inclusivity’s always a good thing, right?
Well, duh. Plus-size shoppers have been majorly underserved by the fashion industry (if not flat-out ignored), and change is desperately needed. But according to the women who are actually wearing clothes above a straight size XL or 14, not all of these efforts are delivering. In the rush to jump on the size-inclusivity bandwagon, they say, many brands are falling short of expectations and leaving disappointment in their wake.
Case in point: When we asked the Well+Good Instagram community to share their biggest gripes about plus-size fashion, the responses flooded in. Some women aired their frustrations about poor fit, frumpy style, and cheap fabric quality, while others lamented the fact that larger sizes are often only found online or tucked away in a back corner of a store. And then there was the contingent that’s fed up with the “plus-size” label altogether. As one respondent so astutely put it, “Why does it need to be other-ized from the reg sizes?” (Great question.)
Truth is, this demographic has a lot of clout—67 percent of American women wear sizes 16 and up—but they’re currently buying fashion at a lower rate than their straight-size counterparts, which likely has something to do with all of the grievances mentioned above. And it’s in any brand’s best interest to fix what’s broken, says designer and consultant Rachel Richardson, founder of plus-size fashion blog Lovely in LA. “Plus-size customers are loyal,” she proclaims. “When we find a brand that fits us, that gets us, and that’s in our price point, we’ll order more of it.” Because, sadly, there just aren’t that many options out there striking the trifecta—yet.
Keep reading for more on why plus-size brands aren’t quite nailing it (and how they can start giving women what they really want).
Fit is a major problem in the plus-size market
By far, this was the number-one complaint among those who responded to our mini-survey, particularly when it came to the proportions of clothes. “Just because I’m big doesn’t mean I’m tall,” said one Instagrammer. Several others expressed how hard it is to find things that fit both their thighs and their calves, for instance, or their butt and their waist. “Many plus-size models are hourglasses, but many plus-size women are NOT,” said another. “It’s a double fail when already hard-to-find clothes are then poorly cut.”
Fashion photographer Lydia Hudgens agrees that fit leaves a lot to be desired in many corners of the plus-size style world. “Most brands tend to just size up using a straight-size model versus using a plus model,” she explains. “So they’re not sizing correctly because weight shifts as you gain weight.” This is problematic, Richardson adds, because plus-size women often carry their weight differently than straight-sized women, and designers need to leave extra room in certain areas—namely the back, bust, arms, hips, thighs, and waist—to ensure that the finished product looks balanced and isn’t riding up or pinching or otherwise uncomfortable.
And even if a brand does use a plus-size fit model, says Hudgens, that doesn’t mean her measurements will reflect those of the average woman. “I feel like the majority of plus clothing is made for a woman that is hourglass, and that’s not the reality,” she says. “[Many women] are apple-shaped and they carry their weight in the middle. I’ve talked to multiple fit models who have been told they need to lose weight from certain places on their body because brands are looking for certain dimensions. But those are the brands whose sizing isn’t that on-point, so it’s interesting. I don’t know what woman you’re trying to fit, you know?”
That said, there are lots of plus-size brands taking steps to ensure they’re truly offering the best fit possible. One is Marée Pour Toi, a new luxury label serving sizes 12–24. The brand spent almost a year working with its factories and fit models to fine-tune the balance and proportions of each garment in its inaugural collection. “What people don’t understand is when a body gets to a certain size, there are different measurements you need to look at that aren’t on a [straight-size] manufacturer’s spec sheet, like the back,” says founder Steven Feinstein. “We had to train our technical staff overseas to deal with these things and get the right [dress] forms, because they don’t sell forms that really conform to a plus-size body.”
Universal Standard is another example of a brand that’s rethinking the design process from the ground up, with a mission to outfit women from sizes 00 to 40. “We developed something we called micrograding,” says co-founder Alexandra Waldman. “That meant that rather than using a formula to grade up and down from a single sample size, we looked at grading as if each size garment was an individual item made for only one person. This allowed us to keep the fit intent, regardless of the garment’s size.” In Universal Standard’s collection, collars and cuffs are scaled to look proportional no matter what size the garment is, while a dress’ hemline hits at the same place on the leg no matter whether it’s cut for a size 6 or a size 26—and all items are tested on multiple fit models with different body types before they go into production.
Clothing’s not the only realm of plus-size fashion where fit can be tricky. Hudgens has typically had a hard time finding bras that have large-enough band sizes and small-enough cup sizes. “I think people automatically assume that, if you’re a plus woman, you have large breasts because everything’s bigger, but that’s not the case,” she says. “Most brands start at a DD if you’re plus. We don’t have as many options, which is really frustrating.” (Playful Promises is current her go-to, both for sizing and for style.)
It can also be hard to find accessories that fit well, says Richardson. “I have a hard time with jewelry,” she says. “When it comes to rings and bracelets, a lot of times you’ve got bigger wrists and bigger fingers, and a lot of brands just don’t go past a certain size. Even sunglasses are an issue since certain brands just do not work on really round faces.” She’s actually been approached to design a plus-size accessories line but admits there’s still a huge opportunity for other fashion labels to follow suit.
Lots of plus-size brands are missing the mark when it comes to style
The general consensus among the Well+Good Instagram community is that most plus-size fashion falls into two categories: It’s either too tight and revealing for them, or totally un-sexy. (Even author Roxane Gay recently weighed in on this in a recent tweet, saying “I am loving Torrid and being able to wear their clothes but my god, could they make some goddamned shirts that are long, for us tall olds? This crop top obsession is too much for me.”) What do they actually want? More options. “I just want to wear the same things that my straight-sized friends are wearing,” says Richardson. “But trend-wise, I’m not seeing the same things across the board.”
On the more matronly end of the spectrum, the disconnect likely springs from outdated ideas about what a larger-bodied woman feels comfortable in. According to Feinstein, there are two distinct generations of plus-size women who are buying clothes right now: an older one that wants to cover up what they perceive as imperfections, and the millennial contingent embracing body positivity. “It’s a question of breaking a lot of the old misconceptions of who this woman used to be,” he says. “Plus-size women today look at themselves differently than other generations have.”
“They’re making an assumption that this consumer wants to cover up, or hide her body, and that she may not want to be that adventurous,” adds Richardson. “Black is great, I love it, it’s chic, but I love bright colors too! Again, anything that you’re making in a size 2, I want to wear it—fun prints, patterns, all those things.” She adds that there’s also often a quality discrepancy between straight-size and plus-size clothing. “A lot of times I feel like brands use really cheap fabrics, and on plus sizes, it’s very noticeable. They blame it on a budget issue because you’re cutting more fabric, but usually, I think it’s so minuscule that we’re talking maybe a few cents difference if that.”
Hudgens agrees that there’s a lack of elevated options for women who have a more directional sense of style. Her closet is mostly made up of Universal Standard, ASOS, Marina Rinaldi’s collab with Ashley Graham, and Rent the Runway rentals, which are some of the few that nail her chosen aesthetic. “I’m covered in tattoos and have a half-shaved head,” she says. “I want something that’s edgy and interesting. I’d love to see Zimmermann quality for plus.”
When Richardson’s looking for that elusive mix of good construction and good looks, she heads to ASOS for going-out clothes, Eloquii for work looks, Athleta for activewear, and Good American and Slink for denim. But still, she says, options are a lot more limited than they are for the size-2 blogger crowd. “We have to work 10-times harder to find something that’s unique and cool,” she says. “So when [plus-sized bloggers] are dressed really well, it’s like ‘Damn, I know that girl took a lot of time and effort to do that because it’s really hard.'”
Even when larger sizes are available, they’re not always easy to find
When a brand commits to expanding into bigger sizes, you’d think they would actually, you know, stock those sizes in their stores. But that’s not always the case. Take J.Crew for example: Although the brand offers sizing through a 24 / 5X, Richardson says that in her experience, only a tiny fraction of those items are actually sold in its brick-and-mortar stores. (The rest are available online.) “I can’t walk in and just buy something on a whim if I’ve got an event to go to [that night],” she says. “And I’m screwed if I go travel somewhere and lose my luggage.” If that does happen, she tries to find Nordstrom, where she says she can consistently find a wide range of covetable plus-size labels IRL—J.Crew, Madewell, and Good American included.
Our survey respondents echoed these frustrations. They also took issue with the fact that when larger sizes are found in stores, they’re sequestered off into their own separate section—which is marginalizing in and of itself. (“I don’t want to shop in a different section than my friends!” one reader said.) Friedman believes that retailers are missing a huge opportunity to connect with plus-size shoppers by not catering more to them offline. “There’s such a level of distrust with this customer that it’s hard to engage her online,” he says, pointing out that plus-size shoppers are used to feeling like the fashion industry isn’t on their side. “It’s easier if you’re in a store setting.”
Of course, if the size inclusivity movement continues on as it has been, we may eventually see a day when “plus-size” isn’t even a distinction anymore. That’s what Universal Standard is aiming for: “We firmly believe that the time has come to start thinking in terms of unified fashion—that’s when the inequity really becomes clear and begs to be resolved,” says Waldman. “The unfairness permeates issues well beyond size. It’s also about quality, selection, fit, diversity of brands. It’s really odd that putting all sizes into one brand is a novel, even radical, idea.” But let’s be optimistic: Putting avocado on toast once seemed out-there, and look where we are now. So there’s hope for the fashion industry yet.
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