MR Round Table: Plus Size Women in Fashion
Plus size bloggers Kellie Brown and Katie Sturino guest star in today’s discussion
Amelia Diamond: We’re here today to talk about the lack of size diversity in fashion — that for so long the industry has promoted one body type. The New York Times ran an article titled, “In Fashion, Fat Is Still a Taboo” about an art exhibit called Beyond Measure: Fashion and the Plus-Size Woman. The author writes about society’s size-exclusionary history, how it’s come a long way and yet, how in fashion, “progress has been halting.”
Just as with the lack of racial diversity in this industry, fashion’s size issue isn’t solely apparent on the runway; there’s a very real lack of size acceptance in the actual stores, on the consumer level. When Katie Sturino and I are gathering looks for her shoots, we have a hard time finding items — actual pieces to buy, not just samples — in both high fashion and high street stores.
Katie Sturino, fashion blogger at The 12ish Style and MR model: One of the big things is that making something “plus” (or even any size extended past a ten) is considered to be a special project for a brand, or like a big “You’re welcome.” In reality, it should be the norm because that’s the average size of a woman. What are we saying about women if we’re making it so hard for them to find clothes in stores?
Kellie Brown, fashion blogger at And I Get Dressed: It’s like a “risk” to the companies. It’s not something that they feel is worth spending the money on. They’re not sure how it’s going to turn out. And then I feel like — and I’ve worked for so many brands, too — that everyone treats the “plus size customer” like one person. In straight size fashion, you can be edgy, you can be preppy, you can be into retro stuff. You can be really fashion-forward, you can be sporty, whatever your personal style is. But people address plus size customers as one person. We don’t all want fit and flare. I want a giant Margiela sack! That’s what I want.
You’re talking about millions of women all with individual personalities, sensibilities, personal style, taste.
Katie: Isn’t the assumption that the plus size customer won’t shop? Won’t spend money?
Katie: I don’t understand why that is.
Kellie: I think that the difference is that we have so few options to spend money on. Straight size women, or anyone who is below a size 10, if you don’t want to spend a ton of money, you still have a bajillion options. You can go to all of those really accessible brands.
Those accessible brands that do sell plus size clothing almost set it up to fail. First of all, there’s only, like, three basic t-shirts and sweatpants in a store full of cool stuff. They don’t promote it. If you make it and don’t tell anyone, you can’t then say, “It didn’t do well, it didn’t sell out,” because no one knew, there were no marketing dollars behind it.
Amelia: And a lot of stores that do carry plus sizes don’t carry it in the brick and mortar store. They only carry it online.
Emily Zirimis, graphic designer at Man Repeller: When they do carry it in the store, they corral everyone into a certain area. That’s really messed up. I was at a department store recently and I was looking for a coat. Women’s was on the first floor and plus size women’s was on the third floor, all the way in the back corner past children’s. And I was like, what message is that sending me as the buyer? Why are we hiding the plus sizes? Why not integrate all of the sizes into one clothing rack. Why not say a size 2 to 28 in the same style.
Kellie: That’s easier if everything comes in plus — especially when you’re in a store and you know that they have plus, but only in certain pieces. Do you really want to scour through every rack? If a store has everything in all sizes, that would totally make sense, but when only seventeen SKUs out of four hundred and eighty come in plus sizes, how can you shop? You have to literally look through everything and hope that the rack you’re guessing at has your size. To the stores who do invest in creating plus size options — especially the mass retailers — we want the same stuff. Don’t just make little special collections. If you’re going to cut it, cut it all. I don’t think that will ever happen, to be honest.
Emily: Where’s the J.Crew and the Madewell for plus size? You know? Basic pieces. Like a great pair of jeans, a nice sweater. Old Navy is the closest? But it’s not quality.
Kellie: J.Crew in plus would kill. It’s basics, but it’s fashion forward. It would be such a dream. Zara in plus!
Emily: I find myself basing my style, whatever that is, off of what’s available. It’s almost like I don’t know my style because the options aren’t there. It’s like, Okay, I’m going to get this pink shirt because it’s in my size. But maybe I don’t even want a pink shirt.
Katie: I don’t even know what it’s like to walk into a store to pick what I want instead of just what’s going to fit.
Kellie: That’s such a crazy point. A friend of mine just made that, too. She said, “I dress how I dress but I don’t even know what my aesthetic is because it’s not really an option.” You’re making do with what you have. If you could pick anything, would you even own any of this stuff?
Amelia: Where do you go for inspiration?
Kellie: I look at fashion and I adapt it to what’s available to me. I go to extreme lengths because I want to look how I want to look. I’m one of those people, though, that if I have a true dream and I needed to have something, I will get it made. I will figure it out. But that’s really extreme and not fair.
Amelia: Well, for the girl who doesn’t have that inherent sense of what she definitely wants to wear…
Kellie: We all work in fashion and have a fashionable sense, but I look at what’s happening in the same places that you look. I look in magazines, I look at other style blogger — not necessarily plus size bloggers. Most of the blogs I read aren’t. I look at my friends because I like to see what they’re doing. But in terms of inspiration, it’s the same for me as anything.
Katie: And then figuring out how to make it work for you. That’s the same thing for me.
Kellie: Being on the constant hunt: Googling your ass off for a jacket. Oh my god. It took me two years to find a coat!
Amelia: Especially in an age where seemingly everyone has access to fast fashion. You see a trend on the runway, you know you’re going to find it the next day. To have to be on the hunt for it longer…
Kellie: You miss a lot of stuff.
Katie: I find that brands aren’t interested or don’t care about having you included in a trend. When I call in clothes from a straight size brand for a shoot, they’re just not interested in loaning, because even though the audience may be big, they don’t care about promoting that size. Even though they make that size!
Kellie: All of the time. So many of my friends who work in publishing or at major magazines and write for plus, even though the designers make it, they will not give them samples because they don’t want that featured.
Amelia: That’s just insane to me. I don’t understand from a marketing standpoint why you wouldn’t.
Kellie: It’s the dumbest thing. We spend so much money — we have to! — but you don’t have the option.
Katie: Wasn’t that the point of that New York Times article? That fashion doesn’t want “fat?”
Emily: “Fashion’s job is to exclude.” That’s what the exhibit’s curator told the author.
Kellie: But is it all of the mass retailers’ jobs? If you’re looking at the new Céline collection or you’re looking at Chanel and you’re like, ok, they didn’t send it down a runway, that’s fine — I mean it’s not fine — but why can’t you make it, Mr. Mass Retailer Brand? You’re copying all of this. The trickle down. It starts at the top of the pyramid, yet even as it trickles down, we’re still being ignored. And we really do want to be part of the consumer process.
Emily: It’s hard to be interested in fashion when they don’t respect you as a buyer. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten less interested when there’s a sample sale or a runway show. I’m just like, “Why am I going to respect an industry that doesn’t respect me?” All of these big brands, it’s hard to even look. It’s torturous. You can’t buy it, you can’t fit in it.
Katie: Where do you find that you shop?
Emily: ASOS, H&M, Forever21….I can’t seem to find the basic pieces that I want elsewhere.
Kellie: There’s nothing in the middle.
Katie: Dolce & Gabbana, Chloé, Stella McCartney, they all go up to a European size 50. I shop on Net-a-Porter. I’ll buy their 48s and 50s. But that’s rare. It is.
Leandra Medine: Back to what Emily said about not knowing your style — I know this is probably going to sound really trite because I have a fairly small frame, but I’ve been taking hormone shots for the past two weeks because I am prepping my body for IVF, and my stomach has just ballooned. None of my pants actually fit me anymore. I know that it’s trivial and I still fit into a size 4 or 6 and therefore it doesn’t make such a big difference, but I’m not used to this new body, so the outfits that I put together in my head don’t translate the way they used to. I feel like I’m going through a really similar identity crisis, obviously on a different level — and I’m a little annoyed at myself that I keep saying, “Obviously it’s not the same, it’s not the same!” but whatever mental lament you’re experiencing, I’m experiencing, too, you know what I mean?
Kellie: This is a good time to shoot some outfits for the site if you’re having a tummy-conscious moment, then.
Leandra: I’ve been wearing a ton of robes. I’ve been wearing a shit ton of robes.
Kellie: Robes are great! I saw your winter caftan and I was very into that.
Leandra: Yeah winter caftans, big sweaters that cover waist lines because all my pants are open right now. I was actually Gchatting Amelia on Monday — I was looking at Net-a-Porter and I was like, “I need to figure out what I can put on my person. I need to get dressed for the next X amount of months, because if all goes well and I get pregnant, this is going to last for another year.” It’s disheartening how few things are out there for different body types.
Kellie: I love getting dressed and I care about my aesthetic and I don’t want what’s typically offered to me, so I’m in this battle to get dressed. It should be a lot more simple than that.
Amelia: It shouldn’t be a daily struggle.
Leandra: Opening your closet shouldn’t feel like you’re entering a war zone, like you’re going to battle.
Kellie: That’s why being a blogger, it’s so awesome to get emails from girls who feel inspired. I love when someone is like, “I care about fashion now because you’ve inspired me to be invested,” or, “I can find things!” You don’t have to search the Internet because I’m already doing it, so here is the info. People want to care, but if you feel like this thing you spend money on, that you’re interested in and read about in magazines, you look at during shows –if you feel like this industry doesn’t care about you, then why should you care?
But in the end, that mentality hurts you because then you don’t get what you want.
Amelia: All of us work in fashion, which is a difficult and scary industry to come into as is. There’s a consistent fear that maybe you don’t fit in, so how could you get in. I have a few friends who thought that there was no way they’d ever get a job in fashion if they weren’t skinny, so they lost weight. Got skinny for the sake of an internship or job. And now there’s still that underlying fear that they’re going to gain weight and be “found out,” get kicked out of the club. We’ve all felt like that in some way, but how did you get over it?
Katie: I have always felt like the biggest girl. I remember being 23-years-old and working at Dolce & Gabbana, just feeling like a fucking cow. I felt that. They gave me clothes and were so nice, but I felt like a lost cause there. I really think that I didn’t feel comfortable in this industry until my Man Repeller story, which I’ve said before and I’ll say it again and I’m screaming into this microphone. By saying out loud that it was okay to have my body, and it was okay to have cellulite, and it’s okay to want to wear shorts, and it’s okay that like, my thighs not only touch but actually chafe — to say those things to people out loud, and then have women in the comments say, “Me too!,” that was a first for me. That’s the thing that social media has provided me: I’m able to provide an option for girls that have previously had a hard time finding one. They like the look but can’t adapt it to their own bodies because they can’t see it on their own bodies…
Kellie: There’s so much fucked up shit that happens in the plus size world, like they hire a model who’s undersized for her market, pad her up…
Emily: She always has a great face, great jaw line.
Katie: But they don’t want her to have the body she has. There’s all this trickery happening.
Kellie: It’s super convoluted. I feel the same way as you, Katie, especially in fashion. I’m always the biggest girl in the room, even when I’m smaller. And the whole, “How did you get over it?” moment, I think that when it came time to enter this realm, I left that at the door. The minute I said that this is what I’m going to do — working in PR a million years ago, I was like, I’m the biggest girl here, so you’re welcome everybody. Ok? Cool? Alright, it’s over.
What I don’t like is when people compliment my outfit as though it’s a pat on the head: “Look at you, little fashionista!” I’m like, did you say that to blogger X over there? “Congratulations! You don’t look like a disaster!”
Amelia: People always say that to me when I walk into the office.
Leandra: Well it’s also a celebration, Amelia, because you usually come in like a hurricane.
Kellie: It’s like they think that somehow, because I’m a bigger person, my brain doesn’t understand colors and proportions and textures. If I was an interior designer and I was doing your house, you wouldn’t think I couldn’t make a room look beautiful because I’m fat. Yet somehow I shouldn’t understand those same elements to get dressed?
Not only are you the biggest person in the room and you have to get over it, but people like to remind you. Even if it’s in a backhanded compliment.
Emily: I’m tired of being made to feel less-than because of my size.
Amelia: Do you feel like that predominantly in the industry, or in general? Or where does that feel most prevalent for you?
Emily: Just…everywhere. I’m made to feel lesser-than just because of my size. Or maybe it’s in my head. I’m not sure. But even in high school and in college, I always felt like I needed to push myself in other ways to make up for my lesser-than-ness of weight. I wasn’t the pretty, thin girl so I had to be smart.
Leandra: You’re only ever forced to cultivate personality and identity when you have to numb something else. I was thirty pounds overweight until I was in tenth grade in high school and I think that’s why I’m so outgoing and extraverted: because I felt like I had to be.
Emily: You have to be the funny girl, too. That’s another thing.
Kellie: I feel like I have this super contrary attitude toward all of that in terms of what I’m going to accept. Like, whatever you’ve decided about me, I’m not going to accept that. I’m going to excel. Even in the thing you think I’m not good at. Whatever you’re projecting onto me, I’m literally rejecting it. I feel like that’s my personality.
Katie: That’s the attitude of a lot of plus size bloggers now. Like GabiFresh or Nadia Aboulhosn, they’re like, “Fuck you, I look so good. Everyone’s talking about my ass in a good way.” And that, I find, while it’s not me, it’s very inspirational. Like okay, alright, great!
Kellie: It’s refreshing. When people tell me, “Oh, that would be so great if you belted it…” I want to have a public belt-burning session. I’m not cinching my fucking waist! I’m not doing it! Shut up.
Yes, there are acceptable belts. But I’m talking about a belt for the express purpose of cinching your waist because you’re “supposed to” show off that you have one small part of you, but it doesn’t go with the outfit or it’s terrible, it’s elastic.
Amelia: Semi-off-topic, but when Instagram banned the hashtag “curvy,” Margaret Boykin wrote about how the elimination of that body positive word implied there was something vulgar about being curvy, about exposing skin and flesh if you’re over a certain size. But I see a lot of plus size bloggers refusing to give in to that. Plus size bloggers show tons of skin: shorts, crop tops, swimsuits. Just as much as anyone else. They are proving that there’s nothing vulgar about having more.
Katie: I posted a picture of myself in a cat suit the other day and I felt like Khloe Kardashian and I’ve never felt better about myself.
Leandra: That’s an important question I think: when do you feel like the best version of yourself?
Katie: Oh. Probably not in a cat suit. But I do like a cat suit.
Amelia: You love a bathing suit. Your bathing suit shoot for us was dialed up.
Kellie: I feel most comfortable when I’ve pulled off what’s in my mind. It’s like, I’ve executed this outfit the way I saw it. Size is no issue.
Leandra: What about you, Emily?
Emily: I was going to say almost the exact same thing: when things fit and when I don’t have to compromise for my size. When I go into the store and I have an outfit in mind and I don’t have to sacrifice my idea. As far as showing skin, I don’t. I’m just not that type of person to show skin. But the fact that plus size bloggers are makes me feel great inside. I mean, I’m not gonna post a bathing suit photo, but it’s great that they are and I respect that.
Kellie: I think it’s hard, though. Because there’s fat, there’s acceptable fat, and then there’s not acceptable fat. Acceptable fat is tall, lean, not roll-y, not soft, more of an hour glass. But if you’re bigger in the middle or top heavy or whatever…like, I’m 5’10,” I’m not an hourglass, and I post pictures of myself in a bathing suit.
If you feel confident and you want to wear something, go crazy, have fun. But the fashion side of me, if it doesn’t look fashionable, then I won’t like it.
Katie: Do you get comments when you post photos in a bathing suit?
Kellie: Always, but they’re almost never negative. I’ve been super blessed because there is a lot of slut shaming online, and a lot of, “You’re so fat, you’re disgusting.”
Tumblr comments are usually where it’s specific. I think it’s because I’m not “a little fat.” I am all the way plus size. It’s not like, “You could lose a little.” I am clearly a larger person, so maybe they don’t feel the need to say, “You’re fat,” because it’s like, “Duh, I know. I’m aware. I’m tall, I’m black, I’m me.” But what they say is that I’m promoting obesity. “I’m loving this outfit but don’t you feel like you’re promoting obesity?” And it’s like, “How? Because you like what I’m wearing, you think that I’m saying you have to gain weight in order to wear this?” I don’t understand the relation.
Amelia: The logic is not there.
Kellie: It’s not real. Right? So, should I not get dressed? Another thing that’s big among plus size bloggers is that if we post pictures where we’re working out, people will say not to lose weight, that that’s selling out. Others will say, “Oh good, you’re finally losing weight.” And it’s like, Will you like these outfit posts better then? It’s gonna be the same style, same aesthetic.
You can love yourself at any size, on any given day. At your highest weight, at your lowest weight, at your weight that’s good for you. Whatever it is.
Amelia: That’s so hard, to embrace yourself as you are and not let yourself sit in fashion purgatory. I know that feeling so well, where you hate all your jeans because you gained weight but you don’t want to buy new jeans because you want to lose the weight — so you can’t wear any jeans and you feel like crap. It’s a bad feeling.
Leandra: I think that on a baseline level, fashion’s purpose is to make us feel like the best versions of ourselves. No woman, or man, frankly, is not motivated by feeling good about him or herself. And so by default, fashion plays an important role in everybody’s life. What I am finding is that people who are unable to participate force themselves to opt out because they have no other choice. It’s unfair.
We are platitudinously taught that what we look like on the outside doesn’t matter, that it’s all about what’s inside. But so much of what’s inside is informed by what happens on the outside.
When you guys were talking about when you feel your best, you all mentioned occasions where whatever was going on inside reflected what was going on outside. When I ask myself when I feel my best, it almost never actually has to do with what I’m wearing. When you ask me when I feel my worst, that’s always about what I look like.
Something I want to know is, what sort of advice would you give to your former self? If you were talking to the 12-year-old version of yourself and you could actually affect the psychological events that would happen in the subsequent 10 years, what would you say to her?
Kellie: It’s so funny because I don’t know that it would be about my body size. I think I’d say, “Listen to your mom, she knows what she’s talking about. Cherish family.” It would be more profound than: Your future fatness.
When we were talking about getting into fashion, and Amelia mentioned young women who thought they had to lose weight to get into the industry, when I was younger, I didn’t think I couldn’t do it because I was bigger, I thought I couldn’t do it because I was brown.
I thought, “There are no people who look like me.” Then one day I was watching one of those old Style Network shows and I saw André Leon Talley. I didn’t know who he was but he seemed super important, and I was like, “He’s big and black. I could be the girl version of him!” That made me think, “There are people who look like me.” That was more “the thing” than size.
When you don’t see yourself anywhere during that 12-year-old age, it’s kind of a mind-fuck.
Katie: I would say to my 12-year-old self, “You’re okay as you.” I think I spent the past 20 years pressed against the “skinny glass,” trying to get in and never getting in. This is the same body I’ve had since I was literally 12, and I’ve never felt comfortable in my body until probably now.
You walk into a room full of editors who are all zeros and you can’t find the clothes and you can’t buy the thing that everyone has and there’s always some road block — and so many of those blocks are mental. I finally exhaled and just said, “This is my body. This is who I am.” And I felt okay in a way that I never have before.
I think if I could lose all of that time where I was skipping a lunch and being obsessive or feeling like shit or leaving a party early because I wasn’t in a crop top and everyone else was in a crop top…those kinds of body moments: fuck them. And just worry about some other shit.
Worry about so many more important and valuable things for yourself than your weight or your body shape.
Emily: What I’d say is that things get better. Where I grew up, if you weren’t blonde, you weren’t thin, you weren’t tan: forget it.
Leandra: What’s making you happy now?
Emily: I like the change that’s happening. I see it happening in TV, with plus size fashion bloggers. And I like that at least more clothing is available. When I was a kid, nothing was available.
Amelia: There needs to be, across the board, a way for everyone to feel as though they can participate, and to not to be boxed into one category like you said earlier, Kellie. I don’t know how to make that happen. You have to hope that a loud demand for it will help.
In the meantime, I think women sharing stories of how they knocked down doors allows others to say to themselves, “Fine. I’m just gonna do it. I’m gonna move to New York City and enroll in FIT and be the one to design those clothes.”
Emily: Like Ashley [Nell Tipton] who won Project Runway. She’s plus size, and she won as a plus size designer, and the clothes are great. Anyone would want to wear them.
Amelia: Hopefully because of her, there are going to be more and more people designing cool clothes for all sizes.
Emily: It’s going to happen.
Check out Katie Sturino’s website, The 12ish Style, and follow on Instagram here. Check out Kellie Brown’s website, And I Get Dressed, the And I Get Dressed Instagram, and her personal Instagram here. Meanwhile, if you haven’t met Emily Zirimis yet, you may recognize her from making this incredible Bieber gif. She’s our graphic designer and has a sweet Instagram, too.
Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis; Styled by Elizabeth Tamkin; Creative Direction by Emily Zirimis.