What Does Ashley Graham’s Fame Mean For “Plus-Size” Fashion?

Supermodel Ashley Graham is the cover star of New York Magazine’s September fashion issue. She is photographed crouching, sphinx-like, in a leopard-print coat, leopard-print bustier, leopard-print pillbox hat and black high-waist underwear. An iconic style moment in the making.

A few days after the cover was revealed, Business of Fashion broke the news that, as of next month, luxury e-commerce platform 11 Honoré will be selling designer ready-to-wear pieces in sizes 10 to 20 by designers such as Prabal Gurung, Monique Lhuillier, Brandon Maxwell, Christian Siriano, Michael Kors, Tome and Zac Posen.

These back-to-back developments are noteworthy in that they check frequently-ignored boxes in the fashion industry: 1) a non-sample size model appearing on the September cover of a major publication in a shoot that actually shows off her body, and 2) a luxury retailer actually providing size 10-20 women with the same fashion options available to the straight-size set. It makes me wonder: Is plus-size fashion — a category in consumer culture used to cater to shoppers above the size range of 0-12, but which ought to just be defined as fashion — finally, finally, finally becoming more mainstream?

I asked a few women in the industry to weigh in.

because you're mine 🌙 // 📷 @christinaemiliephoto

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Plus-size fashion is becoming more ‘mainstream’ in that more of it actually exists,” says Kellie Brown of And I Get Dressed, which she describes as, “A plus-size fashion blog for women of all sizes.” “Ashley Graham is stunning, but she’s also a unicorn. A firm and fit supermodel body is only one example of a plus-size body. In addition to increased visibility around different body types, size-inclusivity across different brands is equally important. I want to buy the same clothes my friends are buying at Zara. It seems simple, but it’s not. I feel like I’m lodging the same complaint over and over again: Don’t dumb down my fashion, whether accessible or luxury — because I’m super smart.”

Cover photo by Maurizio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari

Fellow style blogger Katie Sturino of The 12ish Style, has similar praise for Graham’s cover story; however, she finds certain aspects of media reporting around these topics problematic. Having recently launched Megababe, a collection of anti-chafing products, she’s experienced this firsthand.

“I think the people who are writing these stories in the media, and the people who are heading up these brands or retailers that are starting to offer plus-size apparel, are rarely plus-size themselves, so they don’t personally speak the language. We actually had someone write an article about Megababe’s anti-chafe stick, and it was very clear that she had never experienced thigh-chafing herself, so she didn’t totally understand what any of the products do, and that’s kind of a metaphor for what’s happening overall. It’s great that brands are finally taking advantage of the size-inclusive market and publishers are reporting on it, but women with first-hand experience still need to be informing some of those decisions, not to mention shaping the narrative.”

You know I'm rocking that #BustDust 💦@megababe

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I mentioned how I found it telling that, even though Graham’s profile was beautifully-written and photographed, the focus of the story was still her otherness. The text below Graham’s bold name on the cover reads, “AHEAD OF THE CURVES.” It’s couched in the same language and the same narrative framework so often used to tell the story of a “nonconforming body.” “Yes,” agreed Katie. “Even though ‘plus-size’ is the norm in terms of the actual average body, it’s still a novelty in the fashion industry, which is why that same narrative keeps getting retold.”

Never thought that breaking rules would make us feel this good 💣💥💋

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I tapped brand strategist and creative consultant Nicolette Mason, who recently teamed up with blogger Gabi Gregg to launch Premme, a brand that tailors to sizes 12 through 30. Without diminishing the worthwhileness of Graham’s success, Mason pointed out that the wheels of her career trajectory are greased by virtue of the fact that she is on the smaller end of what the industry defines as “plus.”

Photo by Maurizio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari

“I love seeing Ashley celebrated and acknowledged by the industry, but I often wonder what it would look like to have a multitude of sizes representing all categories in fashion. Especially in the plus-size segment, we rarely see models larger than a size 12 or 14, and that is something that needs to change. I also think the conversation right now is overwhelmingly focused on fashion but rarely addresses issues of intersectionality or discrimination. By that I mean that the models who are centered in this conversation are almost all white or light skinned, ‘well-proportioned,’ cis, able-bodied… What would it look like to add more diversity to that representation?”

The issue of representation is important to Graham, too, and she is careful to recognize her advantages. “I know I’m on this pedestal because of white privilege,” she tells New York Magazine. “To not see black or Latina women as famous in my industry is crazy! I have to talk about it. I want to give those women kudos because they are the ones who paved the way for me.”

Like most complex issues tied up in consumerist agendas, shifting social norms and actual human beings, with bodies and voices that have historically been put down or even erased, the push for more visibility around women of all shapes and sizes in the fashion industry is a slow-moving battle, albeit a critical one. Progress should be celebrated, including New York Magazine’s cover and 11 Honoré’s expansion in size offering, but not without acknowledging the work that has already been done — both by those who are granted visibility and those who are not — or the work that remains unfinished.

Photos by Maurizio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari for New York Magazine.

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  • Micah Lpez

    It seems as though she’s the only model who’s getting visibility. The conversation isn’t really happening because most publishers are talking about HER, not the group of people who they feel she represents. The attitude concerning inclusivity of all sizes (IMO) dosent seem to be shifting but rather it’s sort of seems like they (who’s they ?) are giving the consumer half of a banana so they don’t complain that they’re hungry.

    • Rachel

      I get that feeling too. I feel like she’s been able to break out as a “plus-sized” supermodel because a) she’s white, but also b) because of her personality, which is something people love to see (i.e. Cara, Kendall and Karlie).

      • Andrea Raymer

        That is definitely talked about in the NY Magazine article. I think she herself is very aware of the factors that have allowed her to really break out and she spends a lot of time trying to share her spotlight with other working “plus-sized” models.

        Also, I put plus sized in quotation marks because I do not consider myself plus sized and I look like her. I personally really appreciate having her (and other models as well) to look to as a person that I can see myself in even if I don’t necessarily identify with the label that the industry has given them. One of the things about her career that has affected me has less to do with the “fashion” part of her career and more to do with how she has managed to present her body type as sexy and romantically appealing in a way that is humanized rather than fetishized (I get really irritated by that). I have always tied my body image to romantic relationship and my lack thereof. I actually cried the first time I watched the DNCE video that she starred in as Joe Jonas’s love interest because it was the first time I had ever seen someone that looked like myself as being desirable to someone that is more traditionally attractive in a way that was more realistic and less of a punchline (It was also a plus that I was a JoBros diehard back in the day).

        • Pterodactyl111

          Honestly I was shocked by how good that article was. I thought the photos were not great, but the article was really A+.

        • Cristina

          I think my only qualms are that she’s a pretty fan-freaking-tastic version of “plus sized”. In any of her social media posts or videos, I rarely see any cellulite that she speaks of. Her tummy is flat. She’s a pretty firm, “thick” girl is what I would say. I’m not that much smaller than her and to relate to a “plus-sized” model because she’s now representing larger woman is still pretty unattainable. It’s still the idea that this body type is acceptable, not you with the muffin top or stretch marks or post-baby belly or bra fat. Stuff like that. I know it’s ‘Merica and they prob aren’t gonna put someone that represents an even more real body in print or runway, but for some reason.. AG doesn’t really make think one giant step for all mankind. She’s a model like the other models. She just happens to be larger than other models, but not all inclusive of womens bodies, in my opinion! Also, I’m going to watch that video right meow! 🙂

        • Jolie

          Yes to ALL of this. I am a size 8/10 and when I look in the mirror, my body looks very similar to Ashley Graham’s. She’s gorgeous and sexy and seems like a really cool, self-aware person, and I’m thrilled she’s seen so much success. But when the industry is celebrating the rise of someone with the same body type as me, there’s an issue. I find the term “plus-size” annoying, because it otherizes women who aren’t a size 12 or under. The fact that Ashley Graham is the first super-famous model who looks like me reeeeally disturbs me, I had a similar reaction to the DNCE video. It’s something I don’t think much about in my daily life, because I’ve never had a problem finding people who are attracted to me, but this is something that’s not portrayed in the media and that is really sad for a lot of people who look like us. We’re normal, we’re out there, we’re sexy too – there’s more than one of us, and we’re all different sizes and colors and people.

          • Andrea Raymer

            I haven’t worn clothes with a single digit number on the size since I hit puberty. This is just how my body looks despite always being active and eating fairly healthy, I have also always been taller than my friends. But subconsciously I have always correlated the fact that I was a late bloomer when it came to dating with the way my body looks. I also not only notice that I compare my body with my female peers but also any guys I may be interested in. I tend to be attracted to skinnier guys that aren’t that much taller than me and I get very insecure that we wouldn’t match. I loved how she talked about her husband weighing less than her in the NY Mag interview because women are expected to be these small dainty creatures. Only recently have I started to pull myself out of that mindset. I feel more powerful being tall and thick and heavy.

          • Jolie

            Even though I was always dating, I NEVER felt confident about myself until I was about 22. Why? Because I wasn’t seeing myself reflected in the media. The thought didn’t even enter my head to feel attractive. When guys would tell me what they liked about me, I was bewildered. I also compared myself to the guys I liked, who were smaller than me most of the time.

            You know what really changed my attitude toward my body? Fucking Tinder. When I started using it, I would swipe right on really attractive guys and be shocked when we matched. “This hot guy thinks I’M hot?!” I would go on dates with them and couldn’t get over the fact that even when they saw me and my body in person, they were still into me. That really changed my mindset and made me feel like “Damn, I was worrying about nothing. I’m hot, and I’ve got something about my body that society doesn’t have in abundance.” I also feel powerful in my body now and I believe it shows in the way I carry myself. I’m really happy you’ve been able to get to that place as well.

        • Isabel Sanoja

          Andrea!!!!!! 👏👏👏👏

  • Perfumadelarosa

    what about Men? why there ain’t a plus-size Man model that can be a real representation of all real men in real life? …

    • skmots

      We just weren’t talking about men. This is sort of like saying “What about Anteaters?” in response to this article.

    • Ciccollina

      Also, fashion, magazines and models are not supposed to represent real people in real life. They are selling a fantasy. I don’t want to see real men, I see those all the time!

  • lateshift

    “I asked a few women in the industry to weigh in.” [sigh] #iswydt

  • Cynthia Schoonover

    I don’t consider size 12 a plus size. I thought plus sizes started at size 20. I do think that every woman, regardless of size, should be able to find attractive clothing that fits. I’ve never been skinny and I never will be skinny, and I’ve stopped worrying about it. I also find ready-to-wear sizing extremely inconsistent. Just last spring, I bought a dress in a size XXL! The sizes ran small, and I really didn’t care about the size, because I really wanted the dress.

    • Danielle Cardona Graff

      RTW is extremely inconsistent. Several brands implement “vanity sizing” where sizing is actually labeled smaller but cut with a roomier fit-capitalizing on the desire to be smaller. Other brands do the opposite and size down, and others still, are just random depending on where the garments are manufactured.

    • Gretel Stroh

      Fashion industry norm used to be 6-16….back in the 70s there were NO size 0s….let alone double 0s….fit models used to be in the middle, a size 8 and they would size up and down from there……I think the problem started when sizes started getting larger if you look at a size 12 dress from the 50s it fits a size 8 from the 70s…..then somewhere in the warped world of fashion they made size 12 a plus size? It’s really insulting to decree a size 10 a plus size….

      • Lil

        Very true. Early 90’s is when fashion became obsessed with size zero’s. Now it’s all about being a size zero but with DD breasts.

  • Lil

    Omg I love that she admits to and is understanding of her white privilige. Also yes more women of more body sizes need to be included. It’s as if fashion editors just made size 6 the new size 8. They’ve onlu pushed the boundaries of elite fashion society literally one step further.

  • pamb

    Back in the 90s (I think) there was a famous plus sized model named Emme. She was heralded as The Future. She had her moment, and so did Kate Upton (remember when she wasn’t invited to the Met Gala? Good times). Ashley is gorgeous, but she only got on the cover of Vogue with other models beside her. Many lines will be inclusive, but the true high end designers won’t be. I don’t see Kaiser Karl hiring Ashley for Chanel’s runway.

    I guess you can say that I’m pessimistic about any real changes in the industry. It’s the smaller, independent lines that will lead the way, and they don’t get the press or have the reach of Dior, Givenchy, etc.

    A smart person somewhere wrote that when plus sized models are featured, they are often posed nude, in lingerie or vintage. Ashley’s NY article has all three. Wonder why that is?

  • Jam Jam

    The NY Mag pics were disappointing. Why can’t the industry figure out how to photograph plus-sized models? They always look so catalogue. Just do the same set up as the high fashion shoot, put the plus-sized model in there, boom, easy.

  • Pterodactyl111

    Does it mean Man Repeller is going to start featuring plus size women?

  • Fabulous Fangirl

    Love this write up. Curious to see how 11 Honoré does; I was working on my style and finding brands that make what I like in my size, and it just leaves me in the mindset of yeah… I’m just going to have to lose weight if I ever want to wear something that is ‘me’.

  • joshuahair

    The worst thing about shopping for plus sized clothing is that my options aren’t the same cute clothes in a bigger size. Even brands that are exclusively plus size tend to be matronly or juvenile. There isn’t ANY diversity in style. Obviously not all women dress the same. I’m a size 16 and I don’t want to wear a flowy tent with no waist. I don’t want to wear only polka dot skater dresses. I want a blazer that isn’t an awkward length and doesn’t look dated. The best company as far as actual fashion, affordability, diversity in style and size options is ASOS. Eloquii is amazing but expensive, forever 21 is well, forever 21. There are a few cheap clubwear sites that have extended sizes but who is trying to wear a cutout bodycon dress every day?! I can count plus size brands on one hand that aren’t atrocious and on one finger that actually appeals to my personal style. I’m sure many many women who have totally different taste than I do can agree on this.

  • Ciccollina

    New York Magazine has advertisers that they work with, and these companies have a strong influence on the content/cover/tone of the publication. Let’s say, for example, that Hermes want to run an ad spot in this issue. Who is a typical Hermes customer? White, black, hispanic? Plus sized or something else? Are they in their 20’s or in their 60’s? How much does a 30 year old customer spend compared to a woman in her mid-50s? Or is it a partner that is making the purchases, perhaps we should advertise to that person.

    In other words, it is my belief that the fashion industry may not consider POC, non-cis gendered, or people with disabilities (sorry, I googled to find the correct term here but couldn’t find a conclusive answer) as cover stars on major magazine titles because they don’t believe that these people are their primary customer.