very time I see a wrap dress, a chill runs down my spine. There’s nothing wrong with wrap dresses, they’re cute and fun and easy to wear — a perfect garment even! But for years of my life, particularly my most impressionable years, it was drilled into my brain that pretty much the only thing I should put on my larger-than-normal (but statistically average) body was a wrap dress. Why? Because it was flattering. And I obeyed. For special occasions and dances and family functions, I hid the parts of my body I was told I should and wrapped that dang dress. I had a few wrap shirts too, and in the late-ish aughts acquired plenty of going-out tops that were tight at the bust and flowy at the bottom—the wrap dress’s boozy, fun cousin. All the while, I longed to wear one of those spaghetti strap Delia*s prom dresses.
Flattering as a concept is complicated. It’s natural to want to make the most of what you’ve got. But for years, “flattering” clothing existed as a way to morph my body into something more like someone else’s. If it wasn’t flattering, I just didn’t wear it: I hated my legs so I didn’t wear shorts; I hated my arms so I didn’t wear tank tops. Then I hated how hot I got, so I spent most of my summers indoors. Eventually, I got tired of hiding myself, a combination of getting older and wiser and a cultural shift towards “body-positivity,” led me to just wear what I want to wear (as a 12/14 I am well aware of the privilege of being on the smaller end of plus size, both in fashion and in life re: the systemic ways larger bodies are discriminated against). With the rise of body positivity, fat acceptance and just generally more stylish people of varying sizes, fashion for those larger than a size 8 has expanded from my years toiling in JC Penny dressing rooms.
But for me, working in fashion can distort that sense of progress. Emily Zirimis and I talk a lot about the delicate balance between celebrating how far things have come and acknowledging the spaces in which we still feel left out. “I’m also frustrated and angry at fashion for making me feel excluded from the cool crowd — the cool crowd that you want so badly to be a part of but that just won’t let you in — no matter how nice, how smart, how funny, how creative you may be,” she said to me recently. “If you aren’t a certain size, you’re told that you can’t participate in certain trends and ultimately, I’m not okay with that.” So, we decided to make a story with a different message.
Together with stylist Mecca James-Williams and photog Louisiana Mei Gelpi the gem of Em’s idea of smashing plus size clichés – taking the “rules” of plus size dressing and breaking them with aplomb- became a beautiful reality. Models Ansley Morgan and Tembe Denton Hurst were on hand to tell me about their experience on set. “I encountered ‘rules’ in plus-size fashion from a young age,” says Tembe. “For starters, there wasn’t much of it, so those rules were implicitly stated by the options I had.”
Here’s how to break the three cardinal rules from the What-Not-To-Wear era:
1. “Don’t wear horizontal stripes”
Stripes make one look wide, horror of horrors.
Ansley hasn’t always felt beholden to this rule. “If I wanted to wear stripes or a large pattern, I just did it,” she says. “The only thing I have felt limited by is the lack of clothing choices I have had throughout my life. My choices have definitely grown in the past few years as more brands have become size-inclusive, but there is still so much growing left to do.” Put stripes of all kind on your body, you will look like you.
2. “Don’t wear bright colors”
Black is so slimming, don’t you know.
Who can live like this??? WHO. “It was definitely empowering to be part of something that purposefully centered larger bodies and intentionally styled to push those boundaries,” Tembe says of the shoot. “It’s important for plus-size women to see themselves in every kind of outfit option because bold hues and interesting shapes look good on plus size bodies too.” Emily chimed in with her own succinct take: “If you want to dress like a prairie girl going to a disco, then you better get to it.”
3. “Don’t wear anything oversized or shapeless”
Create the illusion of (insert body part here).
This one was always confounding, as it felt like the same people who were dolling out this nugget of wisdom were also very staunchly against wearing anything form-fitting. Create a shape and show it off, but not too much. No too baggy, not too tight. Have you considered a wrap dress? “There was also a lot of messaging around rules in media, whether it was ‘well-meaning’ infographics about how to hide a stomach or plus-size women being pushed toward ruching in a makeover show,” says Tembe. “There’s no reason all clothes don’t come in all sizes, and shoots like this push back against the stigma that certain silhouettes don’t look good unless they’re on a thin frame.”
If we could pause for a moment and look at the photos of Ansley and Tembe for what they are: two beautiful women in beautiful clothing, suspend the message and hold them in appreciation for their aesthetic value alone. One day that’s just what those photos will be but there’s plenty left to do to make fashion a welcome space for all bodies, size inclusivity in smaller and sustainable brands, more extended plus size options, androgyny being more size inclusive, moving away from a certain type of plus size models, but the importance of visibility is so, so crucial. Lizzo in couture at the Met Gala, the pool party scene and just about everything else in Shrill, Gabbi Sidibe getting it in on Empire, there are so many more plus-size women being represented in media and wearing basically what they please.
Throwing sartorial caution to the wind and breaking up with all of the old plus-size fashion advice was one of the best things I ever did. For me, a life of horizontal stripes and colors and large breezy sack dresses is a life well lived. “I wear whatever I want and that’s how everyone should approach fashion!” says Ansley. “I finally felt free when I decided that I did not care what others think and from that point on I no longer limited myself within my wardrobe.” But it didn’t happen overnight. “I think reaching this level of self-acceptance took me a long time because we live in a society that has always made me feel like my body type did not belong,” she says, “but when I finally did, it was the best feeling.”
Photographer: Louisiana Mei Gelpi
Stylist: Mecca James-Williams
Art Direction/Production: Emily Zirimis
Models: Tembe Denton-Hurst and Ansley Morgan
Makeup: Isabel Rosado
Hair: Karla Serrano
Stylist Assistants: Raziel Martinez and Karen Lopez