Sunday, 20 June 2010

The Fat of the Land

Saturday's NYT featured an article about the growth of the plus-sized clothing industry. As 28% of Americans are obese, and two-thirds of American women are either overweight or obese, the plus-sized market is quite literally expanding, even when women's overall apparel market is decreasing. More clothing retailers are bringing their plus-sized lines from online to the stores, and even some higher-end designers have started to look into making clothes available for bigger bodies. As worrying as the obesity stats might be, it's about time that plus-sized women were given the option to choose to wear nice clothes instead of having to opt for shapeless tents, horrid big prints and ill-fitting trousers armed with an elastic waistband, which most likely are only available in an online catalogue today. The plus-sized customers now have a unique moment in the history of clothing retail to demand things that all women want from their clothing: availability teamed with real quality and fit.

As the article explains, there are several reasons to why the retailers haven't supplied their customers with the clothes they want. Bigger sizes are more expensive to make as they require wider bolts of fabric, which increases production costs. They are more expensive to stock, and more difficult to design. It is hard to tell how a plus-sized person's weight is distributed, which makes the issue of fit difficult to calculate, or in other words, one size doesn't fit all. For these reasons, many pieces of clothing in the plus-sized market never find a home. All of these explanations sound reasonable enough, but the plus-sized customer is out there now, wanting to spend money on clothes. What worries me is that the clothing retailers might rely on the assumption that plus-sized women want to be tricked into the same mass-production trap as the rest of the women in the Western world: that more availability is automatically a good thing for the customer, and that mass-market production offers viable options to individuals in the first place. Unfortunately, as we have seen in the world of "normal"-sized clothing market, more is often less: less quality, less fit, less design. In the case of the plus-sized market though, there doesn't seem to be all that much fit or design to even start with, which indicates a special bargaining position for the plus-sized clientele. They ought to demand more than what is being offered to their "normal"-sized counterparts.

For a few years now, as mass-market clothing retailers have gained more and more of a foothold in women's minds and wallets, the trends that these retailers have offered have ranged anywhere from A-shaped tunics, boyfriend jeans, oversized blazers and shirts to harem pants and jersey sack dresses. What I am getting at here is the utter shapelessness of the world of clothing today, the lack of fit and the lack of proper tailoring. We are learning to associate fit with discomfort, and anything shapeless with functionality. I believe we are being fooled into thinking that women with or without shape will buy in terms of availability, not on the basis of need followed by demands of quality. The connotations of the NYT article suggest that the plus-sized market is still out there to be exploited in the same manner as the "normal"-sized market, even when women with extreme figures (be it over- or underweight, petite, tall or what have you) are in desperate need for properly fitting clothes.

At the end of the day, however, women everywhere, regarless of their size and shape, need to be able to purchase clothes - preferably, clothes that fit. I sincerely hope that the boost in the plus-sized market means that the so-called difficulties in designing plus-sized clothes means that more effort will be put into the design and production of the garments in question. This might eventually lead to levels of decent quality. But how many shapeless items are produced and wasted before the retailers might wake up? Looking at the "normal"-sized market, that wake-up call there is long overdue. The more customers settle for mediocre products, the less variety there really is for them to choose from. Here's to hoping that the plus-sized customer knows what she wants, and isn't afraid to demand it. If not, the clothing retailers will simply tap into a new bottomless well of shopping-mania, fostered by women whose size makes them the perfect target for the clothing industry today.

Shapeless sack dress: Selected Femme
Vintage necklace: America's Attic
Shoes: Trippen


jungleworldcitizen said...

Clarifying and well written, thanks for sharing.
Your dress is very beautiful.
Have a great Sunday =)

Anonymous said...

Clothing in general off the rack never fits. Its a generalized shape and you have to tailor it to actually fit you. Even with really nice/expensive clothes. I think that is why the less expensive stores opt for so much lycra/spandex: It can stretch to "fit". I have everything taken in and shortened because they don't make my size in the ladies department. They do in Juniors but at 25 I don't feel I should be wearing juniors juniors clothing is horribly made. Its frustrating but once you learn how to sew its not so bad :).

I have dressed many plus size friends of mine over the years. It is hard, and it is horribly unfair. They have so few stores to choose from. And they can't just have it taken in like I can. However, there are some beautiful stores for plus sized women. Layne Bryant is one, and Torrid is really fun for the younger (teen - 20 something) women. Its Hot Topic's plus size store. Its a mix of punk and mainstream, lots of fun. I often wish I could shop there.

Modesty is Pretty said...

What a beautiful shapeless dress at first I thought it was one of those old shapeless dress but then I saw the detail of the best and arms and it's so lovely, I also love the color,it's perfect on you and great way to combine it with those sandals. Now about the issue with plus size clothing to be totally honest I never thought about how they don't have as many options as a "normal" size woman has, I've seen more plus size at the stores though and I know that at the thrift stores is even more difficult to find good clothes for plus size. My mom is plus size and what she does is buy clothes and then alters them herself for a good fit. I think that is what most women should do tailor their own clothes because regardless of the size the fitting of the clothes is not good most of the times, unfortunately not all women know how to sew or have the time or maybe they don't have the interest. Great post and outfit Miss Waves =)

Charlotte said...

I read that article in the Times & thought the statistics quoted were amazing. Two-thirds of American women are overweight/obese? Really?

Generally it's difficult to make claims about off-the-rack clothing because there's SO much variation. I have excellent luck with a few brands that fit as if tailor made for me (Eileen Fischer is one). Others don't fit no matter what (Lands End clothes are consistently horrible-looking on me).

I read a very good sewing book a few years ago that pointed out all the differences between a "European" fit and an "American" fit, and showed how to take clothes in to achieve the former. The differences were slight, but a half inch here and there makes a big difference in the way the garment looks and fits.

There's a BIG difference between "shapeless" and "loose-fitting," as well.

Cynthia said...

@Charlotte -- two thirds of American women are "overweight/obese" now, but part of that is because in 1998, they defined the bottom end of the BMI categories down. Used to be, "normal" went up to BMI of 27-something. Now it's 25. That pretty much redefined anyone who's on the more mesomorphic or endomorphic end of normal up into "overweight". Someone like me (BMI 25.6) went from normal to fat overnight. I'm 5'7 1/2", 39/30/42, size 10 or 12 in the normal run of things, not small but not exactly enormous.

Odd coincidence that that's also about the time we really started hearing about the "obesity crisis".

More on topic, even as a woman on the largeish end of misses sizes, fits are so hit and miss. I've tried on, I swear, every pair of pants in Anthropologie over the last few weeks, a bunch in Banana Republic, a bunch at the Gap. I am always finding pants that are too tight in the hips in one size, but then hugely gappy in the waist at a size above. Even we can't win. I was very plus-sized about 10 years ago and I don't recall it being that much more frustrating to buy clothes than now.

Probably everything being so unsatisfyingly short of right is part of the reason for all the shopping people do. Trying to find something that actually works, failing, trying again.

Charlotte said...

Interesting, Cynthia. I read also that the BMI is often off for athletes because lean muscle mass is heavier than fat. I wonder if these women, too, are considered "obese" because they have a BMI of 26.

Anecdotally, though, I do see a lot of seriously overweight people when I'm out & about, so there must be some validity to the claims of an epidemic.

Cynthia said...

@Charlotte, I don't really doubt that a lot of people are overweight. They are. But I'm a little skeptical of "2/3 of us are dangerously fat" (which the term "epidemic" automatically suggests, because "epidemic" = disease) and I think norm-redefining may be part of that. Also, there's a tendency in the media to breathlessly conflate everyone who doesn't meet body image norms into one group, and recent scientific studies are actually showing that the "merely overweight" (like me) are about as healthy as the "normals" and actually less likely to keel over at any given moment than the underweight.

Eyeliah said...

Difficult or not it is a market that has been grossly ignored for too long and the clothing options need to be available. There is also a double edged sword to this when I look back at my personal weight issue experiences as when I got to the largest size in my favorite store it was the catalyst that pushed me to go and get healthy. I ended up losing all the weight and getting healthy again!! I would hate to think how much bigger and bigger I would have got if there was always another size up that I could wear.

joelle van dyne said...

i think it's great that manufacturers are finally going to wake up and realize that they need to make more varied sizes. i used to work in a dept store in ohio, and the little 'plus sized' section was ridiculous- everything in it looked like pajamas or a sweatsuit- no shape, no tailoring. i hope that more fitted pieces start to become available, and also, that once in stores these items are mixed in wtih all the other clothes- not in their own special section. it seems alienating.~joelle

Karenina said...

Very interesting thoughts. It's true that plus sized women seem to be suffering from a dearth of fashion choices, however, I'm not sure that providing "mainstream" (read: trendy) fashion choices is going to be a really great thing either. I suppose overweight women have the right to subject themselves to unflattering tunics and legging like the rest of us, but it just seems a shame. Just because everyone else is jumping off a bridge...

I wish more stores offered reasonable (or even free) in-store tailoring and we could get away from the slob epidemic. That being said, I have a feeling that a lot of the "oversize" and shapeless fashions that are in vogue right now are the result of a desire for comfort and freedom to move; I know on days I feel a little bloated, I don't like anything particularly fitted. I'm not sure women are ready to go all-in for tailored pantsuits and dresses again (especially considering the American lifestyle is one centred around "leisure" and being "laid back").

Funny to note, my best friend is 5'8 and 200+ pounds...I am 5'6 and about 105 pounds. We are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and yet we both have the same problem. Neither of us can really shop in "mainstream" women's stores. I guess it is frustrating, but in the end it just means we have to be more creative, more discriminating, and make better purchases. Not necessarily a bad thing!

We're not going to get around this size issue any time soon. I guess that's why handbags and shoes will always be so popular!

Great post!

Eline said...

Completely and totally agree with you. Preach it!

Also, need to say that I absolutely adore your outfit here! The sandals and the dress are so perfect! The draping of the dress is so pretty!