The plus-size mystery in women’s fashion

Singer Beth Ditto models fashions by French designer Jean Paul Gaultier in the spring-summer 2011 show.
(Pierre Verdy / AFP / Getty Images)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

By the numbers it just doesn’t seem right. Nearly 65% of American women are overweight, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, and of those, more than 35% are obese. Yet most designer collections end at size 10. And on hundreds of high-fashion runways at international fashion weeks this month and last, ultra-slim models were wearing trendsetting designs that will never be manufactured in sizes to fit most American women.

In a time when retailers are struggling to turn a profit, the disconnect between fashion and reality is a puzzle. The fashion world’s emphasis on tall, thin and young women is frequently cited as contributing to poor self-esteem, anorexia and bias against the overweight.

What’s more, a key finding of a 2009 report by Mintel, an international consumer market research firm, found that plus-size shoppers, especially younger women, want fashions that match those sold in smaller sizes.

But that’s a big request with a small chance of success, experts say. The proportions, economics and aesthetics of plus-size fashion virtually guarantee that fashion — fashion of the trendsetting, desire-stoking, magazine-filling kind — will always favor the thin.


Creating stylish clothing for larger women isn’t as simple as making bigger sizes of existing styles, says Rosemary Brantley, chairwoman of fashion design at the Otis College of Art and Design.

“There are a lot of styles that won’t size up,” said Brantley, a designer and former model. Pattern makers can more easily enlarge or shrink proportions for sizes 0 to 10 because the body’s proportions expand in a more universal manner in the lower sizes.

“The human form is nothing but a bunch of curves,” Brantley said. “Those curves get very exaggerated as one gets bigger. The more exaggerated the curve, the more seaming, the more shaping, more darting, more fitting and more expense.”

Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for the NPD Group, a retail and consumer behavior research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y., puts it this way: “There is a very different science to the plus-size business. Half of what goes into the garment is different. Not all fabrics or techniques can translate to the plus-size customer.”

Indeed, designers adept at making regular sizes often are not trained in techniques to maintain the correct fit and proportion of plus-size clothes.

The design process also requires larger mannequins and fit models on which to fine-tune samples, a significant investment of time and money for manufacturers or fashion schools.

Brantley and other fashion academics say design students have no interest in plus-size design, and as a result, few schools offer extensive courses in the specialty. To fit the multiple body proportions, retailers that cater to larger sizes often resort to carrying boxy, shapeless styles that accommodate a variety of body types.

In fashion classrooms and design studios, the human figure is proportioned to emphasize the clothing, not the body. Fashion illustrators traditionally use a body that is divided into nine or 10 sections, each the length of the head; the normal human body is seven to eight heads tall.


On the typical fashion figure, the distance from waist to knee is exaggerated and the legs are tremendously long, said Eddie Bledsoe, associate professor of fashion design and costume history at the Otis College of Art and Design.

“The stretched-out torso, defined waist and narrower hips ... make the clothes look and hang better,” he said. Further, a lean body with subdued curves allows the flat planes of most clothing to drape without interruption.

“That’s fashion. That’s high fashion,” Bledsoe said. “It’s for the social elite, the aristocracy. It’s not for the average person. That’s the difference between high fashion and consumer or mass fashion.”

Though runways and fashion editorials make clothes seem irresistibly glamorous, Bledsoe pointed out that “the fashion runway is art. It’s a show; it’s theater.” And those magazine images? They’re retouched, the clothes are pinned and altered, and the models aren’t wearing them to be comfortable.


Yet with every edition of “Project Runway,” and every behind-the-scenes blog entry or snapshot, high fashion’s thin mystique blends ever more into popular culture, where its familiarity stokes expectations. The thin figure is ubiquitous. Models are no longer rare creatures who exist in faraway fashion ateliers; they’re stars of talk shows, reality television, actresses, wives of rock stars and even fashion designers themselves.

“Our eyes have been trained to accept the proportions of the nine-head figure,” said Kaye Spilker, curator of costume and textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “The more we see of it, the more it becomes normal and seems attainable,” she said.

Throughout fashion and art history, a plump human form was more often the aberration than the norm, as well.

“We’re vertical beings. History is full of our attempts to increase our verticality with everything from crowns to stilettos,” Spilker said. Though art has sometimes featured fuller bodies, for centuries fashion has focused on two major silhouettes, the hourglass and the lean column, both of which were often achieved by corsets, binding and other body manipulations.


The unattainable ideal has long been the engine of fashion, which, for better or worse, sets new standards of perfection to help us distinguish ourselves from the everyday person, Spilker said.

Debate rages in academic and fashion circles about the correct approach to the plus-size market. Some critics say it’s only a gimmick, a token, when designers feature a full-figured model in a field of thin models, as Jean Paul Gaultier did earlier this month with pop star Beth Ditto and Chanel did with plus-size model Crystal Renn (a real-life size 10) in a resort show in May. Others see the inclusion as progress.

Yet marketers have other hurdles to overcome. Though plus-size women say they want to buy stylish plus-size clothes, they aren’t big spenders. That’s understandable, Cohen said, because after years of being ignored or offered uninteresting or ill-fitting clothes, they’ve lost interest in fashion. Further, the biggest group of plus-size shoppers is older than 55, and many are low-income.

Though it represents the largest population segment, the plus-size market accounts for only 17% of sales in the $107-billion women’s apparel market, Cohen said. Retailers measure their success by assessing their sales per square foot of store floor space. That pressures retailers to feature what sells quickly and profitably, he said.


Not every retailer has the floor space, expertise or capital to invest in a specialty business that returns 17% of sales. To appropriately serve larger and plus-size customers, mainstream retailers need to invest in larger mannequins, training for sales staff and often, a skilled alterations department, features that have made specialists such as Lane Bryant successful. But extra service isn’t likely at the kinds of stores that sell most plus-size clothing, discounters such as Wal-Mart and Kmart.

“In today’s world, retail floor space is too expensive to offer product that you are not going to sell very frequently,” Cohen said. “There often will be some other item that is more successful — like the status handbag.”

Still, if current trends continue, the elusive formula of style, fit and acceptability may yet merge to make larger and plus-size clothes a more common element of the merchandise mix. Saks Fifth Avenue worked with high-profile designer brands to expand the size run beyond the traditional 10. This fall, designer departments at select Saks stores are set to carry plus-size clothes from such fashion luminaries as Oscar de la Renta, Elie Tahari, Fendi, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Donna Karan.

Though the economics, logistics and habits of the fashion industry favor the thin, the gradual acceptance of other body types may be expanding the beauty ideal. Even one of fashion’s most outspoken critics of larger bodies, the formerly obese Karl Lagerfeld, seems poised to become one of its champions. Renn, the plus-size model featured in the recent resort show, just landed a prime ad campaign for the reopening of Chanel’s SoHo store in New York. Fast-fashion retailer Forever 21 recently launched a plus-size line and received positive critical and financial results. Separate efforts to address the overlooked plus-size fashion customer have resulted in organized runway shows, including Full Figured Fashion Week(End), which has expanded to three markets, including a stint in Los Angeles beginning Oct. 28.


Perhaps in the future, fashion and its audience will come to accept Renn’s point of view about body types. During a “Today” show interview, Renn put it simply: “Beauty is not a pant size.”