Fashion before plus size [webinar recap]


5/16/20243 min read

A few days ago we were privileged to take part in an inspiring webinar "Fashion before plus-size: bodies, bias, and the birth of an industry" by the amazing Dr.Lauren Downing Peters, organized in the framework of the Feminist Lecture Program. This webinar provided a feminist analysis of the history of plus size fashion and the emergence of weight bias in the early 20th century fashion industry. The presented conclusions revolved around standardized sizing, the slender beauty ideal, and how the proposed "solutions" for plus size dressing fueled stigma against larger bodies and excluded them from mainstream fashion up to nowadays. Below you will find a few takeaways of this conversation.

Historical Erasure and Rediscovery

One of the profound points Lauren underscored during her lecture was the historical erasure of larger bodies in fashion archives and scholarship. Contrary to the common belief that fuller figures are a modern phenomenon, she highlighted how larger individuals have always existed, as evidenced in vernacular photo archives. However, fashion history rarely reflects this, largely omitting plus-sized garments from major costume collections and exhibitions. This exclusion perpetuates a narrow standard of beauty and continually sidelines plus-sized individuals.

The Birth of "Stoutwear"

Another aspect she detailed, was the origins of industry-specific plus-size fashion, known in the early 20th century as "stoutwear." This segment of the fashion market emerged not from a sudden demographic shift but from the recognition that standardized sizing failed to accommodate the full spectrum of body types. Entrepreneurs like Albert Nelson (husband of Lena Himmelstein Bryant, or Lane Bryant - nowadays the biggest plus size retailer in the United States) were pivotal in devising new sizing systems, tailoring garments to better fit fuller figures instead of simply upscaling standard sizes. Nelson’s approach included classifying body shapes—like full-busted, flat-busted, and all-over stout—thereby offering a more personalized fit.

Persistent Bias and Its Implications

The lecture revealed the enduring nature of weight bias within the fashion industry, dating back to the stigmatization practices of designers like Paul Poiret in the early 1900s. Poiret and his contemporaries often dismissed larger women as less critical and less intelligent consumers, leading to a proliferation of lower-quality, less fashionable garments for plus-sized individuals. Sadly, this prejudice still lurks in contemporary fashion, as highlighted by the backlash against plus-size lines and the resurgence of the slender ideal, exacerbated by modern weight loss drugs.

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"You haven't any idea how many fat women there are in the world until you begin to sell something they want. [Stoutwear] is a desirable trade to have. In the first place you have a feeling that you are doing these bulky sisters a real service, and you certainly are.... The poor, big dears have been so generally unable to get things to wear that they are not at all critical when they get what is coming to them and they buy without all the finicky demands that are made on us by the normally-sized customers."

- Women's Wear (June 11, 1915)
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Fashion as a Tool of Oppression and Liberation

An important part of the discussion was on how fashion acts both as a tool of oppression—by reinforcing narrow beauty standards—and a potential vehicle for change. She cited modern initiatives like Universal Standard, which offers a full size range and promotes body diversity in its advertising, and designers like Karoline Vitto, who defy traditional aesthetics by celebrating non-normative bodies.

Interesting conclusions and facts
  • Standardized sizing systems are inherently ageist and racist, having used certain body types in the initial measurement-making over reflecting the diversity of real human bodies.

  • Early 20th century foundations of plus size fashion still have visible impacts today through persistent weight stigma and exclusionary practices.

  • Early plus size fashion emerged from a growing obsession with slenderness but was treated as a "cash cow" market that didn't require high quality designs. (see the quote from Women's Wear above)

  • Approaches like camouflage and others were proposed to make fat women appear more slender, reflecting sexist attitudes towards dressmaking and bodies. Here we ask if the purpose of fashion should ever be making somebody appear "more beautiful".

  • Body positivity movement is losing its momentum because mainstream retailers co-opt it for profit, not for genuine inclusivity. For example, at body positivity's height in 2020 only 5% of runway looks featured plus-size models, but during the Fall/Winter 2023 shows, that number dropped dramatically to only 0.6%.

If you are interested in finding out more about Lauren's work and insights in how weight bias manifests in the fashion industry, follow her account on Instagram or have a look in her book - Fashion Before Plus-Size: Bodies, Bias, and the Birth of an Industry (a more affordable paperback to be published soon).