Back when I was a chubby child and budding fashion lover, I dreaded four words. My young mind couldn’t articulate my fear, but these four words were synonymous with my fear that there were no plus size clothing options that could satisfy my dreams of style excellence. In a lot of ways, these four words defined a huge part of my formative years.
“Just put these on.”
That’s what my mother would say to me during our third or fourth hour of shopping, when she realized that no, the selection hadn’t changed since last year, and yes, she was going to tell me that I’d have to choose an outfit from the women’s section. “Just put these on,” she’d sigh, handing me a pair of bronze-colored culottes and matching blouse that looked like something a fancy grandmother would wear for cocktail hour on vacation. It was 1997, and the concept of fashionable plus size clothing wasn’t in anyone’s realm of thinking.
At 12 years old, 5’9", and 150 pounds, I had to settle for the bronze culottes. Other plus size women all seem to have similar stories about being unable to find affordable, cute clothing options just a couple of decades ago.
(Me at age six, rocking the acid washed shorts of a small adult woman.)
These stories aren’t just a coincidence. It turns out that they’re a fundamental part of plus-sized adolescence. Talking to these women and countless others I hear from every day, I’ve found a common thread: Remembering having the same level of interest in clothing as our peers, but finding nothing trendy in our size and being unable to execute the same styles.
(Me at age 29, rocking the duds of a large adult woman with unprecedented access to plus size clothing.)
In retrospect, I only wish we had found each other back then. If we had, I might not have spent so much time crying inside a Limited Too dressing room. Essie Golden, a 28-year-old blogger and plus size model, recalls to me a similar pair of bad shorts from her own childhood.
(Essie Golden, plus size blogger and model.)
“I was always the tallest and biggest child in my class,” says Golden. “I remember going into Kmart and buying these weird brown Bermuda shorts because I couldn't get the cool Junior’s shorts. I was so excited about the shorts until I wore them that following week. I came into class late because of a doctor’s appointment and my P.E. teacher had the same brown shorts on. To make it worse she yelled out ‘Twins!’”
Rachel Kacenjar, the 33-year-old owner and director of the plus size modern and vintage clothing store Re/Dress, has similar memories. “I was in JCPenney buying clothes for first grade, “ Kacenjar says. “There was this pastel, chalk yellow sweater with a necklace on it that had pink beads that looked like gum balls in between powder blue and lavender duck shaped beads. I remember my mom asking the sales person if they had more, and the sales person whispered, ‘We don't carry it in a size that would fit her.’ I was devastated. My mom bought me the necklace, but this would be the beginning of a decade or so where I'd be stuck buying accessories and shoes that I liked instead of whole outfits.”
(Rachel Kacenjar, owner & director of Re/Dress.)
There’s an upside to all of this childhood fashion-deprivation trauma, though. Remarkable, strong, stylish plus-size women have emerged and excelled in a fashion industry that was once closed to them.
The movers and shakers of the plus-size fashion world are women from all walks of life and an amazing variety of skill sets, bound together by one fundamental motivation: They want to create more fashionable clothing for women who need sizes larger than a 14.
First, there are the bloggers. With the rise of social media, fashion-hungry plus-size women have new channels to share their passion. Bloggers like Nicolette Mason, Gabi Gregg, Nadia Aboulhosn, and Marie Denee routinely influence the industry, some even parlaying their work into capsule collections or entire lines that sell out instantaneously. Odds are, each of these women have a bronze culottes story of their own, and have dedicated their careers to improving the industry because of it.
Then there are the independent plus size brands, owned an operated by plus size women. Their growing visibility and success is even more crucial, because they’re the ones actually providing plus size women with the clothing they’ve coveted for so long.
“There have been so many indie brands bringing their own style to the game," says Kacenjar. “I think each new one that pops up is a game changer.”
Alysse Dalessandro, owner and designer of Ready to Stare (and a fellow Bustle writer), also tells me the importance of independent brands.
“I definitely think that designer Jasmine Elder of Jibri is really a game changer in terms of designing bold contemporary clothes that create an exaggerated silhouette for a plus size woman,” Dalessandro says. “She has a true understanding of what plus size women want, and I think her success is a result of that. NO one was really making bikinis for plus size women before Monif C. Shawna from Chubby Cartwheels is a huge innovator and I think that the way that she utilizes sheer fabrics is really progressive. Of course, I think that the body chains I have created for plus size women up to a size 5X are a game changer — I really don't see anybody else who I feel is innovating in plus size body chains. ”
(Alysse Dalessandro in a body chain from her own Ready to Stare.)
There are also the major brands that have woken up to the plus-size opportunity. Eloquii is producing well-cut basics and workwear that’s squarely on trend. ASOS Curve is becoming a go-to for affordable, up-to-the minute stylish streetwear. Rue107 has answered the call for a loud, bold bodycon. Torrid is turning out sexy, supportive bras and more in extended sizes. Mass-market, accessible lines that are tuned in to their market aren’t just a change, but a significant improvement.
But all of the plus size women I’ve talked to agree on one thing: They’re not finished yet.
“I want to have more than a tiny corner to shop in where half of the racks have straight size clothes misplaced there,” says Dalessandro. “I want to see more brands extended beyond a 3X. I want to see models that represent their actual customers and not what these brands think we as plus size women 'aspire' to be. I want to see clothing that is available in straight and plus size cost the same price. These are some of the things that I have made core values of my business because I believe that they matter.”
Kacenjar has similar hopes for her own small business. “I want plus size retailers to feature more models of color and more models over a size 16,” she says. “I want our bodies to be centered at company missions instead of an afterthought. I am trying to lead by example by doing the best I can to meet these goals at Re/Dress, but I am just one person with a small business budget.”
(Models at Re/Dress modeling Teggings, one of the store's hottest-selling products.)
Not content to settle for more diverse styles on the shelves, Golden’s expectations for plus size fashion center around inclusivity and timeliness. “It's annoying that plus size fashion is always two or three trends behind. I would love to be on-trend or ahead of it. I want to see more body and ethnic diversity. Throwing one black or Latina girl into a campaign is not enough. It's exhausting having these conversations with major brands that don't see that as a problem.”
While there’s a lot of work to be done, plus size fashion is chock full of women who are prepared to do it. They’re not settling for what they can have, but building looks and businesses. They’re making or willfully demanding the clothing they want, not settling for the clothing they’re left with.
In other words, now we can leave the bronze culottes on the shelf.
Images: Courtesy Rachel Kacenjar; Essie Golden; Alysse Dalessandro; gabifresh, eloquii/Instagram