Growing up, the red carpet portion of award shows always felt special to me, like a little magic thrown into an otherwise boring Sunday evening. I can still remember seeing Michelle Williams’ 2006 Oscars gown when I was 13 and feeling like I had just discovered the color yellow for the first time. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I realized these events rarely feature bodies that resembled mine, let alone formal looks that can fit anyone above a sample size.
By 2020, I had spent years seeing sample-size celebrities in designer gowns while plus size stars had few options. I was also a size 16/18. So when Lizzo attended the 2020 Grammys in a custom white Versace gown, it felt like a long-awaited win. I felt the same way when Beanie Feldstein showed up to the Golden Globes in Oscar de la Renta and to the Oscars in Miu Miu. I was finally seeing larger bodies in luxury gowns by high-end designers. Realistically, I knew I probably would never walk a red carpet myself, but the idea of my larger body being celebrated felt nice — and also oddly foreign.
Most people who have ever been plus size can relate. The general societal rule is that if you’re above a certain size, your every waking moment should be dedicated to becoming smaller. Why, then, would you invest in a luxury item that fits your current larger body if your focus should be on changing it?
This line of thinking may be why many luxury designers have been hesitant to dress plus-size celebrities in the past. They think the luxury plus-size customer simply doesn’t exist. Perhaps it’s also why many fashion houses that are dressing celebrities like Lizzo and Feldstein still don’t offer anything above a size 12 or 14 to customers. It begs the question: Are these designers making real progress, or are they setting the precedent you have to be famous to be worthy of plus-size luxury clothing?
Are designers making real progress, or are they setting the precedent you have to be famous to be worthy of plus-size luxury clothing?
Hunter McGrady is a plus-size supermodel with two Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue spreads under her belt and nearly 750,000 followers on Instagram. But she tells Bustle that being dressed for red carpets is still a challenge for her. That’s why she generally approaches designers she knows will dress her — like Christian Siriano and Prabal Gurung — and she’s intentional about wearing brands that offer at least a size 16 or 18, like Tadashi Shoji, Tanya Taylor, Jason Wu, and Zac Posen. However, the process can still be frustrating for her. “Whenever I hear I have a red carpet coming up, it's like the most stressful situation when it should be something really fun,” McGrady says. “If I can't find something online or whatever, I'll ask someone who's maybe not as well-known if they're willing to work with me and make something on my own. I mean, that's my reality. That happens a lot for me.”
McGrady also knows firsthand that bigger sizes often mean added production costs for designers. “With making my own line, I know you have to cut a larger size, and yeah, it may cost a little bit more, but isn't that worth it?” McGrady says, referring to AllWorthy, her new line with QVC that goes up to size 36. “The customer is there, and the customer is willing to spend money, and the profit is there.”
With the average woman’s clothing size in the U.S. landing somewhere around a size 16 and an estimated 68% of American women being plus size, the market for plus-size fashion should be obvious. In fact, it’s valued at $9.8 billion. And, yes, that market includes luxury, says Lauren Chan, the founder and CEO of Henning, a luxury womenswear brand offering sizes 12 and up.
"Women above size 12 deserve to be served by the luxury market. They are not worth less than their smaller-size peers."
“I created Henning with one mission — to tell women above size 12 that they deserve to be served by the luxury market, and that, therefore, they are not worth less than their smaller-size peers,” Chan says. “For that mission to also be a successful business, there has to be a high volume of luxury plus-size customers across this country. After three seasons, I can tell you very confidently that there is.”
Chan goes on to say that Henning customers are some of the “most enthusiastic and engaged” in any industry, illustrating exactly how eager shoppers are for luxury plus-size options. She also adds that, from a sales perspective, “almost every data point of customer behavior is above industry standard.”
“When we receive feedback like ‘you changed the way I saw myself when I put on this coat, and for that, I'm forever grateful’ or ‘every person I interacted with commented on how great I looked — and how confidently I was acting — thank you for recognizing how important our body armor is,’ we know we are accomplishing our mission.”
Chan believes criticizing designers for making custom plus-size looks for celebrities but not offering off-the-rack options is “not helpful.”
“When you see a celebrity in a designer gown, the designer has made significant investment in that initiative — design, materials, construction, fitting, shopping, alterations, and more — all for the optics of being associated with that celebrity. When the feedback is negative, designers are discouraged from doing it again,” Chan says, adding that designers often use these custom pieces to push their wholesalers to expand the size range of their buys or to make additional sizes for e-commerce.
Meaghan O’Connor, a stylist who works with celebrities like Tess Holliday and Natasha Rothwell, agrees it is more effective to praise the brands getting it right.
“As a plus-size woman and consumer, the disregard can feel personal. But as a stylist, I know and understand the nuances of the business.”
“As a plus-size woman and consumer, the disregard for the industry as a whole from the high fashion space can feel very personal,” she tells Bustle. “But as a stylist, I know and understand the nuances of the business.”
O’Connor recognizes there will always be brands that say no to dressing a plus-size celebrity. Just this February, Nina Parker shared her difficult experience finding a dress for the Oscars as designers either responded and later ghosted her or ignored her completely. O’Connor deals with that discriminatory practice by only focusing on designers who are prioritizing inclusivity and diversity.
“The fact that a fashion house that has historically held a very narrow definition of beauty is moving toward a more inclusive space is a big deal,” O’Connor says. “Whether it’s one celebrity red carpet look or 100, the point remains the same, and that is that every garment beyond a traditional size makes a difference.”
Indeed, seeing larger bodies wearing luxury on the red carpet is, in and of itself, progress — compared with years ago when designers wouldn't dress plus-size celebrities at all. Hopefully, it’s also a sign of more change to come.