What kind of message is fashion trying to send larger women?
Consider two recent photos:
In one, designer Jason Wu launched his holiday collaboration with plus-size brand Eloquii with a retro black-and-white image of a coquettish model in a demure, full-skirted party dress.
Her skin is poreless and gleaming. Her hair is immaculately slicked back. She looks like a fantasy, and at a size 14, smaller than the average American woman, she arguably is.
In the other, Universal Standard promoted its new loungewear with a full-colour image that is almost the direct opposite – a size 24 woman in her white skivvies, generous rolls of flesh exposed to harsh lighting and the camera’s glare. Her skin tone is unretouched and uneven. She gazes defiantly out beyond the viewer. She looks palpably real.
Together, the pictures exemplify a fashion industry debating how to speak to plus-size customers in a way that feels both inclusive and authentic. The Wu portrait is familiar fashion glitz – a beautiful lie. The Universal Standard picture aims for a kind of raw honesty, and it upends everything the culture has taught us about beauty and desirability.
The conversation surrounding plus-size fashion has evolved almost as dramatically as the fashion itself. Clothing for larger women once consisted of style-agnostic garments tucked away between the rugs and mattresses.
But it was the rise of plus-size bloggers and fat activists that truly jolted the system, as they demanded clothing that wasn’t simply utilitarian but reflected their personality, their moods, their fantasies.
Plus-size customers wanted to fully participate in fashion. Teenagers wanted the latest trends; older women with financial clout were looking for more than just the current "it" bag or another pair of shoes.
Wu made a name for himself by dressing Michelle Obama for her inaugural balls, outfitting celebrities and serving as creative director for Hugo Boss as well as his own secondary line, Jason Wu Grey. But it has only been in the past year that he’s done a deep dive into the plus-size market – which is to say clothes made to fit the average American woman.
Universal Standard was born in 2015 when founders Alexandra Waldman and Polina Veksler got fed up with the fashion industry’s outdated sizing system. They believed there shouldn’t be a distinction between how and where a size 6 woman shops and where a size 20 shops – which is to say that the two friends wanted to be able to shop together.
The brand launched with a collection for sizes 10 to 28. "We thought we’d begin with the most underserved," Waldman says. "We would plant our flag in the straight sizes at 10, and we’d go up to a 28, which is outside of the traditional plus-size."
As they broadened their reach, moving down the scale to 6 and up it to size 32, they defined their version of a "medium" as a size 18, which more closely reflects the average American woman than the industry’s notion of medium: generally a size 8 or 10.
Universal Standard added its Foundation Collection, a line of loungewear and underpinnings available in sizes 00 to 40. The advertising campaign features women representing a range of ages, ethnicities and, of course, sizes.
La’Shaunae Steward is the one in her undies revealing her thighs and her belly. And it’s this startling, unconventional image that raises questions: Is this effort to defuse plus-size of its "otherness" having the effect of glorifying or fetishizing it?
Every time a size 16 model walks down a fashion runway, her presence is noted by industry watchdogs, like points on a cultural scoreboard.
Fashion editors and stylists talk about emphasizing and celebrating curves – and they are always "curves," not potbellies, saddlebags or love handles – as if to suggest that camouflaging them would be a surrender to social oppression and old-school thinking.
In the self-congratulatory world of Instagram, the only acceptable response to a selfie accompanied by #fat or #fatgirl is an onslaught of heart emojis, exclamation points and the all-caps interjection: SLAY!
Mostly though, one wonders how long fearless plus-size women must stare defiantly into an unkind camera in nothing but their underwear before they are fully recognized and represented?
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