When I received my second email requesting advice on where to find plus size ethical fashion I was flummoxed. With a height and weight closely resembling that of a horse jockey's, never in my life had I ever needed to shop for plus size fashion.
But it didn't stop me from trying to find out in order to help both readers.
If you don't know something, seek out someone who might. So that's exactly what I did.
With the help of my gregarious blogger friend, the straight-talking Melissa Walker Horn of plus size fashion blog Suger Coat It, Kerry Pietrobon of women's plus size ethical label Harlow, and Meg Salpietro, boutique manager of Design a Space, and brilliant internet search engines, I felt closer to understanding the world of plus size fashion.
Firstly, what is plus size fashion?
Admittedly, I wasn't really sure. Before I started my research for this piece, my guess was that plus size fashion were garments sized 16 and above.
A quick search on Google confirmed my assumption... for Australian plus size fashion anyway:
Sizing in Australia is not synchronous with the US; plus size garments are considered to be size 16 and upward, which is the equivalent of a US size 12. - Wikipedia
But I couldn't trust Wikipedia. So I turned to Meg Salpeitro, who has firsthand experience as she teetered from a size 16-18 when she was in high school and who now works on the frontline of retail at Design a Space boutique which stocks clothing and accessories from independent labels. "Plus size begins at about size 16 generally," Meg confirms.
That's in Australia though. What about the United States, the largest fashion consumer market?
After some quick Googling, I was horrified to learn that in the U.S., plus size is sometimes considered a size 4 - equivalent to an Australian size 8 - and above. What the?
So plus size is really 'average' size in the United States? How utterly ridiculous.
According to Anthony Higgins, the director at MSA Models, "[catalogs] will use a size 8 because they think size 14 and 16 will relate to that person and size 4 and size 6 will relate to that person. They do not use size 18 as much as they should for print – though… size 18 makes the most money."
Alexa La Rosa who on HuffPost Live is a "plus-size model who's visibly plus-size" shares her disgust with the industry:
"In a world where you're telling women that plus-size is sizes 4 and up, you're causing body image issues. You're causing unrealistic expectations that every one -- every woman -- should be a size 4. To bring that into the plus-size community, where you're using sizes 8, 10 and 12, when sometimes the stores don't even start carrying the clothes until size 14, you're telling women, 'You want to look like these models. This is what you should look like', but it's never going to happen."
So what do women think about the word plus size?
I would never call a woman (or anyone for that matter) 'plus size'. I wouldn't feel comfortable using the word for starters and secondly, I think it's odd to use a term that classifies a subset of people into a specific category based on their body shape.
Now as a marketer I understand why key terms like 'plus size' is used - it makes communication a lot easier and also helps target relevant people within society.
As a non plus size human though, I wonder: how do women who might identify as plus size feel about the term?
Australian model Stefania Ferrario who is considered a plus size model because she doesn't squeeze into anything below a US size 4 (Aus size 8) publicly protests the use of the term plus size. The model uses her social media platforms to fight against the term 'plus size' with her hashtag campaigns #DropTheStigma #DropThePlus
I am a model FULL STOP. Unfortunately in the modelling industry if you're above a US size 4 you are considered plus size, and so I'm often labelled a 'plus size' model. I do NOT find this empowering. A couple of days ago, @ajayrochester called the industry to task for its use of the term 'plus size' by making the point that it is 'harmful' to call a model 'plus' and damaging for the minds of young girls. I fully support Ajay and agree with her. Let's have models of ALL shapes, sizes and ethnicities, and drop the misleading labels. I'm NOT proud to be called 'plus', but I AM proud to be called a 'model', that is my profession! Visit droptheplus.org for full explanation of the dangers this label carries (especially on young impressionable girls). #droptheplus
Veteran blogger Melissa Walker Horn disagrees and thinks using the term 'plus size' is okay when used appropriately: "I think it's a community name for women with a specific clothing need, women who share an experience of being in a body larger than the average (and don't even get me started on the average size of women in this country and how badly represented 'average' is). Sure, there are models who would say drop the plus, and for them great, do what you like. But for women like me, we use it to find our people so it will always be useful."
Ideal vs. real standards
The 'gold' standard of physical beauty as set by the fashion industry is typically a rake thin girl with height-weight-bust proportions that eludes 99 percent of women. It's an impossible standard for most women to reach.
Related Post: The Beauty Game
With smaller frames labelled as 'ideal' in the industry, I pondered: what do plus size fashion advocates really think about the lack of diversity in fashion?
#OOTD Well in actuality last nights outfit. Going all out "fashion" in head to toe print, who am I even? Decided if I was ever going to step out of my comfort zone I should do it during fashion week. Taking on the pyjama print trend, in our soon to be released under pressure hi-Lo top & pant + copperhead road necklace. They say stepping in front of the camera gets easier! I'm yet to be convinced! #reluctantmodel #fashion #fashionweek #print #blackandwhite #runwayready #harlow_au #styleatanysize #fashionoverforty
Kerry Pietrobon, co-founder of Australian-made plus size ethical clothing brand Harlow, believes that the fashion industry needs to broaden its definition of beauty but it shouldn't stop there. "I don’t think it’s just the fashion industry; I think it’s all advertising in general. I think we need to see a bigger mix of people we see on the street reflected in advertising, on television and on screen in general, be it hair colour, height, size, ethnicity, age, among other things."
I have long been concerned about how we women are 'trained' to think, act, behave and dress in a certain way. I'm also curious as to how this societal conditioning affects how we perceive and judge each other, and particularly how it impacts young girls and teens.
Melissa Walker Horn in her post Body Shame; We Taught Her That draws attention to how focussing on how we look has adverse effects on the younger women around us:
"We teach girls how to be women, and every single one of us leads by example. So when we assess, critic and ridicule our bodies in front of them, its sticks. When you do the same thing for other women’s bodies, they hear. When we allow the conditioning and messages of the media and other sources to define our ideal body, they see that and follow suit."
This is about as dressed up as I'll be all weekend, this girl has a date with some sand and salty air. Wearing some closet clean out finds with my one hundred year old @virtushop skirt and @yoursclothinguk sheer maxi. Shoes are current though, from @citychiconline. Come to think of it, so is the plunge bra I'm wearing! ? #sugersoutfit #psblogger #citychiconline
Making fashion more inclusive.
Fashion magazines are guilty of promoting the impossible 'ideal'. Will this change? Highly unlikely. Within its culture still remains an elitist mentality frowning upon anyone who doesn't fit what is stereotypically considered 'beautiful', a la Devil Wears Prada.
"Plus size is seen as “not sexy”," explains Kerry Pietrobon, co-founder of Australian plus size clothing brand Harlow. "This means that getting any traction in mainstream media is hard. For example, in most magazines, plus [fashion] gets 1-2 pages in 200+ pages dedicated to them. You rarely ever see a brand above a size 12 shown anywhere within the other pages of the magazine. To be honest you're often lucky if the brands included... go above a 16!"
However in parts of the industry, the tide is slowly changing, being led by the blogging community. Hayley Hughes fashion stylist and body positive writer shares her views with Gala Darling: "In terms of my blog and sponsorship I am lucky that in Australia I have been accepted by the mainstream blogosphere and as such have worked with top chain store Sportsgirl (an Aussie version of Topshop if you will), helped Target launch their recent Stella McCartney line and been featured in many top magazines (Cleo, Shop Til You Drop etc)."
Hayley's not under the illusion that everything's just fine and dandy. She admits there's still a long way to go. "I do also know I have missed out on opportunities offered to others because of my size. Some brands just can’t see through the fat, so to speak, and decide to spend/send their promotional dollars/products elsewhere, even though my readership may be larger than the blogger who they finally choose."
Home is where the heart is ? Wearing my new favourite dress by Launceston label @seagrassdesignart who not only do amazing prints and manufacture everything locally in Tasmania but also go up to a size 18 off the rack or they can custom make your size if you need! As an added bonus the dress really matches my lounge room interior!!!#seagrassdesign #launceston #tasmania #local #ootd #plussizefashion #homeiswheretheheartis #interiordesign #pinkcore
We as a society need to stop emphasising such importance on the way we look, but rather on what we as individuals can do. We are so much more than what we look like! - Kerry Pietrobon
Now aside from magazines, the advertising industry and the blogosphere, what about designers and boutique stores? Don't they have a role to play in all of this?
"Unfortunately we just don't stock sizes larger than a 16 in the store," admits Meg Salpeitro. "I would make so many sales if [the store] did stock higher sizes... Usually women who are past a 16 or 18 buy jewellery instead and glam up their outfits that way because they're just not provided for here."
So why not stock larger than a size 16? "Each designer targets a different demographic so it really depends on who their market is," Meg explains. "In this store [Design a Space in Melbourne] it's a mixed bag. Each designer targets a different demographic. At the moment I don't have a designer who's targeting the demographic who wants really nice fashion in plus size."
Meg explains that although plus size is considered a niche category within fashion, there is a demand for it. "I get women frequently coming into the store asking us 'What's the biggest size you have?' and I show them some of the designers that do larger sizes but the clothes are often not what they're after, they often want something glamorous."
Since I've been approached with questions about plus size ethical fashion myself, I don't doubt at all that there is demand for plus size fashion. My question is: is the fashion industry smart enough to meet market demand?
Make sure to subscribe to the blog to be notified when Part II of Where to Find Plus Size Ethical Fashion & Sustainable Clothing is published. This post will list the plus size ethical fashion brands offering stylish plus size fashion for women.