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From neglected segment to a major trend: a look into the history of plus-size fashion

By Julia Garel


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Jill Kortleve, Ashley Graham, Jari Jones, Paloma Elsesser, Alexis Ruby. These are names of plus-size models whose popularity is intrinsically linked to inclusive fashion. From Chanel to Coach, they are the face of a trend for fashion to now accept diversity of the female body. Or is that too short-sighted? Does the clothing industry really care about the plus size fashion market?

Taking stock of plus size fashion, FashionUnited delves into its history with Lauren Downing Peters. The American teacher-researcher devoted a dissertation to the 'stoutwear' fashion market in the early 20th century - an English term used to describe clothing intended for fuller women. Entitled "Stoutwear and the Discourses of Disorder: Fashioning the Fat, Female Body in American Fashion in the Age of Standardization, 1915-1930", her dissertation offers guidance on this topic.

Why did you decide to study stoutwear? What was your motivation?

Lauren Downing Peters : “I was fascinated by this subject when I graduated from the MA Fashion Studies program at the Parsons School of Design in 2010. In our introductory theory course, we were introduced to the work of Joanne Entwistle, who theorized dress as an "entity in which the body is embedded in the social world and fundamental to the micro-social order". Her theory, based on Michel Foucault's thinking, states that what we wear is determined by the standards and expectations of the societies and communities in which we live and, most importantly, that the human body is fundamentally clothed."

“I think 2010 was also the year in which plus-size fashion really became mainstream. Gabourey Sidibe graced the cover of V Magazine and Crystal Renn published her memoir 'Hungry'. Thus sparked discussions about how the gatekeepers of fashion decide which bodies are 'in' or 'out'. This got me thinking about how women whose bodies do not conform to prevailing beauty ideals and who may or may not identify as 'plus-size' struggle with a stigmatized identity with the desire to be fashionable."

“This was essentially the topic of my MA thesis. When I joined the Center for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University in 2013, I realized that the history of this industry was largely unwritten. That's how I found out that I was studying the 'stoutwear' industry, which has been called the plus-size fashion industry from the twentieth century onwards."

Can you explain how plus-size fashion was presented and sold to the customer in the period studied? What's the difference compared with today?

In this early period, 'stoutwear', as it was called, was considered a minor category of women's ready-to-wear clothing. By 1915 it was almost as if the manufacturers realized that fuller women were a viable consumer class and so the stoutwear industry was born to meet their needs; however, these manufacturers may not have been so keen to woo them."

“Consumer psychology was really on the rise at this point and so there was a deep desire to understand the fuller woman. So much was written within the trade journals about how and to what extent the fuller woman was different from her slim counterparts and what drove her to consume. Ultimately, they found that disgust for her own body and social anxiety were the main factors driving the fuller woman to consume."

“In the media in this period you therefore see stoutwear (in this article we use the English term stoutwear, because this is the subject that Lauren Downing Peters has studied and there is no comparable term in Dutch, ed.) as 'slimming'. Moreover, you see that plus-size clothing is sold in a separate department, far away from the clothing in standard sizes. This was due to the marketers' insights that plus-size women prefer to shop in a separate department, away from prying eyes."

“While the fashion industry is certainly (albeit slowly) changing (think Rihanna's recent Fenty show, with models of all shapes and sizes), it's interesting to me that the insights that the merchandising and advertising of stoutwear has in the early twentieth century, are largely unchanged today. Much of this has to do with the fact that being fuller is still a stigma in the West, even though body-positive discourses are increasingly common in the fashion world."

What do you think of the plus-size fashion industry today?

“I am often asked whether I think body positivity and size inclusivity are simply the latest trend that fashion brands are clinging to to stay relevant. Because I have the background knowledge of fashion history, I regret to say that everything indicates that this is a trend."

“I think that's because I don't see many mainstream and high fashion brands that really embrace inclusivity. Using a few plus-size models on your catwalk doesn't immediately get you involved. Also, using a size 38 model to advertise your new line of 'curve' jeans or yoga leggings doesn't make you inclusive. It's no secret that the fashion industry is struggling (even well before the corona crisis), and I see somewhat cynically the sudden embrace of the fashion of non-standard size models as a futile attempt to remain relevant and solvable.

That said, there are a lot of interesting advancements from startups and from brands that have always cared about plus-size consumers. For example, Universal Standard has expanded their size range to a US size 32 and the underwear startup TomboyX has recently expanded their non-binary size range to 6X."

"While these brands aren't selling high fashion that would fit in a fashion magazine, the products they sell - jeans, t-shirts and underwear - fill long-neglected gaps in the market in what could be considered an inclusive range of sizes."

Using just one (or even a handful) of plus size models on your catwalks doesn't make you “woke”

What surprised you most during your research?

"The fact that the decision to split large sizes into a separate division was an informed and even debated decision based on weak consumer research."

“In the fashion industry journals where this topic was discussed, I saw a lot of projection and very derogatory language. These advertisers and merchandisers sincerely believed that full women were fundamentally different from their lean counterparts. The ideas and language used in these articles were embarrassing. Their prejudices were displayed in abundance for all to read. Although you see the same kind of ideas circulating in the media and the trade press today, I think people are generally more careful with their language use."

"I sometimes think about how different the plus-size fashion industry (and therefore the plus-size shopping experience) would be today if it had been decided more than a hundred years ago to put standard and plus-sizes on the same shelf."

What lesson (s) can we learn from the history of the evolution of plus-size clothing? What should today's plus size fashion brands keep in mind?

"I think fashion brands would do well to recognize that 'plus size' is not an identity and therefore not a consumer category."

“Merchandisers and advertisers typically use four criteria to develop consumer groups: They must be identifiable, accessible, measurable and profitable. In other words, a consumer group must be known in order to create and sell goods. Plus-size people are a problem for advertisers and merchandisers because they 'exist' in terms of income, race and age categories, but it sometimes feels like the needs of all these 'different kinds of people' have to be met within the plus-size department."

“In studies examining plus-size women's satisfaction with shopping for clothes, they routinely complain about the boring and what I like to call the 'moralizing' aesthetic of plus-size fashion. Plus size clothing is often designed to cover up and hide the body or to reshape it in the image of the slim ideal."

“I think today's plus-size fashion brands should remember that plus-size is not a monolithic, singular category and that plus-size women have the same desires, interests and tastes as slim women. Rather than creating separate plus-size capsule collections, I would therefore like to see mainstream brands expand their product lines so that standard and plus-size women can shop on the same rack. Only when this happens do I think we can say that the fashion industry is truly inclusive."

This article was previously published on FashionUnited.FR, translated and edited to English.

Image: Look 35, SS21 Versace

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Lauren Downing Peters
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