Why Minimalist Fashion Has A Privilege Problem

Illustrated by Erin Aniker
When revered designer Phoebe Philo departed French label Céline after a decade at the helm, her dedicated following of Philophiles were understandably bereaved. Over 10 years, Philo’s aesthetic had infiltrated our fashion subconscious and influenced the wardrobes of so many, whether it was by popularising function over aesthetics (she made Stan Smiths the comfy and cool footwear of choice way before trainers became everyday-appropriate) or through high street labels like COS and Zara imitating her laid-back sophistication and delivering it to the masses.
Their horror was magnified when it was announced that Hedi Slimane, the former Dior Homme and Saint Laurent designer with a penchant for skinny, rock 'n' roll silhouettes, would be taking over the brand. How could LVMH, Céline’s parent company, replace Philo’s intelligent, women-focused designs with those of a man who celebrates a specific body type (read: heroin chic)? Where would smart, working, real women find sartorial inspiration now?
Let's put aside the fact that this conversation neglected to acknowledge that women have as varied and as broad a taste in fashion as they do in music, and that while Slimane’s aesthetic is the antithesis of Philo’s, it’s adored by many. The latter question has been answered tenfold, though: by Victoria Beckham upon her return to London after a decade in New York, by Bottega Veneta’s newly appointed Daniel Lee (who, Philo fans will be pleased to know, had a five-year tenure at Céline), and by the Olsens' label The Row. Indeed, there are plenty of places Philo’s disciples can find their new mecca. But what about those who, in reality, can’t?
A common and problematic thread could be found in the chatter surrounding Philo’s departure: one concerning class, inclusivity (or rather, a lack of it) and privilege in fashion. While there is no issue with bowing at the altar of Philo’s Céline, or of brands that share a similar aesthetic and direction – her clothes were important, moving, and industry-shaping, and her impact undeniable – this kind of minimalism carries a subliminal message of superiority.
It’s a line of thought that crops up time and time again when selling minimalism: the clever, well-considered, morally superior and elegant way to live is by stripping yourself of excess and showiness, and by rising above passing trends. Why partake in poorly made fast fashion, all garish hues and loud prints, when you could KonMari your wardrobe and be the proud owner of a capsule uniform of 10 refined pieces: "Camel coats, well-cut trousers, silk shirts, a classic leather shoulder bag with a gold catch. Trusty, classy tools to help you do a job of work while all the world was falling apart"?
As Chelsea Fagan, the author of The Financial Diet, explains: "The implication of this kind of minimalism is obvious, and yet it somehow never seems to get addressed: the only people who can 'practice' minimalism in any meaningful way are people upon whom it isn’t forced by financial or logistical circumstances." You see, to imply that minimalism is for the smart, working, real woman is to turn a blind eye to its narrow limitations, and therefore the women it excludes.
The first and most obvious issue with minimalism – which, thanks to Instagram, reaches far and wide, from fashion to interiors – is that it’s associated with a homogenous brand of woman. Often slim, often white, the #minimalist woman is central to a wellness-led life that now reigns supreme both on- and offline. The brands that offer this kind of aesthetic don’t tend to produce clothing above an AU size 14 or 16, which means that plus-size women are ostracised from the outset.
Journalist, blogger and author Bethany Rutter agrees. "It feels as if a minimalist aesthetic is implicitly expected to be accompanied by a yoga/Goop/wheatgrass shot lifestyle which is, in itself, implicitly fatphobic, and so the aesthetic itself is often really restricted to thin women," she tells Refinery29. "That's also repeated in the availability of the clothes themselves, which means plus-size women are often not able to dress in a more minimal, simple style."
There are still far more limited options for plus-size women to shop. Specialists cater to this market, but can fall into the trap of not providing a wide range of styles. "I often wonder how my style would be different if the fashion industry treated plus-size women better, as it's still a really underserved market," Rutter muses. "There are often trend items I would like to try that just don't get made in plus sizes, which is a big failing of the fashion industry."
Where there’s a plethora of high street and designer brands that cater to all personal styles in smaller sizes – whether your penchant is for athleisure, normcore, hyper-femininity or minimalism, if you’re a size 6-14 there’s something out there for you – brands that do provide fashion for plus-size women tend to serve a very specific aesthetic.
"It's difficult to find plus-size capsule pieces as brands tend to not think about how a specific item of clothing may look on a bigger body," plus-size style and lifestyle blogger Stephanie Yeboah tells us. "I don't think brands want to keep in mind that bigger bodies can dress 'sophisticated' too, and this boils down to the fatphobic microaggression that fatter bodies either lean towards the 'mumsy/soft' characteristic, or the 'loud, bubbly and brash' characteristic. Thus, we are given options that adhere to these stereotypes: empire line dresses, smocks, butterfly prints, or loud, unforgiving prints with cold shoulders and poorly cut pieces."
Earlier this month, a tweet summarising this very argument gained traction online. Twitter user Adwoa wrote: "If you’re slim and you can’t dress, I really don’t know for you cos you have all the clothes in the world." She continued in the thread: "Imagine unlimited clothes in your size at every price point and all you know is New Look 2011 vibes, God forbid. Similarly, if you’re fat and fashionable well done because they really be trying to force cold shoulder and butterfly print upon plus size people." The tweet had 2.6k retweets and 9.6k likes at the time of writing – and it’s not the first time this point has been made on social media. Another user commented below the tweet: "Also, certain body types within the bracket of 'slim' are praised and stylish for wearing absolutely anything. (They live on the IG explore page)."
Illustrated by Erin Aniker
This is another concerning facet of minimalism: when plus-size women are able to find specific items that fall under the aesthetic’s umbrella – the aforementioned camel coats and well-cut trousers – they’re often berated for being lazy with their style, rather than the 'perennially chic' accolade given to slim bodied women. So when items do become available, is minimalism size-inclusive? "Not at all," journalist Gina Tonic tells Refinery29. "The perception of these looks is stylish on thin people and lazy when worn on fat people. In fashion, and definitely even more so with Instagram, fat people have to work twice as hard on unique outfits and looks to be recognised, whereas hundreds of thin women have fashion Instagram accounts with thousands of followers where they wear the same jeans and a jumper every day."
It’s a point Polyester zine founder and journalist Ione Gamble reiterates. "Plus-size women are expected to perform hyper-femininity, otherwise we're seen as slobs," she explains. When we describe minimalism as fashion for 'real women', we’re "implying that anything brash, loud, colourful, trashy, or in 'poor' taste is all low culture and doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. The creative industries in general seem to romanticise minimalism in this way that is kind of gross – and deeply rooted in classism. It's why my zine, Polyester, was founded; to prove that things – art, clothes, music, everything – can be over the top, feminine, have bows and frills and glitter, and still be deeply rooted in intellectual ideas and grounded in social issues."
Gamble makes a critical point about class: "There's this snobbery entrenched in fashion education, and the industry at large, that implores us to only take minimalism seriously; when to do so is to uphold outdated ideas about pretty much anything interesting. We need to dissect the reasons why we consider one thing to be intellectual, or 'serious', and the other dismissed as not so." Rutter agrees that the language we use has a detrimental effect on how we perceive minimalism versus plus-size fashion: "I think there's a lot of class tension around minimalism," she says. "The adjectives we use around whatever the opposite of minimalism is are also quite loaded and stigmatised – words like 'garish' and 'gaudy' – whereas I don't feel there's a minimalist equivalent."
The intellectual connotations of the minimalist aesthetic stem from another class issue running through this debate. Countless features have been written about the KonMari method created by Marie Kondo, the author and 'organising consultant' whose enthusiasm for tidiness has seen her books bought by millions around the world. However, the premise of 'sparking joy' by ridding yourself of things, which has been pitched to the privileged classes as a mindful and environmentally friendly way of living and taps into minimalism's original premise, just isn’t an option for most people.
"It's all very well getting rid of all your possessions if you can buy them again any time you want," Rutter points out. "It's fine to encourage people to have a capsule wardrobe but the implication is always that the pieces must be of the absolute best quality, which is going to be inaccessible to a lot of women." Herein lies another issue at the intersection of minimalism, class and size inclusivity: while the privileged have any number of brands at their disposal that are not only high quality but are also made with the environment in mind, the majority of brands that cater to plus-size women tend to fall under the umbrella of fast fashion.
Beyond the plus-size specialists, some high street names (usually only available online) have lines that range from size 16-26. ASOS, New Look, Monki, Pretty Little Thing, and Boohoo all have pieces available for plus-size women – but brands like these often come under fire for contributing to fashion’s ethical and environmental problems. It’s a vicious cycle that means plus-size bodies often have to choose between ethical fashion and personal style. This isn’t a criticism of those who are making their wardrobes more sustainable or assessing their relationship with capitalist-driven consumption, but when those options aren’t available for all, we must think twice about pedalling a mindfulness-first approach to fashion.
"I remember reading a quote," Gina says, "that said something along the lines of 'minimalism is for rich people, because one or two crazy expensive items express their wealth easily, but as working-class people save up and buy more items that are worth less, and then feel the need to show it all off because they've earned it (even if it's not stylish), the maximalism trend stems from that.' It feels similar to the idea of calling minimalism an 'intelligent' style; less is more only when you can afford to have it both ways."
Thankfully, it does feel like progress is being made, albeit slowly, by a handful of brands changing the narrative around plus-size fashion. Last week, plus-size specialist Navabi collaborated with blogger and consultant Danielle Vanier on a 14-piece collection made up of monochromatic staples and pieces central to a minimalist’s wardrobe: tailored trousers, navy midi skirts, trench coats and white shirts. "After living and working in Stockholm, I began to crave simple, chic pieces," Vanier told Refinery29. "Over the years, I've tried to put together a wardrobe that is made up of these sorts of clothes, but because I am plus-size, this has been difficult. I've known from day dot that if I was ever given a chance to design a range, it would be minimal. Navabi is such a well-respected brand, known for their great fit, fabric quality and their genuine love and respect for larger people; it was a no-brainer when they asked me to collaborate."
The US is making headway at a faster pace. Universal Standard, founded in New York in 2014, aims to cater to the 67% of American women who wear a size 14 (that’s an AU size 16) or above but don’t see themselves reflected in fashion. "We saw a vast disparity in what was available to women, based solely on their size," cofounder and creative director Alexandra Waldman tells Refinery29. "The styles on offer for women over size 12 were really limited and most often of terrible quality. Seeing as how they represent some 70% of the female population, it made no sense. Obviously from a purely personal perspective, as a size 20 woman, I hated the limitations imposed on me by the people making fashion in my size. In Universal Standard I knew I could create a line of clothing that I wanted to wear."
And Comfort, a minimalist and plus-size specialist, is a thrilling new label on the market. "The brand was born out of a deeply personal experience: I wanted to make clothes my mum could wear, after seeing the lack of options for her in the mainstream market," founder Karine Hsu explains. "For years, much of what was offered in plus sizes was overly decorated in mediocre or loud prints and rhinestones, instead of focusing on versatile, investment pieces. I noticed that the simplest things were often the hardest to find. That's why I wanted to focus on simple, well-designed pieces that were comfortable and well made."
It goes without saying that plus-size women do not have a homogenous personal style; this conversation isn’t about one particular body type claiming one particular aesthetic as its own – it’s about choice, inclusivity and accessibility. As Waldman says: "There are very few size-inclusive brands in the market in general – minimalist fashion is just a further subdivision within that gap." The pedestal upon which minimalism has been placed is just the tip of the iceberg of one of fashion’s biggest issues. What really needs to be fought against is the notion that the crème de la crème of fashion is the preserve of the privileged. "We're often not allowed to choose our own identities," Rutter says, and that is the crux of the problem. When brands start catering to everyone, bodies of all kinds can begin to shape their own narrative – one outfit at a time.

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