I’m a late ‘99 baby, which means I was deep in my early teens when Tumblr rose to prominence. Tumblr is where I found my love for pop-punk, grunge, post-hardcore, One Direction, K-pop fandom culture and the early 2010s ‘Tumblr aesthetic’. Think a crisp white American Apparel tennis skirt, that one album cover by Arctic Monkeys, slim pale legs in fishnets with Doc Martens and you’ll see what 14 year-old Phoebe perceived as the apex of “cool”.
This ideal seemed like an insurmountable summit for a young, chubby Blak girl in regional Australia. When you’re a minority, it’s easy to internalise what you see in the media and trends in general; and there is almost an assumed knowledge that whiteness and thinness are the foundation for being cool. Despite having neither, this did not stop teenaged Phoebe from being glued to her Tumblr blog dashboard and re-posting every pastel grunge photo that popped by her eyes.
The goalposts of “internet cool” shifted again with the rise of YouTube thrift hauls, where the need for uniqueness manifested in the requirement for your clothes to be one-of-a-kind, vintage and unable to be copied. There was an air of exclusivity when someone asked where you got your outfit and you could say “Oh, this? It’s thrifted”.
Again, there was an “assumed knowledge” to thrifting — and if you’re plus- sized, forget about it. Beyond the microcosm of the internet, the social landscape in the 2010s was just brazenly fatphobic and something as simple as buying cute clothes at my local Westfield felt impossible.
The more I saw clothing available in my size, the more comfortable I felt to explore.
I had to train myself to have a particular response when I was around clothes. I knew that none of it was meant for me and that I looked stupid even glancing meaningfully at a rack. For teenaged Phoebe this was a protective measure, to prevent disappointment and fatphobic behaviour from people around me. While online shopping in the last 10 years has somewhat alleviated my aversion to fashion, I still have a deeply held hesitancy towards shopping.
When I walked into the Radically Soft Plus-Size Market in Sydenham, the first ever plus-size market in Sydney, I honestly had no idea what to expect. I had mainly attended to see two of my friends, who happened to be the organisers, and I didn’t have any intention of buying anything. I remember as soon as I walked in being drawn to a pink and orange dress at a stall near the entrance, but like muscle memory, I didn’t look at it for too long and decided to look for my friends.
The space was buzzing. There was a DJ zoned in on their decks and a constantly murmuring soundscape of enthusiastic chatter. As I meandered through the rows of stall holders, I found my eye being drawn to more and more items. But I couldn't bring myself to look for too long and walked on.
These events are not only a market, but a safe space for the community to congregate and find joy, new friends, and new clothes!
Cribbs, market organiser
It took me over four loops of the entire market to begin even touching the clothes on the rack and doing the dreaded size tag check. But the more I saw clothing available in my size, the more comfortable I felt to explore. I dared to take clothes off the rack, demonstrate my interest in the garment and where I would normally get a look of judgement from a store attendant, there was a stall holder who looked like me. When they shared helpful little facts about the fit or the fabric, it started to click — these clothes were intended for me.
Eventually I found my friends in a series of shouts and hugs, Christine “Cribbs” Aukusitino and Tess Royale Clancy. This was my second time meeting Cribbs, after being introduced through a mutual friend in the indie podcasting scene at a First Nations/Pacific show in Parramatta, and it was my first time meeting Tess after chatting a few times on Instagram. I was taken by the joy on their faces, despite running around and managing minor hiccups, you could just feel the pride and excitement emanating from them.
In a world that often struggles to keep up with changing social norms and values, Royale and Cribbs have taken it upon themselves to cultivate a space where inclusivity and joy are at the forefront. Together, they founded an inclusive fashion market, an initiative born out of a passion for community, diversity, and fashion. As the market gained momentum and transformed into something far greater than they initially imagined, they shared their thoughts and insights on the project in a candid conversation with Refinery29 Australia.
Finding Joy in Community
Royale shares the simple yet powerful joy of people being able to not only discover stylish clothing but also share moments of camaraderie. "One of the things that really fills my cup is hearing just groups of people laughing and chatting — finding joy and finding clothes. That just brings so much warmth, to hear people in my community being happy," they tell Refinery29 Australia.
Cribbs also shares the overwhelming support the market received from the community. "One thing that became so apparent is the amount of support and love that people in this community desperately wanted to give," she says. "We had a tonne of volunteers on the day, people wanting to donate their time, their skills to shoot content, promote our market as well as offer clothing donations."
Their initial surprise at the positive response quickly transformed into a sense of fulfilment and motivation. Royale humorously admitted, "Cribbs and I just wanted to do it, and we fucking did it. Every time we have [an event] I just look at Cribbs and go, 'damn this was a lot of work.' But it is so worth it in the end, it’s doing it with both of us having full-time jobs but the end result is such a reward. I’ve been so tired but on a high all week!"
This journey has enabled them to expand their events, hosting VIP movie screenings, Fat Babe Speed Friending sessions, and they're even planning a summer pool party.
The Importance of Inclusive Spaces
When asked about the significance of creating these inclusive spaces, Cribbs exclaims, "These events are not only a market, but a safe space for the community to congregate and find joy, new friends, and new clothes!" Royale reiterates the importance of spaces like these, sharing their experience. "Just the amount of people reaching out afterward that have said, 'I’ve needed this my whole life.' I always needed this space but didn’t realise how many other people needed them too. It makes me think about how these spaces should have already been cultivated. We shouldn't have had to experience discrimination, and I don’t see why the world has so much trouble catching up with that."
In a world where size inclusivity still has a long way to go, the founders of this plus-size fashion market are not only providing clothing but also a sense of belonging, unity, and pure joy to their community. And Radically Soft isn't alone in the Aussie plus-size market game. They’ve formed a group with other plus-size markets including A Plus and Double (more about both later) called “Fat Joy Superstars”, where they connect and support each other. Leaning into spaces of community rather than competition has been beneficial for the growing plus-size fashion community.
“Connecting with the Fat Joy Superstars is another extension of this generous community doing fat liberation work,”, says Lauren Khabbaz from Double. “It's super important that we are now finding online and real-life spaces to celebrate folks in bigger bodies all over Australia”.
It’s apparent through talking to these organisers that they see their work having an important role in social impact broadly. Sam van Zweden from A Plus Market explains, “Normalising this community is so important — it might just look like we're fighting for the right to look and feel great, but inclusion in the fashion space has a knock-on effect to inclusion across society more broadly, and humanising fat bodies is key to their liberation”.
Also, that pink and orange dress I saw when I entered the market?
I eventually got the guts to try it on. It fit perfectly and my inner-teen felt seen in that special little way.
Plus-size markets around Australia
I highly recommend checking out your local plus-size market or if there isn’t one around you, maybe talk to your pals about it and who knows what could come out of it.
Gadigal/Wangal Country in ‘Sydney’
Radically Soft is based on Gadigal/Wangal Country/Sydney. Their next markets are scheduled for March 2024, as well as a plus-size clothes swap in Summer 2024.
A Plus Market is based in Naarm/Melbourne. They are hosting their End of Year Party on December 2nd 2023 and they will be back in the first quarter of 2024.