Fashion Students & The 67%: It’s Complicated

Photo: Courtesy of Dominique Norman.
The 67% Project is about the cultural lack of representation of women who are a size 14 and up, but it's also very much about the dearth of plus-size clothing on racks and models on runways and in ads. Dominique Norman is a fashion student with a focus on, and passion for, a more size-inclusive (and racially inclusive) future for the industry. She's currently getting her master's at Parsons; when she was an undergrad at Washington State University, she was the first student to produce a plus-size collection at the school. Norman has advocated for size inclusivity in mediums beyond fashion design. She's also a poet, and last year, she performed a powerful spoken-word piece criticizing the fashion industry for its lack of diversity, both in terms of size and skin color. Ahead, Norman explains why there aren't more fashion-design students focusing on the 67%, a.k.a. the oft-neglected majority of shoppers today.

What was the impetus for you to work on a plus-size collection?
"I realized that I did not see people who looked like me in my textbooks or in my curriculum, at all. I began asking my professors why we were only making clothes for one kind of woman, especially when most women do not look like the mannequins we were using. I was faced with the answer that anything larger than a fashion size 8 is not 'industry standard.' We were taught how to make all of our designs based off of a fashion size 8, which in the real world is about a size 2 to 4. I felt like my education was being limited to a single demographic. "I am an advocate for equal representation, particularly in the fashion industry, so I decided that I was going to learn how to make clothes for all women, not just the fashion size 8s. It was difficult; I felt ostracized from my department, and I felt like I didn't have support where it was necessary. But that is what it means to be an activist, to continue to fight for what is right regardless of the obstacles in your way. I knew that by creating the first plus-size collection and one of the only collections to feature all models of color [at WSU], I would not just be representing myself, but representing this demographic that is continuously ignored and misrepresented. I would be representing the 67%."
Photo: Courtesy of Dominique Norman.
What was the design process like?
"I had to learn how to drape everything to the body and custom-make every piece for my models. This was the biggest challenge, but also the most rewarding part of my design process: Even though my models were all around sizes 14 to 16, they each had unique body types that had to be accommodated differently. "Each piece was designed with a specific model in mind, exposing the parts of the body that are typically hidden and supporting the parts of the body that needed the most support... I wanted a collection that a plus-size woman would feel confident and comfortable in, and wouldn't feel as though she was hiding in her clothes, but that she could make a statement and that she deserved to look good."

Beyond your design work, you've written and performed poetry about the 67%. What inspired the spoken-word piece (featured below), and what were you hoping to get across?
"When I wrote this piece, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with only seeing one kind of woman in our [fashion] curriculum. There was no representation of non-Eurocentric, differently abled, non-cisgender, or non-heteronormative people. I kept asking, 'Why do none of these people look like me?' I felt like I was not included in this industry I was getting into, and that wasn't fair to me or my education. We talk about how fashion is inspired by certain things, like cultures, subcultures, people, and places; however, most of the inspiration is appropriated and redesigned to fit this standard. If we are going to take inspiration from a diverse array of things, we need to see a diverse array of representation."
You worked with plus-size fashion expert Deborah Christel, PhD, while at WSU. What was that like?
"Dr. Christel's area of research was in plus-size apparel, so she taught specialty courses geared towards plus-size design and addressing the needs of plus-size consumers. She and another professor, Dr. Carol Salusso, were both very passionate about learning how to design for the body, for all bodies. They taught us that the clothes must fit the body, not the other way around. Dr. Christel brought her expertise to a curriculum that had been very standardized; she allowed us to learn techniques that had never been available to us before. Until Dr. Christel transferred to WSU, there were no mannequins above a fashion size 8, so we were restricted to only designing clothes in that size." What's significant about Dr. Christel's work for the fashion industry?
"Dr. Christel is not only creating dialogue around size inclusivity in the industry as well as in the curriculum; she's also changing the way we think about plus-size apparel. She has worked on projects addressing the needs of plus-size consumers and athletic apparel, which is a severely neglected part of the market. "During my undergrad years, I took a graduate-level course where we completed research for Columbia sportswear regarding the needs of plus-size women and athletic apparel. This course was inspired by Dr. Christel's research and Dr. Linda Arthur Bradley, who does research in cultural studies and worked with Dr. Christel on research with bariatric patients and apparel. So we are seeing more and more research being done to address this underrepresented demographic. We just need to see it being implemented into the industry."
Photo: Courtesy of Dominque Norman.
Just a handful of universities include plus-size design in their curriculums. Why do you think that's the case?
"I think the fashion curriculum is a reflection of the industry. Unfortunately, the industry has always been very Eurocentric in who it represents, with models being predominantly white, over 5-foot-7, and a size 2. In Jean Kilbourne's research, she states that only 5% of women in the United States have the body type that is represented in the industry. Both the fashion curriculum and the fashion industry need to diversify in terms of who is represented."

Why is size inclusivity in fashion, and fully acknowledging and celebrating the 67%, important to you?
"Because it's time to stop pretending like there is one way to be a woman in the United States. Fashion has always conveyed this hierarchy of who is deemed fashionable. Fashion and capitalism go hand in hand, and capitalism benefits from all people, so why are we ignoring the vast majority of the people that fund the fashion industry? Having fashion and mass media that does not accurately reflect our society is a misrepresentation. Why would we want to misrepresent ourselves and condition ourselves to believe this facade when it has such dire consequences? We are taught to loathe our bodies before we are ever taught to love them, and I think that is unacceptable."

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