Plus-size shoppers have been frustrated. Ahead are just a few of the dozens of responses I received after asking about their shopping experiences, both before and during the pandemic. And while the details naturally varied person to person, one overarching theme rang true throughout each and every conversation. The fashion industry isn’t size-inclusive, and it shows in the options it provides for them:
“We are told that brands can't afford to produce garments with the same margin for us as our smaller counterparts because the cost of the fabric it would take to cover our bodies is too high.”
“As an adult, I've always struggled to find knee, or right under-the-knee, high boots that fit my calves — at this point, I've essentially resigned myself to not wearing any ever again.”
In July, plus-size influencer and fashion designer Gabi Gregg — or, as most of her 814k Instagram followers know her, Gabi Fresh — called out Topshop on Twitter for advertising a blazer as “oversized” on a thin model despite not offering sizes above a 14. Her tweet read: “When brands say it’s too expensive to add plus sizes because of the amount of fabric it takes, but then make shit like this lol.” On Instagram, she added: “If you can make a size 22 blazer for a size 6 girl to wear, you can make a size 22 blazer for a size 22 girl to wear.” More than 78k people liked the post. The 1.4k comments are filled with complaints from real women about how the plus-size retail space has failed them.
And Topshop is hardly the only brand guilty of this. Zara, & Other Stories, Free People, and more fashion brands with similar price points and styles have also designed purposely oversized items for their clientele whilst continuing to offer no options above size 14. “It underlines an unspoken trend in fashion, which is that whatever a thin celebrity wears becomes trendy, but the same rules don't apply to plus women,” says Annika Chaloff, the founder of plus-size lingerie brand Hey Mavens. “Bike shorts, baggy tees, mom jeans, and chunky sneakers are good examples of trends that are generally accepted only on thin bodies.”
It’s important to note that plus-size women do not want brands to simply throw some extra fabric on a design made for straight sizes, label it as plus-size, and pat themselves on the back. Under Gregg’s tweet, a user named Elena replied with: “Don’t give them ideas, they’re going to sew in an XXL size tag and leave the tiny arm holes,” proving just how little faith the plus-size community has in terms of the quality and design of garments that do come in their size. “I want care put into designs and structures so that garments fit my body,” says Universal Standard shopper Audrey Sopata.
The case of “oversized” clothing trends is only one of the many disappointing aspects of shopping as a plus-size woman. The sheer lack of options was one of the most common frustrations expressed to me. “If I had to pick one thing, I would just want to see MORE plus-size options,” Chaloff says. “I want to see more shops and brands carrying and creating plus styles. I want to see more plus models used in campaigns. I want to see more labels coming onto the market that cater to plus size. More more more!” Chaloff goes on to reiterate the importance of preserving the design of garments as the size is graded up from a straight size. Plus-size women still want clothes that fit, which really isn’t asking a lot. “Oftentimes, the integrity of the design of a piece will get distorted as it gets graded to a larger size, either because proportions aren't carefully considered or because extra seams or panels are added to accommodate a larger body. Some of these changes are necessary to maintain proper fit, but it is a shame when the original design of a garment is compromised.”
And it’s not just clothing. Jewelry, footwear, and accessory designers also need to step up to the plate and offer more thoughtful options for women sizes 14 and up. Alyssa Kaplan, the founder of The Scrunchie Club, an accessories brand that caters to womxn and non-binary people of all sizes, has experienced frustration when shopping for boots in her size. Kaplan explains that in trying to find a pair of knee-high boots, she realized that rarely do footwear brands make fashionable styles that are wide enough in the calf to fit her, so much so, that she’s given up on the silhouette entirely. To prove that she wasn’t alone in this struggle, Kaplan conducted a survey last year that showed that 95.3% of women (96% of the 275 respondents identified as plus-size) have experienced trouble shopping for boots that fit their calves. Sopata, a shoe size 11 wide, says that most stores do not go past a size 10; if they do, they rarely carry a wide size. “In order to find a new shoe that fits and that I like, I usually have to go on a deep hunt that requires me to order online and hope for the best,” she says.
The plus-size jewelry industry is also limited. Last year, the founder of popular plus-size lifestyle and fashion blog The 12ish Style Katie Sturino told The Zoe Report that “the current state of size inclusivity within the jewelry industry is almost non-existent.” She went on to explain that while the industry has “bigger fish to fry,” there’s still a “clear need for extended sizing in jewelry. Every item that is available in straight sizes should also be made available in extended, and I know there's a market for this just like with clothes." Even handbags, which are often misconstrued as one-size-fits-all, need to up their game when it comes to cross-body styles and shoulder bags.
“It's not so much fun for your friends to see you get discouraged and have to leave a store empty-handed because they just don't sell your size,”
- Audrey Sopata
The issue of in-store placement — especially in department stores, which are often some of the only places that women sizes 14 and up can find a range of items in their size — also continues to disappoint many plus-size women. “Brands that do offer a wider range of sizes in a department store should have all their clothing displayed near each other,” Sopata says. She poses two valid questions: (1) “Why is straight-size Calvin Klein on the bottom floor, but plus-size Calvin Klein is upstairs and in the corner?” and, (2) “How does separating plus and straight encourage me to shop with a group of friends when I am already separated from them?” For Sopata, the very act of having to drag her friends to an entirely different part of the store just to “be disappointed that none of the cute clothing you saw on the bottom floor is available for you to wear” takes away the fun of shopping with friends — or at all — entirely. “It's also not so much fun for your friends to see you get discouraged and have to leave a store empty-handed because they just don't sell your size,” she adds.
Sopata isn’t alone in her grievances. When Emma Grede and Khloé Kardashian launched their size-inclusive denim brand Good American at Nordstrom, they put pressure on the Seattle-based retailer to merchandise all of their products in the designer denim section, regardless of size. “We started Good American because we want women’s shopping experiences to embrace the new body ideal,” Grede told Nordstrom at the time of the launch. “It’s just crazy that we still have plus sizes and are splitting up friends who go shopping together into different departments based on their size.” According to Digiday, the duo’s insistence was an “a-ha” moment for the retailer. It’s since begun implementing more inclusive merchandising tactics both in-stores and online. Nordstrom has also increased its budget for plus-sizes.
Even with Nordstrom’s advances and others, the department store sector often still falls short. “Just recently, while visiting family in Orlando, I discovered that the plus-size section at Macy’s is still hidden in the back of a high floor,” Sopata tells me. “Walking back to that section, you can see the clothing become less and less fashionable; the dismissive designs and the lack of style is an indication that you must now be in the plus-size section of the store. After the plus-size revolution that has happened over the last seven or so years, I cannot believe that these unflattering frocks offered to plus-sizes in department stores are still a thing,” she says.
She’s right — the fashion industry has come a long way since Eloquii, a go-to for plus-size women who want quality clothing that’s also on-trend and affordable, launched in 2012. Luxury offerings have increased dramatically in the last few years with the launch of plus-size designer retailer 11 Honoré in 2017, followed by plus-size fashion editor Lauren Chan’s designer workwear brand Henning in 2019. Fashion brands such as Anthropologie, J.Crew, H&M, and Mango have all introduced extended sizing, and Universal Standard has further increased its already history-making size range. After launching in 2016, Good American has become a good resource for plus-size women to find denim, activewear, and now loungewear that fits their unique proportions well. One brand, Pari Passu, is changing the way plus-size clothing is sized entirely, by designing according to body shape rather than a number.
But during the pandemic, when nothing is certain and businesses are closing right and left, The wins that the plus-size industry has seen in the last few years aren’t necessarily set in stone. In fact, Ascena Retail Group, which owns and operates plus-size brands like Lane Bryant and Cacique, was recently forced to close down all 264 Catherines store locations. (The intellectual property assets for Catherines were sold to Australian brand City Chic Collective.) The parent company also permanently closed a number of Lane Bryant and Lane Bryant Outlet locations. The momentum around plus-size fashion needs to keep going, or else the majority of women in the U.S. — those of which are size 16 to 18 — are going to continue feeling frustrated and left out when shopping for something as simple as the clothing they wear on a daily basis. Things are hard enough as it is right now — shopping shouldn’t add to that.