A Look At How Plus-Size Women Have Been Marginalized By Fashion Throughout History

There’s no denying that plus-size women and plus-size fashion have experienced a surge of popularity recently, so it’s not completely surprising that one of the most prestigious universities would decide to focus an exhibit solely on the subject. Beyond Measure: Fashion And The Plus-Size* Woman has opened at the 80WSE Gallery at NYU Steinhardt, and the exhibition details the impossible fashion constraints that have been placed on women throughout the ages, especially among those women whose shape and size have fallen outside of the sample-size “norm” — a phenomenon that still holds true today.
One of the obvious themes that appeared was that plus-size women have been marginalized by the fashion industry since it existed. “Our main goal was to examine the plus-size woman's place within fashion and its defining entity, the fashion industry," explained Ya’ara Keydar, a student representative from the class. “We wanted to provide the perspectives of designers, manufacturers, the general public, and the individual women themselves. While the subject of plus-size is certainly present in social media, blogs, and online media, it is rarely being treated within the academia and museums. We wanted to provide the plus-size woman in history the space that she seldom receives, and by doing so, start a conversation on this important subject.”
Much like the body-label debate that’s raged across the internet, the class deliberated over the right phrasing to utilize for the exhibit. “We realized that there is no one term that is satisfactory to everyone. Curvy, full-figured, plus-size, plump, voluptuous, Rubenesque, stout — and the list goes on — are all either biased or even demeaning to certain groups. Unlike the word ‘thin,’ the word ‘fat’ shifted from a descriptive word into an offensive word to some,” said Keydar. “The asterisk in our title represents this debate, and it is an invitation for dialogue. At the bottom of the wall text is a pink asterisk that explains the choice of the term ‘plus-size’ in the exhibition: *‘Plus-size’ is only one of many terms used to describe the non-thin body; after careful consideration, it was chosen by the curators for its association with the fashion industry."
Although there have always been larger people, the clothing options were even more finite in the past and the diminutive display reflects the limited plus-size fashion options throughout history, with only three garments (two created by the class) on view, and the remainder of the exhibit fleshed out by body-focused images from both yesteryear and now. Included in the exhibit is an early 20th century postcard of Nettie the Fat Girl, a popular sideshow attraction that drew in droves of people to gawk at her hypothetical immorality. Although circus sideshows have been traded for reality TV shows, the mockery of fat people — especially fat women — has not lessened over the years. This discovery of past marginalization amazed the students.
“The role the fashion industry has played in the stigmatization of larger women’s bodies [surprised the class]. The issue of women's weight and their bodies, especially during the 19th century, became entangled with issues concerning health, morality, and deviance; and in many ways, these stigmas seeped into the cultural conscious and they still exist today.” said Keydar.
Also included in the presentation is a slideshow of images created by Refinery29 of so-called “plus-size” models posing with the padding they typically use for photoshoots. Although some assume the padding is utilized as a smoothing tool, it is actually used to make the models appear heavier in areas considered acceptable by the client; yet another way of showcasing an impossible body ideal to those who are desperate for representation. Even with all of the vast improvements that have been made with plus-size fashion and body acceptance, there are some things — like the unnecessary padding of not-actually-plus-size models — that indicate there is still a lot of evolution ahead.
Beyond Measure will be on view at 80WSE Gallery until February 3 — and you can view it on the gallery's app if you’re unable to visit. Want to get even more? There will be a public reception for Beyond Measure at 5 p.m. on January 28 (you must RSVP), where there will be a keynote speech by Professor Leah Sweet from Parsons the New School for Design, followed by a panel featuring Buzzfeed writer Kaye Toal, plus-size model Stella Ellis, and designer Eden Miller (the first plus-size designer to show at New York Fashion Week).

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