Monday, March 21, 2011

Unsolicited Opinions on Size and Fashion

This weekend, I had an interesting conversation with my mother. Early Sunday morning, she was flipping through the latest edition of O Magazine (one of our joint guilty pleasures) and spotted a spread of women breaking so-called "white" rules. It wasn't the (totally true) assertion that white clothes after Labor Day are fine that caught her eye. It was the models themselves. They were of all different sizes - petite, tall and slim, curvaceous, and every shape in between. Each one was completely lovely in her own right and looked spectacular in the styled outfits.

My mother, being a mother, shared this revelation with the purpose of encouraging me to look into plus-size modeling. Our exchange went - more or less - as follows...
  • Mom: "...and then I thought, Mary is prettier than any of them! And we know how photogenic you are. Maybe you need a third career, darling."
  • Me: (crazy, horrified laughter) "Mom, don't you think you're a little biased? Also, I'm pretty know...with the writing and medical school and all."
  • Mom: "True. But women want to see models who are shaped like them in magazines and I thought you would just be perfect."
After discussing the specifics of why exactly her dear daughter will never be a model (only 5'8'', 25 is a bit old to start, and totally not looking anything like Crystal Renn among the chief arguments), we talked about the real interesting point of the O spread. We do want to see women like us in magazines and advertisements. While I love my subscriptions to Vogue and Elle, it's rare that I actually look at the fashion ads. I flick past them with little interest, because seriously, what do I care what a six-foot, size-zero model looks like wearing that designer lace dress? It's not going to look like that on me. If I stopped and lusted after it, I'd just have to contemplate whether it would be flattering to my body type. Then, I would probably remember that said designer's line only goes up to size 8. When a fashion spread grabs my attention, it's because of artistic merit or vintage styling.

Even while shopping online, it's rare that I actually pay attention to the model wearing the outfit. I look at fabric, design shape, and price, because that's what will actually get me to buy something. Or, rather, that's how I used to feel.

Serendipitous to the timing of this conversation, I've been haunting the Talbots online store lately. Not because the clothes are great (which they are - I love the new direction they've taken), but because I was totally bowled over by one of their latest ad campaigns. They're in the process of revamping their "Talbots Woman" line of plus-sizes clothing and part of that has been hiring actual size 12+ models to display their clothes. As a cross-over size, I've never bought anything from the Woman line, but the front-page picture was enough for me to click through.

There was this gorgeous woman - tall, blonde, and totally bombshell curvy - wearing Talbots clothes. She looked like a goddess. It was a simple outfit: chambray Oxford shirt, brown belt, and a daisy lace white skirt. It was identical to an outfit I'd seen on the main Talbots site weeks before and dismissed, not thinking the straight skirt would flatter my hips. But modeled on a woman my shape? Totally changed my mind. I wanted the entire outfit and I wanted it right that second. What's more, I then clicked through every single outfit in the store, seeing if they had her wearing anything else I liked.

Thus is the magic of target marketing. When the average American woman is a size 14, doesn't it reason that the fashion industry would benefit by including models who are not so glaringly opposite of that size? This has been a bit of a hot topic in recent years, with the rising careers of models like Crystal Renn and Tara Lynn. These women have not been sidelined to the "plus-sized" stores, but featured in major runway shows and magazine spreads. Admittedly, a lot of the attention surrounding them has been precisely because they are so novel. Size 12 women rarely, if ever, walk major runway shows. In a fashion world where thin is so required that even traditional models are smoothed and shrunk through photo editing, average-sized women, no matter how stunningly gorgeous they may be, have become an aberration.

Honestly, this is part of the reason I started sewing. So many clothes I lust after are not only out of my price range, but out of my size range. Even at major retailers, like Anthropologie, it's not at all uncommon for sizing to stop at a 10. I can't tell you how many times I've fallen in love with a dress in-store, only to find out I've been sized out of purchasing it. All too many women take this occurrence as a sign that there is something wrong with their shapes. Frankly, that's crap. As someone in the medical field, I'm a big evangelist of the maxim that both health and beauty come in many sizes. Why should I have to crash diet just to shrink into someone else's view of normal? I'm a size 12/14. What's more, I'm totally okay with that.

So, I threw up my hands and decided that if designers weren't making the clothing I wanted, I'd have to do it myself. One of the things I've come to love about the online sewing community is that sewing bloggers do come in all shapes and sizes. You can see a new pattern on my 5'8'', curvy frame, but also on someone who's 4'10'' and delicately-formed. Because, fashion may have size expectations, but style does not. Here's hoping the former starts to take some cues from the latter, agreed?

Post Notes: It should be said that plus-sized fashion is similarly, if not as extremely, biased as well. Models do tend to be in the smaller range of plus sizes (and I would even argue that a 12 shouldn't be categorized as plus at all). What's more, there's not a place in the market for women of middle sizes - sixes, eights, and tens - to be featured. It's all-or-nothing with fashion, when it comes to highlighting larger sizes. But that's a post for another day, or else I'll ramble on longer, until this post becomes book length. No one wants that.

Also: The balloon picture? Credit to my wonderful, wildly talented friend Sarah Romohr of Sincerely Sarah Photography in Austin. I had fun playing dress-up for an hour last summer, so she could test out some techniques. She even managed to make me look not crazy ridiculous in front of a camera, which takes some skill. If you need photography in Austin, she's amazing! (And you may suspect me of a bias, as we've been friends for a decade, but I'm not alone. People go gaga over her work.)


  1. I really do love this post! I totally agree and coming from a UK perspective where I am a 14/16 uk. (12/14 US.) It makes life very disheartening to go shopping! Most of the shops I would want to buy in stop at a 16 and most good quality brands are 14. Anthropologie is one of the ones i'm constantly disappointed by. I turned to sewing so that I could, like you, wear clothes that I wanted to that looked good on me and suited me. As the shape I am.

    I think with sewing too it makes you be much more honest with yourself and in tune with your body. Measurements change, but it doesn't directly mean you are less worthy to wear that Vogue Dress that you've started making.
    I thought this was a well thought out post as of course there is always a counter argument coming from the middle sizes too. We live in a world of extremes. When most of us are just in the middle
    Stevie x

  2. This is a topic that has been discussed many many times in many other venues. Yet it bears further discourse, especially when the catalyst is as thought-provoking and eloquent as yourself!

    Personally, I've always been torn about the size of models. On one hand, I don't really care, because, like you, I never really notice them. On the other hand, I get all fired up when I read a blog post or editorial about how awful they (and the fashion industry in general) are for young girls' self esteem/body image. I suppose I'm in the middle (which is ironic, because, as you said, there seem to only be extremes in this world [of fashion, that is, not in general]).

    Personally, I don't mind models, no matter what their size, because I don't tend to notice them unless they stand out in some way (red hair will usually do it), but I'm perfectly willing and ready to shield young girls' eyes from potential bad influence(s).

    I'm not sure this is very coherent, because I've not really thought about this topic in a while. Apologies! You've written a very interesting post here, though!


    P.S. Have you seen the new Crystal Renn for Lord & Taylor ads? They're gorgeous, all in neutrals, but I hate the way they put the prices of products right there on the page!

  3. Also, your mother sounds like such a sweetheart!


    P.S. I just realized I said "personally" too much in the previous comment.

  4. This is a wonderful post. I so wish more women would speak up like this. I hate all the pressure there is for women to be thin. I even see how it has effected my daughter who is 9 who has asked me before if she is fat or thin. A beautiful and kind heart...a generous smile...that is the thing that is remembered that is a wonderful legacy...You have a sweet mother indeed No doubt that is how she got such a sweet daughter!! ~Love Heather

  5. I agree with you and I think it is interesting how once you saw a model who resembled your body type you were immediately more interested in the clothing for sale. That's something brands need to recognize.

    I wish we had more diversity in general in the fashion industry. You're absolutely right about the extremes in model sizes - where are the 6s, 8s, and 10s? You're either a 2 or a 14. I think that is why I like fashion blogs because you can see *real* people making style work for them no matter what their size.

    BTW, love your blog! it's great to find other austin people who sew.

  6. Such a well written post! As someone who is in the middle size range (about a 10), I rarely see anyone my sizing wearing the clothing being offered. Sewing is a wonderful talent that allows you to remove yourself from that world if you choose. I think one thing that should be pointed out though is even in sewing patterns many patterns don't go past a size 20 or 22 max, which translates to about a 16 or 18 in RTW sizes. There also seems to be very few true "plus sized" sewing patterns. I guess what I am saying is that even pattern companies have fallen into the trap of isolating some women due to their sizing, or rather, lack thereof.

  7. Mary- I love you. Also, I love this post. I couldn't have said it better myself- and I expect, had I even attempted to say it, there would have been a lot more cursing.

  8. Stevie, what a wonderful point about sewing and how it relates to body consciousness. It's not something I've thought of before, but, you're exactly right. Sewing makes you much more aware of how your particular body is shaped, as well as what styles and designs you feel best in.

    I would also say that there's something to be said for thinking of yourself in terms of measurements, instead of the RTW industry sizes. Knowing your own proportions and tailoring things to fit you, instead of trying to fit into standard sizing is such an empowering experience. Though, not going to lie, I'd love it if sewing pattern sizes weren't so dreadfully off from modern RTW sizes. Cutting out an 18 or 20 sometimes does make me cringe a little, even with my feelings about size acceptance. When the result fits so well, though, the negative thoughts normally disappear in a flash.

    Also, thanks for providing a UK perspective on this issue! It could be a misjudgment, but the shopping I've done in the UK did lead me to believe that there's even more of an issue finding the larger end of sizes in UK stores. My first time visiting London boutiques was exactly as you said - disheartening! I had to go back to our flat that night and Google which companies had wider size ranges, just to be more prepared.
    It was harrowing, to say the least.

    Also, glad to know I'm not alone in my Anthropologie despair. ;-) I do wish, of all the companies, that they would see the sizing light. It only stands that the more sizes they provide, the more business they will attract.

  9. Garnet, when I was writing this I had to consciously force myself to not start talking about model size and young girls. It's definitely one of my hot button issues, as well!

    The media in general, especially in the US, is increasingly at odds with the reality of women's shapes. Not only does it encourage girls to worry about whether they're too big, but also to then worry about whether they're too thin at the other end of the spectrum. Despite how often we hear the statistics about what all the body snark and unrealistic images does to young women, it doesn't change. Models are encouraged to be increasingly skinnier, every print image is Photoshopped to within an inch of its life, and one can't turn on the TV for five minutes without hearing disparaging remarks about one end of the size spectrum or another.

    Oh, boy, lots of rambling. Like I said - totally one of my hot-button issues, as well. Though, that being said I think you make a really good point, also - I have nothing against models themselves. I'm just sort of ambivalent toward them, unless - exactly like you said - there's something striking about them. It's hard to wade through the barrage of images, otherwise, I suppose.

    PS: Oh, I hadn't seen those Lord & Taylor ads yet. Those ads are gorgeous - very mid-century chic. Love them! I swear, Crystal Renn could convince me that burlap sacks were fashionable. She looks so fierce in everything! Thanks for the link.

  10. Heather, you are so, so right. It's truly how she treats people and the differences she makes in the world that establishes a woman's proper legacy.

    It makes me so sad to hear anecdotes about young girls with body image concerns. My sister is 12 years younger than me and I remember being horrified at how young she was, when she started worrying about her weight. I wish there was a way we could keep girls happy and carefree just a little longer nowadays, before all the societal expectations and pressures set in. Your daughter is lucky to have a mom who can filter these things for her properly!

  11. Dixie,

    Thanks for stopping by the blog! It's awesome to find other Austin sewers - we're kind of thin on the ground in the blog world.

    There's actually a Cambridge study that just came out that showed we're not the only ones who feel this way about models. Researchers found that women "significantly" increase their likelihood of purchasing something, if the model reflects their age, size, or race.

    And, you're absolutely right - the fashion industry needs more diversity all around. It's not just a "plus-size" issue, but an issue for all the sizes in-between. That's not even mentioning the race and age aspects of diversity. The statistics and proof-in-the-pages of fashion's homogeneity is too dispiriting for words. Now, like you said, if only brands would acknowledge this fact.

  12. Rebecca,

    That is a wonderful point about sewing size ranges. In patterns, there is the freedom to grade up if one has to, but it would be wonderful to see more true plus-size lines of patterns. The women of a size 20 and above are, just like you said, isolated in this industry just as they are in RTW fashion.

    It would be wonderful to see a Big 4 company address this. There would be added cost to companies initially, but if the demand for larger sizes is there like it is in the RTW markets, they will sell well. It's been show over and over again that women want high fashion in every size. How great would it be to find Simplicity patterns not just in two size envelopes, but three?

    Thanks for that great reminder!

  13. Lo,

    Ha! Oh, you know I had to edit myself like crazy. If we were having this conversation over dinner, the expletives would have been flying. It makes me all fiery with the ridiculousless of it all!

    Love you too, lady! :D

  14. I really love this post--thank you so much for your remarks! I'm anywhere from a size 16-20 and my favorite store is, by far, Anthropologie, which of course pays no attention to people of my size. I have about 10 dresses from anthro that look absolutely fantastic on me and that I was fortunate enough to fit in to because they were XLs that happened to stretch in the right ways, but I've been noticing more and more that XLs are a rarity at anthro--and when they have them, they're always the first size to sell out online! You'd think that this would be a tell-tale sign for them to increase their size offerings, but of course, this isn't the case.

    I've recently "discovered" Talbots too, and while (as a 22 year old college student) I'd always written them off as too "old lady," I love the direction they're moving in and just this week bought the champs-elysees skirt and a few dresses (though, I must say, your version looks much better!). It was so refreshing to be on their website and see many of the same clothes offered in their normal apparel line (in which I'm a size 18, and not sized out of) modeled on gorgeous, full-figured women. Talbots has certainly taken expanding their size offerings to a new level--not just offering up to size 20 on their normal line but featuring plus-size models in many of the exact same styles and proving that you don't have to be a size 0 to look good in their clothes.

  15. I love your post! I think the same part of point of view that we are more interested in a model who have resembled body type like us and then desperately try to find same kind clothing for sale :)

  16. I can across your blog this morning from - I absolutely LOVE it! This is a great post. I love your reviews also because you give so much info and show pictures of yourself wearing them. Like your mom.....I think you would make a beautiful model! All your clothes are the perfect style for you. Thanks again for all your great reviews.