Can fashion’s fatphobic tendencies be cured once and for all?

Written by Hannah Cole

Photography Supplied

Will there come a day when the prefix of ‘plus-size’ can be dropped?

Fashion has found itself in an interesting place recently. Brands are called to be conscious and aware beings in and of themselves. Large pockets of society are calling for strong attitudes towards the environment, ethics, racially diverse representation and LGBTQI+ inclusion amongst others. But there is another frontier that is yet to be navigated by the majority: size. Is fashion just fatphobic? Why is this idea continually swept to the side?

Interestingly, this means brands are ignoring the booming value of the plus-size industry. IBIS World values the Australian plus-size market as $1bn, while elsewhere reports state the industry is worth more than $50bn globally. In a time of uncertainty, these figures are unignorable. Meanwhile, City Chic (the high street plus-size offering), has seen share prices rise exponentially — even during the time of COVID-19. From March to August 2020 shares bounded 320 per cent. 

As with many inclusivity issues, we have seen select brands take a somewhat tokenistic approach to size for some time now; we’ve all seen a campaign featuring Robyn Lawley, Ashley Graham or Paloma Elsesser. Maybe 2020 is the year that fatphobia will be addressed once and for all though. 

The viral TikTok strawberry dress caused a stir earlier in the year as American plus-size model Tess Holliday spoke out about being the first to wear the piece in January. It was a decision that landed her on the Grammy’s worst-dressed lists, “but now a bunch of skinny ppl wore it on TikTok everyone cares.” In July, Australian model Jennifer Atilemile penned a piece for Fashion Journal regarding sustainable fashion’s exclusive nature. And, in recent weeks, stylist Francesca Burns publicly addressed the limits of sampling, where one size does not fit all. As she puts it, fashion should be empowering. Is the time for a reckoning finally here? 

After reading Atilemile’s piece, I was shocked by and alerted to my previous ignorance. How could a label claim positive earthly attributes while so clearly ignoring the masses? (Because, as we know, the average Australian woman wears a size 16). The now NYC-based model found that most local, sustainable offerings would not cater above a size 12, immediately excluding the majority. As she wrote, “Sadly, sustainable fashion is closely interrelated with size, with a clear lack of size diversity when it comes to sustainable options.”

When I asked Atilemile about the hierarchy of priorities, particularly in the Australian market (the US is far ahead of the game here), she replied, “I think it’s always framed as a cost factor.” We hear this same old story over and over — producing fashion for larger sizes is inherently more expensive (more fabric, inputs, etc.) — “especially if they’re being ‘ethical’, as they can’t cut corners when it comes to production costs.” Is this an excuse, though?

Meanwhile, in the US, brands like Girlfriend Collective and Mara Hoffman are making waves in the inclusive and sustainable fashion space. There appears to be a stark difference between the attitudes State-side vs. the laissez-faire approach here: “I think larger bodies have campaigned harder for representation in the States, even the majority of our plus-size models leave to work overseas, because there’s no work for them here, there’s no market here.” The self-perpetuating cycle begins: brands dismiss larger sizes, models move elsewhere, so editorial and representation is lacking, which in turn, again insinuates less need or call for inclusivity.  

Local brands that are meeting the mark are few and far between, but Lonely Lingerie and Dyspnea are two prime examples where both sustainability and size are satisfied. They prove that plus-size fashion can also be fun, flirty and sexy. Literally, just ‘clothing’ but made for all. Will there come a day when the prefix of ‘plus-size’ can be dropped?

For all of fast fashions problems, inclusivity is not one. The industry opened the doors early on with welcome arms (and now reap exceedingly full pockets). Lil Ahenkan, aka Flex Mami, is one local influencer owning both her size and fast fashion decisions therein. She’s proving that fashion is a statement and full of colour and fun, no matter your size. Flex Mami is the unofficial advocate for wearing what makes you happy and proud. While the issue shouldn’t fall on anyone’s shoulder alone, these are the messages and hype our local industry needs to see and hear. Make some fun clothes for Flex!

As mentioned earlier, it’s not a market to underestimate. The demand is there, and will only become increasingly so, as we show women of all sizes that fashion is meant to be a free and open expression of the self. Stretchy pants, dark colours and loose-fitting silhouettes shouldn’t be the only option; wear sparkles, bike shorts, cute crops — everyone should have access. There is an audience yearning to spend their money on these pieces. Fashion with a capital ‘F’ is not, and should not be, exclusive from size 6 through to 12. Chelsea Bonner, the founder of Bella Management, noted that these women “have the money to spend $1,000 on a great party dress, if brands would only sell them.” Others in the industry reflect a similar opinion: in this climate, who wouldn’t want to serve this audience eager to spend?

Adaptability is one innovative way this area is navigated, with a growing presence in the US. As designers look to expand size offerings, a select few are also acknowledging the many changes one’s body goes through over a lifetime. From monthly bloating and discomfort, to the before- and after-effects of pregnancy, illness, and general ageing, our body is unlikely to stay the same for long. In terms of sustainability and value, adaptability may be the way forward. Designers are thinking outside the box with the addition of drawstrings, strategic buttons, elastic sleeve openings and detachable belts that alter the way garments are worn as the body requires. Maybe it is these simple adjustments that will spell a starting point for brands; make pieces a little more versatile and build from there.

The truth is, this is not just a crusade to be taken up by those placed in the ‘plus-size’ slot. We should all take up arms and fight. True inclusivity benefits us all: from the bottom-dollar of businesses to community awareness, mental health and general human nature. I still don’t understand why Australia is so behind the mark, but it’s time we made up for the lost time. A sustainable fashion future is an inclusive one.

Jennifer Atilémile.

Lonely Lingerie.

Lil Ahenkan (aka Flex).

Paloma Elsesser.

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