Diversity in fashion is in vogue, particularly when it comes to the inclusion of plus-size models. But is it all lip service? Sasha Borissenko finds out.
Plus-size model and opera singer Isabella Moore walked for Paris Georgia, Juliette Hogan, Havilah, Augustine, and others at New Zealand Fashion Week last month.
This is despite the fact not all these brands actually sell clothing in her size – Moore wears a size 14 (plus-size in the fashion world but the average size of NZ women). Designers such as Paris Georgia only go up to a 12, according to its website. So for the show, she says an “awesome” marigold dress was custom made to fit her.
As to whether this was a token gesture at size diversity, Paris Georgia didn’t respond to queries but its website reads: “The Paris Georgia woman is strong, empowered, intelligent and refined. She is diverse… We praise the female form.”
Similarly, a “beautiful forest green floor-length dress” from Juliette Hogan was tailored to fit Moore, but she argues it was more about perfecting the fit in this case, because she usually wears a size 14 off the rack. The label does offer size 16 but not for every piece.
“I felt quite special having garments made to fit. It shows the designer’s focus is shifting; placing importance on the individual person rather than just being a ‘body’.”
Fashion Week was vastly different for Moore this year, who was cut from shows in previous years if the clothes didn’t fit.
A Juliette Hogan spokesperson said the company decided to include a plus-size model to “present to our audience an accurate reflection of both our garments and client base”.
"Our garments are generally available in sizes 6-14, with some of our collection in sizes 4-16.
“We welcome the movement to more diversity in the fashion industry, however [we’re] conscious that it needs to be genuine and relevant to both our brand and our customers."
Diversity, it seems, is good for business and Isabella Moore is all for it. She says she’s excited for the future of fashion.
“Obviously, this change directly affects me. Once upon a time I would’ve been looked at like I was crazy had I wanted to pursue a modelling career. Now, I am being welcomed into the fashion industry and it’s about time really.
“Everyone should feel accepted and represented. Otherwise you are sending a message that only a certain type of person is welcome in this world, and the rest are not worthy, which is completely crazy.”
She says tokenism is alive and present, but she’d hate to think that it’s the motive behind casting choices.
Designer Sarah-Jane Duff, of Lost and Led Astray, says tokenism is perhaps what is needed to create meaningful change. She’s been designing and making clothes for larger bodies for more than 12 years and says it’s only in the last two years the industry has taken any notice of plus-size fashion.
“Diversity is cool now. You don’t want to look like the asshole and appear to be racist, ageist or sizeist. It’s disrupting the industry, for sure. Even if it is tokenism, or we’re seeing ‘socially accepted fat bodies’ at least people are starting to think about these things. We’ve got to start somewhere, right?”
Will the fashion world ever truly embrace larger models?
While we are seeing small changes on the runway with plus-size models appearing at New York Fashion Week, Duff points out that socially accepted fat bodies are bodies that have curves in all the right places.
“There’s a desired fat body. They’ll have a bum and boobs and still be in a socially acceptable ‘health range’ because we moralise this idea of what health looks like.”
“They still have what’s considered conventional beauty. They won’t have fat on their arms. They’ll eat quinoa and go to the gym. I’ve got a protruding tummy so I don’t relate to that body shape.”
Duff says despite fat women making up 60 percent of the clothing market, it’s remarkably hard to sell clothing to the demographic.
“It’s not that if you’re fat, you’re poor, but it actually comes down to self-worth.” Few fat people spend money on themselves, she says. “I’ll buy that dress when I’m smaller. Living in a constant state of wanting to change is exhausting”.
Despite the fact there’s money to be made in plus-size fashion, retailers are slow on the uptake. Research by online retailer ModCloth, which sells sizes XXS to 4X, found 80 percent of plus-size women would spend more on clothing if items were offered in their size.
“Shopping can be an emotional experience, and I think it is for a lot of fat women because everyone wants to look like their friends and shop with them. There’s a part of socialising that fat people miss out on because they can’t fit stuff in the majority of stores. Sure, it’s often about wanting cheap garments, but it’s still depressing.”
Duff says there’s also the issue of perceived value. “If society is telling you your body is bad you start to believe it.”
One woman came into her store with her sister, for example. She asked her sister to give her opinion on a top. “The sister didn’t say her body looked bad, she said there were other tops that would suit her. Her energy completely dropped in an instant. I’m playing with a lot of high emotions. It was really sad to see.”
She says she hasn’t been taken seriously as a brand, but that stems from ignorance.
“People are scared to dress fat bodies. There’s still the view that clothing doesn’t look as good on fat people. A one-size-fits-all won’t fit. Patterns are different. It’s harder because the 3D body you’re working with is much more 3D.
“Ultimately every designer wants people to look good, but it’s harder and possibly more expensive to accommodate body diversity. Compound this with the fact that people have done things a certain way for so long, few designers have the experience.”
Fashion is also about fantasy, says Duff. “People feel excluded because they don’t see bodies like theirs, but you have to ask yourself, do those bodies reflect the majority? No, because it’s the idea of the unattainable, the bright lights, tinsel, small bodies. It’s the pursuit of perfection.”
She says the issue is that real diversity is beyond economics – it’s a human rights issue.
“Who’s to say fat is ‘bad’? When and why is that? Why can’t bigger bodies be beautiful?
That’s the difference between body positivity - which is in vogue - and fat activism. Body positivism promotes, or commodifies health; fat activism doesn’t reject health, but suggests that health shouldn’t be a consideration because no-one should have to justify their health decisions.
“In order to change the perception of bodies, it’s about changing stigma, and challenging this obsession with health. Someone’s health is no-one’s business.”
Everyone deserves to look and feel good, and fashion should reflect that, she says.
James Dobson, of Jimmy D, is putting on a show in November. His shop is next to Duff’s, and has been heavily influenced by her teachings.
He first encountered fat stigma when he was completing a trial at one of his favourite retail stores. He vividly remembers the manager telling him, “I don’t know why you bothered talking to her, she never buys anything”.
“Even just things like the term ‘flattering’ that we throw around a lot in the fashion world, the idea of something being flattering is actually really fucked - like what? It makes me look smaller? Why does that equal better?”
It’s this stigma that “drive[s] me to make sure no one ever feels excluded from fashion because it should make you feel fucking invincible regardless of your size, sexuality, gender, [ability] or colour. I want everyone to see themselves represented”.