A Plus in the Sun: The Spatial Politics of Selling Plus-Size Clothes to Women

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Shelly Winters not finding A Place in the Sun (1951)

Clichés about the lack of stylish options for larger women are so, well, worn out that it’s always amazing to me when I see that plus-sized departments are still filled either with gold sequins and animal prints and flutter sleeves, or shapeless sacks.

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Well, hello. Is that a traditional button down shirt made of synthetic leopard print? So it’s neither office nor party? Me-OW!

A lot more attention has been paid recently to this gap in the market. And thanks to among others, fat femme activists and style bloggers, designers like Alexandra Waldman of Universal Standard, and highly publicized lines from celebrities like Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson some interesting options are emerging. The landscape isn’t perfect, but there is no doubt that at least some designers are becoming more creative and inclusive in their sizing.

I’ve followed stories about brands catering to or including larger sizes with interest and excitement. However, while it’s great that these clothes are being produced, it’s less clear where they’ll be sold.

Most of these new lines – of necessity – focus on internet sales, and in my opinion this is not only logistically annoying (mass produced sizes, and most especially women’s sizes, no matter what the number on the tag says, are erratic and nonsensical) it’s politically problematic. Online communities have made wonderful strides in creating solidarity and articulating the complex, intersectional forms of marginalization and discrimination that fat people encounter. But this is a movement centered on bodies, and bodies have to live in the world.

After reading about several of these new lines, most Internet based, but some theoretically to be sold in actual brick and mortar stores, I started to pay more attention to where and how larger sizes were sold. This is what I saw:

Nordstrom:

Nordstrom is the closest thing Portland has to an upscale department store, so we shall begin here. If you are a plus size woman you will want to find the escalator and stay on it until there is no more escalator. Then you will want to go way back into the most secluded corner…no keep going…behind the winter coats. There…do you see it now? That’s the “special sizes.” They are so special they want to make sure that only the most special treasure hunters can find them. On the day of my visit I was alone among the 8 or so racks of Eileen Fisher tunics and mother-of-the-bride dresses, except for the bored but attentive saleswoman. Once, a lost customer wandered into our garret with a dazed look on her face. “You’re looking for the normal sizes,” the helpful associate said. “They’re downstairs.”

In Nordstrom’s defense, their “straight” sizes go up to 16 and, unlike most higher end retailers, they actually do stock a fairly wide variety of styles in the 14-16 range (stores like J. Crew only stock up to size 12, but offer 14-16 online). But if you are larger than a size 16, know your place woman.

Macy’s: The World’s Saddest Store

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What sadness looks like: Gazing between racks of velour, animal print sweatshirts and shapeless chenille sweaters at what looks like a teenager’s laundry pile of t-shirts and a bunch of empty hangers beneath un-ironic Christmas tops – still on display in late January.

If you look at this map of Macy’s Herald Square storethe floors3 from their 2012 renovation, you’ll see that “Macy Woman” is on the seventh floor (petites are on the eighth). I remember once when I was in my early 20s, having a great day in The City, shopping with a friend. We eventually found ourselves at Macy’s, and after a few minutes wandering around the “straight” sizes, my friend got very quiet and then said, “yea, there’s nothing for me here. I’m going to look upstairs.”I don’t remember how far away plus sizes were then, but I do remember that we each shopped alone for a while, and then we left because it wasn’t fun anymore. The good folks at Macy’s had drawn an arbitrary line between our bodies and decided which one of us belonged in the “normal” section and which one did not. Our friendship survived, but experiencing this kind of thing on a regular basis takes a toll.

The downtown Portland Macy’s has large sizes similarly banished to the attic. You know it’s only the invention of elevators that made “penthouse suites” desirable, right? Before that, the spatial hierarchy of houses favored the lower floors. The more stairs you had to climb the more likely you were to be a child or a servant (a fun illustration can be found here). Department stores, themselves fast becoming anachronistic, seem to favor a pre-elevator spatial logic. Getting to Macy Woman in Portland is like visiting Dante’s hell in reverse; the overwhelming sense of despair grows more intense the higher up you go. On the regular floors, sales associates huddle behind half-empty racks of clothing that I’ve never seen anyone wear ever, while a handful of listless shoppers seem to find solace in dropping pre-pilled acrylic sweaters on the floor. And my only thought upon exiting the escalator and facing the bizarre fur-trimmed, dolman sleeved polyester something-or-others and mounds of zebra print rayon was; “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

But we are brave, we travelers in this unholy land. So. Let us go then, you and I, to the Lloyd Center Mall Macy’s.

Here is what I’m discovering: the space allotted to plus-sized women’s clothing, and the general sense of larger women being welcome correlates to the socio-economic class being targeted. So, many women I’ve talked to – regardless of their class status – prefer to shop at Target or Old Navy where nearly all the same styles are available in a wide range of sizes, and the floorplans make them feel less like they are being corralled into a designated Fat Zone.

The Lloyd Center Mall is not upscale. You can tell because the anchor stores include Marshalls and Sears (I didn’t visit the Lloyd Center Nordstrom. Frankly, I’m not sure I believe it exists). And this may explain why the Macy Woman section seems larger and more fully stocked. There were even some clothes that looked normal. Or, you know, as normal as anything else at a mall Macys. The website assured me that this location carried a variety of pieces from Melissa McCarthy’s line. I couldn’t find any.

But I did find this:

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What are these?!

 

And this:

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Honestly, my brain can’t even process what this is. I just know there is fun-fur involved.

And this is my favorite:

Macy Woman is across the aisle from athletic wear, which caused this strangely racialized face-off between these black, fabric draped, plus-sized mannequins…

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IMG_20160118_153158123….and these sports bra clad, white torsos. And yes, the sign in the corner does say “ideology.”

Other Mall Stores:

Since I was already at the mall I decided to visit a few other stores.

First, a quick tour revealed that this location of H&M did not include an “H&M+”. Not only that, but H&M tags have all available sizes printed on them. The size of a garment is circled on each tag. Based on my brief perusal, 90% of the stock wasn’t even available in XL, which, in H&M terms, is usually comparable to a size 10 or 12. (Although, as this is fast fashion, or as I call it Frankenfashion, there is considerable variation in what an “L” means. Hell, there’s even variation among the same size and style of garments. I once tried on a shirt that was too small, and then discovered that a smaller size of the same item fit fine. Even more often, one arm or shoulder will fit ok, but the other will hang disturbingly loose, and the will buttons stop lining up somewhere mid-ribcage. Hence, Frankenfashion.)

Ok, on to Forever 21. This location did have a plus size section. And it was nice. Full disclosure: Entering a Forever 21 has always felt like a form of punishment to me. The bright, flourescent lights, the electronic music, the excess of Rachel Green style short-sleeve, mock-turtleneck crop-tops, the lingering scent of child labor and environmental catastrophe in developing nations… But, I can imagine that if I were maybe younger, and liked mainstream fashion, and was used to feeling ostracized because of my size, Forever 21+ would be a welcome little haven.

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Yes, it’s all corralled in the back. And yes, most of the garments have the structural integrity of Kleenex. But on the day I visited, it was bright, well maintained, appealingly merchandised, bustling with other shoppers, and had a lot of options – most of which appeared to be the same stuff available in the rest of the store.

After that I went to Torrid. While I really don’t like the fatty corral feeling of the aforementioned stores, there is something kind of clubby and welcoming about a store that only sells sizes 12 and up. The Lloyd Center Torrid isn’t all that different from Forever 21 – cheap, trendy clothes made mostly from polyester and, I’m guessing, paper napkins? – but it was also probably the most diverse place I’ve been in Portland (not a super high bar, granted) in terms, not just of body size, but race, class and gender performance as well. And the mood was pleasant and easy. I’ve found that this is common in stores that sell exclusively to larger sizes. Even if not everyone is thrilled with the actual clothes – I know a lot of women who love Torrid, but it’s a pretty particular look – it’s nice to feel a sense of belonging.

The thing is, there is a vast difference between a size 14 and a size 28 (Torrid’s range) – and that’s important. Body sizes are really diverse. Mass produced ideas of size 0-10 encompass a tiny sliver of possibilities that don’t even account for variation within that range (honestly, I don’t know any women who have an easy time buying clothes. Even my friends whose body sizes fall into Normal Land’s most charmed circle – Zero to 6? – have breasts that are too big or small, shoulders that are too broad or narrow, hips too wide or slim, etc. etc.). But stores like Torrid or Lane Bryant or CJ Banks provide a huge, diverse segment of the population that has been physically excluded from most shopping environments a place where, literally, fitting in is possible. This creates a sense of camaraderie and supportiveness among women that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere, and that often bridges other categories of difference like class, age, race, and, yes, gender (because there are also a lot of ways to be a woman).

I’ve encountered this feeling even more strongly at a local consignment store that sells sizes 12 and up. Savvy Plus feels more like an empowerment group than a shop. Everyone there is encouraging and supportive, and signs in the dressing room remind you not to look at numbers on tags, but to concentrate instead on how the clothes feel.

Imagine what would happen if all these fat women got together outside of the stores? Or better yet if we stopped being so afraid of fat and demanded the removal of this wall separating “normal” women from the sight of what (so we’re told) we all might become if we don’t police ourselves very carefully? If we insisted that the stores we shop in carry more inclusive sizes in the same space? It’s rare, but smaller boutiques like Portland’s Union Rose prove that it’s absolutely possible to carry a wide range of chic styles in a limited space, and without cordoning off their “extended sizes.” In fact, Union Rose goes an extra step; the shop is committed to sustainable, ethical production and local designers – ideals that are difficult to maintain under the best of circumstances, and nearly impossible if you’re larger than a 10/12.

Still, larger retailers claim that there are too many logistical barriers to providing a wide range of sizes in one space. But the entire process of mass-producing clothing is one big logistical barrier. Perhaps the truth is that the larger a garment gets, the more obvious the flaws in the original design become? Now that would be a problem. Really though, this is an ideological decision. We live in a culture that fears and abhors fat women. We use “health” as an excuse, but study after study has shown that many of our beliefs about the unhealthiness of “fat” are exaggerated or unfounded. As Susan Greenhalgh writes, “Fatness today is not primarily about health…more fundamentally, it is about morality and political inclusion/exclusion or citizenship.” A few years ago, Lululemon was excoriated for admitting that they don’t want their brand associated with fat women. But they were just articulating a truth that other brands have found language to obscure. Fat is associated with negative qualities; laziness, stupidity, excess, and I think most importantly, poverty, which our culture continually treats as a personal moral failure resulting from the previous traits. Most brands do not want to be associated with those qualities. At least not in their physical spaces, which increasingly are being treated as showrooms facilitating online purchase.

Man Repeller recently held a roundtable with plus-size fashion bloggers discussing the lack of size diversity in the industry. One blogger lamented, “Where’s the J.Crew and the Madewell for plus size? You know? Basic pieces. Like a great pair of jeans, a nice sweater. Old Navy is the closest? But it’s not quality.” But the absence of a plus-size Madewell makes sense. If a woman were to invest in a high quality, relatively expensive “classic” item in a larger size, she would be admitting that she believed she was going to stay fat for a while. And the only excuse for staying fat is supposed to be poverty and stupidity. If your goal is to display bourgeois good taste and intelligence, you should be trying to lose weight. So, you should not only be satisfied with, but desire cheap disposable clothing.

This isn’t a frivolous concern. We are judged by our appearance. While there are major problems with the mass-fashion industry that go beyond the experience of the individual consumer, we live in a culture that reads our dress and uses it as an index for our cultural capital and what Kant might call “rational interiority,” a necessary quality of civilized personhood. Logically, the fact that so many fat women are able to dress so well, with so few options should tell us that they have the best taste and the most creative, rational minds of all. Realistically, being read as fat and “cheap” can mean not being hired for a job that pays a living wage, not getting quality healthcare, etc.

Early department stores capitalized on the burgeoning women’s rights movement by promoting themselves as “safe,” women friendly, quasi-public spaces. In addition to offering a variety of goods for sale, they attracted (middle-class, white) women shoppers by providing meeting places where they could gather and discuss political issues. Certainly there was an element of cynicism in this move. It was motivated first by profit, and aided in the incorporation of women into the public sphere primarily as consumers. At the same time, having a large, visible place to meet outside the home was an important cultural shift. Once the pinnacle of modernity, the traditional department store has been a dying for decades. I don’t mourn. They did it to themselves. But they remain one of the few institutions with the infrastructure to sell clothing to a wide variety of body types (bodies that are also diverse in many other ways) in the same space. Going forward, perhaps we can borrow from the community-minded model of the grand old stores and improve on it to imagine new ways of meeting, of “looking,” and of dressing ourselves?

 

 

 

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About saratatyana

Sara T. Bernstein, Ph.D. has been writing about and teaching media, cultural and fashion studies for over a decade. She's served as a contributor and reviews editor for the Fashion, Style and Popular Culture Journal, contributed to Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty and published essays on subjects ranging from fashion in the work of Charlotte Bronte, to the meaning of luxury, to feminist pedagogy. She teaches visual culture, media, and fashion studies at Pacific Northwest College of Art.
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2 Responses to A Plus in the Sun: The Spatial Politics of Selling Plus-Size Clothes to Women

  1. Pingback: The Diet Regime | Fashion Research

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