Why aren’t plus-size clothes nicer? Leave a comment


Q: I love the minimalist look, but am frustrated designers and even less-expensive labels don’t make the kind of beautiful, simple, monochromatic pieces in plus sizes I’m looking for. Are there any good options for me?—Sondra, Willowdale

Dear Sondra: You have identified one of the great mysteries of the fashion universe. Most North American women — a majority at 68 per cent of the population — are a size 14 and above. Yet designer fashion in plus-size ranges comprises 0.1 per cent of the luxury market. There are literally billions of dollars to be made selling size-inclusive clothing! But what we get instead is a disjointed marketplace that offers curvy women distracting colours and prints and baggy constructs instead of the classic colours and sharp-cut garments you crave.

There are incremental signs of improvement, as the push for inclusivity has encouraged lines to expand their size ranges in recent years. Influencers, such as Canadian former Real Housewife Roxy Earle and her #MySizeRox body confidence movement, are using their voices to inspire. British actress Jameela Jamil and her IWeigh radical inclusivity movement addresses weight perception, the role of the patriarchy and the oppressive effects of both on our mental health. And in a good news note, just last week, Canadian Indigenous designer Lesley Hampton had a career-making endorsement when Lizzo wore her label’s workout gear on Instagram.

But first let’s go over what minimalism means, as there are a number of hidden biases built into the concept. Minimalism first came into fashion in the 1930s, when Coco Chanel championed early androgyny with trousers and jackets, an act of emancipation building on the boxy silhouettes of the Roaring Twenties. During WWII, women worked, often in factories, and needed more practical clothing. The postwar ’50s snapped back with the reflexive hyperfemininity epitomized by Dior’s wasp-waisted New Look.

In the ’60s, the stripped-down precepts of minimalism took hold in the disciplines of art, architecture and interiors, and while fashion took on futuristic shapes, the Pop Art patterns made the looks maximalist. After the hippie/disco excesses of the ’70s and amid the big shoulders of the ’80s, came a new wave of Japanese and Belgian and Austrian avant-garde designers (Yohji Yamamoto, Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang are examples of these creative schools) who began deconstructing the entire concept of clothing.

But it was in the ’90s that minimalism took hold of the popular imagination — think Calvin Klein slip dresses and Max Mara camel coats. The style came back in the 2010s, in the form of Phoebe Philo for Celine at its apex and Uniqlo/Cos in the fast fashion realm.

Minimalism today has become a kind of a chic default, a look of “effortless” workwear consisting of clean lines and monochromatic non-colours (black, white, navy, camel, grey). In casual attire, is the French “girl” look of jeans and a white shirt, with maybe a classic scarf tossed in. But minimalism has also become a divisive, restrictive code word, a club that only the model-thin (and rich) can join.

I turned to Ben Barry, chair of fashion and the director of the Centre for Fashion and Systemic Change at Ryerson University. Barry, who started one of the world’s first inclusive modelling agencies in his Ottawa basement at the age of 14, has spent his career working for representation and access in fashion for all sizes and colours of people, all genders, orientations and abilities. He was just named the incoming dean of fashion at Parsons School of Design/The New School in New York, one of the world’s top fashion academies. Parsons noticed Barry’s efforts to change the industry from within, embracing his idea that all lived experiences need a seat at the big creative tables where decisions are made, if fashion is ever going to clothe us all equally.

As to the plus-size issue, Barry says, “We are not there yet. We are seeing a slow push, more representation in print and on the runway. Surface-level changes are well intentioned, but we need to be having larger, systemic, constant conversations. Bring people who are going to wear the clothing into the process as co-creators.” No one, he says, seems to ask plus-sized consumers what they actually want.

There is “still a lot of work to be done for plus-size clothing to reflect current fashion trends.” Barry says “fat phobia is present in the tropes around design. It is a system of devaluing plus-size consumers with unfashionable, ill-fitting, badly made clothing.” As to design, he says, “the concept is that bold prints and patterns are meant to disguise and distract. That core belief is archaic and discriminatory.”

To get to the place where all bodies are celebrated and showcased, he says, we have to change the way we think about those bodies. “Look at TV and movies,” he says, where plus-size actors are never the sexy, romantic lead, and aren’t given the range of clothing to express a full range of emotions. “They are the happy and funny best friend; they can’t be alluring or desirable, or fashionable,” he says.

Barry shares some suggestions for good sources for plus-size clothing with a minimalist vibe. He cites Vancouver’s Free Label, Toronto’s Hilary MacMillan and a great Guelph, Ont., consignment shop focused on plus sizes called Consign Your Curves. At the designer end, Barry points to the U.S. tech startup 11Honoré.com, which has developed relationships with international designer labels who have plus size options not previously available at department stores (that frequently max out at size 12 on the racks). Also notable: Nordstrom, ASOS, Joe Fresh and Old Navy are some standout sources for extended sizing.

Minimalist fashions are often called practical, for “real women.” Well, real women come in all shapes and sizes. The minimalist look, unfortunately, often means an investment: to pull off a clean and simple line requires the best fabrics and careful construction methods not replicable on a mass scale. But I remain encouraged: Someday we will all have access to the clothing that expresses who we are as individuals.

Send your pressing fashion and beauty questions to Leanne at ask@thekit.ca

Shop the advice

11 Honoré Chrissy Dress, $719, 11honore.com

11 Honoré Chrissy Dress, $719, 11honore.com

Day-to-night perfect, this is a crisp streamlined style with some nifty modern updates, including a drop shoulder and pockets! Sizes up to 26.

Hilary MacMillan dress, $285, hilarymacmillan.com

Hilary MacMillan dress, $285, hilarymacmillan.com

Canadian designer Hilary MacMillan is known for her longtime embrace of extended sizing and commitment to inclusion. This piece is an investment splurge that will never go out of style. Sizes up to 3X.

Old Navy dress, $53, oldnavy.gapcanada.ca

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Old Navy dress, $53, oldnavy.gapcanada.ca

A highly functional staple made of buttery Tencil with a rich washed finish and clever details like banded collar and pintuck pleats to add interest to the easy A-line. Sizes up to 4X.

11 Honoré Skylar dress, $162, 11honore.com

11 Honoré Skylar dress, $162, 11honore.com

The textured finish on this sheath dress adds interest and will hug curves in an elegant manner for a fresh take on ’90s minimalism. Sizes up to 28.

Violeta by Mango jumpsuit, $180, shop.mango.com

Violeta by Mango jumpsuit, $180, shop.mango.com

A little bit of elastane adds some movement to this perfect jumpsuit. The neckline with crossover lapel collar will add polish to your Zoom view. Sizes up to 4XL.

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