Print Edition: September 25, 2013
In photographs from New York Fashion Week 2013 (NYFW), a tall, leggy model poses imperiously in a black and white dress belted with a strap of red leather. With her dark hair slicked down and a hip carelessly thrust out, she’s glorious. And she weighs more than 150 pounds.
NYFW made history last week when it debuted clothing designer Eden Miller’s new line for plus-size women. It’s the first time a plus-size model has strolled down the catwalk in NYFW’s 70-year history.
Miller’s collection, Cabiria, is noted for its bold and vibrant prints, including wild florals, layered chevrons, and interwoven black and white stripes. These clothes aren’t meant to hide a large, curvy figure – on the contrary, they draw the eye irresistibly.
“When women wear my clothes, I want them to feel gorgeous,’’ Miller told Al Jazeera. ”Like they’re the most luxurious women walking down the street and so empowered that they can have anything they want.”
Although smaller fashion events have often featured plus-size models, Miller’s line being shown at an event as internationally famous as NYFW is a step forward for the burgeoning world of larger women’s fashion. The movement to send a greater variety of body types down runways has often been met with condescension, scorn, or, at best, an exploitative sort of acceptance – a fashion designer may create a few token plus-size pieces to show how progressive they are, but plus-size fashion is rarely taken seriously. “I need to do this right,’’ Miller explained. “I want to be one of the designers at Fashion Week so that I can open the door for other designers who are valid choices to be there.’’
Although only a few decades ago the ideal feminine figure was the pin-up girl, big-hipped and wasp-waisted, today’s world of fashion is dominated by ribby, razor-thin bodies. Photographs of svelte models bombard us from billboards, television, and magazines, but there’s a huge discrepancy between these Photoshopped images and the bodies of most women in real life. According to a study performed by Plunkett Research in 2012, the average North American woman today wears a size 14 – the first size in the plus-size range. In comparison, the average runway model wears a size 4 or smaller, and these are the sizes that are most easily available. Many designers won’t give plus sizes a second thought, claiming curvier bodies won’t make their clothes look as good.
But as the number of overweight Canadians increases, more and more women are struggling to find larger clothes that are flattering and stylish. Local student Jen Maarsman, who currently attends Capilano, sees an opportunity here that she hopes to turn into a niche business: tailor-made lingerie for plus-size women. Maarsman, who has worn a plus size herself for most of her life, has experienced the difficulty of finding attractive fashion firsthand. “If you can’t get clothes that flatter you and fit properly, you’re hooped. You can’t go to a job interview in a t-shirt,” she says. “The fashion industry lets larger women down.”
Too often the only fashion advice has been to avoid horizontal stripes, wear lots of black, and hide under layers. Now, at the same time as splashy, eye-catching fashions like Eden Miller’s brightly printed dresses are breaking all of these rules, an online movement for size acceptance is beginning to rumble.
Tumblr is teeming with overweight teenagers grouping together to reclaim pride in their bodies after years of bullying and self-harm. The Fourth Trimester Bodies Project features tasteful black and white photographs of mothers with heavy breasts, stretch-marked bellies, and joyful smiles, embracing their new bodies along with their new babies. And Denise Jolly, a 34-year-old California woman proud of every one of her 311 pounds, has just finished a month-long photography project in which she shared daily photos of her nearly-naked body posed in public places with the words “be beautiful” scrawled across her skin in black marker. It’s a fierce attitude of self-love and celebration – and it’s catching on.
“There should never be a stigma about clothing sizes,” Maarsman says decisively. “Everyone should have the right to feel beautiful and feel good about themselves, big or small.”
Will NYFW continue to include plus-size designers in future seasons? If the wave of positive publicity they’ve received from featuring Cabiria is any indication, we’re going to see much more size variety in future shows. Maybe then we can get over this tired conversation about whether curvy bodies or skinny bodies are better, and just love ourselves – lumps and all.