On Friday, the Philadelphia-based clothing retailer Anthropologie did something that would have been nearly unthinkable for an aspirational brand even a few years ago: It added a plus-size clothing line. The collection, which is now available online and in 10 of Anthropologie’s biggest stores, arrived complete with a New York City launch party, the support of plus-size social-media personalities, and plenty of sun-drenched photos. In other words, the launch was just like any major launch for an American fashion company. And that’s exactly why it’s so different.
I’m excited about Anthropologie’s new line in a way that is, frankly, not journalistic. I’ve worn plus-size clothing my entire adult life, which means the overwhelming majority of fashion brands at any price level don’t make clothes that fit me. I’m in good company: Almost 70 percent of American women wear a size 14 or above. The past decade of fashion has given those women little evidence that things would materially improve, with most plus-size options still occupying fashion’s cheapest, most poorly made tier, and few high-quality options available beyond the simplest basics. But the new Anthropologie line has items that are interesting and fun. The garments are vibrant, like the striped, sailor-necked dresses and mustard-colored skirts with detailed embroidery.
This line appears to mark a sea change that’s much bigger than one clothing line. Plus-size shoppers have been complaining about being left out of fashion for ages, but with the advent of social media, their complaints have gained both specificity and momentum online. As brands like Victoria’s Secret have been forced to learn, consumers no longer accept whatever they’re given.
Brands’ responses to that pressure have been limited and fumbling, but it looks like Anthropologie might have done something that’s been genuinely rare so far: Get it mostly right, on a big and expensive scale. In an industry dedicated to keeping larger women at the margins, it feels like those women are finally starting to win.
When a mass-market American brand starts a plus-size line, the process often follows a script well known to the women the company’s intending to serve. First, the fashion press praises the company for its inclusivity as a set of T-shirts and jeans is unveiled. The line might include a few work-wear staples. If you’re lucky, the brand offers you a coat. After that, nothing happens. The clothes rarely arrive in brick-and-mortar stores. The offerings don’t expand much beyond neutrals and basics. The option to order the bigger sizes online disappears into a list hidden in a drop-down menu, if it’s labeled at all. Buying plus-size clothes from these collections becomes an inscrutable online treasure hunt, and the pot of gold is a navy-blue T-shirt. Brands cite poor sales as a reason not to expand their line.
Fashion brands’ recent, mostly half-hearted attempts at entering the plus-size market suggest a certain amount of fear on the part of those running the industry. American culture doesn’t like fat people very much, and what if courting larger shoppers will make their stores seem uncool? For retailers that do much of their business in malls, those assumptions can make size expansion seem like an intolerable risk in an environment where many of them are struggling to find consumers in the first place. (None of the half-dozen mass-market American clothing retailers contacted for this story, including Anthropologie, responded to a request for comment.)
That’s why Anthropologie’s expansion feels like an inflection point. As mall brands go, the company’s clothes are expensive, with dresses starting at about $150. The more aspirational a brand is, the smaller its size range tends to be. For many women, the company’s clothes feel special, with bright colors and prints, trendy cuts, and fun details. They’re clothes you wear to a party, or buy for a vacation you intend to Instagram heavily. They’re clothes for the type of people that plus-size women aren’t assumed to be.
Individually taken, these details are small. But the little differences in how Anthropologie has approached this launch each address common complaints frequently voiced on social media about other brands’ size expansions. The collection has launched with more than 100 pieces and an explicit promise that more will be added, and all are things Anthropologie also makes for smaller shoppers, at the same prices. A link to shop the full collection is positioned prominently in the Anthropologie.com menu bar, and while you’re browsing the straight-size assortment, pieces that are also available in the plus line are clearly marked. The line goes up to a size 26, even though many first-time size expansions tiptoe only so far as a 20 or 22.
Anthropologie’s parent company, URBN, which also owns Urban Outfitters and Free People, didn’t make this move in a vacuum. There’s also good reason to suspect it didn’t simply undertake this line’s creation out of the goodness of its heart. Competitors’ tentative moves into the plus-size market put companies that don’t expand in an unflattering context, and amid the bumbling of traditional clothing brands, plus-prioritizing design and retail upstarts such as 11 Honoré, Universal Standard, and Premme have found a real foothold with shoppers. Their nascent success provides a proof of concept for corporate executives who had previously doubted that larger women would be willing to invest in nice clothes.
All this has happened, in no small part, because larger women consistently demanded nice things for themselves until it became riskier to deny them than to just make them some clothes. This pressure on brands to better serve a greater variety of consumers will likely only intensify, pulling more companies into the market.
Consumer choices aren’t the be-all and end-all of social change, but how people dress has a meaningful impact on their life in a way that’s often dismissed along with the fashion industry’s frivolity. At its best, fashion is fun. It’s a way to give visual form to your identity and tell people a little about yourself. But fashion, at its corporate core, is also about the maintenance of social hierarchies. The companies that dominate American malls and e-commerce help decide which bodies get to be perceived as professional or capable or sexy.
If your body falls outside the bounds of acceptability set by most clothing brands, there are only so many identities you get to express. Finally, the majority of American women are getting a better chance to look like the people they’ve always been.
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