Fat Pride: Fat Isn't "In" but It's Not So "Out" as It Used to Be

NO HORIZONTAL STRIPES. No knits. No drop waists. No bright colors. No large prints. No pastels. No shiny fabrics.

These are the rules by which fat women have traditionally been advised to dress, handed down like folk wisdom, in confidential tones, in fitting rooms and in the pages of women’s magazines. The clothes available have usually been inexpensive and poorly made, of cheap materials, on the grounds that fat women wouldn’t spend as much as other women on their clothes, because they don’t take the same pride in their appearance and because they don’t intend to stay fat for long. To the extent that the clothes have been at all remarkable, it’s been for their reticence, an absence of style, which was thought to be for fat women’s own good and, perhaps, for everyone else’s as well. By following the rules, a fat woman might camouflage her size and come off looking somewhat smaller. In which case one might flatter her by remarking that her outfit was “slenderizing.”

“Slenderizing” is no longer the supreme—albeit backhanded—compliment it used to be, now that fat women are being exhorted to stop trying to look like what they’re not and to celebrate themselves as they are. In Breaking All the Rules, Nancy Roberts sounds the call, brightly insisting that it isn’t a woman’s size or shape but the pride she takes in herself that makes her attractive, urging fat women to forget the old rules, to invent a style all their own, “to create positive images of big women.” Dressing well is “just the beginning,” she contends. “It’s the beginning of saving to ourselves and to the world, ‘We’re OK. . . . We’re going to go out there and grab what the world has to offer. We’re entitled to the same choices that smaller women have, not only in respect of our clothes, but ultimately in respect of our lives as well.'" This rhetoric has a vaguely familiar ring, a dim echo of the “Black is beautiful" movement, which freed black women from aspiring to Caucasian standards of beauty. Now, as then, the issues are more political than aesthetic, but the front line of the battle is being fought in matters of fashion.

Roberts would have fat women believe that fashion in all its variety is available to them for the taking. As if to prove her point, a whole new crop of specialty stores has sprung up in recent years. Surveys differ, but the estimates are that as many as a third to a half of the women in this country wear a size 14 or larger. As the Baby Boom generation ages, the large-size share of the market is, surprisingly, growing, dispelling any hopes that the fitness craze is winning out over our national tendency toward obesity. The majority of women (and men, for that matter) still put on weight as they age. One manufacturer of largesize clothing told me recently, “We figure that time and gravity are on our side.”

Of the new large-size boutiques, the best known is probably The 1’orgotten Woman, founded in New York ten vears ago, at Sixty-sixth Street and Lexington Avenue, by Nancye Radmin, a Riverdale housewife who had failed to lose the “substantial amount of weight” she had gained during her pregnancy and went into business because she couldn’t find anything to wear. By the end of the first week she had sold half her inventory, confirming her suspicion that “something was happening out there.” Since then Forgotten Woman boutiques have opened in eighteen other cities, to lines around the block.

Radmin’s was by no means the first large-size specialty store, but it was the first to cause such a sensation. Its success was based on a formula whose time had come: clothes by famous designers in large sizes. Persuading the designers to oblige has, Radmin admits, been “a slow road,”but it is growing wider and better traveled all the time. Her store now stocks an impressive, if potluck, array of designer labels, including, on one recent visit, Givenchy, Laura Biagiotti, and Albert Nipon. The Forgotten Woman also sells kinds of clothing often hard to find in large sizes, such as active wear (golf and tennis clothes), bathing suits, lingerie, and blue jeans, and an extensive selection of evening wear, in which the store does a vigorous business. A beaded gown by Bob Mackie, who made his reputation designing the slithery, glittery dresses Cher used to wear on television, is available in size 22, for $12,000. “Now that,”Radmin says proudly, “is truly a first.”

Half a block away from The Forgotten Woman on Lexington Avenue is Ashanti, another large-size boutique, run by Bill Michael and his wife, Sandra. The Michaels launched their store in 1968, at 132nd Street and Seventh Avenue, in Harlem, selling clothes that ranged in size from 4 to 24, but after several years they dropped the small end of the spectrum in order to dedicate themselves to their most faithful customers. “A size eight or ten has a lot of places she can go to find clothes,” Bill Michael says. “The woman who wears a size twenty can’t shop around so much.” Ashanti’s strength—and the better part of its inventory—lies in its own label, designed by Barbara McCaine and distributed wholesale to a number of department stores and specialty shops.

What The Forgotten Woman and Ashanti share is a conviction that fat women want to express themselves through clothes, as other women do; that if they can’t set trends, they can at least participate in them as they happen; and that they want quality in their clothes and are willing to pay for it. This new attitude, ratified by the commercial success of these and other specialty stores, has emboldened many manufacturers of misses clothing to enter the large-size market.

Gloria Vanderbilt, for one, has shrewdly capitalized on the credibility she acquired by being a stickler for fit in misses blue jeans and has launched a large-size line, for which 75 percent of all her misses designs for a given season are simultaneously translated into large sizes. Benard Holtzman submits the 400 or so pieces he designs each season for the Harvé Benard line to Baron Abramson, a licensee that manufactures some 60 percent of them in large sizes. Even Fred the Furrier has branched out into large-size furs.

Most of these clothes, like Vanderbilt’s group of casual pieces in black acid-washed denim, look surprisingly up-to-the-minute, not at all like those that fat women have traditionally had to choose from—caught in some stylistic limbo, outside fashion, outside time. Dark-colored shapeless tents made from synthetic fabrics arc gradually giving wav to large-scale versions of the clothes of the moment.

Even Lane Bryant, for years the bastion of noncommittal budget-priced clothing in large sizes, has refurbished its image since being bought, five years ago, by The Limited, a national chain selling youthful, spirited sportswear. Like many other retailers, Lane Bryant has now stopped using large-size resources and has turned instead to misses and junior manufacturers, commissioning them to produce their current designs in large sizes. According to a spokeswoman for the company, “We always keep our eye on The Limited, to see what’s selling well.”

Ironically, one of the hallmarks of this new era in large-size fashion is that most of the designers no longer work specifically with fat women in mind. Of those I talked to, only Barbara McCaine, at Ashanti, conceptualizes her clothes for fat women, catering to four figure types: the balloon, who’s widest in the middle; the barrel, large all over; the pear, hottom-heavy; and the figure eight, with a pronounced waist. While other designers are busy transposing misses styles into large sizes, and boast that they make few, if any, concessions to fat women, as if to design clothes explicitly with fat women in mind would be somehow patronizing, McCaine calls attention away from the torso by focusing on the neckline or the sleeve, or uses a horizontal seam in a shift to suggest a waistline. Though the results may not always look like the zenith of fashion, they serve as an interesting reminder that the old rules had a purpose beyond keeping a fat woman in her place: they were founded on the premises of optical illusion, which, given the chance, still works to any woman’s advantage.

FOR ALL THE recent sweeping changes within the large-size industry, the world beyond has been slow to respond. More department stores have taken to carrying more large-size clothes—notably Macy’s, which now devotes an entire floor to large sizes. But others serve their large-size customers with apparent reluctance, for fear, probably, that a prominently placed largesize department will compromise their prestige. Bloomingdale’s large-size boutique is on the basement “Metro" level, near the entrance to the Lexington Avenue subway. In what seems like a cruel joke, the only route to the large-size department at I. Magnin in San Francisco is through the petites.

Many optimists, enumerating all the ways in which the large-size world is changing, cite the fact that Vogue now runs a large-size advertising supplement, called Fashion Plus, twice a year, and that a handful of large-size modeling agencies, with names like Big Beauties and Plus Models, are thriving. But the Vogue supplement, which is paid advertising, signifies no change in editorial policy. And, according to T. Zazzera, the director of the Today’s Woman department at Ford Models, of which the large-size division is a part, most of the bookings for large-size models are for catalogues or advertisements featuring large-size clothes. Both L’eggs and Hanes have waged vigorous ad campaigns in print and on television on behalf of their large-size pantyhose, but the day when a fat woman will be swathed in black velvet to sell a classic whiskey or draped across the hood of a car is yet to come.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the new fuller-bodied ideal. Vogue and Elle have heralded breasts, now back in style; Vanity Fair paid tribute to the actress Valérie Kaprisky’s derrière, pictured in a molded sequined sheath. But do these developments constitute a more enlightened attitude toward the diverse sizes and shapes that women’s bodies take? Leafing through magazines, looking at the images that express our current fantasies about women, one realizes that what all this comes down to is not that we now recognize fat as beautiful but that anorexia is no longer the ideal—that it’s okay to be normal.

I asked a friend, a size 20, whether fashion seemed to her off limits to fat women. “Well, of course,” she replied. “Nobody wants to look like us, and nobody wants to look at us.” Though fashion has gotten more democratic over the past fifteen years, some people still choose to see it as a club and designers as its membership committee, cruelly insisting that the women who would join first conform to an image.

But to the extent that coercion is at work in fashion today, it is generally subtle and even, it seems to me, well meant, based on a superstitious conviction that if it weren’t for the constant vigilance that fashion requires, most women would simply let themselves go to seed. This may be true for the woman whose weight fluctuates by five or ten pounds, but it seems clear that few women are obese for lack of incentive. We know better than to think that anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and other eating disorders can be solved by a little self-improvement. Still, it’s hard to kill off the impulse to prod. One plump woman I interviewed reported finding a dress she liked at a fancy New York store and, not seeing it in her size, asking the saleswoman, “Can you get this for me in a fourteen?” “Yes,” the clerk answered, “but if you were really good, you could wear the twelve.”

It is only within the past few years that large sizes have been standardized, from 18W to 24W, as a continuation of misses sizes, which stop at 14 or 16. (Previously, large sizes were based on waist and bust measurements, with one size range for tops and another for bottoms, and neither bearing any relation to the misses numbers.) But sizing is still highly subjective—even in the misses range. Most European sizes run a good deal narrower than their supposed American counterparts, and all vary from one manufacturer to the next. When the sizes run small, it’s as if to insist that the customer meet the designer on his or her own exacting terms; when the sizes run large, the clothes seem to flatter the customer by suggesting that she’s thinner than she is. Generally speaking, the higher the fashion, the less ingratiating the sizes.

THERE ARE VERY few women—and none I know—who are strangers to the despair and self-loathing that come of failing to measure up to the ideal they’ve set for themselves. Most of us have scrutinized ourselves and rated our body parts in a way that most men, however vain, would never think to do; we then proceed to dress so as to camouflage what women’s magazines used to call our “figure flaws.” The language magazines use to talk to women has changed, but the aim—the notion of helping a woman attain her best— hasn’t. With careers of our own and less of an obligation to conform, we may no longer try to be all things to all people, or to all men, or even to one man in particular, but on the whole we still strive to please. Self-improvement is a longstanding feminine pastime, and it is one that draws women together and gives them a sense of community. Fat women share in this but in varying degrees, and they often localize their energies, concentrating on elaborate makeup, exotic perfume, or a perfect manicure.

Of the tonics the rest of us rely on, at least one—one of the most effective— doesn’t seem to work for fat women at all, and that is shopping. Those of us who wear standard sizes may, if we’re feeling downhearted, go browsing or buy something new, but the fat women I talked to described shopping as a demoralizing ordeal, a desperate search they dread and postpone as long as possible. Most shop alone, not wanting anyone else to witness their difficulty in finding something that fits, to say nothing of their shame at having to face their own bodies in a three-way mirror. Bill

Michael told me that on those rare occasions when a fat woman walks in the door of his boutique with a size-6 companion, who’s come along to give advice, he and his sales staff know that trouble isn’t far behind, especially if the thin woman is the fat woman’s mother. The women I interviewed told poignant stories about their experiences shopping. Most said that salespeople in department stores often condescend to them, and that in designer boutiques, such as those that line Madison Avenue, fat women are ignored as a matter of course. Most steer clear of fashion magazines; those who read them report exercising their alter egos by looking at photographs of the latest styles and saying to themselves, If I were thin, I would wear that. For fat women the rewards of shopping are scant, even now that the selection of large-size clothing is better, even when something fits. One woman, whose weight has yo-yoed all her adult life, told me, “When I was a ten, I would see something and think, That’ll look great on me. As an eighteen, I see something and think, Oh, well, maybe.”

Stores like The Forgotten Woman provide a safe haven for these women and a decent array of clothes in their sizes. And yet, the design of these clothes is still a far cry from high fashion. For one thing, there is far too much glitz, as if, now that the old taboos have been lifted, the time has come for fat women to embark on a binge of selfdecoration. Before I began my research for this piece, a linen suit with a rhinestone-studded bodice would have been unthinkable, but now I know where to go to find one.

If the current changes in the large-size clothing industry constitute a revolution, it is, it seems to me, one that is bound to be limited, because fat activists underestimate fashion. If our shifting preferences in styles of dress or in body types were capricious and purely visual, they might be easier to dismiss and, finally, to overcome. But there’s more to it than that.

We interpret physical features to be manifestations of the character traits we particularly admire. Not so long ago we favored women who were rail-thin and flat-chested not simply because we liked their looks but because their looks connoted someone streamlined, who lived a fast and active life, making her way in what had been a man’s world, unencumbered by the old conventions of femininity. This ideal is being supplanted by that of a woman whose body is more emphatically female, shapely but solid and lean, well exercised, as our notions of womanhood and women’s place in the world are changing. If we haven’t yet come around to finding fleshy, heavyset women, like those in eighteenth-century paintings, attractive, it may be in part because they signify for us docility and lethargy, and these are traits we just can’t bring ourselves to sanction.

We discuss the tides of fashion— what’s in or out—in terms that imply that they are subject to forces outside us, beyond our knowing. One hears women talk, for instance, about the new preoccupation with breasts as if breasts were making a comeback of their own accord. But fashion is one of the means by which we dream collectively, and whether or not the shape those dreams take suits us personally, it has a tacit logic that makes sense deep down to us all.