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What fashion school didn’t teach me: Learning to “see” fat beauty

I am a newcomer to the indie sewing pattern scene. I taught myself how to make my own patterns in high school, after several frustrating experiences with Big Four patterns. I went on to get my bachelor’s degree in fashion design, and for the past decade or so, I’ve made one-off sewing patterns in a wide range of styles for myself and occasional clients. Now I’ve reached the point where I want to start digitizing and publishing my own patterns for others to use. Thinking I should do some market research, I decided to purchase a bunch of patterns from other indie companies to see what I liked and didn’t like about their branding, layouts, instructions, etc. I wanted to experience the user’s perspective of sewing from indie patterns before I put anything of my own out there.

Shopping for ready-to-wear clothes has become an increasingly frustrating experience for me over the past few years as I’ve gotten older and wider. I am busty, and I am also short (5’1”). My top half is a very different size from my bottom half. Despite my appearance as a “small person” (due to height more than anything else), I often find myself either in the largest size offered or a few inches past it. 

One excuse from clothing companies to justify their narrow size ranges is based on material costs, like large clothing using too much fabric or pattern pieces not fitting on one piece of fabric. Before I embarked on this project, I assumed that indie sewing patterns would cover a larger size range, by the very nature of them being digital documents where the designers do not have to worry about fabric consumption for mass production. But as I began to check out all these cool indie pattern companies, I realized that once again my measurements put me on the upper end of their size ranges. This seemed odd, as I know for certain there are many folks larger than me.

Finding spaces like the Fat Sewing Club and Curvy Sewing Collective made me realize that this was a conversation that’s been happening among fat sewists for a while. I tuned in and read everything I could about it. I learned that actually, statistically, the average woman in the United States is actually about a size 18/20: my size. Realizing that I was at the center of the bell curve rather than on the extreme end of it (as these size charts suggested) was reassuring. It really cemented the idea that many of these size charts are actually built around a totally arbitrary fatphobic standard.

According to these companies and their charts, I was teetering on the very edge of having an “acceptable” body; a body worth designing for. And I was in good company, because it turns out HALF the population is in the same boat.

But why is it this way? Why is there so much resistance to meeting this very real need among half of the population for clothes that fit? I think I have some insight as someone who received a formal fashion design education at a supposedly top-notch school in New York City. I have since also earned a master’s degree in education, and can look back now on my design education experience through a more critical lens. Education doesn’t just encompass what skills are taught; it also includes the cultural values that get passed on and perpetuated through curricular omissions.

For 4 years of fashion school, my classmates and I were required to design everything for size 8 dress forms that had a 26” waist. We were told that it was easier for the professors to grade our assignments if we all made the same size, and that the smaller sizes would conserve fabric while we were learning. We didn’t get any fitting experience until senior year, when we had to fit our final collections on runway models (who were even thinner than the forms). Our one pattern textbook, Patternmaking for Fashion Design, even had a chapter called “The perfect body and the rest of us.” It was nearly impossible not to constantly compare ourselves to the forms, to the “ideal.” Though this was never explicitly taught, the message was clear: unless you happen to look like the dress form/runway model, you are not worthy of your own designs. 

I used to love dressing myself, it was why I went to fashion school in the first place. At first, I would try to design my projects with lots of extra ease so that I could actually wear them myself after class. But after weeks, months, semesters, years of walking into classrooms filled with tiny forms, I started to feel really miserable about my body, about the discrepancies between myself and the form. It didn’t help that “Mean Girls”-style body shaming banter was a staple of the fashion school studio culture at the time. I became detached from how much I engaged with the craft for my own personal benefit. For a while I only made things for myself that were pretty plain and utilitarian. I wasn’t supposed to be the star of the show, I was supposed to wear all black and recede into the background, and let the fashion models be my muses.

The industry will accept you and reward you if you just continue to echo established beauty norms. Throw your design on a thin model and suddenly it’s “fashion.” If you express an interest in designing for “regular people,” or “plus size,” you are laughed at by your classmates and instructors. “Why would you want to shoot yourself in the foot like that?” They ask. Somehow to design for these populations is to admit defeat, to resign yourself to basic instead of fabulous. “If you really must,” they say, “be sure that ‘problem areas’ are hidden, tucked away, covered with ruching or a high waist.” The assumption is that so-called-regular and larger people are a bummer to design for because they hate themselves and don’t want to draw attention to themselves. They will demand boring designs, and you, the designer, will never truly get to sing. But why do we assume that those populations hate themselves? Because the industry told them that they should, through repeated praise of hyper-thin bodies and exclusion and erasure of all other body types.  

When designers are being taught how to design, we are told to elongate the figure in our illustrations, because it “looks better.” We are taught that certain features (of thin bodies) are worth highlighting, worth designing around. A deep v-neck looks delicate and enticing on a body with small, perky breasts. A side cutout that accentuates a long, smooth torso is sexy and sophisticated. We are taught (subtly, over time, through repeated imagery and glorification of extreme thinness) that any fatness at all is wrong, that it gets in the way of our brilliance as designers, that it “ruins” our designs. But lately I’ve been wondering: what if we viewed curves and rolls, low-hanging breasts, and big bellies with the same reverence we have for perky breasts, long thin necks, or muscular torsos? What if?! 

Looking back on that 4 years of (very expensive) formal education, I’m enraged that we weren’t taught anything about grading for different sizes, or even how to design something that looked good on someone who wasn’t super thin. Or, even more importantly, how to “see” and accentuate fat beauty the way we do with thin beauty. The fact that these skills were not taught in fashion school is likely a big contributing factor to why there are so many designers out there who don’t even think about (or are terrified to consider) designing for bigger people. 

Ruby poses with her new second-hand size 20 dress form, which is much closer to her own current size than the size 8 form from fashion school behind her!

The fashion industry (and maybe the indie pattern industry as a result) has been a thin-people-only club pretty much since the dawn of mass production due to bigger profit margins on smaller garments. Thanks, capitalism! It makes sense that the people most excited about and therefore likely to study fashion would be the people for whom it all fit them without a second thought.

But if the root of our cultural reverence for thinness is capitalism, and it is now common knowledge that there is a massive chunk of the population that wants garments and sewing patterns in larger sizes, why aren’t designers eagerly throwing themselves at this white space in the market? Does fatphobia prevail over making money? 

When I started working on my size chart and grading rules for my own indie pattern company, I decided to do some research to try to find out what sizes people actually are. How small is the smallest person? How big is the largest person? Of course it’s impossible to account for every single shape and size variation that exists, but there have got to be some data-based parameters that would capture most of the population. To me, that made sense as a good place to start. As I dug deeper into all of this self-education around this topic, I began to wonder, is designing for larger bodies really this super challenging, difficult, crazy thing that all these thin designers keep saying it is? Why won’t these indie pattern designers, who aren’t even mass-producing garments, extend their size ranges past 50-or-so-inch circumference measurements? There are excuses galore: too expensive, can’t find a fit model, have to reshape the block, not enough demand, etc. 

It’s true, it did take me some time and some research, but as I began to grade my first pattern, I thought, “Wait a minute. This is not rocket science. This is not that hard! It’s literally just numbers and determining the increments between them.” And the best part is, that range of numbers can be as wide as you want! Crotch curves and armholes don’t suddenly turn into sine waves above a size 16. It’s the same general shape, just bigger. And while you do have to think a bit critically about how bigger bodies expand within different ranges (people don’t necessarily get taller or maintain the same waist-to-hip ratio), the idea that larger sizes are somehow “harder” or “inconvenient” is just some fatphobic bullsh*t excuse to not do the work.

What people don’t realize is that “the work” isn’t just logging into Illustrator and updating some files (which seriously doesn’t take that long). “The work” means actually having to confront the fact that, deep down, we might have picked up and still be holding onto the toxic fatphobic belief that fat bodies are gross, that fat bodies don’t deserve to look good. We might be afraid that in order to accommodate larger bodies we might have to somehow scale our creativity back, water down our designs, be a little less “fabulous”, because this is a design problem we were never taught to approach in any other way. We might worry that we will actually have to look, really look, objectively, at fat bodies to assess where body weight goes as sizes expand. In a culture where fat is linked to shame and we are told repeatedly that fat must be hidden away at all costs, this can feel terrifying. We literally have to face our shame in order to move past it.

We will have to reckon with the fact that, as creative people, as designers, our inability to see and accentuate fat beauty is actually our shortcoming, and not fat people’s. 

I think there is this anxiety that designers experience centered around this idea of “I can’t make a fat body look ‘as good’ as a thin body does in this garment.” In other words, you can’t fix fatness with good design. But the secret is, you don’t have to! It’s actually not about working some fabric magic with ruching and style lines in places that make people look thinner than they actually are. Our goal as designers should not be to correct a fat body to make it appear more acceptable, our goal should be to just accept it, normalize it. In fact, we should aspire to be as inspired and energized by our fat customers and clients as we are by our thin ones.  

So if you’re new to this, if you’re a thin designer who is raising their hand saying “I want to conquer fatphobia and be more inclusive, but I don’t know where to start,” here are some suggestions: 

  • If you’re feeling defensive about getting called out, try not to take it personally. We were all raised in a very fatphobic society that rewards thinness and punishes fatness. Those messages get internalized whether we mean for them to or not. So often we don’t even realize the extent to which we are perpetuating toxic beauty and weight standards by de facto erasure of folks who, by our cultural norms, aren’t “worthy.”
  • Just like other forms of oppression (racism, classism, xenophobia, etc.), once we’ve been “called in”, we still have to choose to undo some of that conditioning. This requires commitment and emotional labor: humbling ourselves, listening to the voices of those more marginalized than us, examining the ways in which we are unintentionally cruel to others and to ourselves, and really sitting with that. This is “the work.”
  • Don’t think you have to design a magical garment that makes a fat body look “less fat.” 
  • Do a little bit of research to see what sizes people actually are! Look at the size charts of brands like Universal Standard, Supfit Hero, or other companies who are setting the bar high for what size inclusivity looks like.
  • Aspire to retrain your eye to “see” beauty in fatness. How?
    • Learn about the history of beauty standards. 
    • Start following fat artists, models, and influencers on social media.
    • Challenge yourself to overcome the impulse of disgust and replace it with reverence for rolls, curves, cellulite. 
    • Think of this as a creative challenge! You can do it!

It’s true that we weren’t taught to “see” fat beauty, but we can now choose to teach ourselves. And it is possible, if you are willing, to retrain your eye and recalibrate your perspective. And fat liberation benefits everybody, no matter what size you are.

Ruby’s favorite self-drafted make of all time: a pieced jersey dress (with side seam pockets, of course) that she wore to her self-styled engagement photo shoot earlier this year. She made her partner’s shirt too!

Ruby Gertz is a petite-plus-size sewist and patternmaker living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with her partner and two cats. She has taught sewing and tutored fashion students since she graduated from fashion school in 2012. She recently left her full-time job in higher education administration to start an indie pattern company called Spokes and Stitches. She can be found on Instagram as @spokesandstitches and you can visit her website at www.spokesandstitches.com

More resources (some of Ruby’s favorites):

Learn about the history of beauty standards:

  • Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings
  • The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonya Renee Taylor
  • The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Start following fat artists, models, and influencers on social media:

  • Lizzo (obviously) @lizzobeeating
  • The EveryMan Project @theeverymanproject
  • Shoog McDaniel @shooglet
  • Tracy Cox @sparklejams
  • Sonalee Rashatwar @thefatsextherapist
  • Toni @anneandkathleen
  • Louange @louange.m
  • Anna O’Brien @glitterandlazers
  • Lydia Okello @styleisstyle
  • Ashlee Bennett @bodyimage_therapist
  • Dani Adriana @iamdaniadriana
  • Lydia Morrow @whatlydiamade
  • Liz Fever @lizwearswhat
  • The Fat Phobia Slayer @thefatphobiaslayer
  • Crystal @neoqlassicalart
  • Sonya Renee Tayler @sonyareneetaylor
  • Michelle Elman @scarrednotscared
  • Melanin Curvy @melanincurvy
  • Essie Golden @golden.confidence

25 replies on “What fashion school didn’t teach me: Learning to “see” fat beauty”

Such a fascinating article, thank you. I am very much looking forward to seeing your patterns. I am the same height as you with similar proportions and totally get the frustration with ready-to-wear… hence making some of my own clothes.

Thank you for such an interesting article, it’s really interesting to read from an industry perspective because we’ve all read the claims by designers that it’s too expensive or hard to design for bigger bodies or for some indies just design better (ie: arms get bigger as bodies get bigger, space to sit) and to be honest it feels like we just don’t want you in our designs. I look forward to seeing what patterns you come out with off to find you on ig now 😊

Thank you for your comment and the follow! The way design is taught at the industry level does really need to change. Glad my post was able to shed some light on this issue.

A plus-size friend of mine attended a fashion design school with the hope of becoming a designer of plus-sizes. She said that the elitist attitudes she encountered, among the college instructors on up to the dean, were so discouraging that after graduation she went into theater costume design instead!

Yes, I have friends and classmates who found the costume industry to be a much friendlier and more inclusive space as well. It’s a shame because those same skills would be very useful and applicable to everyday fashion, if only the industry were open to it.

You are beautiful! Thank you! As a former size 14 who went to an 18/20, I am so happy to see great designs in my size!

I love this so much. I’m just learning to make clothes because I’m sick of not being able to find cute or fun things that fit me. I’m definitely plus size, but I’m smaller chested. This means that shopping in the plus sizes doesn’t work either. Anything that fits my tummy/hip area is comically large on my chest. Finding the curvy/plus size sewing groups has been one of the best things though. They’re teaching me that it really is ok to love my shape.

Jessica, I can certainly relate! It’s so tough when our body proportions are different than whatever is considered “average.” Learning to make our own clothes can be so liberating in this regard, because we can adjust things as we need to and we aren’t constantly comparing ourselves against an arbitrary standard.

I’ve been drafting patterns for my measurements (~16/18US) and going crazy because I want to build my database with more sizes but not just arbitrarily picking numbers- I want real, relational measurements! As you mentioned, often times patterns are graded up mathematically, not realistically and I find that there are frequent fatal errors. The sleeves and armholes don’t get bigger, the hemlines don’t fall even, etc. If you have any interest in communicating further about this, I would love to compare notes and discuss fit considerations!

Hi Kimberly, thank you so much for this, and yes, absolutely! I have been dying to talk to someone else about the grading process for larger sizes, as I feel like I’m often just making things up based on what I think makes sense in my head, and trying not to center my own proportions too much. Please reach out to me at spokesandstitches@gmail.com, I’d love to discuss further 🙂

Thank you so much – and thank you for resources! I am a petite medium
Sized mom with all kinds of body-size issues and a petite plus sized daughter who fearlessly calls me out and loves herself as much as she can despite being raised by me and my problems with my weight and hers. I love her fiercely and can’t wait to sew your patterns for her. God bless and keep you, you talented, beautiful woman, you!

Susan, you are so sweet. Thank you so much for this kind and thoughtful comment. I bet you and your daughter are super cool folks, too! 🙂

Wonderful article, Ruby, and I thank you for putting into words the frustrations many of us non-standard females have with the size 8-obsessed fashion industry.
I’m 5’10” and a size 18/20 and, to add to it all, I’m aged 67. Trying to find something that doesn’t define me as bland with one foot in the grave irritates me beyond belief. That’s going to change.
I’ve bought a beginner’s sewing machine and will take the plunge to see what I can come up with for myself once I’ve taught myself to see. Wish me luck.
Once again, thanks ❤️
Annie

Hi Ruby – well done article – very good read, and i will keep it for reference. As a plus sized costumer of 25 years, and sewer of 40, i also have academic information on modern anthropometric measurements. During my Med Sci degree which ive recently completed, i studied under a now retired prof emeritus who devoted his life to the study of comparative anatomy and physiology, and Human Variability. WHen we spent hours taking every body measurement imaginable for tutorials – it wasnt just about waist line, it was length of fingertip to floor vs nape to floor, the mass and shape of different muscles and bones in the body not related to fitness (which gives rise to sloped shoulders in some and squared ones in others as an example). Ppl dont know that not every one has the exact same number of muscles and or bones in the body…some lack some, and some have extra! Detailed study of all this gives an explanation of “Human Variability” which was his academic lifes love, and it rubbed off on me too. His name is Marceij Hennenberg and has published prolfiically. His research and data sets (of which i have one myself) might prove useful. In short – the big are getting bigger, not just fatter, but taller, longer arms and legs, thicker wrists and ankles and necks, but the skinny are getting smaller. that bell curve no longer exists in reality. The scatter pattern of dots above and below the line of “average” are becoming void either side of the line, and the dots concentrate further away from the line – on BOTH sides of medial line. As for the “fat bias” – the laws of natural selection will one day take care of that – they will do them selves out of a job, if the human race goes the way its currently going – and its NOT about waistline as i said. I wish you the best, and if youre looking for hard data sets to help your efforts feel free to let me know and I might be able to help.
All the best
Roxann

Hi Roxann, wow, it sounds like you have a lot of knowledge on this topic! Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and I’d certainly be interested in those data sets if they are publicly available. I know that the costuming world is often much more people-centric than the fashion world. I sometimes regret that I didn’t go to school for costume instead, as I might have learned more about fitting and design for a wide range of bodies. If you are willing to share some more info with me about those data sets, I would love to learn more. I can be reached at spokesandstitches@gmail.com. Thanks again.

Thanks so much for this, Ruby. I think you danced around the point artfully, but I believe that “mainstream” designers don’t design for fat people because they don’t want their clothing associated with fat people.
I live in northern Minnesota, where I’ve got plenty of winter to navigate through. I went to our town’s huge outdoor gear store and found that the largest size they carried was size 14. In MEN’S sizes, they carried snow pants with a 44-inch waist, but apparently fat ladies shouldn’t leave the house for 5 months out of the year.

Loved this article! I have a body type much like yours, petite(I’m under 5 foot) and a large chest and tummy that puts me in the plus sizes. I barely know how to adjust a pattern to fit me…so it takes out of the game a lot, cause it’s no l ok longer fun. But if there were more realistically sized patterns to fit me, I’d sew more! Also thank you for addressing at length how our society makes feel ashamed of our shape. It was surprisingly affirming for me and touch a place in me. It brought tears to my eyes.

Hi Gabrielle, thanks so much for your kind comment, and I’m so happy that you were touched by my words. It’s also taken me a while to overcome the shame and feelings of “my body is wrong” in order to get to a place where I can just alter a pattern from a more objective standpoint to fit better. I want you to know you have my full support on your sewing journey!

Hi Hilary, thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. That stinks about the snow pants! And even a 44-inch waist isn’t that big! Sounds like there is definitely a market for snow pants in larger sizes. I have had a similar problem shopping for rain pants to ride my bike in. I bought the largest size available, and they are also technically men’s, and of course they are absurdly long on me!

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