“When you see exhibitions of beautiful historical garments pinned to really, really, tiny mannequins, it’s easy to get the impression that this was the norm—that people used to be smaller,” says costume studies master’s student Julie Smolinski. “But people have always come in different sizes.”

And people of all sizes have always needed something to wear. But what?

photo: gallery with two dresses and a 18th-century portrait

This is the topic Smolinski and six fellow co-curators explore in Beyond Measure: Fashion and the Plus-Size* Woman, an 80WSE exhibition that traces the complex and ever-evolving relationship of the fashion industry with the non-slim, from the 18th-century right up through Project Runway. And that little asterisk, the curators assert, is actually the most important part of the exhibition’s title: They debated language for weeks and, finding no terms to describe the women in question that weren’t euphemistic (“curvy,” “full figured”) or charged (“fat”), they settled on the imperfect “plus-size,” a technical fashion-industry term with its own problems (namely that it can seem to define women solely by the size of the clothing they wear).  

1950s advertisement: How Do You Look in a Bathing Suit? Shows a "skinny" woman and a fuller figured one, advertising weight gain produc

Guided by professor Tracy Jenkins as part of a course in curation, the students were each responsible for choosing an exhibition item, and together the objects illuminate a history largely neglected in previous academic research. An early-20th-century photograph of the “Nettie the Fat Girl” attraction at Coney Island dates from a period when a shift in cultural attitudes about weight made larger bodies into spectacles, the subjects of both curiosity and disgust. Advertisements for 1950s- ’60s-era weight-gain products advising “skinny” women to increase their sex appeal by putting on pounds illustrate how the “ideal” shape for women has often been a moving target. And photographs of today’s plus-size models with the padding they use to augment hips and busts illustrate how rigid fashion-industry beauty norms remain, even as models larger than size 2 have gradually begun to appear in more spreads.  

photo: belted lace-collar 1930s pink floral dress on a dress stand

So much for “people were just smaller back then.”

Smolinski says she was “surprised and refreshed” to find women’s clothing manufacturers writing as early as 1927—when factory-made ready-to-wear fashions were relatively new, having begun to replace custom-made garments—about the need for larger sizes.

So then, one wonders, what went wrong? If there were dressmakers eager to cater to any-sized women almost a century ago, then why are so many women today unable to purchase the looks they prefer in the fit they need?

It is perhaps in raising that question that Beyond Measure seems to have struck a chord, attracting a steady stream of visitors and engendering spirited commentary in Refinery29, Fashionista and even in Metro New York and Today Style. The New York Times called the exhibition “small but affecting,” noting that it “goes some way toward demonstrating that fat shaming, with roots burrowing deep into the 19th century, was, and remains, a freighted issue.” A January 28 panel discussion celebrating its opening quickly sold out. 

photo: model in underwear holding many pads in each hand

As part of that spirited Thursday evening conversation, moderator Leah Sweet, professor at Parsons the New School for Design, traced, beginning in the 1920s, the evolution of the terms “plus-size” and “straight size,” which have come to be understood as opposites. As an alternative to the term “plus-size,” model Stella Ellis offered that she sometimes refers to herself as having an “hour-and-a-half-glass figure.” Photographer Kristiina Wilson, whose work is featured in the exhibition, lamented the spirit of conservatism that pervades the insular realm of high fashion, where, she said, a bevy of arbiters of “coolness” and “nowness” often nix plus-size looks before they make it to the runway or magazine cover. Designer Eden Miller expressed exhaustion over the trend toward relentless sexualization of plus-size bodies in photo spreads, and Buzzfeed writer Kaye Toal pondered the significance of Mattel’s recent release: “curvy,” “tall,” and “petite” Barbie dolls.

Audience members, many of them industry insiders, were eager to chime in. A buyer for a high-end department store wondered how, in the absence of a dedicated plus-size section, she could get the word out to potential customers about her efforts to procure designer gowns (or even order extra fabric to have them made) in extended sizes. A celebrity stylist noted that she’d never had trouble convincing major designers to make plus-size garments for her clients, even as they refused to include similar pieces in their ready-to-wear collections. One woman asked about where to buy high-end plus-sized lingerie, while another questioned whether there were enough plus-sized women making more than, say, $150,000 a year, to sustain a market in plus-sized clothing from luxury brands.

On that last point, Miller, whose Cabiria line aims to bring “whimsy, sensuality, and luxury to the plus size world,” was firm: There certainly are plenty of such women, she said, though customers not accustomed to finding luxury items in their sizes might first have to be convinced of the value of those options. Toal countered that she figured she’d never be able to afford anything more expensive than what you can get at ModCloth.com.

And on the topic of plus-sized fashion’s future, the mood in the room alternated between optimism and frustration. One often had the distinct sensation of having only just settled in for a long fight.

In 2013, Miller made headlines when she became the first designer to show a plus-sized line at New York’s fashion week—a feat that no one since has managed to repeat. “It’s a shame,” Miller said. “I wanted to kick the door open for everyone.”  

Eileen Reynolds


Beyond Measure runs through February 3, but those who can't make it to 80WSE before then can tour the exhibition virtually, through an app for mobile or web.