‘The Infirm among the Fashionable’: A tale of fat bodies throughout history

None of what I’m about to say is ground-breaking. If we peel back the curtain ever-so-slightly on what the fashion industry has told us about fat people, it’s pretty clear. But it doesn’t mean we can’t have a fun little rant about it eh? Regardless of your body shape, it’s time to get angry at the fashion industry – let’s go.

CW: Fatphobia, rage-inducing history

The lovely quote referring to fat women in the title (from some guy who we can forget the name of – Google it if you want) is disgraceful. But it wasn’t always this way, y’know? In the olden days… I’m talking about pre-1900’s… you’d have had 3 or 4 dresses, adjustable, button-down, durable… Not exactly the most fashion-forward thinking but still how wonderful to be able to have so few choices. Maybe pin your favourite brooch on your frock and jobs-a-good’un?!

What is this plus-size utopia? Three words, friends. Made. To. Measure. Everything you had would be tailored – expensive for both buyer and producer, yes, BUT what a way to live! Until one day Capitalism (Bad) decided that we needed to mass-produce clothes… and then the worst thing happened.

Standardised sizing.

Don’t fear the Fat people

Much to eVeRyOnE’s SuRpRisE, there was a huge group of women who did not fit into the standardised sizes designed by men and not dressmakers (cheers, lads). So what to call people who do not fit into this slender and desirable category? Stout. I cannot even put this into words, please just look at these headlines from articles about catering for fat people in the fashion industry (women primarily, let’s be clear).

Richmond Times Dispatch, April 2nd 1916

Corrective Eating Society Advertisement, The Red Book Magazine (July 1922) all pictures from lecture by Lauren Downing Peters

You know what? I love being called ‘stout’. It’s giving “Miss Trunchbull about to put you in the chokey” vibes. Okay, not really, UGH. It was even said at times (obviously paraphrased from somewhere in this crazy small writing) “FINE you can have clothes too, but just so you know… we won’t spend as much time on development because you are more needy and therefore will buy anything regardless of the quality! You just want attention so you’ll buy any old shit, and because of your impulsive consumption habits you’ll probably mindlessly consume this too.” Rude.

(Special shout out to New Look Curve Range 2005, you were so bad.)

Women’s Wear (June 11, 1915)

Fix those flaws

One thing that the fashion industry succeeded in is making sure we ‘internalised the corset’ (phrase courtesy of Victoria Steele). We no longer needed that oppressive exoskeleton, we were ready to shrink ourselves in any way possible. That said, there were many many options available if you did want to partake in a little bit of self-squeezing. How about a rubber mask for your double chin? Suck that thing right back into your skin. (Yes, this was absolutely a thing…)

Vogue, ca. 1922

What do you mean ‘tummy control’? If I were to be ‘sculpted’, ‘smoothed’ or ‘shaped’ it would be into marble and not into your elastane compression clothing, you bastards.

Flattering at the Foremost

Okay, so you have clothes now. They even acknowledged we like to wear nice-ish clothes but for the love of GOD, make sure they’re flattering to your figure. Horizontal stripes are a never, only ever wear things that elongate and look slimmmmmingggg. (You cannot measure the disdain with which I delivered this line in my head.)

Credit: Dr Sears Wellness Institute

Are you shaped like an apple, or a pear? Is your butt a perfect peach shape? Guys, I am aware I am juicy and plump but can we measure ourselves by something other than fruit?

You see, it’s all about giving the illusion of not having fat arms, legs, a double chin, a wide neck, a sense of self worth, a bum, back rolls, a burning hatred for the patriarchy or a stomach… see? We can get rid of all that by tricking people into thinking you don’t have those things, until such a time that you can permanently change those things about yourself.” – Not an actual quote, 2024.

50 years of Lane Bryant, Tom Mahoney,
quoting Richmond Times Dispatch (April 2nd 1916)

Above is an actual excerpt from Lane Bryant’s designs comparing the ‘Camouflage of Curves’ to gothic cathedrals. Lane, if I could be a gothic cathedral, don’t you think I would be by now? Honestly, goals. Not the slenderness, just the looming over people looking imposing.

Fat positivity, a thing of the past?

Downing Peters also mentioned a turning point (not the good kind) in 2021, where we statistically peaked for fat inclusivity in fashion, with an astonishing (sarcasm) 5% of high fashion being catered directly for plus size bodies. This apparently now sits at around 0.6% (please forgive the lack of sources here, these were taken from the lecture and I am a blogger, not a statistician. Read the book.)

It feels awful to think that we were apparently more progressive when it comes to body positivity in the past than we are now. Perhaps this was due to the general feeling of empathy for each other that seems to have all but disappeared since the pandemic, or maybe it was because fashion industries were holding their breath a little bit until we felt more positive about ourselves after a mass global trauma… WHO’S TO SAY… but considering some of the examples above were from the 1920’s… how far have we really come in 100 years?

Philadelphia Inquirer, January 14th 1923

A parting note from a fat person

One thing to remember if you share my burning rage but it turns into negative self-talk… this was never about you or your body. This is about the inertia of years of biases from a fashion industry led by men and the male gaze, and the fact that it is profitable to standardise our soft, beautiful fat bodies and make us feel bad about them. Go forth and flower, my blossoms.

Credit to Lauren Downing Peters who gave this lecture based on her book ‘Fashion before Plus-Size: Bodies, Bias, and the Birth of an Industry and found the sourced photos in this post, and thank you to the hosts of the lecture, The Feminist Lecture Program.

Leave a Reply