“You’re the writer?”
The P.R. assistant looked up from her iPad and raised a single eyebrow as she appraised my outfit. Dressed smartly, but discreetly, I lacked the familiar trappings of Fashion Week peacocking: There was no It bag slung over my shoulder, no logo signage to transform my body into a chic billboard. Instead, I was armed with a notepad and my phone’s recording app, ready to get to work.
“From Vogue—the magazine?” she continued, doubt now creeping into her voice as she messaged a colleague who might confirm my identity.
Huddled in the cramped space of a backstage checkpoint with a line of photographers grumbling behind me, my Fashion Week was off to an unpleasant start. Though I’d arrived at the venue early, intent on speaking to a designer before the show began, I’d lost 10 minutes trying to prove I hadn’t wandered in off the street. While I couldn’t blame them for not recognising me—my previous interactions with the public relations team had been via email—I could see my name typed neatly on the spreadsheet that filled the screen of the assistant’s tablet, and I’d produced both a passport and a business card. Still, my presence seemed to elicit confusion.
“I’m sorry,” she said later, handing me a badge after a scolding from her supervisor in clipped French. “You’re just not what I expected.”
After a decade of Fashion Weeks, I was used to it. Living in a body that is conspicuous yet invisible means dealing with annoyances, and in fashion, it seems, there are still penalties for taking up too much space. Personal style, meanwhile, is still a job requirement: When selling yourself as an expert, the ability to dress the part becomes your calling card. Thanks to street style and the ubiquity of social media, nearly everyone’s wardrobe has become insanely accessible, and anyone looking to “build their brand” is encouraged to flesh out their online presence through outfit updates and strategic selfies. While it is possible to achieve that level of curation as a plus-size woman—content creators like Nicolette Mason and Tess Holliday are a testament—this is a recent development. Fifteen years ago, when I began working full-time, there were few prominent role models and fewer places to seek out interesting clothes.
In the pre-woke world of 2006, fashion’s ideal body was one that molded itself to clothes and could adapt to seasonal whims. The idea that a woman might need to size up her dress—or that designers should attempt to dress all people—was far from the mainstream. This was the era when doll-faced waifs ruled the runways and Karl Lagerfeld dropped 90-some pounds because he wanted to wear Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme suits—anything to make the designs work.
Even mass-market brands felt no obligation to offer clothing to anyone beyond their preferred demographic. Exclusion was considered an asset, as stores relied on gatekeeping to stay relevant. As someone who hit puberty in the early 2000s, I still remember trying to fit into the glittery, disposable clothes of the mall-staple store 5-7-9, which were only available in single-digit sizes, in an attempt to fit the junior high school milieu. (At Abercrombie & Fitch, sizing didn’t go beyond a women’s large, lest they alienate what their CEO at the time called “the cool kids.”)
In my sleepy Long Island suburb, the only stores for larger women were Lane Bryant, Ashley Stewart, and the appallingly named Dress Barn. As none of them presented anything approaching clothes that I’d like to wear, the threat of being relegated to their dregs kept me in a state of perpetual fear. The aisles of polyester and mom jeans were akin to a punishment, a netherworld to which you were banished for not keeping it tight.
I didn’t dare envision myself wearing the beautiful pieces I clipped out of magazines and filled scrapbooks with. Versace gowns and Jil Sander suits were for supermodels and Hollywood starlets, people with the good genes and diligence to maintain size-zero physiques.
One can only cut off their circulation in undersized jeans for so long, and though I tried to stay as small as possible for as long as possible, reality caught up with me. Through high school, I managed to stay just under the size 14 cutoff point. College, though, threw me for a loop. Depression took over, and so did disordered eating. Soon every mall store I yearned to shop in—J.Crew, Gap, Delia’s, and, yes, Abercrombie—was out of reach. My shopping experiences paralleled the much-meme’d scene in Mean Girls where Rachel McAdams’s delightfully devious Regina George receives the ultimate retail comeuppance: After attempting—and failing—to squeeze herself into a pastel Spring Fling dress, Regina’s friend asks the saleswoman for the next size up. “Sorry—we only carry sizes 1, 3, and 5,” she retorts. “You could try Sears.”
I wasn’t going to shop in any store where power tools and dresses lived on the same floor. Shut out of fashion’s low end, I responded by going aggressively preppy, my closet filled with Lacoste and Tommy Hilfiger polo shirts in every color of the rainbow, along with all manner of khaki and madras. While my college peers were strolling around our Philadelphia campus in pajama pants, I still wanted to execute a look—even if that meant exploring one that wouldn’t have been my first choice.
Fashion was Carine Roitfeld stomping through the Tuileries in head-to-toe Azzedine Alaïa—it was not Janelle from Long Island in patched-up Levi’s.
I didn’t dare envision myself wearing the beautiful pieces I clipped out of magazines and filled scrapbooks with. Versace gowns and Jil Sander suits were for supermodels and Hollywood starlets, people with the good genes and diligence to maintain size-zero physiques. Sophomore year, when I’d whittled myself down to a size 10, I’d stare at the photos of Cameron Diaz and Naomi Campbell taped to my mini-fridge door as I munched my carrot sticks and think: Someday.
Fashion didn’t want me, but I wanted it—and as with any unrequited love affair, I put it on a pedestal, giving my favourite brands a pass on plus sizes because they were making art.
But while I had every intention of wearing beautiful clothing one day, I had no real plan to work in fashion. Based on what I saw online, on sites like The Fashion Spot and the then novel street style blogs, everyone who worked in fashion was impeccably dressed, thin, and independently wealthy. Fashion was Carine Roitfeld stomping through the Tuileries in head-to-toe Azzedine Alaïa—it was not Janelle from Long Island in patched-up Levi’s.
Still, when I headed to my dreary post-college nine-to-five, fashion images were one of the few things that kept my spirits up. I was stuck dressing older than my age in blouson tops from Banana Republic and little black dresses from Calvin Klein’s diffusion label, but in spare moments I’d escape into the endless scroll of Style.com. Fashion didn’t want me, but I wanted it—and as with any unrequited love affair, I put it on a pedestal, giving my favourite brands a pass on plus sizes because they were making art. I would have had to staple together two looks to wear anything from Nicolas Ghesquière’s Balenciaga or Dries Van Noten; instead, I simply pushed down my desire to touch and to feel—to experience fashion as a participant, not a spectator.
My defense crumbled as soon as I began my first real foray into fashion—working as an intern in a modeling agency. The glamour of being surrounded by the faces I’d stared at in magazines evaporated after I heard an agent driven to histrionics over a model gaining an inch on her hips ahead of casting season. Once you hear a grown man yell at a teenage girl in an attempt to dissect her body, you understand the consequences of all that artistry. When clothing exists as a prop to be admired—one that is dependent on an almost impossible set of physical standards—people get hurt.
Over the years, my faith in fashion’s treatment of women’s bodies continued to erode, even as things were supposedly changing. Ad campaigns featured more plus-size models, while former colleagues forwarded me emails filled with “thinspo” dieting tips. Celebrities made grand statements about inclusion—one of them a daughter of rock royalty who, upon seeing me backstage at the season’s hot ticket, loudly remarked that she couldn’t believe they’d “let in the trolls.” Brands expanded their size ranges for capsule collections, designed special pieces for the likes of Lizzo and Naomi Watanabe—and then went right back to business as usual.
If you’ve visited an e-commerce platform in the last decade, you’ve seen how a high-minded concept like body positivity can be watered down into slogan tees and platitudes about embracing your cellulite, as what began as an attempt for those with stigmatised bodies to assert their worth has been repackaged into a commodity. Yes, challenging cultural beauty standards can be universally empowering—but only a select few have to deal with obesity discrimination.
This is where someone—and there is always someone—will interject to suggest a trip to the gym, weight-loss surgery, or hiring a trainer. And while bodies change all the time, along with our relationship to them, full-scale physical transformation shouldn’t be a prerequisite for personhood. How I feel about my body changes almost daily, but other people’s reactions have been constant: Fat is the first thing they see, and the sole measure by which I am first judged. The limited shopping options are just one of a number of slights—I’ve had doctors suggest gastric bypass when I’ve gone in for a fever, and relatives who thought diet books were suitable Christmas gifts. What I would love is what most other people take for granted: to walk into a store and not think about whether or not I can shop there—and to meet new people without worrying that they perceive me only as a number on a scale.
For decades, fashion sneered at fat women, expecting gratitude for offering them the bare minimum. Now, with retail in a slump and the financial viability of the plus-size demographic newly evident, more brands are dipping their toes into the waters. Of course, if the challenge was just about clothes, women like me could have kept subsisting on the ill-fitting miscellany of Lane Bryant. The real objective, though, is for everyone to be able to create a wardrobe that allows them to thrive both personally and professionally.
For my first interview at Vogue, in 2014, I arrived at Condé Nast’s Times Square offices in a bright blue shirtdress from Calvin Klein worn beneath a black blazer. At the time, this was the best look I could pull together at short notice—one that allowed me to show that I had a point of view on fashion, even if it was imperfect. The moment I made it past security, though, I noticed that every other person I passed was just slightly dressier—their heels higher, jewelry showier, accessories more exclusive. I was overqualified for the slightly above intern-level job I was there to interview for, but found myself nervous and self-doubting.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the job.
I was (almost) relieved—after all, if I had been successful, there was no way I could dress the part. At the time, my shopping habits were limited to online retailers like fast-fashion staple Eloquii and a few brick-and-mortar haunts. I’d trawl through the women’s department of Macy’s on 34th Street, passing tourists who’d amuse themselves by laughing at the size 3X dresses or seeing if two people could fit into a single coat. While I was glad to be able to walk into a store with the knowledge that something would be salvageable, most of what was available was still designed with someone else in mind. Either it skewed older (boxy blazers with shoulder pads, palazzo pants, matronly dresses), juvenile (T-shirts covered in cartoon kittens, plaid pajama pants), or completely hideous.
Finding pieces that worked meant being diligent and creative. I’d dip into the men’s department for shirts I could alter, and beg my mother to pull out her old Singer sewing machine to help me rework ill-fitting womenswear. Almost continuously shopping, I’d sift through picked-over racks in Nordstrom’s plus-size department and save up to buy basics from the newly launched Universal Standard, the sole size-inclusive game in town. Shopping became an experience akin to patrolling the beach with a metal detector in search of pirate gold; getting dressed, an experiment involving repeated trial and error. (Try interviewing a couture-clad starlet while wearing the only decent thing you could find on ASOS.)
When I made it to Vogue in 2015, the options for size-inclusive clothing had improved dramatically—so much so that I’d been able to dress confidently in a fitted floral shift dress on my first day (though I did feel the need to corner a colleague in the ladies room to ask if there was a dress code I should be aware of). The internet’s infinite marketplace soon allowed me to access game-changing stores like 11 Honoré, where brands like Marc Jacobs and Baja East released capsules in my size but, often, out of my budget. Universal Standard expanded its oeuvre with collaborations with Rodarte and Erdem, and even Lane Bryant changed tack, enlisting designers like Sophie Theallet and Prabal Gurung to create collections. But while the work being done was heartening, the mood behind the scenes hadn’t changed much. When I found myself seated next to Gurung at a press dinner, he told me about the reactions he received from certain peers upon the launch of his pieces for Lane—the way some had turned up their noses and asked him: “Why would you design clothes for fat people?”
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Working in the heightened atmosphere of the One World Trade Center offices, I understood precisely why the new contributions from Gurung and others were essential. Figuring out what would work for me was an uphill battle, and in the beginning I had performance anxiety. The creative way my new colleagues mixed and matched their looks, making pieces from the runway feel personal, was inspiring—and intimidating. I could put together a competent outfit, but the clothes I truly wanted to wear simply didn’t exist. In my fantasies, I’d attend my appointments in Loewe trousers and cashmere sweaters from Khaite; I’d be able to buy an asymmetrical Chopova Lowena skirt and pair it with a billowing overcoat from Del Core. I wanted the chance to wear something from one of the collections I’d watched in person, stunned by the inaccessible beauty.
Rebuilding an entire closet, though, was a daunting—and expensive—prospect. Periodically I’d indulge in some inspired 3 a.m. online shopping, but my closet was largely comprised of compromises—clothes I’d bought because they were available, or pieces I refused to toss for fear of never finding alternatives. When I did make an investment purchase, it was usually an accessory. Still, while there isn’t an outfit around that doesn’t benefit from the addition of a Givenchy bag, the extras started to seem frivolous once the pandemic hit. When you’re only traveling from your bedroom to the couch, who needs a bag?
Working from home, I cycled through the same set of Zoom-appropriate blouses so often that, finally, something snapped. My tried-and-true wardrobe suddenly seemed almost aggressively bland—so much so that the person on my screen looked ready to reject a mortgage application, or teach bible study. Perhaps that P.R. girl had been right all along: Maybe I was sartorially incongruous, a poor representative for the publication I worked for.
Figuring out what was available to me required research—for the most part, dipping into the vast pool of information compiled by other women online.
I resolved to use my time at home to reconsider my approach. Wardrobe updates were supposed to be fun. I’d written enough articles advising others to find themselves through clothing, testing out styles they’d been afraid to try, or shopping their closets to find gems they’d never worn. I knew how easy and uplifting a well-timed change could be, the way even the most minor revision—new earrings, bolder heels, a fresh silhouette—could have a ripple effect. Still, it wasn’t easy to apply that logic to myself. For several days before I began my purge of old clothes, I struggled to convince myself not just that I could attain better things—but that I deserved to have them in the first place.