Are the words stout, chubby, full-figured and “real women” terms that sound appealing to today’s plus size woman? Probably not.
However, these are just a few of the terms used throughout history to describe the “above average-sized” woman. After several decades of semi-offensive titles, American society adapted the term plus-
size after a Lane Bryant advertisement used the variation “Misses Plus Sizes” in 1922, according to the Wall Street Journal.
While originally used solely to describe the clothing size, the phrase now identifies the entire demographic and culture behind the dress size. “It is estimated that 67 percent of American women [in 2016] are size 14 and up.
Now expanded to describe body types, clothing styles, models and consumers. As well as the market that caters to the plus size women,” NYU Costume Studies Program explains in their exhibit. “Beyond Measure: Fashion and the Plus-Size*” (the asterisk signifies the “ambiguity” surrounding the term).
However, this culture has only really developed in the last 120 years or so, with the final step out into the spotlight happening in the last two decades. The idea of fashion specifically for larger women barely came into play before the 1920s because clothing items were not mass produced.
When a woman needed clothing that fit her size, she either made it herself or went to a seamstress that created a garment for her exact measurements. Of course, the perception of the larger body was up for discussion.
Revolving around body size and what was desirable at the time, there were clear “trends” that allowed women with a larger frame to celebrate their bodies, while other times, they were shamed. In the very beginning of Hollywood, Lillian Russell, an actress and singer born in 1861, was celebrated for her “full” appearance and visible curves enhanced by a steel corset, according to Elle.com.
From Russell’s first debut in 1880 in New York, her body type became and epitomized the ideal beauty. By the 1920s, this distinct curvy figured went out of style. Flappers became the new beautiful, with the iconic short hair, thin frames and straight-line silhouette.
The Beyond Measure: Fashion and the Plus-Size* exhibit claims that the sudden influx of diets, wartime rationing and the turn toward healthy living painted the “full figured woman” in an unfavorable light. It was then, in the 1920s that the idea of fashion catered toward the fuller figured woman took shape in the mind of Lena (Himmelstein) Bryant Malsin.
A Lithuanian immigrant, Malsin supported herself as a seamstress. Malsin’s talent quickly became apparent. After her first husband, David Bryant passed away, Malsin used the money she had saved up to open a storefront.
“Lena became Lane because of an error when she first opened a bank account,” the Jewish Women’s Archive stated. Thus, as a result of a clerical error, Lane Bryant was born.
The company has continued to provide plus-size women fashionable clothing for the last 95 years. Funny enough, Malsin catered towards a different demographic first—maternity wear. After seeing a hole in the fashion world, Malsin decided to fill it, offering pregnant women fashionable clothing that would “grow with them,” by mail order catalog.
Coming off the success of maternity wear, Malsin turned toward another ignored fashion category, the “stout” woman. Malsin and her second husband, Albert Malsin, “measured some forty-five hundred individual customers in the store and utilized other statistics on about two hundred thousand women to determine three general types of stoutness, then designed clothes to fit them.
By 1923, the largesize business had surpassed the maternity wear, accounting for more than half of the annual five million dollars in sales,” according to the Jewish Women’s Archive. While Lane Bryant continued designing clothes for plus-size women, the slender body type more or less stayed in fashion until the Marilyn Monroe era—the 1950s.
The hourglass shape became the new “it” look. For women of every size, this look was achieved by a belted waist and full skirts. Additionally, the curvy shape became all the rage in Hollywood again, as indicative of Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, however, the image was of thin women with curves, not necessarily larger figures.
Interesting enough, this was a unique time where advertisements published offered different types of yeast extracts to help women gain weight and achieve the curvy silhouette. Still, the ideology of the “perfect figure” continued to go in circles, and with the 70s came Twiggy, a.k.a. Lesley Lawson.
An English model, Twiggy decided the fashion trends for the next several years in both Britain and America. Doe-eyed, girlish body and short hair were features that debuted the iconic look Twiggy brought to the 70s.
Suddenly, curves were out of fashion again. This trend continued into the 80s, with severe blocky silhouettes all the rage and shoulder pads the new thing. In the 90’s the plussize figure started to re-emerge in the public eye.
Stella Ellis, a model in the 90s, had the opportunity to participate in a runway show by Jean-Paul Gaultier, something rather unprecedented. According to Ellis’ website, from there she became his muse and brought to the spotlight a body more indicative of the average female form.
“I like to say that my hourglass figure is more like an hour and a half,” Stella said in an interview for O Magazine. From the 1990s to now, it has become more common to open up a magazine and see an average or plus-size women.
While there is still a long way to go towards complete body diversity in media, fashion designers like Lane Bryant, Torrid, Ashley Tipton, etc., will continue to provide fashion that caters toward average through plus-size to make every woman feel at home in her body.