Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.
Pure Collection Ltd.
Net-a-porter UK

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Can you dress well at any size? Poll results

The Thoughtful Dresser poll this week asked the question whether it is possible to dress well at any size. The results - 67 per cent said yes, only 32 per cent said not at my mall - show that most of you believe that style does indeed come from within. However a simple push button poll of this kind does not do justice to the complexity of the question.

The first thing to say is that being catwalk size is little guarantee of good taste. You can have Kate Moss' body and still look a mess if you have no eye for colour. Still, if you are size 0 and wealthy you can have a stylist do it for you, and every department store these days will have an in-house service to help you shop.


The first problem anyone above the so-called normal size range will confront is finding something to buy in the first place. The UK size range found in most high street shops is 8-14 (US 4-10) though of course the actual size of clothes will vary from store to store with a Top Shop 12 being considerably smaller than a Jaeger 12 because they size from a much younger fitting model. For purposes of disclosure, I'm in the top end of that range. I couldn't get into a Top Shop 14 but I do fit a 14 from M&S and Jaeger. This means that theoretically I should be able to walk into any high street shop and buy what I want. But take yesterday, when I saw a dress I rather wanted to try in Zara. There were plenty on the rack but they were all small and medium; when I asked a salesgirl for a large, she said they had sold out. Because the larger sizes always do (thought it is the opposite situation at M&S, I've frequently been told.)
good legs

Now if you are outside that 'normal' range life will become much more difficult. M&S' regular range goes up to size 22 and its Plus range to size 28 , increasingly on-line companies are getting much better at carrying a wide range of sizes, but if you want a choice of clothes, you'd better live in the USA. Gap and Banana Republic, both brands that I rate for style, go up several sizes. Until it opens its doors at the old Dickens and Jones building on Regent Street in 2008, we in Britain have never had access to Banana Republic, and their online site does not ship internationally. We've had Gap for several years, but recently, having bought a pair of jeans in their Friendship Heights branch in Washington, I asked in the flagship Oxford Street store if they had another pair. I was told that the stock was somewhat different, and one of the differences being that they did not sell larger sizes in Europe. Ask any plus size expatriate about buying clothes in France where no-one appears ever to gain any weight, and you will be told to go west, young woman, to America.

As for clothes above say, size 22, there are fewer opportunities outside the US, fewer still at the higher end. Italian women will not stand for being badly dressed, and so it is Italy which has produced some of the better designer clothes in large seizes, such as Marina Rinaldi, one of MaxMara's labels. But it goes without saying that a larger woman will never be able to wear any of the major houses: no Chanel, no McQueen, no Dior, no Philip Lim, no Lanvin. Armani Collezioni goes up to UK 18, but I don't think its younger line, Emporio Armani does. Whenever I see Suzy Menkes, she seems to be wearing the expandable Issey Miyake Pleats Please or the now sadly defunct label Jean Muir.

That is not to say that larger woman do not look fabulous, or as the Manolo would say, superfantastic, of course they do, but it is my observation that larger women who look amazing generally have the characteristic of having bodies in proportion. It is far easier to look good if you are an hourglass than if you are a pear. Dressing really well is having clothes that fit you properly. In my case, a pear, (or as Trinny and Susannah now tell me, a skittle,) with a pronounced waist, big hips and narrow shoulders, I take a larger size in trousers than in tops, and dresses and jackets are often tight around the bum and loose on the shoulders and under the arms. Not a good look.
the right shoes

I have also noticed that larger women who are tall, and who carry the weight on their shoulders, chests and stomachs but who still have great legs, can look more elegant than the petite woman who carries it on her stomach, hips and thighs.

Nonetheless, having said all of this, it is the truth that if you can find something to buy, and if what you buy fits properly, it is the woman with the strong sense of inner style, with the iron self-confidence of a Beth Ditto, with the insistence that she will be seen, the woman who knows colour, who understands accessories, who has a sure feel for fabric and who will have no truck with the fascist nonsense that fashion is not for big girls, who will outshone the size 10 woman in an oatmeal fleece, beige drawstring trousers and Crocs.


My sister telephones to point out that one of the most heartening experiences is being at the gym and seeing a woman with a perfect, toned body and then watching the transformation in the changing room when she covers it up with boring, badly fitting clothes.


Anonymous said...

And the right bra matters too! Correct support is important regardless of one's body size. It so pains me to see women wearing badly fitted bras. Phyllis

NancyDaQ said...

I think you've nailed it! Many of my larger-sized friends complain of not being able to find RTW that fits. The problem is not so much that they're plus sized (although that's part of it), it's their proportions.

It's surprising that you find the US to have a better range of large sizing. Many women here would not agree.

Linda Grant said...



I was in Harvey Nichols a year or so ago and a couple of American woman stopped a sales assistant and asked him where they could find the department which sold the larger sizes. 'We don't stock anything for you at all,' he said. The two women looked completely crushed.

The many women to whom you refer - which European shops are they thinking of?

Anonymous said...

Linda - Hear, hear.
I'm short. To call me "petite" is really a misnomer. I'm just short and I wear a US size 14 (12 if I'm lucky). Tall plus sized women have a much larger selection of clothing for sure - plus petite sizes are like the Holy Grail, which is why I sew. When you are short, weight has no place to spread. It all comes out the front. That's why when I was pregnant, EVERYONE knew within about two months. My sister, who is 5'11"? She was able to hide it until she was 6 months along.
Life is never fair.

Susan B said...

Earlier this year while visiting Paris, I was quite surprised to find myself in a plus-size boutique on Rue St. Honoré. I'd wandered in because the clothes looked so beautiful. Wish I'd remembered the name!

Marina Rinaldi has some absolutely stunning items, and the local Saks has a fantastic plus department (Salon Z).

I gained a lot of weight getting pregnant at 40, and for a few years after my son was born, I was a size 14 US. I think I actually had a tougher time shopping for my height (or at 5'2" lack of height) than for my weight. I think the US market has woken up to the fact that plus-size women will spend on clothing, and is continuing to expand the offerings.

I've heard that Switzerland and Germany have some better options for plus sizes, and know some women in France who regularly take trips there to shop for larger sizes.

Teresa said... is the truth that if you can find something to buy, and if what you buy fits properly, it is the woman with the strong sense of inner style, with the iron self-confidence of a Beth Ditto, with the insistence that she will be seen, the woman who knows colour, who understands accessories...

To take just part of your eloquent description, I must say that I do not fall into the above category. Much as I try - I don't know if my brain is tuned in for these things. I know what I like when I see a well dressed person - I can't seem to translate that to me. And therein lies the problem.

The biggest question is: can it be learned? If so where? how? Because it seems (from what I've read here) that this would help women of any size. But, as often as I ask people, read things, watch shows, I never seem to "get it". So I wonder if this is something I can do.

Anonymous said...

@ Teresa

Me too ...Even though I have a very strong sense of style in most areas of my life, I dress abysmally.

I work in the art and design area and have very well dressed friends but when I really must buy something I will just get something big and black from M & S. I need help too!

It doesn't help that I am short, fat and broke!

Anonymous said...

An important topic but no matter how often it is raised there seems to be no change. I am 5'10" and size 16. (hardly humungous) It's a Marks and Spencers' size 16 not H&M - I can't fit my arms into their size 16 shirts, let alone the rest of me.

Whilst I remained tall and slim (size 12, later 14) I could buy fashionable/stylish clothes, although not always easily. Ted Baker shirts for example were only just OK. I go up just two sizes (due to medication mostly) and suddenly fashion becomes impossible. No offence to Dawn French but her style is not my style. And Oska clothes are so samey and not my style really either. They do, at a push, for weddings. Why do large women have to dress in designer sacks?

Also why does Nichole Fahri do a fab range in lots of sizes for men (my partner is very tall and has no problem getting clothes that fit) but only in standard sizes for women. Other designer ranges the same.

My solution... buy basics from M&S (although even their fair trade tshirts have sleeves cut too short for a slightly plump arm) and buy my casuals from the men's deparments, that way the jeans fit at the waist and the tshirts skim over my slightly bulky stomach.

But at 52 I don't always want to be in jeans, tshirts and baseball boots. I yearn for feminine shirts/blouses and tshirts and jackets cut for a larger figure that don't cling to the big bits.

Come on designers, there are lots of us out there, prepared to pay for good quality well designed clothing and also really begging to be able to pay Top Shop prices for everyday wear.

Elizabeth said...

The subject of the gym reminds me that there are paltry few good choices for gym clothes out there. Most of the clothes are designed with fat-free women in mind.

That's funny to me, as most of the women at the gym are trying to get in shape, striving to be the women who will someday fit into those clothes. The sizes Nike and others offer are limited (s-m-l), and the styles are far too young in spirit for many women (including me—I'm 41 and far from perfect—and I work there!). The styles are also not very modest.

There are women at my gym who wear their husbands' old, tatty t-shirts with their trackpants, or the latest highly-flogged Nike product, and they all look like they're in shape.

But in the end, they have all the same problems the rest of us do: problems finding clothes that look good that make them feel good.

And let's not forget cellulite, varicose veins, insecurity, cluelessness about what works on their bodies, wacky taste in gym clothes, and the list goes on.

These issues make us human, and I'm always surprised when I hear a woman I'd assumed was completely happy with her appearance commenting that she's unhappy with her appearance.

Anonymous said...

Teresa and anonymous commenters have both said exactly what I was thinking. I am also in the design field, I can design anything on or around anyone else, but not on me. I am a UK14 (and continually going up). I think so much of looking good and being able to find the clothes has to do with self acceptance and I just cannot accept that I am fat - ergo nothing looks good on me.
I guess we've got to start with the body first and love and accept it before we can clothe it properly. Nothing would be too much trouble for a body we loved, if we couldn't find anything at the shop we could go out of our way to get tailored/hand-made clothing to enhance it.

Anonymous said...

I'm fortunate to be an hourglass -- at size 18 (US), I'm often straddling the line between "straight" sizing and plus, so I usually buy tops in the straight sizes and bottoms in the plus department. As a cyclist, I've got meaty thighs that don't usually fit into straight trousers and jeans.

What irks me most about plus sizes in the US is that they are often much more expensive than the identical clothes in straight sizes. And when you consider that I almost always have to have the waists of my trousers and skirts taken in (no sense having a small waist if it's not visible), the expense grows.

That said, I refuse to dress badly. When you're wearing something really flattering, with a good hairstyle, nice accessories (and hint, hint, a really stunning scarf makes an inexpensive top or dress look like $1 million), I project an attitude of confidence that really impacts how people react to me.

For those plus gals among you who want to learn to be stylish, here are some simple pointers that have always worked for me:

Stay away from fussy shapes -- a well-fitted garment with clean lines is more flattering to a woman with some meat on her bones.

Wear color near your face -- whether as a top, a dress, or a scarf. Color = joy.

Accessorize! Scarves, strong jewelry (nothing bitty or fussy, please), and gorgeous shoes are equal-opportunity style boosters. Just remember Mlle. Chanel's maxim and take off one piece. We're not talking about wearing your dowry here.

Have your clothes altered to show off your strong points. I don't have great legs, but I do have a lovely bustline and the afore-mentioned wasp waist. In addition to taking things in at the waist, I often have tops tapered through the side seams, or have darts added to the back of blouses. If you've got great legs, have skirts and dresses altered to a length that shows off your gams.

And then, work it! Stand up straight and smile. (Yes, Mom, you were right about that, too.)