The History of Being Fat and How It’s Affected Plus Size Fashion

Recently, I have become obsessed with those ‘100 years of…’ videos on YouTube. It’s just so fascinating seeing how fashion has changed over the last century. I always imagine what my life would have been like if I had to wear a corset like ladies in the 1900s or the boxy shapes of the 1920s. And well, the other day I saw a new video by Glamour called ‘100 Years of Plus Size Fashion’ which immediately sparked my interest.

It sounds stupid (and I hope I’m not the only one) but I suppose I forget that plus size women must have existed before now. I just think about all the struggles I have finding half-decent clothing and I imagine what they must have gone through. At least I am a young woman growing up in a time where plus size clothing is somewhat accessible. Where was a chubby, young woman in the 1950s supposed to find clothing?

I was curious. So I settled down in bed and anticipated a long night of Googling! Below is all my research on the history of fashion from 1900 to 2010 – note this focuses on fashion trends from the UK and USA:

Plus Size Fashion in 1900s

Before the 1900s, the ideal body shape was actually curvy. In fact, since the 17th Century, women who had fuller figures were seen as being healthy as well as having lots of wealth. You only have to take a look at the ‘Windsor Beauties‘ –  a collection of paintings to capture Charles II’s wives and mistresses, to see how women in the 1600s were presented. Rather than slimming down waists or emphasising the booty, the focus was on making the women look short and stout – with double chins and large breasts.

Plus Size Women Throughout Time

Barbara Villiers, depicted by Lely as Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom and war. (Image: Public Domain)

The popularity of women being fat would continue, even into the 1800s where corsets were starting to become popular. Here, women were expected to curvy and have a tiny waist.

During this time, clothing was still made by hand and therefore, not purchased. For aristocratic women, their dresses were designed to fit the body by tailors who helped them show off their bodies and project their status. While working class women were left with a needle and thread.

At the turn of 20th Century, being plus size was still seen as the ideal. It was a symbol of beauty and fertility. In fact, the popular actress, Lillian Russell, is reported to have weighed around 200 pounds but was seen as a sex symbol during the early 1900s. However, this all quickly changed.

Plus Size Fashion in 1920s

Curves had reigned supreme for about 400 years but they went out of fashion quickly with the emergence of the ‘Flapper Girl’ style.Following the first World War, technology has advanced dramatically and mass manufacturing became the new norm. Say goodbye to handmade clothing and hello fast fashion! As a result, clothing was only made in a small range of sizes to keep manufacturing costs low – leaving fuller figured women without any options. This was until Lane Bryant began advertising ‘Misses Plus Sizes’ in 1922 – the first company to coin the term plus size. The clothing store started offering their women’s clothing range in larger sizes – bringing the boxy, boyish style of 1920s clothing to plus size women. 

It wasn’t long before other retailers picked up on the market for plus size clothing and began using the term to promote their clothes. In the UK, the plus size retailer, Evans, was soon founded by Jack Green in 1930 to provide plus size clothing to women.

However, despite these pioneers in the plus size fashion world, it still remained marginalised from straight size clothing over the next few decades. The 1940s didn’t particularly help the plus size clothing cause – with the “typical” American women being defined as tall, athletic and well-rounded. Therefore, the investment into clothing for women who were outside of this ideal was barely there.

Plus Size Fashion in 1950s

In the 1950s, curves came back with vengeance thanks to Hollywood actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. However, it didn’t

Sophia Loren

Sophia Loren famous for saying: “I’d much rather eat pasta and drink wine than be a size 0.”

necessarily embrace fuller figured women – more just thin women with large breasts and hips. Slim thicc as we might refer to them today! What is interesting to note is that they were legitimately adverts for weight gain pills so women could get a more curvier body.
However, with curves at the forefront of everyone’s mind in the 1950s, plus size women could benefit from the fashion trends – which flattered their typically hourglass shapes. Dior’s iconic ‘New Look’ was all the rage during this time and so women wore dresses which pinched at the waist with full skirts. This flattered plus size women’s body shape – despite the fact the women in the catalogues aren’t plus size at all!

Plus Size Fashion in 1960s

Just when plus size girls were having their moment again – the 1960s come around and it’s back to being slim! From the perfect hourglass figure to slim, toned bodies, the 1960s were a tough time for plus size clothing. Short, shift-style dresses were made popular by supermodel, Twiggy, who was celebrated for her thin frame.

However, despite the body ideal changing to slim women in the 60s, revolution was in the air. Around the world, women banded together to fight weight bias and discrimination in the fat acceptance movement. Fat activists in New York decided to hold a ‘Fat-in’ where they ate ice cream and burnt posters of Twiggy. They also met to to stage plus size fashion shows and raise funds to promote awareness of fat issues.

And the idolisation of slim bodies continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s – where being toned and athletic was the ideal. The hair may have been big but bodies certainly weren’t! Look at Farrah Fawcett, Jane Fonda and supermodels like Naomi Campbell – they were tall, fit and sporty, the perfect body shape for this time.

At one point during the 1970s, plus size women’s clothing was actually labeled ‘Queen size’ – which I kind of like! However, the term ‘plus size’ stuck with 1970s women replicating the 70s fashion in bigger forms. Stores like Lane Bryant were majorly successful at the time, with numerous stores popping up around the USA. Also, the brand, Marina Rinaldi, was launched in 1980 – being one of the very first high-end retailers for plus-size women.

Throwing back to the 60s, in the 1990s, ‘the waif look’ emerged again in the fashion world. Most notably by Kate Moss who was just 5ft7 and weighed 105 pounds during the 90s. It was an era all about thinness and the fashion reflected this preference. Oversized and loose silhouettes emphasised a slim physique by swamping the body in material – a look not so flattering for plus size women at the time.

An interesting note is that while slim was the way to go in the 1990s, Jean Paul Gaultier brought back plus size by using model, Stella Ellis in his show. She actually became his muse and allowed the fat body to have a bit of the spotlight.

Plus Size Fashion in 2000s

Since the 1990s, we have definitely seen more average sized and plus-size women gracing our magazine covers and TV screens. Despite the millennium bringing us Victoria Secret models like Gisele Bündchen, we have seen the rise in body positivity throughout the 2000s and up to now. People of all shapes and sizes are being embraced from Tess Holliday to Gabourey Sidibe and many more fantastic plus size women.

While we are still far from embracing all bodies as being good bodies, the 2000s has seen a lot more size diversity in the fashion industry. Clothing retailers have also started to realise the huge market for plus size clothing and are making moves to fill that gap.

I wonder what the next ten or one hundred years will have in store for us? Will we ever get to a point where fat bodies are the accepted norm again? Or will it remain thin forever? Let me know what you think!

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