Clothing & Size
Sommer Green, Jay Miranda, Lauren Downing Peters and Marcy Guevara-Prete in conversation with Rachel Kinnard.
This interview is based on a transcript of the conversation recorded on August 20, 2017. It has been edited and condensed by Rachel Kinnard.
Sommer Green is a Los Angeles native who has been a plus size model and fashion show producer for over 10 years.
For Jay Miranda, blogging is a creative outlet which became a pathway to creative entrepreneurship. She works as a writer and brand consultant. Her interests include memes, raising body-positive girls, and style as storytelling. She lives with her husband and daughter in Claremont, Calif.
Lauren Downing Peters is a PhD Student at the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University. Prior to beginning her PhD, she was among the first cohort to complete the MA Fashion Studies at Parsons School of Design. Her research has been published in a number of academic journals, including Fashion Theory, Fashion Practice, Textile History and the Journal of Curatorial Studies. She splits her time between New York and Stockholm and has a one-eyed cat named Lemon.
Marcy Guevara-Prete is a producer, host, and plus-size style expert helping women of all sizes feel amazing in the skin they're in. She has appeared on Lane Bryant Fashion TV, Rachael Ray, The Dr. Oz Show and Hallmark's Home and Family. Most recently, Marcy was a guest host on The Real and was featured on Oprah.com.
Let’s begin by defining some terminology and perhaps giving some history to the terms we use today. What does the term ‘plus size’ mean to each of you?
MARCY GUEVARA-PRETE: It’s an easy way to find my clothes. If I go to ASOS.com, I look for the plus size link and I know it will lead me where I need to go. I find it helpful. I’m totally okay with it. I know some people have trouble with it, but it is what it is.
SOMMER GREEN: Plus size is a category. It’s not defining an individual person if they are bad or good, healthy or unhealthy. It’s just a category. That’s how I see the term. I don’t see anything negative about it at all.
JAY MIRANDA: Plus size exists because all clothes aren’t available in a more expansive size range. Because we’re unable to just go into any shop and find something that fits us, we have to look in the plus size sections. You are plus size if you shop plus size brands. It’s a designator for the size that you wear. I know that there are a lot of different opinions about whether people should label themselves as plus size or not, but I don’t see it as a negative.
LAUREN DOWNING PETERS: Plus size is a way to classify a category of clothing. Just as you would classify juniors, misses, or children sized clothing. It’s whenever we refer to bodies as plus size that people get upset. It’s calling attention to a difference that nobody wants to talk about. It calls attention to the fact that you’re ostracized from the fashion industry. The terms themselves aren’t bad. It’s the baggage that comes along with them. My research is looking at the early 20th century and the very early history of plus size fashion. In 1915, we weren’t calling it plus size fashion. That term didn’t come into use until the ‘80s really. In 1915, it was referred to as 'stout wear,' and the woman was referred to as a 'stout woman.' But, those weren’t neutral terms in their time, either. If you look back in fashion media, like WWD and industry trade journals, people were actively debating what to call these women. They had advertisers and marketers who were very conscious about the fact that women didn’t want to be called ‘stout.’ They were actively discussing, “should we call them stout?” 'Avoirdupois' was a really popular term, to French-ify large size dress. It will always be contentious as long as there are separate categories.
JAY: There has been a wave of women who have adopted the term either 'plus size,' or 'fat'. There’s an overlap between plus size fashion and what is body positive, or fat positive. People approach that subject from really different vantage points. Some people would say, “If there is a stigma, it’s about how you feel about my body. Not necessarily how I feel about my body.”
SOMMER: Speaking as a plus size model, if there wasn’t a plus size fashion category, I wouldn’t be able to model. I have always been plus size. That is my size. I shop at a plus size store. Plus size was with me at my healthiest weight, playing collegiate sports. Some of the models we see in plus size fashion do not live a plus size experience. They’ve never walked that path. So, when they hear plus size, they don’t want to be put in that category. I feel like it’s a slap in the face for those of us who’ve lived this life the whole time, we shop in those stores.
LAUREN: There’s this constant problem with reality versus what we see. The average plus size model is between a standard size 8 and a standard size 12, but plus size begins at size 14. There was a study that just came out of the University of Washington, which says that the average woman in the United States is a size 16. That is average. She’s not on the far end of the continuum; this is an average woman in the middle of America, who is going into a JC Penney to go shopping.
There’s this popular idea that plus size models are just failed standard size models. Plus size models work incredibly hard on their bodies. - Lauren Downing Peters
MARCY: What is this plus sized body that’s being used for modeling and what does the average woman’s body, really look like? The average woman doesn’t look like Ashley Graham or we all would have a lot more money! I feel like a lot of models that are plus are still that typical standard.
LAUREN: Plus size models like Ashley Graham have curves in all the right places. Their bodies are completely disciplined. There’s this popular idea that plus size models are just failed standard size models. Plus size models work incredibly hard on their bodies. They are also just incredibly genetically gifted. They have these tiny waists and cut jaw lines. They are amazons, like 6 feet tall. They are not what average women in the United States looks like.
JAY: When you have a model like that, who becomes the face of something like body positivity, where are you challenging beauty norms? It seems like in a lot of those cases, all the other beauty norms are checked off. Like you have the tiny waist and you have a really defined jaw.
SOMMER: I think it gets even crazier when you look at it from a model’s standpoint. We see everything that you see, but then we also see the other side of it. I see where their bodies are padded. We talk amongst ourselves, “I didn’t get that job, but this person did. I was told I was too large but you just padded her up to my size.” To be honest, a lot of them really aren’t genetically gifted either. Let’s say you’re shopping for a great suit or an evening gown. You buy a larger size and get it tailored to fit perfectly. Everyone is trying to fit into this perfect mold that really doesn’t exist. It’s not there.
Can each of you tell us when and how you began engaging in plus size fashion online? What brought you to this space?
SOMMER: I was an athlete. I had absolutely no background in fashion at all. My goal in life was to make it to the Olympics. I had a really bad shoulder injury. I have a fully reconstructed shoulder. I tried to find a different passion in life. Someone walked down the street and said, “Hey, you should be a plus size model.” I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t know anything about fashion. But then I took pictures and saw myself in a whole other light. My whole family is smaller than me. I was literally the amazon all the time. When I had a chance to take some pictures and saw myself in a different light, it opened up doors. It wasn’t something that I planned or wanted, but it increased my self-esteem greatly. Plus size fashion has really, really helped me grow. And I’ve met people like Marcy, who have given me chances. And I’m still going ten years later, which is pretty remarkable.
JAY: I started fashion blogging around 2009 when a lot of the early plus size fashion bloggers started. I actually knew a lot of those women from the Fatshionista LiveJournal community. There were a couple really prominent fashion communities, but there was nothing in them that really spoke to a plus size woman, or women who are interested in fashion, but were plus size. But Fatshionista was that space. That’s where I met GabiFresh, and she said, “You should really start a blog.” I was like, “Really? okay.” And so, I did. It became a place to catalogue my outfits and my style, and engage women who were like me, or who were shopping at places where I shopped, and gaining inspiration from each other. That period of my life sort of overlapped with me being exposed to a lot of the ideas about body acceptance, which then turned into body positivity. But, for me, it was a very personal kind of experience with getting over this idea of, “Your body is not being enough.” That was adopting this idea of, “I can be beautiful,” and dressing beautifully, and what that meant, and maybe having that being a way of resisting the cultural idea that you weren’t.
Yes, give me some fashion! It doesn’t have to be, “Oh, look, you’re so proud to be plus. I’m going to give you a cute top hat, and the matching bra and panty set, and we’re going to throw some lace around it, and voila.” - Sommer Green
LAUREN: I had a professor ask [my class] to share a moment in which we became aware of our dressed bodies. [My classmates] were sharing clothing mishaps where seams split or they spilled something on themselves before an important talk. I thought about the fact that I’m six feet tall and I have these crazy long legs. I always had a hard time finding inseams that were long enough. That was the seed that made me really interested in the relationship between dress and the body, and how fashion can shape our self-image and the way that we fashion ourselves. This was right around 2010, when people like Jay, and GabiFresh, and Nicolette Mason were blogging and were really beginning to blow up. I got really interested in plus size fashion because there were a lot of interesting discussions going on between dissenting voices coming from the Fatosphere. They were talking about the problems in plus size fashion and all these fashion publications that were suddenly publishing plus size fashion spreads.
I wrote my master’s thesis on plus size fashion bloggers and people that were working within the field of fashion and were navigating a fashionable identity with this stigma in this industry that was a tense scene where they’re forcibly trying to exclude them. I was going to continue working along this contemporary sociological bent, but specifically looking at how fat activists have used clothing in their activist projects and things from the ‘60s until today. But, in doing that initial research for my PhD, I realized that there was this completely untold history of early plus size fashion that nobody had written about. That led me on this current path where I’m writing about this really narrow period between 1915 and 1931, whenever the plus size fashion industry as we know it today really came into being.
The history that I’m writing really intersects with the history of standard sizing, modernism, and the ready-to-wear industry in the United States. It’s also about where body ideals and beauty ideals come from as well. I’m looking at how, on the one hand, it’s a history of early plus size fashion. But, on the other hand, it’s how the language that we use to talk about bodies within fashion discourse actually gives shape to these bodies themselves. How does plus size fashion create plus size bodies? And how does stout fashion create stout bodies as well?
When you open Glamour and there are five hot trends for fall and one of the models happens to be plus, that looks normal because that’s what our world looks like. - Marcy Guevara Prete
Can we discuss some examples that you think are positive or negative depictions of body diversity in mainstream media?
MARCY: The Vogue March 2017 issue, with all the top models and Ashley Graham featured on the cover. That was a positive example because Ashley was there. It didn’t matter where her hand was or how side posed her body was. She was there on the cover of Vogue. The positive examples that I see are just including plus size models. When you open Glamour and there are five hot trends for fall and one of the models happens to be plus, that looks normal because that’s what our world looks like. And the brand Good American, that is huge! Khloe Kardashian is a superstar who can make a line that only has size 2 and people would probably talk shit, but it wouldn’t matter. She can do what she wants. She’s an icon. For her line to be size inclusive has set an amazing precedent and I hope others will follow. It’s tight ripped jeans and see-through body suits and every piece in the line comes in all the sizes. I think that is major!
JAY: I’m really inspired by bloggers and by the style they share on their own pages. It’s really empowering to become your own publisher and put yourself out there. That’s where I see the most positive depictions of plus size style, plus size women, and body positive expressions. There’s a direct connection between what those women are doing and the rise of the term body positive. I remember when Gabi Gregg posted herself in a bikini when no one had ever done that. It got such a big response, was shared on sites with mega platforms and led to changes in the plus-size swimwear industry. Those depictions are good, but, sometimes, that work is reposted with sensationalized headlines.
LAUREN: I wrote a paper about the two ways that plus size models were depicted in the media around 2010 to 2012. One way was Terry Richardson photographing Crystal Renn eating cheeseburgers and spaghetti. That spread was playing into the stereotypes about obesity that were winking at high fashion in a sense, but highly problematic and highly charged, especially considering the Vogue audience and who’s consuming these images.
The second way plus size models were depicted at this time was naked. They were objectively very beautiful images that were tapping into a canon of image making that comes from the history of art. They were posing as these reclining nudes with incredibly voluptuous, sensuous curves. They have these ‘Reubenesque’ bodies, as they say. In a sense there’s something powerful about putting beautiful fat bodies out into the public consciousness, because it’s a lot better than what the fat activists call the ‘headless fatty phenomenon.’ That is, photos of obese people taken without their consent from behind, with their heads cut off. If you watch any mainstream news program, talking about the obesity epidemic, they always have this image of a fat person photographed unaware from behind. It strips them of their identity, which turns them into an object of the obesity epidemic, rather than a human being.
It’s time to dress plus-size bodies. It’s time to put these models in clothes. I think the point has been made. We’ve been bludgeoned for 10 years with these beautiful, naked, plus-size bodies. Where’s the fashion? I feel the same way about Ashley Graham’s New York Magazine cover. On one hand, great for her that she has the cover and the pictures themselves are amazing. But she’s been transformed into this cliché 1950’s pinup, instead of actually wearing good fashion. In one of the pictures, she’s just wearing Spanx, a cardigan, and a ratty wig. I don’t see that as progress.
SOMMER: Yes, give me some fashion! It doesn’t have to be, “Oh, look, you’re so proud to be plus. I’m going to give you a cute top hat, and the matching bra and panty set, and we’re going to throw some lace around it, and voila.” No, give me a structured suit. I’m just still dying for an amazing pantsuit that is structured and is tailored amazingly. I want that without me having to go find a tailor to make it for me, custom made. I would like to go into the store, like anyone else and be able to purchase that.
There’s still this idea of, “but, do they really want fashion?” Because, there’s that idea of all plus-size women see themselves as a body in transition. - Jay Miranda
Lauren: The stigma that manifests within the industry begins at fashion schools. I was doing a panel discussion at Parsons on plus-sized fashion and it was great. Everybody on the panel is speaking the same language and it was very celebratory and great. Then this professor stands up, an older man in his mid-fifties, white with a gray ponytail, and he asks, “But what about health? Should we be teaching students how to design for curvy fashion, because that’s projecting unhealthy body ideals and obesity…what about obesity?”
We all know that American History textbooks are political, but so too are fashion textbooks. These are incredibly political institutions. This guy’s been teaching at Parsons since probably the ‘70s and he has these ideas. If a student who comes in and says, “I’m going to create a plus-size line,” do you think he has the resources to teach her? Do you think he’s going to be sympathetic to helping her find the resources to create that line at all?
JAY: A lot of plus-size women are saying, “We’re just going to do it ourselves.” There’s no one else doing it. Premme is a great example, especially because Nicolette and Gabi’s platforms are huge and the line is so successful. There’s still this idea of, “but, do they really want fashion?” Because, there’s that idea of all plus-size women see themselves as a body in transition. But, then you have Premme drop and immediately sell out. There is demand and there’s an incredible market and what’s cool is that a lot of women who are our size are looking at that as an opportunity. It seems like some European designers have the edge on the luxury plus size market. If you look at Navabi or Marina Rinaldi, these brands are overseas, but there are luxury plus size fashion labels.
LAUREN: There was this really great store called The Forgotten Woman, which was open from the mid-‘80s to the very early ‘90s, during the initial plus-size renaissance. Nancye Radmin, an Upper East Side socialite, owned the store. She went to her husband and was, like, “I need money to start a store, there’s a demand for plus size. I want the fur jackets. I want designer Chanel suits.” She opened up this boutique on the Upper East Side. She went to the Paris fashion shows and forged relationships with these high-fashion designers. She would have custom Chanel suits made, a range of 10 or something and then she would then sell them in her store. There were all these plus size diffusion lines in the ‘80s that she sold in her store. She ended up having, like, 17 branches during its high point. It ended up shutting down in the ‘90s, around the same time that all of these plus size fashion magazines also shut down. There was this moment where plus size went high fashion.
MARCY: The models from the ‘80s look very different from the girls from the ‘90s. Maybe that was correlated somehow?
LAUREN: 1980’s fashion was more generous and a lot more androgynous, so I think that there was literally more room for large women in that period. If you look at the photos from that era, everybody kind of looked the same in the really flowing, generous very Italian silhouettes. And then the ‘90s came and fashion became much more body conscious. In the early period of the ‘20s, the look was a very streamline, tubular silhouette that was bookended by the 19th century hourglass silhouette on the one end, and then the 1930's you had these Hollywood starlets wearing these bias-cut dresses by Vionnet. The 1920's was an era that was at once the emergence of this very thin flapper body, but it was also a period that fashion made more room for large bodies just because these dresses were a lot easier to make. I think that’s why there was the initial plus size fashion industry—they realized it was cheap and cost effective to make larger clothing in the current fashionable silhouette.
At the first Clothing & _____ event, Clothing & Race, we discussed whether fashion could truly be diverse. What are your thoughts? What’s the future of body positivity and plus size visibility?
SOMMER: The new season of Project Runway is size inclusive and I’m really excited about that. They’ve had their ‘real woman challenge’ in the past, but to be size inclusive for the entire season is a major stride.
LAUREN: I’m quiet down here because I think the current burst of plus size visibility is a trend. I’ve seen this happen in the early 1920's and again in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Forever 21 and all the plus-size brands are going to continue on and keep doing their thing, but in terms of the fashion industry’s interest in the plus-size woman? I think it’s nearing its end. There’s so much interesting stuff happening from the grass-roots level in terms of people making these really interesting interventions. But you still don’t see a sustained interest from the mainstream fashion industry. You don’t see the big designers like Michael Kors actually embracing the plus size customer in a meaningful way. Where is the expensive fashion? Where are the well-made clothes?
There are bigger sociological reasons why these women perhaps aren’t spending money on luxury clothing. To an extent I think we’re placing too much responsibility on the fashion industry as well the woman who’s supposed to be spending money. We have the body positivity movements that are saying “you’re beautiful,” “treat yourself,” “self-care,” “buy beautiful things,” “you deserve it,” “your body is wonderful.” But what are the messages that are being pounded into women’s heads in every other facet of the media, every single day? It’s that their bodies aren’t good enough, that fat is bad, that fat is unhealthy.
Jay made a really great point about the fat body as a body in transition. It’s either a body that’s becoming fatter or it’s one that’s supposed to be losing weight. Is the average woman going to invest $600 in a leather jacket when everyone is telling her that she’s supposed to be losing weight? We’re all aspiring to let that thin woman out that’s inside of us. How are you supposed to be investing in great clothes if you believe that your body is flawed?
Photography: Rachael Pena
Clothing & _____, 2017.