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The Figure Flattery Farce: Response to Tim Gunn

The Figure Flattery Farce: Response to Tim Gunn

By now, a lot of intelligent commentary has been published about Tim Gunn’s well-meaning but slightly tone-deaf Washington Post op-ed titled “Designers refuse to make clothes to fit American women. It’s a disgrace.” However, as the plus-size wars rage on with no sartorial truce in sight, I think that we can dedicate several hundred more words to unpacking this discursive minefield, as well as to exploring these debates with the privilege of hindsight and with fashion history in our rearview mirrors.

Published on the eve of New York Fashion Week—an occasion that always serves to remind us of just how far fashion still has to go—Gunn’s piece dusts off some cold hard facts about the inequity of American ready to wear, which while enduringly shocking are hardly new. Citing a 2016 study coauthored by Deborah Christel and Susan C. Dunn of Washington State University, Gunn explains that while the average American woman now wears between a size 16 and 18, the cutoff point for standard sizes stubbornly remains a size 14. In spite of these facts, it is not, however, as if the fashion industry decided to relegate millions of average women to the purgatory of plus-size overnight (and it should be stated that Christel and Dunn do not make such a claim). Indeed, fashion’s marginalization of fat, female consumers through the powerful normalizing mechanism that is standard sizing has deep roots.

Back around the turn of the twentieth century when plus-size fashion was known as stoutwear (and movies with sound were known as talkies), the enterprising pioneers of large-size garment manufacturing made similar claims, observing that the new ready-made garments did not fit fully one-third of the female population whose bodily measurements exceeded the crude standards of America’s primordial sizing systems. [1] Long story short, fat women were neglected by the fashion industry long before our very contemporary concerns about obesity. [2] As long as there have been ways to standardize and to normativize the body, there has been fat stigma.

Nevertheless—and rightly so—these new findings ruffle Gunn’s plumage. His ire, however, is oh-so-slightly misdirected. Citing data that suggest that plus-size women are outspending their slender counterparts for the third year running, Gunn explains that there is clearly money to be made here, “But many designers—dripping with disdain, lacking imagination or simply too cowardly to take a risk— still refuse to make clothes for them.”

Oh, Tim. No.

Well, not entirely no.

Certainly, many straight-size designers and manufacturers still “drip with disdain” as Gunn suggests, with the most recent instance of sizeism being the pulling of plus-size lines from H&M’s New York stores (even as the rest of the company espouses size acceptance in its AW 2016 ad campaigns). However, even as anti-fat stigma still plagues American ready-to-wear, the tides have begun to turn, and for the better. As a few plus-size fashion startups have employed fresh sizing systems and on-demand production technologies to finally address the problem of fit, a number of online retailers from ASOS to Eloquii have stepped up to the fashion plate, so to speak, by creating garments that rival even the trendiest (and most disposable) of fast fashions.

This is “big fashion’s” kneejerk response to the plus-size problem. But honestly, are we really surprised anymore by news about the fashion industry’s neglect of and responses to non-normative bodies at this point? Indeed, by focusing on such a hackneyed debate, Gunn misses an opportunity to cast light on the positive developments of the last few years. Up there on his soapbox, what Tim Gunn fails to see are the smaller, but more truly revolutionary strides that have been made by individuals rooting out the causes of size inequity, as well as those who are endeavoring to disrupt the deeply entrenched conventions of plus-size fashion design.

Among them, it seems that fashion design schools are finally addressing and amending the fact that design pedagogy has long perpetuated the size-zero standard. Spurred to action by a group of enlightened students who waged a successful grassroots campaign last spring, Parsons School of Design will unveil a gaggle of new plus-size dress forms this fall—a vast improvement over the solitary size 22 that the university had long reserved for student use.  Similarly, two Cornell students designed an anatomically-correct plus-size dress form, which accurately reflects the proportions of a size 24, “pear-shaped” woman, and is based on the data culled from hundreds of 3D body scans of real women. Although this utilitarian dress form may seem quite mundane at first glance, it is incredibly revolutionary in that it represents a first attempt to revise the standard hourglass-shaped pattern blocks from which so many plus-size garments are graded, and which have no relationship to real bodies, but have gone unchanged since at least 1915. [3] 

The elephant in the room here is “figure flattery”: a notion that obfuscates what is a form of sartorial moralism, which claims that in dressing the body, women should aspire to appear as tall and as hourglass-shaped as possible.

And then there is the success story of Ashley Nell Tipton, the first contestant to win Project Runway designing only plus-size garments. As a dear friend said to me once, Tipton is “funky, fun, and fat!” as too were her designs. Rendered in muddy and fashionably ugly pastels reminiscent of Biba, Tipton’s collection broke many of the rules of plus-size dressing by daring to reveal slices of fat midriff and embracing the sheer-skirt-granny-panty trend—effectively denying the male gaze in an act of sartorial “man repelling.”

While Tipton was a clear audience favorite, Tim Gunn, however, spent most of the season clutching his pearls over her fearless (and fat) designs, and in the Washington Post piece, Gunn yet again revels in the opportunity to remind us how god-awful he found her collection:

Ashley Nell Tipton won the contest with the show’s first plus-size collection. But even this achievement managed to come off as condescending. I’ve never seen such hideous clothes in my life: bare midriffs; skirts over crinoline, which give the clothes, and the wearer, more volume; see-through skirts that reveal panties; pastels, which tend to make the wearer look juvenile; and large-scale floral embellishments that shout “prom.” Her victory reeked of tokenism. One judge told me that she was “voting for the symbol” and that these were clothes for a “certain population.” I said they should be clothes all women want to wear. I wouldn’t dream of letting any woman, whether she’s a size 6 or a 16, wear them. A nod toward inclusiveness is not enough.

Again, you’ve gotta hand it to Gunn for using his powerful position to stand up for the everywoman; however, his comments do not simply boil down to a matter of taste (not even to mention the fact that this brand of no-holds-barred critique seems entirely out of character for the fiercely supportive mentor). Rather, his criticisms function to reify more than a century of sanctimonious discourse around plus-size dress, and moreover, what the primary goal of dressing the fat body should be.

The elephant in the room here is “figure flattery”: a notion that obfuscates what is a form of sartorial moralism, which claims that in dressing the body, women should aspire to appear as tall and as hourglass-shaped as possible. A picture of perfect femininity.

Indeed, through his incessant griping about the hideousness of Tipton’s garments, Gunn shows his age somewhat by misconstruing a truly empowered, dare I say feminist approach to fashioning the fat body as “bad” just because it does not pander to the stale rules about dressing to look slender—a manner of dressing which, it could be argued, implicitly caters to the male gaze.

As I’ve mentioned several times already, however, Tim Gunn’s heart was in the right place in opening up a dialogue about plus-size fashion, which itself has sparked some very brilliant criticisms and debates. It is therefore best to end on a positive note by giving our always cheery mentor the last word. Again lamenting big firms’ inability and unwillingness to cater to plus-size women, Gunn, simply and quite rightly concludes by stating, “This is now the shape of women in this nation, and designers need to wrap their minds around it.”

Indeed, in spite of everything, this, I think, I can get behind.


[1] I explore the emergence of the stoutwear industry in my doctoral dissertation, which I am finalizing (expected Spring 2018) at the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University  

[2] I should stress that the term fat is not being used pejoratively here. Rather, fat activists have reclaimed the term as a neutral descriptor, preferring it to terms such as curvy or obese, which they point out are cultural constructs. As such, scholars writing about issues of identity and embodiment (and here, fashion) have increasingly come to embrace the term. However, with the size acceptance movement, fat has also caught on more widely (e.g. fatshionistas).

[3] Albert Malsin, husband of Lane Brant (née Lena Bryant), was one early large-size garment pioneer who observed that the proportions of stout women differed from those of their standard-size counterparts, and his findings have gone largely unchanged over the past century. I speak about this more in my forthcoming dissertation.

(Illustrations by Mike Thompson.

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