Queering Fat Embodiment excerpt: on fat fashion

I was recently invited to participate in the social media book tour for the new anthology Queering Fat Embodiment, edited by Cat Pausé, Jackie Wykes and Samantha Murray. QFE is, according to its Amazon page, “the first book to focus on the intersection of queer studies and fat studies, and promises to be a classic in its field. What could be more exciting than discussions of fat and queer fashion, desire, performance, cyberspace, and politics, as well as the fluidity of gender identity, bodies, and sexuality?”

I’m excited that QFE is exploring all of these topics, especially my beloved fatshion. Below is an excerpt from the chapter “Fashion’s ‘Forgotten Woman’: How fat bodies queer fashion and consumption,” by Margitte Krisjansson (paragraph breaks added by me):

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States saw the birth of the department store and the growth of the ‘ready-to-wear’ fashion industry (Leach 1984). A history of ready-to-wear fashion in America made specifically for fat women can be traced to Lithuanian immigrant Lena Bryant, who, in the 1920s, turned her maternity-wear line into a clothing company for ‘stout’ women, the first of its kind (Clifford 2010). Today, Lane Bryant is one of the most prominent and prolific plus-size retailers in the country.

The plus-size market has seen growth above and beyond the fashion industry at large, and events such as Full Figured Fashion Week in New York City are gaining in popularity (ibid). Online, a transnational movement of fat fashion bloggers has sparked a mini-frenzy of media attention and body-positive activism (Cochran 2010). ‘If the personal is political’, writes social commentator Erin Keating, ‘than being able to find clothes that fit and make you feel good is a political plus’ (quoted in Lebesco 2004: 72). In an industry where the fat fashionista has been called the ‘forgotten woman’ – a plus-size store with this name existed in New York in the 1980s – the possibilities for her today seem much improved.

However, as many fat fashion bloggers are quick to point out, the physical and economic accessibility of fashionable clothing for fat women is still a major issue, and it continues to bring many young and dissatisfied people into the fold of fat- and body-positive activism. Fat fashion, asserts fat studies scholar Kathleen Lebesco, has the capacity to be ‘revolutionary’: when fat women ‘disdain “blending in” in favour of cobbling together a look from the scattered resources available and becoming more brave about appearing in ways that defy the “tasteful” intentions of the commodities of corpulence’ they subvert cultural norms about what it means to be fat (2004: 73). Unequal access to fat-sized fashion is a well-documented and long-term phenomenon (Klemesrud 1969, Riggs 1983, Feuer 1999, Adam 2001, Lebesco 2004, Kinzel 2012).

Even now, after several decades of fat-positive activism and consumer interest fuelling the creation of more fat fashion, clothing in larger sizes is not nearly as accessible as ‘straight-sized’ clothing, in terms of quantity as well as quality. As such, today’s fa(t)shionistas have
developed their own ways to engage with fashion when the industry refuses to recognise them as viable customers. This has manifested itself in hundreds of fatshion blogs, community-building events such as fat-only clothing swaps, online fatshion-centred communities and forums, independent fat-positive fashion shows, and the creation of zines and even documentaries cataloguing render their bodies visible via the fashion that they consume.

Used by permission of the Publishers from ‘Fashion’s ‘Forgotten Woman’: How fat bodies queer fashion and consumption’, in Queering Fat Embodiment eds. Cat Pausé, Jackie Wykes and SamanthaMurray (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), pp. 134. Copyright © 2014

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