Yes babe, our lives were different 50, 60 and 70 years ago; but bigger bodies weren't invented in the 90s.
One of the main questions we get asked regularly is 'AE babe, when are you going to stock larger sizes for bigger bodies?' or 'do you hate us?'
Our answer is always the same; finding larger sizes in vintage for bigger bodies is like finding a gold needle in a haystack. Sometimes people think we're telling all the lies in all of the land or there is some kind of unconscious bias over smaller sizes, but babe the truth is we genuinely ask every single specialist we work with to keep the plus size vintage for us!
This five part series is dedicated to answering the following questions: how has vintage clothing shown up in the world today, why has it shown up like that & how can we fill in the gaps for a better, brighter and more inclusive future.
So, in the vintage history of fashion design were there no such thing as the plus size human or are there other factors at play? If that is true, what is this unexplained weight gain experienced in us all? Strap in babe, zoom zoom, we're about to take a look at historical fashion, what was going on during that time and how it has influenced plus size vintage.
So, there are three things to consider when tackling the question around size inclusion in historical fashion; the lifestyle, systemic issues and clothing durability. Yes we get you, this sounds political as hell and there are roots of feminism in the background but you need to stick with us so we can navigate away an angry, finger pointing viewpoint & venture into a new realm of AE era that fills in the gaps of celebrates and cheeky, silly movement that exists within us all.
A VINTAGE LIFESTYLE
Firstly, the lifestyles of people who lived in the 20th century is vastly different from the 21st century. 100 years ago the average sized waist was 25 inches and now it's 32 inches. The introduction of technology and miss world wide web has meant that our working lifestyles have become much more stationary and the convenience of technology has meant we have become used to an increased pace of life and instant gratification, meaning quick fix convenience foods have cemented themselves firmly.
But there's more..
One thing we did find incredibly intriguing when doing this research though is that there is no evidence to suggest that we eat more, that the decline in manual labour has anything to do with weight gain & that we exercise less. In fact, we ate more 50 years ago than we do today (average kcal 2500 to 2100 today), you are four times more likely to be classified as morbidly obese if you do a manual labour job & we exercise the same amount as we did fifty years ago. There is also no difference between calories burnt in rich countries vs calories burnt in poor countries where agriculture and farming remain the norm.
So what's changed?
What has changed though is the monitoring of what we consume. Food data wasn't invented until 1976 and since then, companies have monitored the findings and have found that sugar bypasses our natural systems, meaning by inserting more sugar into the diet, we will need to eat more. Like those old fashioned weighing scales with two sides, they've used sugar and subliminal scents to override our bodies willpower and tippled us over into 'I can't resist this'. They've marketed sugar through the lens of convenience and healthy via 'light' products. However removing the fat or other filling nutrients and replacing with sugar means we actually need to eat more & of course, these food companies know that. Interesting right?
Yes, we ate more in 1976, but differently. Today, we buy half as much fresh milk per person, but five times more yoghurt, three times more ice cream and – wait for it – 39 times as many dairy desserts. We buy half as many eggs as in 1976, but a third more breakfast cereals and twice the cereal snacks; half the total potatoes, but three times the crisps. It's this change that has triggered a change in body trend, more geared towards a curvy physique, different from vintage eras.
In a time where food wasn't as accessible for everyone, weight was a class issue. To be of a larger size was considered a symbol of status, privilege and wealth and an ode to the fact you could afford food regularly. Once people started gaining access to food on a more frequent basis, the roles reversed and fatness was positioned and politicised as laziness.
The early 1900s really expose the whole ass universe to the fatphobia that exists within the world that we know it today. Why? well let's break it down.
I'm a little teapot, short and stout
In 1915, 'stoutwear' became a new product category and popularised term among some fashion brands. This focused on the fuller woman, although even then a lot of the focus was more of slimming the woman as opposed to celebrating it. Men were often excluded from the conversations in fashion as it wasn't socially acceptable for them to be into it.
Plus size categories were moved into different departments as brands discovered larger women preferred to shop separately due to body confidence issues against their slimmer counterparts. They chose to segregate 'stout' women for profit rather than celebrate and increase their confidence. How cute.
Trends only last so long
The trend, which is what it was, of catering to the fuller woman soon vanished by the 1940s as America's attention turned to becoming global superpowers within the fashion industry. They decided that America's fashionista would be tall, athletic and well rounded and unfortunately, investment in creating great clothes for women who didn’t fit into those categories fell by the wayside. Even when retailers did sell clothes in plus sizes, the illustrations and representation didn’t realistically portray the women they were selling to, or the language used bordered on offensive. The only stoutwear that existed during this period was in the form of 'chubby patterns' but this catered to young girls and teens. This would continue for almost 30 years until the 1980s.
PLUS SIZE CLOTHING DURABILITY
To wrap this article up in a cute little bow, the final thing we must discuss is clothing durability and the influence systemic fatphobia would have had on the fuller human.
Why so unattractive boo?
Because of Miss America dictating the American woman, the time spent on developing exciting and satisfying product for the fuller woman dwindled. This resulted in the small amount of plus size clothing being made to be unattractive and unflattering. If you live in a society that isn't catering to your body type and aesthetic, the only thing left to do is to make clothing for yourself.
This however is time consuming and women had a varying skill when it came to garment making, meaning they wouldn't have been made in high quantities or they wouldn't have been of quality to last the test of time, On top of this, the vintage eras are not like the fast fashion consumption we see today. Instead these eras were in the generation of hand me downs. If there was no other plus size woman in a family, the plus size clothing would often be downsized to get further wear out of it.
Societies depiction of bigger bodies in vintage eras has meant their relationship with fashion has often been skewed. Let's face it, If you’re coming up in a time where you’re told your body is not fashionable or you can’t find nice clothes to buy because brands aren’t making clothes for you, are you really going to keep your clothes?
Because of the stigma's attached to plus size clothing, there is something known as 'survival bias' which means when vintage clothing is being picked to be showcased in museums or exhibitions, straight size clothing is subconsciously favoured. Not only that, when vintage stores are selecting clothing, their bias is subconsciously favouring smaller sizes and disregarding the larger ones, meaning often times they were more likely to end up in landfill.
So there you have it babe, the three things that have affected vintage sizes are:
1) the comparable sizing between a modern world today vs 50, 60 and 70 years ago thanks to the hijacking of food data by food companies
2) Systemic Fatphobia. America categorised their fashion woman as somebody athletic, tall and intelligent leaving everybody else out
3) Plus size durability. Because the industry wasn't paying attention to plus size people there was limited supply, it was unflattering or people had to make their own producing questionable results. That on top of survival bias, the poor relationship to their clothing & a generation of reworking clothes as hand me downs meant that the smallest percentage of plus size vintage survived
So where does that leave our relationship with vintage?
It seems weird that we are writing a blog series exposing vintage right? It's so annoying to have such a love for what was going on in the fashion industry from a quality, innovation and sustainability perspective, but it's bitter sweet to know that the people we advocate for were never ever considered, or were an after thought and these prejudices filter into the clothing we deal with
Vintage will always be a part of our legacy because it's the staple personalisation tool, but it's important that we find new ways of championing bigger bodies and eradicating stereotypes and phobia surrounding them with products and experiences that are designed specifically for that. It's unfortunate that vintage can't do the job fully (especially from a sustainability perspective) but its important we are involved in ensuring the vintage in 30 years doesn't have the same prejudices.
Until next time,