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“She’s more...” the tailor hesitated, scanning my thighs, hips, and stomach as I stood in the middle of her living room in just my underwear.
My aunt quickly glanced at my face and, without missing a beat, swooped in with a joke: “More beautiful than her mom? I’ll tell her.” But the tailor wasn’t discouraged.
“I was going to say, she’s bigger than her mom,” she explained, as though everyone in the room couldn’t already predict what she was going to say.
Unsure of how to correctly respond (is there a correct response?), and especially because this was my first appointment with this particular tailor, I forced a smile and coolly asked, “Should I just undress here?”
I changed into one of the dresses that I had brought along to be hemmed — a tie-dye maxi piece that had made me feel like I should be strolling along some Greek beach when I first bought it. But now, the dress just made me aware that it was loose-fitting and, from certain angles, made me seem much bigger than I was. (Which apparently was already quite big).
The tailor got on the floor and told me to look in the mirror and make sure that she was pinning it at the right hem length — a perfectly sensible request that I hastily complied with even though I didn’t want to look in the full-length mirror, not after what she’d said.
Almost every article you read about tackling the challenges of shopping as a plus-size individual will tell you to tailor, tailor, tailor.
For Kristi, 43, who was “athletic” and “stout” as a child and throughout her teen years, but whose body “morphed into plus-size” as she got older, tailored clothes have been part of her life ever since her teen years. For instance, prom dress shopping was a hassle throughout high school, but it was was easily rectified once her mom worked her magic.
“My first seamstress was my mother,” she told me. “I had no chest; the space between my dress and my chest as a teen was fairly expansive. But two afternoons, some pins stuck between my mother’s teeth as she told me to ‘stand still,’ and voilà, custom-fit dress and no embarrassing slips.”
Additionally, having her clothes tailored always reminded Kristi that it was mass-produced clothing that was the problem, not her. She said that when it came to the dresses, “My mom made me feel beautiful by removing the space I could not fill. She gave me insight that clothing was not intended for our bodies without modification for our unique self.”
Kristi knew early that that was what a tailor, a good tailor, was supposed to do; I, on the other hand, didn’t realize it until after putting up with a horribly toxic tailor who for years made me feel as though it was my fat body that needed to be altered, not the piece of clothing I had brought to her. One day, I decided that I had had enough and went to try out a new tailor who lived closer to my place, and that, dear reader, was how I found myself in this piece’s opening scene, my arms filled with new dresses and my heart filled with hope that this was the beginning of a great new no-shaming-involved tailor-client relationship. Obviously, that didn’t turn out to be the case.
After two awful tailors in a row, I began speculating if tailoring, like a lot of other things that straight-sized people seemed to be able to get done so effortlessly, was just something that I’d always struggle with as a plus-size person. I wondered if maybe tailors just didn’t enjoy working ‘around’ plus-size clients — a fear that, it turns out, a lot of plus-size individuals share.
Despite having identified as plus-size for most of her life, Courtney, 20, has never been to a tailor. “I guess the subconscious assumption is that they won't see someone of my size, or won’t be able to work around my peculiar body shape,” she said.
Adrianna, who’s been a seamstress for six years, said, “I’ve noticed that the mere act of undressing is difficult for larger clients. Some have shared stories about tailors who got their measurements wrong because they were too ‘scared’ to touch their fat."
One of Adrianna’s clients, Tina, recalled a particularly mortifying experience with a previous tailor who, after measuring her waist at their first appointment, “joked” that she deserved a prize for breaking the shop’s record as its largest-waisted client. “I thought, ‘What kind of shit tailor keeps track of what their largest client’s waist size is?’” Tina said.
When Debbie, 65, saw a tailor for the first time, she didn’t look at the tape measure, simply because “I do not like to see my measurements.” Adrianna told me that she too notices if a client seems uninterested in their measurements, and if they intentionally look away, she won’t say it out loud.
“Whatever your measurements are, they don’t, or at least they shouldn’t, affect the quality of the job. Don’t be worried that a tailor won’t be able to ‘work’ with your body — that is literally their role. It’s the fabric that needs to do all the working, not you.”
My disdain for dressing rooms was one of the key reasons I kept returning to my first tailor, as cruel as she could be. While it might seem ridiculous to weigh if repeatedly going back to a toxic individual who will only tear you down is worth getting a pair of trousers that actually fit, during periods where I just wanted my fat thighs or stomach rolls to fit into something, it really was. It wasn’t until I learned to love my body, fat and all, that I realized that the main problem was that my tailor’s definition of what fit was often synonymous with what made me look thinner.
“Of course, objectively speaking, some fabrics will look more ‘slimming’ on certain body types, but honestly, you shouldn’t be getting something tailored with the sole goal that it makes you look more slimming,” Adrianna said. “Just because it makes you look thinner doesn’t necessarily mean it looks better, and it almost never means that it feels more comfortable.”
After much soul-searching in the form of retail therapy that didn’t involve sizes (read: purses and Sephora splurges) and coming to terms that this was my body, I realized that the same logic could and should also be applied to tailors themselves — that is, just because they (tried to) make me look thinner didn’t mean they made me look better, and they definitely didn’t make me feel better.
I don't have a problem with a tailor talking about my arms or stomach or thighs when relevant. I know how fabrics and dress shapes work, and I know that I have wide hips and a VBO. But I do have a problem with cruel tailors, or lazy tailors who would rather blame my body than admitting that they screwed up a simple alteration.
Although I had to persevere through years of awful experiences, it’s clear that there are tailors, like Adrianna, who can and will do their job well, regardless of what the tape measure says. In my experience, the best way to find such tailors is by asking for recommendations from friends, especially ones who also identify as plus-size. And when you do try out a new tailor, start with a few relatively simple jobs and see what you think — both of the alterations and of the tailor themselves.
If you can’t seem to get any good recommendations, or if stripping down to your underwear in a stranger’s house is nerve-wracking, try an in-home tailoring service such as Mend. Having fittings done in your own living room in front of your own mirror can add a touch of comfort in an otherwise stressful situation.
I made a mid-year resolution that I would walk away from any tailor who thinks that it’s me that needs to be altered, not my clothes. My maxi dresses and I deserve better than that.