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“The same problems you would have faced in 2005, you would have faced in 1975, if not worse,” says Laura Mason, curator of the Lo Marie Vintage Etsy shop.
In a 2017 video on her store’s YouTube channel, Mason addresses an issue that’s top of mind for people who want to shop vintage but find their size is excluded from the usual available inventory: For as rich an array as the United States has of vintage clothing stores — with shops specializing in everything from designer wear to accessibly priced A-line dresses — the availability of vintage clothes isn’t limited by price; rather, it’s limited by size.
That is, trying to find plus-size vintage clothing (that isn’t a caftan) is like trying to find a proverbial needle in the haystack, assuming the needle is a plus-size garment and the haystack is the overall retail market. Even for straight-size people, finding vintage clothing above what today would generally be considered a size eight is an often unfruitful pursuit. Which leads one to wonder: Why is plus-size vintage shopping so hard?
A common answer to this question might be that everyone in the 20th century was smaller than people today. Indeed, adult obesity rates in the US grew from midcentury into the 1990s and up until the early 2010s, before plateauing. (There are racial and socioeconomic disparities that disproportionately affect people of color and low-income people, of course.) Statistically speaking, the proportion of overweight and obese people is greater today, but those people still existed in the 20th century.
To better understand the lack of easily accessible plus-size vintage clothing, it’s important to examine systemic causes, not population data. There was a brief period of time in the early 20th century when retailers prioritized the manufacturing and marketing of “stoutwear” (the term used from roughly 1915 to 1930 to describe sizes beyond the straight range). In the period of time just before World War II up until the 1980s, retailers ignored stoutwear and plus-size women in favor of a more slender physique.
The emergence of the “fashionably” thin midcentury body ideal coincided with the emergence of the ready-to-wear industry and the mass production of clothing, which largely left out plus-size. Women whose bodies fell outside the socially acceptable size range were consequently forced to make their own clothes.
“Exercise culture and the industrial food system that villainized fat also led women of size to recede from social view,” explains Lauren Downing Peters, an assistant professor of fashion studies at Columbia College Chicago. Peters’s doctoral thesis explored the relationship between the construction of the female body and American fashion in the early 20th century.
“Stoutwear retailers shifted their strategy at that time, and there was a new market for ‘chubby patterns’ in the ’50s, as they were called, but catered to young girls and teens. After stoutwear ended and before plus-size in the 1980s emerged, women were sewing for themselves,” she says.
Emma McClendon, the associate curator of costume at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, also explains that within vintage fashion, there exists a “survival bias” that is skewed toward straight-size clothing, meaning that straight-size pieces that often find their way to vintage stores and museums are valued above plus-size garments and survive to make it into the historical record.
In December 2017, McClendon curated an exhibit at the Museum at FIT called “The Body: Fashion and Physique,” which explored the cultural construct of the “fashionable body,” body politics, and plus-size visibility.
“Within the vintage historical record, vintage stores have buyers like any other retail outlet, and in the same way there’s a bias in retail where [buyers] don’t buy certain sizes, there’s going to be that in vintage as well,” McClendon tells Racked. “But we have clear evidence that there was a range of body sizes [in the 20th century], not just what we see presented in films or as a skewed view.”
(Indeed, as described in a 2017 Racked article, “‘vintage clothing’ might be broadly defined as garments that have enough age on them that they’re no longer au courant, yet have sufficient style to make them chic.” Within the designer realm, Givenchy was one of the few luxury brands that bothered to offer an extended size range in the 20th century; today, luxury brands continue to largely ignore the plus category.)
The combination of survival bias and the lack of mass manufactured plus-size clothing between the 1930s and ’70s leads us to where we are today: with a deeply lacking availability of fashionable, plus-size vintage clothing relative to straight sizes.
Kate Lauter, the owner of Feng Sway vintage in Brooklyn, regularly seeks out plus-size vintage to add to her inventory, stocking up to a size 5X at any given time, and admits that much of her plus-size inventory comes from the ’80s and ’90s. (The 1980s not only ushered in oversize silhouettes but also the return of plus-size clothing manufacturers, which is why so many vintage stores that offer plus-size clothing rely on garments from that decade.)
The Lo Marie Vintage, which runs an Etsy shop for its vintage clothing, also attempts to stock as much plus-size vintage as possible but notes that the sizing inconsistencies that plague shoppers today are not unique to the 21st century.
Though the availability of well-made plus-size clothing has improved incrementally thanks to initiatives by inclusive designers like Christian Siriano and retailers like 11 Honoré, there’s hardly parity in a fashion and retail industry that time and again values thinness over all else. Ultimately, the preservation of plus-size clothing comes down to how we frame fatness as a moral imperative and whether we push back against the notion that the human body is not a standardized object subject to trends.
“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?” McClendon says. “There needs to be a way in society to make people feel important enough.”