Fat Fashion Won't Be Ignored Any Longer

Retail often treats plus-size clothing as an afterthought, but some locals are making it big.

By Zoe Sayler October 27, 2020 Published in the Winter 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Lisa Michaud, owner of plus-size consignment store Two Big Blondes. Photograph by Chona Kasinger. 

Purchase a strappy bodysuit or pair of pastel boyshorts from Tacoma lingerie company Bawdy Love and you may do a double take: The website doesn’t list a single size option. But this is no one-size-fits-whom-it-may situation. Soon after ordering customers receive instructions for taking their own measurements, which Bawdy Love uses to whip up a custom garment: thicker straps, a higher waist, a tailored fit to each body.

It’s a uniquely labor-intensive approach to inclusivity—the company once crafted a metal-free harness for a woman with a fear of flying to wear through airport security because “it makes her feel powerful and strong,” says cofounder Candace Frank. But despite increased visibility of plus-size fashion in recent years, clothing that evokes that feeling, or just plain fits, can be difficult to come by for anyone larger than a size 18. 

Bawdy Love cofounder Candace Frank designs lingerie to show off every body.

As in most American cities, boutiques in Seattle carry few plus-size items, if any; shops that do offer a broader range often relegate plus inventory to their website and rarely go beyond a size 24 (inclusive lines carry up to a 30 or 40). Plus-size-only retailers tend to focus on a specific demographic, without much happening in the broad spectrum between fast fashion and a conservative take on middle-aged womanhood. And, like most brick-and-mortars, some of the only visible options are struggling to stay afloat: Lane Bryant closed eight stores in Washington this year, while Universal Standard’s Belltown storefront remained closed throughout the pandemic.

The result of so few options isn’t just a botched shopping trip, but a distinct sense of othering for plus-size shoppers. “You’re a supporting role, not an active participant in whatever’s going on,” says Lisa Michaud, owner of Central District plus-size consignment store Two Big Blondes. “That kind of experience just perpetuates all those messages that you get throughout your life,” that, as a fat person, “you’re supposed to hide yourself.”

The dread-free dressing room at Two Big Blondes. 

It’s an experience that Two Big Blondes, founded in Georgetown in 1997, works hard to counter. “We’ve had people come in and literally cry when they see the amount we have,” Michaud says of the shop’s selection, which ranges from 25-cent sale items to $800 designer consignment, in styles and sizes that reflect the diversity of its customer base. It’s impressive, and not just for Seattle. In BuzzFeed’s national Empty Suitcase web series, host Kristin Chirico visited as part of a challenge to find fashionable, plus-size looks: “I walked in, and I was like, ‘cute!’ and then I kept walking, and I was like ‘more!’ and then I kept walking, and I was like, ‘Uh oh, we’re gonna be here for four hours.’”

Some mainstream companies are starting to shift with the tides. PR brand manager Meliz Andiroglu says Nordstrom is moving away from fully separate plus-size departments and working with popular brands like Madewell and Reformation to expand the options available on the floor. “We were getting customer feedback that it was hard to find their size in stores...or they sometimes felt like the cool items weren’t available in their sizes,” Andiroglu says.

For gender-inclusive TomboyX, sizing up was a no-brainer.

Listening to customers is a good place to start. It’s how Seattle-based underwear brand TomboyX began expanding some of its offerings from 4X to 6X earlier this year. Extended sizing is the number one request the company receives, cofounder Fran Dunaway says, and they receive a lot of requests—in fact, TomboyX sold androgynous button-up shirts before a customer suggestion prompted a pivot to gender-neutral boxer briefs. “Being part of the LGBTQ community, I’m certainly familiar with what it’s like to be othered, or to be an outsider, or to feel ashamed about who you are,” Dunaway says. “It wasn’t an economic decision. It was the right thing to do.”

Before Covid-19 canceled all of the best parts of 2020, Candace Frank had planned for Bawdy Love to host F*ck Yeah Bodies!, “a celebration of what you got” complete with a fashion show and size-inclusive vendors like Two Big Blondes. Frank wanted a chance for fat people to wear “clothing that adds an exclamation point onto their presence, as opposed to making the font smaller.” She also hoped it would help keep up the momentum started at MOHAI’s 2019 Big Mood: A Night of Fat Fashion, co-curated by Adria Garcia, owner of size-inclusive Capitol Hill vintage boutique Indian Summer.

“I think that people are starting to wake up to, you know, oppression, period, and starting to not want to stand for that anymore,” Garcia says. “What the fat community is asking is, ‘Just try harder.’”

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