Ten years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a woman larger than a size 0 or 2 in the pages of a fashion magazine. For so long, it seemed the world belonged to thin, mostly white, women, and anyone who didn’t fit that standard had a slim chance at success. Those who did manage to game the system and make it to the top would find themselves living a different version of the fame and fortune than their “straight-size” counterparts enjoyed. When Oprah Winfrey landed the cover of Vogue in 1998, it was after Anna Wintour "gently suggested" she lose 20 pounds. Looking back, it seems crazy that there was a time when anyone could tell Oprah what to do with her body — and even crazier that she would listen.
Almost a decade later, the landscape looks a lot different. One might even say that 2017 turned out to be the moment plus-size broke. The year inarguably belonged to Ashley Graham, whose steady rise to fame included landing the cover of American Vogue, still considered the ultimate coup for any model in the industry. But she wasn’t the only one who made waves. This year saw Candice Huffine walking the runway for Tome and Christian Siriano, and Paloma Elsesser appearing in campaigns for everyone from Nike and Glossier to Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty. Their personalities, and the variety of projects they’re involved with, could make anyone believe that we’ve “solved” the issue of visibility; that our work here is done.
But despite their increased presence in mainstream fashion publications, it’s hardly an equal playing field. High-fashion designers have been notoriously slow to respond to the request for more size inclusivity on the runway that customers — nay, the culture — has demanded. (And when they do, it’s usually women on the lower range of plus size, something that many body-positive activists are still fighting to change.) Because of the magazine industry’s reliance on the sample system (stylists borrow samples, a.k.a. the clothes models wore down the runway, from designers’ showrooms to photograph in editorials), plus women are automatically excluded from wearing the latest trends, the season’s defining look. As a result, they're often photographed naked (or close to it).
“[When you feature someone in an editorial and they are half-naked], then it becomes about their body, no matter what they do,” stylist Solange Franklin , Fashion Editor At Large for Paper who recently styled Gabourey Sidibe for Refinery29, and has also worked for Elle UK, Allure, and Teen Vogue, tells Refinery29. “When I style, I’m definitely sensitive to the fact that this is just not about their bodies.”
Choice is an important part of the fashion process. Go backstage at a fashion shoot and you might be shocked at the amount of clothes that are required — three to four full racks — just to get four pictures. There is a stereotype of the magazine editor as a person working on a mixture of ridiculous proclamations as inspirations for photoshoots; She’s an alien in Morocco! An ascetic who loves palm trees! A clown into BDSM! When you take samples out of the equation, the creativity becomes limited. Which means that for those models lucky enough to end up getting a look during a shoot, one of three things will typically happen: they’ll be styled in lingerie or “retro,” swimsuits; they’re dressed in an oversized coat (usually a trench coat), or if all else fails, they get to wear half-a-dress, like Candice Huffine did for her Elle May 2017 cover. Sure, we can call that progress, but it seems disingenuous that magazines are able to get a check for their “body positive stance” while not letting said women actively participate in the world of fashion. The fantasy of fashion remains off-limits for these women; their inclusion is still compartmentalised.
“[When I am styling], I don’t wanna do these things: I don’t wanna cloak her body, because I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to hide anything,” Franklin says. “I want the model to feel like they’re included in the ‘relevant culture,’ or whatever their aesthetic is or the publication’s aesthetic is. I want to make sure that that’s set in a very intentional way and not so different from what it’s like to dress a straight-sized model.”
The market is still the most limiting factor. “I can go to the fast-fashion places that do all the trendy fun stuff, [because I] know a girl will feel real modern if you dress her in those pieces,” explains Franklin. “But there is something that feels a bit off in terms of having to go to the fast fashion places to make them look in any way relevant, modern, cool, sexy. It’s the assumption that a larger body would only want a cheap version. It’s weird to limit their options.” Obviously it’s a positive thing that the mass market has responded to the demands for cute, trendy, and sexy clothes that can fit every type of body. The truth is, most of us cannot afford the high-fashion version, whether it comes in our size or not. So, what’s the big deal?
Fashion is aspirational, that’s why designers are always spouting off inspirations as varied as the deserts of Morocco, or the Scottish moors. The clothes, the photoshoots, the extravagance, are also a way for women to escape reality for a second, to imagine what they could one day become. By keeping plus women out, magazines are telling them, you are not allowed to take part in this dream, or your body needs to conform to this shape or that shape in order for you to be something other women can look up to. In order for you to be something.
Franklin adds: “Vogue.com is our industry standard, [and] I think it’s bizarre that I can go on [the website, which typically posts runway images of every major designer] and not see a single plus-size brand. Michael Kors started showing plus-size models on his runway. Christian Siriano has been doing it for years, but [it’s not enough].” As Franklin explains, many designers feel like it would be a step down for them to be associated with the plus market, so although they might have samples, they won’t lend their clothes for shoots for fear of being seen as a “plus brand.”
Even with all these roadblocks, there are still stylists and industry insiders willing to put in the work so that the plus-size women we do see in magazines reflect the same level of aspirational glamour as their straight-size counterparts. Seeing a woman like comedian Leslie Jones on the cover of Elle magazine wearing a slinky and glamorous gown by Sophie Theallet, Ashley Graham on the cover of Vogue wearing Prada, or Paloma Elsesser attending the CFDA Awards with designer Adam Selman feels like a revelation, not only for plus-size women, but for women in general. It’s about time the industry wholeheartedly embraces the new diversity which is indubitably, the way of the future. When we ask for inclusivity, for equality, we want the same level of care, magic, and wonder that fashion has always been known for, and for all fashion lovers — from the minimalist to the maximalists, from the avant-garde to the classicists. We all deserve a chance to express (and maybe even discover) ourselves through fashion, no matter what our size.