A Month of Clothing Philosophy: The Failures of the Marketplace

I wore a very old (but still good) Sewing Workshop eShrug for Me Made May today.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Eight
The Failures of the Marketplace

One of the biggest challenges of being a plus sized woman who wants to buy ready-to-wear clothing is finding clothing to buy. That probably sounds insane to you — if you’ve only ever worn straight sized clothing — but I can pretty much count on two hands the total number of brick and mortar retailers from which I can buy clothing in person here in Houston. Besides the anchor department stores’ very small plus sized sections (sparsely populated with ill-fitting and extremely overpriced — not to mention ugly — garments), there is exactly one plus size retailer in the mall nearest my home. One store. One. And I’m a smaller fat person — I’m not sized out of any plus size retailer, some of which only go up to US22.

It’s true that online retailers have started to fill in the gaps in the plus size market. Modcloth was one of the first to really expand their size range (though they made some other boneheaded moves regarding their extended sizing as time went by), and lots of other more mainstream retailers have extended sizes available online (that are definitely not available in their physical stores). But what that means is that instead of taking two or three sizes to a dressing room, a plus sized person will have one of two scenarios to deal with, especially when trying an unfamiliar retailer:

  1. Order the size they think will fit best (fingers crossed that the retailer’s size chart is accurate), pay for shipping, try it on at home, and see whether or not it needs to be returned for a different size, pay for return shipping if it does, hope that the alternate size is still in stock, and wait for the replacement to come in the mail before they maybe have to start all over again.
  2. Or order two or three sizes of the same garment (who can afford to do that with every single piece of clothing they buy?), pay for shipping, decide which one fits best and hope the retailer will accept the other garment(s) in return — after you’ve paid for return shipping, of course.

Yeah, that all sucks. When you take into account how awful most ready-to-wear plus size clothing is, it’s even worse. It’s often poorly constructed and made of subpar fabric — while still being far more expensive than equivalent straight size clothing, sometimes even twice the price. There are fewer options for almost everything, and most of those options are of a lesser quality.

It’s even tougher if you already have a firm sense of your own style. I’m beyond picky when it comes to color palette and fit, and most of the time I no longer settle for “almost-but-not-quite.” I buy very little ready-to-wear clothing these days. I do thrift some things, but I’m just as likely to walk out of a resale shop empty handed as with a purchase. I buy the occasional t-shirt at Target, basic cardigan sweaters at Old Navy, and most of my workout wear from Rainbeau Curves online. I mainly buy work clothes and party dresses from eShakti, which carries every single design in sizes 0 – 36W, and can customize to your measurements for only $9.95 more. I cannot stress how much I love them. I know I sound like a commercial, and I’m sorry for that, but the first time I ordered a custom dress from them and saw how well it fit at my shoulders and my hips, I very nearly cried. It’s the best compromise between ready-to-wear and having your own seamstress that I’ve ever encountered.

That being said, of course I also sew many of my own clothes.

However, it’s not fair to expect sewing to compensate for the failures of the marketplace for plus sized women. There is a real — mostly unseen — classism inherent in sewing as a hobby. (I highly recommend Tasha Fierce’s essay “The Class Dynamics of DIY Clothing” for a more thorough examination of these issues.) Besides the time and energy involved in learning to sew, there is also a large monetary investment in a sewing machine itself and the various other tools needed. Fabric isn’t cheap, either, and many self-made garments are more expensive than their ready-to-wear equivalents — especially if it’s a basic, like a t-shirt.

Factoring in time spent can make a garment seem astronomically expensive, too. Using a new-to-me pattern, a simple, uncomplicated woven dress can take 4-7 hours to make, counting all steps: tracing off the pattern, making and adjusting a muslin (test garment), ironing and cutting out the fabric, and actual construction and finishing. That’s quite a time investment when you’re busy or exhausted. It’s just not realistic to think that everyone can be expected to make that sacrifice just because they can’t find something to wear from a clothing retailer.

For me — and I’m only speaking for me — I choose to take that time and sometimes to pay more to make my own clothes when I can, but it is a choice and I own my privilege in this area. I have the necessary equipment, skill set, and time and money to do so. It’s only a partial and personal solution to the failures of the marketplace, but it allows me to feel less helpless in the face of an inherently oppressive system.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *