I’m going to admit something that might seem a little pedestrian to some of you, perhaps a little familiar to others: I watch a lot of television, all kinds. I’m simultaneously a television snob and a consumer of frivolous content. I’m not sure how I rationalize all of that, but to quote Whitman in a post about popular culture: I am large, I contain multitudes.
So, as a consumer of all of this entertainment content, I include among my weekly dvr selections a show called Project Runway. I’m going to go ahead and guess that most of you have heard of or watched this reality-based competition. If so, you may be aware that each season, the contestants are given the challenge of designing for “real women,” that is, women who are not models and have normal, everyday shapes and sizes. And, without fail, every season there is a designer who throws an absolute tantrum about how difficult this challenge is, about how this isn’t what they “do” as a designer.
I know that what happens on television might not be the most accurate representation of reality, how designers design in the privacy of their studios, or how garments travel from paper to product. But, the fact that this attitude continues to present itself causes me to ask: whom do designers think that they are designing for, if not real people?
If you watch actual runway shows or look at the photos, you know that there is an entire category of garment presented each fashion season that is never meant for practical wear. Rather, they are made to present a concept that furthers a collection’s theme; they are made to be photographed; they are made to be worn by a celebrity to Met Gala; they are made to create a spectacle. One of the most talented designers that ever lived, Alexander McQueen, designed many collections in just such a way. But, his design house also offers a brand-consistent line of clothing that is wearable and accessible.
Many designers create beautiful ready-to-wear collections that are appropriate for work- or everyday-wear. When I shop and I browse these collections, it is immediately evident that some (not all) of them aren’t meant for me. I sheepishly pick up the largest size, often a size 12, and hold it to my body; there’s not a chance that it will fit. On the days when I’m feeling particularly confident, I might even take one of those garments into a dressing room. The results are almost always either hilarious or humiliating, as I sweatily peel a sausage casing of a shirt from my busty size 14 frame. Size 12, my ass. And what does that number even mean?
Where do women like me fit into the world of fashion? I often feel invisible or unimportant. Are some designers embarrassed at the thought of a woman like me wearing their clothes? Am I forever trapped in the black hole that exists between department store garments and the unflattering curtain-like clothing offered to plus sized women (don’t even get me started on that)? Plenty of women smaller than I have the same problems finding clothes that fit, let alone flatter.
As the employee of a company that embraces all body types, I could probably use this as a platform to promote our own products. But, that’s not really the point here. I’m honestly, desperately seeking an answer. I want to know if I actually exist in the big picture of fashion – or am I the invisible, or worse, the untouchable? Designers – what’s the answer?
P.S.: The women featured in the images above are a collection of friends, employees, artisans, and, yes, real models. Some were cast for our Studio Book Series, some were shot for our past collections, and some are just an integral part of our ever unfolding world. Some of these beautiful ladies were discovered in our hometown of Florence, Alabama, and others are from far away. We thank each of them for shining their beauty our way.
Nothing that we do here at Alabama Chanin would be beautiful without the photographers who capture our world. A few to thank (in no particular order): Rinne Allen, Lisa Eisner, Peter Stanglmayr, Robert Rausch, Nick Wolfe, Russ Harrington, Sarah E. Lewis, Gina R. Binkley, Elizabeth DeRamus, Natalie, and a slew of others…
love Project Runway and also become frustrated with the designers that make that statement. I’m a 14/16 and feel frustrated every time I shop. While the photos above are beautiful, real women, not many of them look to be size 14 either. It would be nice to see this clothing modeled on real women.
I am blessed with tall, skinny genes, but I am also very active. I am 52 years old, and for the most part I stopped buying clothing in the store years ago. I found very few of the clothes fit me. They were either too short or too long, too big or too small in all the wrong places. The clothes I liked were hundreds of dollars, and the others didn’t look so good after I washed them. I started sewing again after I went to buy my daughter a dress for a special occasion; she was 2. It was either a dress that was less expensive and FULL of glitter, sparkle and only offered in pink, or was a nice simple little dress, well-made, of European design and $40. I did buy the $40 dress, and she only wore it maybe 6 times, but after that I vowed to sew her clothes. So, I pulled out my machine that my mother bought for me when I was 22. It was 20 years old then, so I started sewing again on a 40 year old Bernina, and never looked back. I do sometimes buy clothing for my daughter, but she loves the clothes I sew for her, and the compliments she gets while wearing them. Now I sew almost all of my clothes. They fit and they flatter me. I have women stop me all the time asking where she can get a skirt or dress that I am wearing. I happily say that I made it myself. I am often asked if I will sew for them.
I love Nathalie’s designs. I have made 3 tops, a skirt and a dress from the designs, and intend on using the t-shirt design this spring. I love the way they fit, and I get compliments. I think fashion has forgotten real women, they design for the models and move on to the next season. They design for the young and when they do design something a bit older it is dowdy and not so pretty. I don’t won’t to look dowdy, I just don’t want to expose by backside to the rest of the world when I bend down to pick something up!
This year, my goal is not to buy a single piece of clothing, but to rework my current wardrobe and update the pieces or use what I have in my stash which I consider large, but luckily only takes up two shelves in my sewing room. If you are interested in seeing how I do this you can follow on withneedleandstick.blogspot.com
Thanks for the post. Your sentiments are shared by many women.
Oooo, this is great! I’ve just posted my own version of your solution. I love your challenge. Are you familiar with this woman’s blog? She, too, vowed to make all her clothes for one year. The project is over now, but the older entries are fascinating.
I am so familiar with this lament, and have made it myself many times! I am 5’2″, and weigh 110lbs. My defect is this: I have a thick waist and narrow hips. I do not have that ideal hour-glass figure, and have difficulty finding feminine clothes that fit my boxy frame. Years of shopping for jeans, not just in the men’s section but also, because of my height, in the BOYS section have left me, too, feeling invisible to the fashion industry. There’s nothing wrong with you or me, it’s the designers that have the problem. They design for statues with ideal proportions, and not real people. This is frustrating, yes, but i feel for the designers, too. We are all so different, and our expectations are so high. Each of us feels entitled to fashionable clothes that fit and flatter, without the use of standardizing (but restricting) shape-wear worn by women in the past. Is it impossible to please us all? I’m opting out of this dilemma by learning to make my own jeans (I’m getting pretty good at it, too). I can’t make myself fit their clothes, so I’ll make clothes to fit myself. I don’t know where that leaves ladies who don’t have the desire or time to sew for themselves… A pickle indeed. Good luck, I’ll be following this conversation closely.
oh i hate shopping. i am not a big person (5ft 3.5in and 130 pounds) but do you think that i can find a pear of pants that fits my rather large bum but petite frame! no way! i hate to try on jeans but i love jeans. so i buy 2 pair that fit and wear them literally until they are falling off of my body because i don’t want to go back to the store, try on 40 pairs of jeans that don’t fit but should be my size, and i refuse to buy a huge size because i am not huge!!
so i love your clothes. because now i can make clothes that fit me and my size and i don’t have to see a NUMBER that i don’t want to see.
so my next question…when are you going to show us how to design jeans? ha!
just kidding. but pants really are my next design to tackle…once i get up the courage.
Sara, you make some very good points in this post. I am a size 20/22, so I am sized out of even most department store wear. For me, most store-bought clothing is ill-fitting — either an unflattering plus-size copy of a smaller-size or an unflattering piece of drapery.
It is apparent to me that Alabama Chanin does embrace women of all body shapes, as you’ve noted. But, I wouldn’t fit in many of the clothes offered here, nor do the clothing patterns in the books fit me.
I haven’t let that stop me from having the clothes I covet, though! I’ve used the Alabama Chanin sewing techniques to build myself some clothes that I love, and that fit me perfectly. I just had to draw my own patterns, which is surprisingly easy when designing for a forgiving fabric like cotton jersey.
So, I’m sad that Alabama Chanin doesn’t offer much for women of my size — but I’m very grateful to Natalie for giving the gift of tools to make myself stuff that I love.
I second this thought! I admire the philosophy behind Alabama Chanin, and I adore the clothes. Both the style and philosophy really fall in line with how I try to live my life. However, as a size 18/20, I think I might be able to wear some of your offered styles, but not others (depending on the cut, I seem to be right at your upper size limit according to the size chart). Trust me, I do appreciate the XXL size that you offer, and that it is equivalent to a 16/18. With more mainstream designers the XL is sometimes equivalent to a size 10! I’ve recently begun a sewing journey of my own, for this very reason. I’m contemplating the purchase of the Alabama Studio book, but I can’t find any info about the sizing of the patterns and I’m worried that grading them up may be above my skill level.
Megan, thank you for this reply, we actually have a post in the works which will launch in the next few weeks addressing this very issue. Keep an eye out for it.
I don’t think anyone is invisible and one should not take these things personally. Everyone knows this is for Runways, which is just like an art gallery but for clothing. No one is doing it to be disrespectful; they need a consistent size to work with, and that is all. And even if it was to dis people of a certain size, don’t take it personally–unless you have a personal seamstress that is the way it is for anyone.
Of course designers are challenged when they have to create for someone off the street, it is more difficult. I agree they should be rude about it to the person though, and I think sewing something for someone a different shape than a model would be a more welcome challenge than sewing something made of dog collars and banana peels.
I meant to say not be rude, whoops!
While the pictures above are of real people, they are mostly young and pretty and of small´r size than a 14 and above. I would really like to see how you would dress, for example, short plump women so that they look pretty and fashionable.
Men don’t have such a problem. Skinny, short, tall, plump, or obese, they can all wear the same things.
While women’s clothes are more diversified and creative, they should all look good. I don’t see that in the clothes above.
Saying doesn’t make it so.
I used to say the same things about men shopping – how easy it was for them! But, lo, how I was wrong!
My husband needed some work pants – we went to the store – the length was the easy part, but the waist and thigh (not a posted size, but eluded in terms of fit like ‘slim,’ ‘thin,’ ‘husky,’ ‘all american fit’) varied between brands and colors. He tried on 20 different pairs of pants before finding the ones that fit best. I told him now you know what it’s like for a woman in the dressing room! 🙂
All men don’t have it easy – try buying for an over 6ft, slender, square shouldered man with a long trunk – the midriff exposing look is NOT good :p
Just discovered the beautiful Alabama Chanin clothing and blog, admire the style and practices! This topic of your recent post has been bouncing around in my head for some time. It is so discouraging being a women (who I hope has a sense of fashion) and also a size 12, and having recently turned 50, trying to find fashionable clothing that suits my age and size. I love Anthropologie but if your not a size 2, the variety in the store is very limited, they buy deep in the very small sizes and If I’m lucky I can find a large, and even then the large feels like more of an 8-10. I believe I am of an average size, and women and designers should design for that, maybe then the stores would carry more of those sizes? Models in adds are usually very skinny, (that’s probably because they are usually only 15-16!). Very few catalogs etc. use normal sized women, or even women older than 25. Some stores carry a “womens” department, but usually they are large and matronly. Fashion does need to find the “real women” and design accordingly. I love that you use “real women” in your photo. We should all learn to love what we have, and be able to find fashion to celebrate that!
LOVE. LOVE. LOVE all of the comments and input. Looking so forward to continuing this conversation throughout 2013. Let us have it girls, ladies, women, and friends… xoNatalie
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Great article and comments. I am making the swing skirt and made two extra panels to make it fit. I’m a size 14, so I had to bring the final waist measurement to 40. So far so good! I also re-drafted the t-shirt pattern from the 3rd book so that it would not be so snug. I was initially frustrated, but actually the alteration process is making me more creative. Also, when I’m done, I’ll have master patterns that I know will really fit, and that I can use over and over again.
great idea to just add extra panels.
Love Love Love your post! I’ve been lamenting this very fact. Even patterns are shown on super tall willowy size 4s. Everything looks good on them! (Duh, that is why they are models)
I have to admit that it has motivated me to lose weight recently—that I could no longer find things that were flattering at a size 12. I also wanted to be smaller for health & longevity reasons etc.
I can’t afford the clothes I like, so I’ve turned to sewing as well. I have the luxury of time to do that—what about everyone else? I don’t see a great solution, but this is a great time to have the conversation. I definitely see more larger models and celebrity types in magazines today than when I was growing up in the 70s & 80s, so at least there’s that!
I agree with all these comments and one thing in common is the inspiration of making and sewing your own clothes. There is something so meditative and peaceful while all is asleep on a Sunday morning. It’s more than the clothing but it’s the process that you take ownership, create. It’s a great feeling to not walk into a clothing store. I feel liberated and fresh.
Oh yes… throw out the television. It’s a waste of time~
I wear a size 3x and I’m not interested in making my own clothes, so I enjoyed the article, but also felt it didn’t include those of us who are really large. There are some lovely web sources for women like myself…if you don’t mind using names, Making It Big is one that comes to mind….where the clothes are well made and you can actually find that special something, but these clothes are generally not inexpensive. I was pleased to find, in a well known discounter store, a few clothing choices in my size…one of the designers
was Cynthia Crowley, so there are good designers offering a wider size range. You may know her name from Design Star..I love these shows as well.
I love Alabama Chanin but I am not so sure that the company’s aesthetic embraces a very diverse range of body types at the moment. I wear a size 6 or 8 in RTW (5’7″, 135 lbs) and the size L fits me in the patterns from the book. So that does not leave much room for the majority of women who wear larger sizes. The swimwear designer Malia Mills is way out ahead of everyone else on this particular issue, in my opinion, and I love how she actually takes pride in making women of all sizes look great, when so many designers, as you point out, seem to find that challenging or even undesirable. Anyway it’s great that this fantastic and progressive company is thinking seriously about this stuff so I look forward to seeing these values reflected more in your brand imagery.
I’ve only watched a few of the Project Runway seasons, but I’ve noticed that the designers that pitch the biggest fits about having to work with “real” women, are the ones that ultimately end up losing that round of competition. Justice served.
My biggest concern is that I have a 10 year old daughter, who is tall and lean, and completely befuddled by well-meaning comments congratulating her on her body type. I can’t tell you how many times she’s been told she could be a model if just she keeps it up! And we laugh, because right now she has no interest is fashion and can’t think of a more boring occupation. But frankly, it’s mostly women dealing out the “compliments”, not men. It’s sad that we – women – continue to perpetuate these ideals of beauty.
I focus on health. I’m proud that my daughter is healthy, no matter what she looks like. And I hope that I can raise her to have a strong self-esteem to stand up to societal stereotypes. I haven’t ever seen “Girls”, and only learned who Lena Dunham is through this article, but it gives me hope! http://www.xojane.com/issues/lena-dunham-naked-nude
I find this discussion interesting for many of the same reasons expounded above. I have just turned 50, am happily married after a disastrous first marriage and while I was a healthy size 6-8 in 20’s and 30’s, I am now I distinct size 12, sometimes a 14, after creeping up to the 16 range a year or two ago. I lamented my body, still do but from a more healthy perspective, for many years, until I took up my sewing again. Being abel to make something that fits and is flattering makes whatever size I am much more manageable. I make the majority of my clothes, shopping for clothing makes me angry, sad, frustrated and discouraged. I too love to watch Project Runway and my thoughts about designers who design for ‘real’ women parallel my thoughts on financial reform in this country. No one wants to tax the rich, or restrict their ability to make more money because everyone hopes to someday be rich and take advantage of all those benefits/freedom. There is little incentive to design fashionable clothes for larger sizes because everyone assumes that the average woman is still trying to lose weight and won’t be large forever. No one wants to be overweight for their frame, whatever that may mean. Our medical community thinks it is unhealthy, and there is little doubt that as a nation we are overweight and sedentary. But if you are healthy, eat well, exercise and generally take care of yourself, and you are still too big to fit into most RTW, there is a problem in the fashion industry. Making a lovely dress that looks good on sizes 2-8 will not necessarily look good on sizes 12-20. The shapes are different proportionally and so the design needs to be different. If I was in the business I would see this as a huge opportunity…
Thank you for your post! Not only am I too fat for fashion, I secretly believe that I don’t really deserve nice clothing because I am out of the size range of the prettiest designs and colors. In my size, most clothing comes in black, grey, opaque turquoise, or a dreadful pink, and not to forget, leopard or other animal hide print. I’ve been too fat for fashion for about 20 years, and now I am apparently also too old, because everything offered is polyester double knit in the above colors with “cute” little hearts or cats embroidered on them as if we were 5 years old again. Unless one can afford hundreds of dollars for the few fat designer lines offered, there is little hope for us older too big women. I do sew a little, but it never seems to become what I envisioned which only reinforces the thought that I don’t deserve something new because I am too fat for fashion! I’m not really complaining just stating a fact – and I know there are many women who feel as I do.
I like this comment stream, ladies:)
I am 5′ 8″ and currently vary between 3 sizes – depending on cut, fabric, elasticity, time of the month, etc. I know and have accepted my body type and what looks good on me (after many years of trying!) , but it can be hard to find the right pieces in the right size made by the right places. I agree with an above commenter that many stores ( Anthropologie, etc) buy small sizes in excess so that the “larger” sizes, basically 8 or 10 and up sell out quickly. There are a lot of tall, curvy women out there who want a variety of outfits to fit our bodies.
I would like to make my clothes someday; currently I hold a clear fear for the sewing machine and prefer to hand quilt and crochet instead of sew clothes. Maybe someday I will be fortunate enough to come to Florence for a retreat! In the meantime, though, I think we need to continue this dialogue of having fashion for all sizes and body types and support for designers who get it.
I am glad to hear that you are thinking about this issue. I know that to the manufacturing/design world, that I do not exist at all. I am over fifty, and I am shaped like a little teapot “short and stout” (do little children even know that rhyme any more?) I gave up years ago trying to find pleasant interesting clothing to fit me in the stores, and now sew everything I wear except for shoes and socks. I was delighted with the Alabama Chanin books, and have used your techniques on my own self-developed patterns, and have had wonderful compliments on them. I am impressed at the willingness to share the various how-to-do-it aspects, and was grateful that my little sister gave me the set of three books as a gift!
Here are some of the tops I have made: the crow shirt, the sea of holes shirt , and thecloud collar shirt
Alison, I feel like we should be friends. I love these!
bravo for considering all women. i was looking online recently at a piece about beautiful older women, all beautiful, all with silver hair…and every single one of them stick thin. really? there is great beauty in women’s bodies, all of our bodies, and i applaud you for addressing this and really meaning it. beautiful and comfortable natural fiber clothing is especially needful for women.
I love your fashion and I greatly appreciate your thoughtful writing on this topic. However, as a first step you need to more accurately present the reality of “real-sized women” here. Of the 15 photos you posted, only 3 look like most of us, and an even smaller percentage ever model Alabama Chanin designs on this website. You need to ask yourself who you are designing for and then walk the walk.
I am substantially larger than the typical model as well; so, yes, I do walk-the-walk– every day. (However, it would also do me good to do a bit more actual walking every day.) You will find that our use of cotton jersey is deceiving in that it molds itself to most every figure. We offer ideas for using Vogue Patterns and share our techniques freely that you can either make one of our garments for yourself OR pay someone in your own community to make it for you. You will find local tailors all over the country ready to make beautiful garments… with the added bonus that you are supporting your local economy at that same time. Our fabrics, stencils, and books are there to help. You may also contact us for any custom garment. Since we use lean-method manufacturing, this is possible every day.
That being said, it is important to me that this conversation to continues. Keep it coming ladies and we will be addressing this issue more and more as 2013 progresses.
I too, have given up on “Fashion”. It no longer speaks to me except to say, “You are too old, too fat, too short. You aren’t worth bothering with.”
I appreciate being given the space to say these things that haven’t had a place to be expressed and validated. At least some people are reading these posts.
Shopping has become an exercise in frustration and disapppointment. I dread it.
TO ALISON, CINDI, REBECCA AND ALL OF THE LADIES WHO DO NOT “FIT” –
LET’S START A REBELLION! NO MORE ILL FITTING CLOTHES! NO MORE MONEY SPENT “SETTLING” FOR SOMETHING THAT IS JUST CLOSEST TO WHAT WE’D LIKE! LESS IS MORE! WE HAVE TO START SOMEWHERE AND MAYBE IT BEGINS AT HANDSTITCHING, KNITTING, CUTTING APART WHAT DOES FIT AND USING THE “PATTERN”, ETC. TAKE THE LEAP AND LEARN SOMETHING NEW.
WHEN I BUMP INTO THIS WALL I TRY TO REMIND MYSELF OF TIMES PAST WHEN PEOPLE DID MORE WITH LESS, MADE DO WITH A FEW OUTFITS FOR WORK AND 1-2 FOR DRESS, WHEN PEOPLE WHERE LESS CONCERNED WITH THE “LATEST” FASHION OR COLORS, AND MORE WITH BEING IN SOMETHING THAT FIT THEIR BODY WELL. INSTEAD OF SLOW COOKING, LETS DO SLOW CLOTHING! WE HAVE FORGOTTEN THAT WE ARE ALL MADE DIFFERENT, AND AT DIFFERENT TIMES OF OUR LIVES, OUR BODIES WILL BE THICK, THIN,
COLD, WARM, ETC. WE ARE ALL BEAUTIFUL AND HAVE QUALITIES WORTH CELEBRATING!
OUR YOUNG GIRLS NEED TO HEAR THIS AND SO DO WE!
Well, I thought I was the only one hiding behind other people so my size was less. I am in 18-20-22 depending on the level of stress for that month.
I know from walking around that we are not the minority, we are the majority, only no one wants to talk about it. We only find it in the news reports that talks about how fat people are getting. Oh, then we see the pictures of real people walking down a street. Our sizes are not included in the book pictures, nor in the patterns. So …remember that Natalie’s overall concept was for quality and grace in design, and you are not limited to her designs and patterns.
We are moving to Ecuador to retire and I will be making all my clothing for my new location. I will be using hand sewing and embellishment as my new me, and with ideas that I learned from Natalie’s book. I will be posting as I go.
I have discovered that concrete earmuffs are a wonderful thing, don’t listen to what anybody says, do what you know you need to do to feel happy and complete. I love you were brave and confident to post.
I am short and overweight, with most of my weight in my boobs and my butt. When I saw the Alabama Chanin style, I knew it would work for me. Last year I spent two months making myself a new wardrobe to take to Paris all in matching blacks and greys and now these pieces are some of my favorites and I wear them almost everyday. I later added some tunics in color. I love the tunics and longer tanks. My desire would be to figure out how to add sleeves to them. I sometimes feel like my wardrobe, though made in different colors, is a bit repetitive and I love the lower neckline of the tunics and tanks rather than the higher neckline of the t-shirt. I have worked on kit bashing the t-shirt pattern but so far haven’t made one.
I would love to make a jacket, but I am not sure the one pictured in the new craftsy class is the one for me.
Also, I LOVE the denim full dress…will that ever be available in a pattern? Also all of those lovely jackets you have in the non-DIY section?
Anyway, I applaud Alabama Chanin for making clothing for real women and not skinny super models.
I so agree with many of the pleas above. would it be so HARD to just go up a size or two in your patterns and not discriminate? you natalie are gorgeous and curvy so you should know what it is like! why are you participating in the “you dont exist because you are over 40 or over size 12” nastiness of the fashion arbiters. would it kill you to give a little space in your wonderful books and ideas for the “rest of us”. I have been size 6 and size 20, a medium and a plus. the cuts are not that different but it is a pain to have to alter the patterns. I love your ideas and I am presently working on my 7th project inspired by you. I can quilt 20 stitches per inch or use my basting stitch on the appliques, think of new ideas till the cows come home, and I am grateful for your sharing and the beauty of your work( and the sewing folks who make them). please consider us as worthy of sizes in your next book. thanks for listening. speaking the truth in love, sara