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CURVY CULTURE and FASHION
The State We're In
by Thea Politis,
Managing Editor ElegantPlus.com
Invited Guest Post on the BBW Press Blog August 2006
Archived on ElegantPlus.com

 

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I’ve been involved in the plus-size apparel world since 2000, and let me tell you a lot has changed in the last six years. While the curvaceous are still short on options in comparison with our thinner sisters, the styles and the attention from mainstream culture have improved dramatically. None of this is completely surprising when one realizes that over half the women in the U.S.A. wear larger than a size 14. The buying power in those numbers is eventually going to attract businesses to cater to people of size and we are already starting to see a trend in that direction.

 

Pop Culture


Just this past year alone we’ve seen plus-size designers represented on BET’s Rip the Runway, a second run of Mo’Nique’s F.A.T. Chance (Oxygen’s strongest ratings ever), and even such decidedly “stick chick” fashion shows as Project Runway have dabbled in plus. The last example brings me to what is still schizophrenic about public perceptions of what being a plus-size woman means. Kirstie Alley’s Fat Actress of last year is another prime example. Both nationally televised shows purported to acknowledge the woman invisible to pop culture. Instead, they both ended up perpetuating a frightening number of stereo-types and myths about the more voluptuously endowed. Ideas such as “plus-size women are always insecure about their bodies” and “you simply cannot make flattering or pretty clothing for fuller figures” was rampant in both. One of my favorite fashion shows, What Not to Wear hosted by Stacy London and Clinton Kelly on TLC, however regularly disputes that. They frequently work with curvier bodies, and not once have I heard a suggestion that the participant should “lose weight” to fix their wardrobe mis-adventures. The two hosts cheerfully offer sound advice for dealing with all body types short and tall, thick and thin and turn out wonderful, real world results.


But, even Mo’Nique’s brash, funny independent film Phat Girlz (recently released on DVD) about an aspiring plus-size fashion designer failed to get away from some of the insecure body messaging. More positive was Queen Latifah’s portrayal of a full-figured woman who gets to wear some of the most beautiful, designer clothing in Last Holiday. Perhaps this is because the character was not so size-focused although was unsure of herself prior to her transformation. She just happened to be realistically proportioned. It will be interesting to see how Hollywood will handle the plus-size characters in two movies filming now: Dream Girls and Hairspray. This September we will also get a look at the beautiful America Ferrera, who first made a splash in Real Women Have Curves, in the role of Betty Ugly on ABC which takes the craziness of the fashion world’s attitudes head on.


 

Grass Roots

On a more positive, grass-roots level, there a number of plus-size fashion and beauty oriented events that are popping up across the country. Of particular note are the Miss Plus America Pageant, Simply Couture’s traveling full-figured fashion shows out of Los Angeles, and DeVoe Signature Events plus-size fashion shows, modeling boot camps and inspirational events based out of New York City. BBW Bashes around the country are attended in record numbers, providing fun, supportive atmospheres.

Taking on the organized fashion and entertainment worlds is a newly developed “real woman” talent support non-profit called Women of Size in America. Currently in its critical development phases this organization, founded by a working, successful plus-size model, has a mission to promote and support the exposure of women of size (defined by industry standards as sizes 10-20) in American media and culture. While still leaving out the truly large sized woman in the national spotlight such as American Idol’s Mandisa, this organization will provide much needed support to women beyond industry expected sizes zero to eight which are the accepted norms on our television sets, in our movies and in our advertising campaigns.


 

Fashion, Fashion, Fashion

There is no question that how we feel about ourselves and our bodies is affected by the media and culture streaming around us. Many of us even take our fashion cues from what we see on television and in the movies. As celebrities are growing painfully thinner, we as a population are growing larger. While eating disorders are on the rise in direct correlation to this media environment, plus-size fashion is beginning to reflect the trends. Only a few brick-and-mortars catering to plus-sizes are reliably found in most of America (and we all know which ones they are, too!), but more and more small design houses are popping up and the internet is a bonanza of choices.

One of the key elements everyone, including most mainstream fashion magazines, need to realize is that “plus size” isn’t really a body type. There aren’t many universal cuts or styles that look fabulous on all plus-size women. The reason for this is that just like our thinner sisters, we come in a variety of beautiful shapes, heights and proportions. Some plus-size women are graced with broad hips and generous booties, others have slim hips and bountiful busts, while still others have thick waists and fantastic legs. Some are tall and statuesque; others are short and petite (yes, that’s right….petite). Usually mainstream fashion magazines in an attempt to include fuller figures fall back on a simple black wrap dress, which is classy on most figure types but is hardly the only option. There is no reason you can’t wear the current trends and colors too! Like for any well-dressed woman, the trick is to create a visual balance of proportions and pleasing silhouette, highlighting your assets without overdoing it. This approach has nothing to do with dress size. It is about using color, line, texture and cut to create an hourglass line and bring the parts of you into focus that make you shine.

Some key basics to understand include the use of line and color. Vertical lines visually elongate the figure, chevron lines create curves and horizontal lines broaden the area visually. This can be used in texture and seaming, as well as actual striped patterning to sculpt the figure. For example an oblong type figure with medium to full bust, thick waist and hips may feel shapeless and blocky. The simple use of either ruched tops or chevron striped tops will magically create a visual “waist” adding curves to her figure. Meanwhile a full-hipped, small busted woman with proportionately slender waist may be prone to trying to balance her hips with baggy tops which lose her waist and make her look dumpy. Instead, she should be looking for broad scoop neck figure skimming knit tops that horizontally widen the shoulder and bust area while highlighting her waist, or choose a top with (gasp) horizontal stripes or color blocks across the chest.

Color is even more fun. First, it is a good idea to understand your own natural coloring and choose color palettes around your face that light up your features. The Color Me Beautiful system is one method people use to determine flattering colors. Second, using lights and darks is really the key. Dark does not equal black; and light does not equal white. Instead, the tone is relative to the other colors you are wearing. Darker areas minimize an area while lighter colors maximize the volume of an area that they wrap. Since your objective is balance, just because you love your bust if it is the largest part of you and you have narrow hips, don’t put the lightest color of your ensemble on your top. Use it on the bottom instead. Use the cut of the top or accessories to draw the eye to your bust-line instead, while keeping the top color relatively dark to the bottom. Other color tricks include adding height to shorter frames. A good tip for petites is that monochromatic palettes of any color or tone will give the wearer more visual height, using other tricks of cut, line and proportion to balance out figure shape.


Oops! She Did It Again

Some of the fashion mistakes we commonly see with our curvy sisters, unfortunately feed stereo-types of the way the general public perceives full-figured women. Here are a few of the more common:

 

Fashion Mistake: The bigger, the baggier, the longer, the better.

What It Says: “I hate my body and I want to hide.” or “I don’t care about myself.” You might think you are covering up your body insecurities with more fabric, while in fact you are drawing attention to the fact that you don’t like yourself. And if you are short, it is even worse, making you look dumpy.

Solution: Tall women can get away with more fabric than shorter women generally, so there is more leeway here for them. Pair body skimming styles with looser layers, don’t go with all loose and baggy. For example you might choose a more form fitting tank top layered under a flowing, open kimono, paired with slim leg trousers. Make sure to visually define the waist – either in the under layer beneath an open jacket or by belting a longer tunic. Long skirts look fantastic on tall figure types, but make sure you don’t add a bulky top over your skirt, especially not without a belt. If you are larger on top, with skinny legs, beware of the loose, billowing tops and skinny legging fashions coming into style this year. This look will do nothing but make you look like you are going to topple over. Instead use layers to bring the lines into balance, maybe pairing a mini-skirt over your leggings for an ultra-trendy look.


 

Fashion Mistake: Tight, tight, tight from head to toe.

What It Says: You might think this says “I’m one hot mama.” What it really says is “I’m needy of attention. Look at me!” Or it says “I refuse to acknowledge my size. I’m going to squeeze into two sizes too small…. if it kills me!”

Solution: While spandex is your friend, use it judiciously. A variation on the advice above about the mixture of tight and loose layers applies here. Wearing figure hugging jeans and a body conscious tee can look fabulous, as long as the tee isn’t so tight that the public can count your rolls. Whatever you do, don’t let your tummy hang out. This is un-attractive, no matter what your size. You might consider mixing in more structured pieces like jackets with great curve enhancing details like seaming, curved hemlines and shrunken proportions layered over longer tops to keep the figure enhancing curve appeal, without going over the top. Think about mixing tight and looser shapes together. For example, a fabulous tight halter top might look better paired with wide palazzo pants and strappy heels for evening, layering over some wonderful necklaces and earrings. You might even want to add a cute shrug to complete the look.

Fashion Mistake: How low can she go?

What It Says: If you think ultra low decolletages broadcasts extra body confidence, think again. This is a variation of “I’m needy of attention. Look at me!” or a desperate, “Please tell me I’m sexy.”

Solution: When you are fabulously full busted, you can indeed go much too low ending up looking cheap and not just sexy. This is one of those cases where more is not necessarily better. While there is absolutely no reason to be ashamed of your fabulous curves, keep in mind that you probably would like most strangers to look you in the eye when talking to you instead of being unable to help staring at your cleavage. Of course, there are some situations, such as an evening clubbing where lower is appropriate, but don’t take it too far. The bedroom is completely another story.

Sexy and va va voom in everyday life does not need to be in everyone’s face. It is inner centeredness and the way you carry yourself that truly marks you as a confident woman. Instead think about layering camisoles under wonderful wrap style blouses or mixing peek-a-boo sheer fabrics over lacy, sweet camis. Choose body conscious knit tops that do show some skin, but don’t show a lot of cleavage. Or, pick up a sexy corset style top to wear under a curvy jacket. You don’t need to lose the sex appeal or hide in a bag, just dial the cut back a notch or two. Don’t worry. If you know you’re fabulous the world will notice.


 

About the Author

Thea Politis is the Founder and Managing Editor of ElegantPlus.com, a fashion and lifestyle internet guide specializing in plus-sizes 12-34w and is a curvy woman herself. Her PhD level academic research specialized in jewelry, textiles, semiotics, social theory and the role of fashion in image and non-verbal communication. Combined with a sense that fashion should be available as a a form of self-expression for all sizes, large and small, this perspective is unique and empowering to the plus community. Her fashion flair and trained eye in color, proportion and aesthetics provides a distinctive background for plus fashion styling and editing.

 

 

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