High Fashion, haute coture, fashion week, the magazines… fashion is almost it’s own religion. I often equate haute coture to painting to explain some concepts to the less knowledgeable on the topic. Fashion is an art where about 100 years ago or so, a certain size was selected as the “right” size and all else is mocked as not being true fashion. It’s like painters getting together and deciding that only canvases that are 11″ by 17″ can really be considered serious, true, fine art. Every once in a while someone will use a larger canvas to “make a statement” but it could end their career unless it’s something completely sublime. Just imagine that for a few moments. Ridiculous, isn’t it? Imagine telling Jackson Pollock that he’s not a real artist because not only are his paintings too large, they’re also “just paint splatters”. Or deciding that Michelangelo wasn’t really an artist because, hey, he just painted some ceiling, and it was in some church anyway. Can you imagine a world where visual art had been stunted in such a way?
You’re already living in that kind of world, but chances are you’ve never thought about it. Roughly 100 years ago, the slender, waif-like model began to be the accepted norm in the fashion world. With few changes through the years, mostly to further restrict the “look” that was considered “right”, this same model has dominated the world of fashion. We, as a culture, have dictated that high fashion can only take place when the “canvas” (the body displaying the clothing/art) meets very rigid size requirements.
That one stipulation has had massive effects on the art of clothing design, and on our culture as a whole. Now some may quote the whole “art imitates life” bit at me, but in the case of fashion it’s more of a life imitates art situation. Because the vast majority of women value looking fashionable (to some degree), our culture puts tremendous pressure on women to look as much like the fashion models as possible. As a result, millions of women are trying to achieve the size 2 or 0 look, when in reality the average American woman is a size 14. Television, music, film, and other pop culture have embraced the tiny sizes of high fashion, so women are confronted with a visual world where those smaller sizes are the “norm” and the actual average size is “huge”. This leads to an amazing amount of distorted thinking and imagery. So while these fashion models fall into the narrow end of the bell curve at one extreme end of the spectrum, we’re led to believe that the vast majority of people can achieve this look, or close to it.
And in turn, since the one end of the bell curve is seen as the “right” size and completely achievable by everyone, those who fall at the actual average or above are downright vilified and completely excluded by this art form. So much so that there is a commonly held belief that fashion design students simply have no interest in designing for “plus size” customers… “plus size” being anything over a size 10… so they have no interest in designing for the average American woman. But I wonder if perhaps they haven’t created an environment where that is true by not taking student submissions designed for an average or plus size body seriously. Because these people don’t see “plus size” fashion as haute coture, students are forced to draw sketches depicting this tiny size ideal in order to be taken seriously enough to be admitted to the school. Actual designers will tell you that the difference between designing for fashion models and designing for “plus size” is like comparing apples to paprika… they’re extraordinarily different. So I would submit to you that while a person might be a talented designer under the current paradigm, they may not have the faintest clue how to be a talented “plus size” designer, and the current fashion school curriculum does nothing to change that. In turn, a talented “plus size” designer may not thrive on designing for current fashion models and thus not be able to gain entrance to fashion design school… where they would receive no support or assistance in developing their talents under the current methodology anyway.
I tried searching for a plus size fashion design program. After typing “fashion design school for plus sizes” in a Google search, I was unable to come up with a single program meant to train people specifically to design “plus size” clothing. I’d like to take a moment to remind you that in the fashion world, “plus size” is anything over a size 10, and that the average American woman is a size 14. So in reality, I was unable to find a fashion design program aimed at designing clothing for an average size woman. That even further excludes what is commonly termed “plus size” in clothing stores, i.e. anything over a size 20. The one program I found that even mentioned “plus size” in one of their class descriptions lumped “plus size” in with also learning how to adjust designs for juniors and petites. One class, one semester long, that lumps “plus size” in with two other special size groups. Let’s be generous and assume that a semester is 12 weeks long. At best, 4 weeks of a single class’ time in a two year program are devoted to “plus size”… and from what I understand from fashion students, they are unable to practice “plus size” in any of their other design classes… projects must be done on the “standard” mannequin that is a size 2.
No wonder “plus size” fashion is in such a crisis. I was considering going back to school to get training in fashion design to make my dream of a plus size clothing line that is fashionable and accessible to many sizes a reality. But now I know that it would be pointless. I have no interest in learning how to design for a size 2 model. I don’t want to waste 2 years of my time, and thousands of dollars on a training program that doesn’t let me practice the skills in the way that I plan to use them. Thankfully I’m rather good at self directed learning. So I’ll take the pattern-drafting texts my grandmother gave me (she took flat pattern drafting classes in the 70’s to help her learn to alter patterns for my mother who was in a full body brace to correct a bad case of scoliosis) and just work through the exercises myself. Why not just purchase any other textbooks I need and learn on my own? Maybe someday we can develop a specific plus size fashion design school and start training designers to work in that area from the start. Until then I’ll be self taught.