Finally! Fashion Students Create a Plus-Size Dress Form

Illustration for article titled Finally! Fashion Students Create a Plus-Size Dress Form

It's pretty obvious that most mainstream fashion has a plus-size problem. This is perhaps epitomized by fact that the "fatkini" sold out instantly — when the needs of plus-sized women are considered by designers (which occurs fare more rarely than it should), the clothing in question is often woefully understocked — or it's ill-fitting. Cornell apparel design sophomores Brandon Wen and Laura Zwanziger attempted to remedy this problem by designing their own plus-size line and realized something interesting in the process: although it's difficult enough to find full-figured mannequins to design clothing on, it's nearly impossible to find realistic full-figured mannequins.


According to the Cornell Chronicle:

So few clothes are made exclusively for larger women that there’s a scarcity of full-figured mannequins available, and the few that exist resemble crudely scaled-up versions of thinner women of Barbie-like proportions.

This is why, as Zwanzinger notes, “A lot of the clothes [for plus-size women] are really just sized up from smaller proportions, which fit really strangely." Not wanting to contribute to the problem, the duo teamed up with department professor Susan Ashdownin order to analyze thousands of 3-D body scans of women and create a prototype of a "pear-shaped, size 24" dress form.

“Instead of just scaling up something designed for a different-sized woman, or even thinking about clothing as something to disguise a body or make a body look different than it is, the students sought to celebrate shape as it really is,” says Ashdown. Using a dress form that actually looks like a real woman should seem like an obvious idea; the fact that it's innovative to design clothing on a mannequin that reflects reality is more than a little troubling. The attitude that the plus-sized body must be treated as some sort of variant of the glorified "thin body" serves to normalize an unachievable standard of beauty. The belief that larger bodies must be disguised because they're somehow shameful is unhelpful, punitive, and regressive. It's this kind of tacit approval of fat-phobia that's responsible for our culture of rampant body shaming.

Another important thing to note: the spending power of the plus-sized market is formidable. According to Zwanzinger, plus-size women hold 28 percent of purchasing power for apparel and accessories, but their spending only accounts for 17 percent of purchases. To revisit the "fatkini" fiasco, it's clear that there's a huge demand for attire that flatters (and doesn't merely seek to hide!) full figures. Thus, if the desire to not be a hoard of uninformed, ignorant asshats will not move the mainstream fashion industry, maybe the dulcet reasoning of capitalism will.

As Zwanzinger so eloquently puts it: “Issues of health aside, we’re all different body shapes and body proportions. Each person deserves to have clothing designed for them as they are, not as they relate to some abstract industry shape.” Amen to that.


"Fashion students create outfits for plus-sized women" [Cornell Chronicle]

Image via sangkhom sangkakam/Shutterstock.


Stephan Zielinski

They're still going to run into the same old trouble when they take the clothes off the form and try to put them onto people. Skinny people are all approximately the same shape as each other— the minimum required by the skeleton and internal organs, plus enough muscle to traipse around— which is why that end of the clothing market uses dress forms (and rescaled patterns) that are also all basically the same shape. All the rest of us, though, carry our extra weight in different places. There's a lot more variation from person to person out where we are— even between (for instance) two specific people who are the same weight and the same height.

The fashion students needed to analyze thousands of scans rather than just measuring one person because that's what you have to do to come up with an "average" of a bunch of diverse bodies. Unfortunately, the probability of any particular person having an average bust for their combination of height and weight AND an average waist for their combination AND an average set of hips for their combo is pretty low.

It's not like capitalism is new, or this is the first century to notice that half the population is of above average weight and yet still buys clothes. One of the reasons clothing for the heavier half of the market is expensive, ill-fitting, and of limited selection is the linear scaling breaks down. A manufacturer who wants to (for example) make a specific dress for the lighter 50% of the market can scale the garment linearly through a dozen specific sizes and fit most people through that range. To truly fit the other half, though, would require one line with an upscaled bust, another with an upscaled waist, another with upscaled hips, and still more lines to cover all the combinations thereof.

Most manufacturers don't bother; they put out a few uniformly-upscaled-from-an-"average" garments that fit a fraction of the people, note that they don't sell well (because the probability of any specific garment fitting any specific person is low, as they have to get lucky thrice), and give up.

Obviously, there are still manufacturers who try— it's not like there's nothing in a Lane Bryant but boxes of safety pins and bolts of muslin. But the need to keep relatively large inventories (because a specific garment that fits a specific woman of height H and weight W well is surprisingly unlikely to fit another woman of height H and weight W) forces prices up, and the slow turnover tends to lead to conservatism of style— which often becomes dowdiness. Capitalism is doing what it can, as it ever has done— but with one half of the market being so much easier to make a profit off with less manufacturing, the other half of the market is kinda doomed to be relatively underserved.

This might change if the artificial intelligence people ever manage to build a sufficiently inexpensive mechanical seamstress, so a clothier really could run off a garment to fit a specific person's measured idiosyncrasies. But for the moment, seamstressing is semi-skilled labor and tailoring is skilled labor; the non-skinny dressy women I've known have had to buy something close, take it to a tailor, and pay out a lot of money.