Women sizes 13 to 20 are going to have a great 2013. OK, there is no size 13. But this will be a fashion year of note for women size 14 to well beyond size 20. That’s because plus-size womenswear is undergoing a revolution that is bringing to market more of what is desperately needed: choice. Much as short women long lamented the atrocities of petite clothes (elasticized waistbands and a preponderance of beige polyester), plus-sized women have campaigned for prettier, better-fitting garments. The fashion world a) noticed; b) saw an underserved market; and c) took action and designed clothes with different silhouettes and fabrics.
Ralph Lauren has just hired Robyn Lawley to be the company’s first plus-sized model. “E! Fashion Police” officer Kelly Osbourne is working on a clothing line that includes plus-sized clothes. Rumor has it that Adele might be designing a plus-size line for Burberry. Kardashian Kurves, a new line of plus-size denim from Kourtney, Kim and Khloe, will soon be available and Jessica Simpson’s is well established in stores.
But no clothes on any rack will solve the fashion problem facing all women: reality. We must know and admit to our size. Bust lines, waistlines, pant length; if we have gained or lost weight or height, we should find clothes for the bodies we now have. Nothing too tight, too loose, too short or too long will ever look good on anyone.
“It’s the game women — and some men — play with themselves,” says Barbara Shapiro, owner of Harriet’s Innerwear in South Philadelphia. “We convince ourselves that we are a size 8 or a 10 or a medium or large, when we really are a 12, a large or extra large. It’s like you can’t admit to yourself that you are a bigger size, even when the clothes are telling you the truth because they don’t look good on you.”
And the truth, experts say, is that there are plenty of fabulous clothes that look fabulous on plus-sized women. One of those experts is Elizabeth Hall Ayerle, a fashion designer with a degree from Parsons School of Design in New York, home base of “Project Runway.” She is the owner of ShopElizabethHall.com, the online version of Fresh Ayer, her now-shuttered and much-missed boutique in Wayne. Ayerle has clothes for women of all sizes, but specializes in plus sizes. Her fashion aesthetic is traditional chic; her line has button-down blouses, flowing tunics, fitted pants and tasteful jewelry. What is arguably the show-stopper: the fit of these clothes.
“I’m a big believer that, while you want to work in trends, you need to first focus on fit,” Ayerle says. “The most important measurement is through the back and shoulders. That’s a challenge, because a lot of women look at their fronts in the mirror and don’t turn around to see their backs. But if the fabric pulls or is too voluminous in the back, it will make the whole look unflattering.
“However, it often happens that a size fits the chest and shoulders, but is too big for the rest of torso,” Ayerle says. “The solution is tailoring, which will create a fitted and flattering silhouette. Have a tailor bring in the waist and wherever else there is excess fabric.”
Or, buy one of her tops. Ayerle’s tunics, blouses and button-downs are generous in the shoulders and bust, but slimmed through the side seams. Her blouses are especially feminine, flirty and flattering. There are several style secrets to the blouse, Ayerle says. Underneath the blouse is a fitted tank top made of a knit fabric that moves and breathes, but provides support. Topping the tank is a sheer, chiffon blouse. “It’s a fitted silhouette — thanks to the tank top — with a sheer overlay that is flowy but fitted and also feminine,” Ayerle explains.
Her tops have another plus-size secret: length. “Many women make the mistake of using the top to cover their tush,” Ayerle says. “If the top goes below your rear end, it makes you look bigger than you are, and for two reasons. First, it hides the natural end of your tush, so it makes your whole backside look big. Second, it cuts off the tops of your legs and makes you look short. The solution is to have blouses cover three-quarters of the tush, but show the curve of the last quarter of it. It’s one of those counterintuitive fashion principles that really streamlines the figure.”
Where the butt-ending blouse rule doesn’t apply: tunics. The reason to wear tunics, Ayerle says, is that they pair perfectly with leggings. Think leggings will only emphasize what needs diminishing? Not so, Ayerle says. “Leggings are a ‘do’ for most women, including plus-sizes,” she says. “I am pear-shaped, which is the hardest figure type to fit. Leggings work for me, especially the thicker leggings — like mine, which are made of organic bamboo — because they provide support. With that, I recommend wearing a tunic that comes to mid-thigh. The reason it works is because it covers the heavier part of your body, but contrasts the look with a slim leg line. Then, wear leggings with boots and the visual heaviness of that balances the whole look.”
Brandy Barksdale, a fashion consultant at Suzanne Roberts in Center City, also recommends the leggings-tunic-boots look. “The general rule for everyone is to have the clothes be fitted on either the top or the bottom — definitely in one place and definitely not in both,” Barksdale says. “The mistake that many plus-size women make is to wear baggy tops and bottoms. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, they don’t want to deal, so that’s what they buy. But those clothes make the woman look big all over, even bigger than what she actually is. What is needed is definition on either the top or the bottom.”
Clothes provide structure for women of all sizes. The two best examples of that are the jacket and the A-line skirt. “My No. 1 fashion trick is a fitted jacket or blazer,” Ayerle says. “It gives structure to the shoulders and torso by creating defined lines. It also balances the top half of the body with the bottom half. Listen, there’s a reason that men have been wearing them for centuries.”
The A-line skirt is another counterintuitive fashion secret. “The first thing it does is accentuate the waist while making it look smaller,” Barksdale says. “The second thing it does is flow away from the hips, creating a triangle that camouflages the hips and thighs. The eye follows the skirt, not the body. Basically, you’re avoiding the ice cream cone effect.”
Straight skirts can work, too, as long as they are long. “An ankle-length skirt creates a straight line from hip to toe,” Barksdale says. “Because that is a slim bottom, pair it with volume on the top. A chunky sweater or a flowy top are great choices.”
Another trick: collars and neck lines. While some plus-sized women may think that covering the chest and neck are the way to go, that adds more fabric and deletes structure. “Don’t box in your face,” Barksdale says. “Don’t cover your chest. Don’t wrap up the goodness. Try an Oxford with a longer collar, a shirt with a deep V-neck, or a long cowl neck. They create longer necklines and show the collarbones, which are one of the sexiest parts of women.”
On the topic of sexy parts of women and fashion secrets, the not-so-secret subject of shapewear can be a plus-sized woman’s best friend — when worn correctly.
“Let me just say one thing: Even the very best shapewear will not turn a size 18 into a size 14. The stuff is amazing, but it’s not magic.” So says Farrell Friedenberg, owner of Jay Ann Intimates in Huntingdon Valley.
Shapiro, of Harriet’s Innerwear, agrees. “The most important thing is to buy clothes that fit your body as it really is, then use foundation garments to smooth the look,” she says. “In fact, I often have clients buy their support garments first, then go shopping. I really recommend that. Otherwise, you’re working backwards and trying to find something that fits the design of the clothes and fits you into them.”
But Shapiro and Friedenberg differ in their foundation garments of choice. Shapiro advocates the advantages of girdles. “I’ve seen thousands of bodies in both girdles and shapewear and I can tell you that girdles do a better job,” she says. “Microfiber and other materials can only smooth out and hold in so much. They can’t do what a girdle does. And, no matter how well you put on the shapewear, there is a slight tendency that it may roll down. There is no chance of one of the high-top girdles that I carry rolling down. There is one bone in front and one on each side. The bones bend and flex when you do. They aren’t going anywhere. The fabric is very, very breathable. It’s semi-transparent, but very strong.
“The only reason I wouldn’t recommend a girdle is if a woman is wearing a dress that wouldn’t allow for it,” Shapiro says. “Some materials are too thin and the boning will show through, and some dresses don’t have appointments to camouflage the boning. But other than that, I say it’s girdles all the way.”
Friedenberg carries both girdles and shapewear and says that if shapewear is misbehaving, it’s probably the wrong size. (See “reality check.”) “If it’s rolling down or up or anywhere, it’s too small,” she says. “This happens all the time with bras, too. Women often insist that they are a 38D. I put them in a 40C and they look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh. That’s much better.’ ”
Another issue with shapewear is choosing the right style. There are a bevy of styles, from tush tamers to capris, tank tops to full bodysuits. They come in different fabric strengths, from light to heavy control. “Women have different tolerances for shapewear,” Shapiro says. “Some women come in and say, ‘I want to be comfortable,’ just smoothed out. Other women say, ‘I don’t care if I can breathe. Pull me in until it hurts.’ ”
Shapiro and Friedenberg say that the waist cincher is their most popular style. “It pulls in the back and the front and smoothes the middle section,” Shapiro explains. “Another popular option is to add a vest to that. The vests go up the back and sides of the body, holding in two-thirds of the torso.”
Another thing that Shapiro and Friedenberg agree upon: They don’t love Spanx. While that might be heresy in some circles, the women say that Spanx’s material is too dense, making it unnecessarily heavy. “Breathability of the garment is paramount,” Shapiro says. “Not only does it have to move with you, it shouldn’t make you too hot.”
“Shvitzing in shapewear is a real bummer,” Friedenberg says, “and it only makes a full-figured woman even more uncomfortable and self-conscious.”
In lieu of Spanx, Shapiro recommends the brand Body Wrap, which was created by a company that got its start in swimwear. Friedenberg favors Va Bien, Sassybax, Yummie Tummie and Wacoal — especially its new iPant. “Wacoal’s marketing says that the iPant is made of Novarel Slim, a nylon fabric with capsules of caffeine that break down cellulite as you wear them,” Friedenberg says. “I’m a bit skeptical of that, but there’s no denying that the iPants are very comfortable and very effective and made of a very thin material that is undetectable under clothes.”
About shapewear, Ayerle says, “If a woman wants it, then go for it. But there is a lot that can be done with the cut and fit of clothes so that shapewear isn’t needed. I’m a size 16, and I have learned that clothes are not something that full-size women should avoid. We have to investigate our options, embrace certain styles and learn what makes us look and feel best.”
“That’s what women of all sizes have to do,” Barksdale says. “Because there are plenty of skinny bitches out there who look awful in their clothes.”
This article originally appeared in the November, 2012 issue of Inside Magazine.
Mimi James believes that what looks best on a woman is self confidence, accessorized with self-respect.