The Strange Economy of the Fatshion Industrial Complex

I was talking to my good friend Danica the other night about the seemingly unfair cost structure for plus-sized clothing. It’s fairly common knowledge that an item of plus size clothing costs more than its straight size counterpart, but why? Is it the cost of the cloth? A manufacturing difference? Availability? Not enough buyers? I decided to do my own pseudo-scientific investigation to find some answers.

First of all, is there even a large enough market to make plus sizes anything more than boutique? Well, elsewhere on the site I’ve cited sources pointing to the fact that over 1/3 of American women are classified as obese. Other research shows that an additional 1/3 of women are classified as overweight according to their BMI. I am reasonably sure that the nudist population doesn’t skew too dramatically toward us fatties, or at least not significantly enough as to have an impact on clothing demand. Essentially, two-thirds of ladies out there are shopping for a size 12 or above. Clearly, the problem isn’t having enough buyers; maybe there are too many buyers. It’s the first law of supply and demand, right? Let’s do some Google-fu and break it down.

My go-to cheap, non-thrifted clothing option throughout my kiddie-coaster weight fluctuations over the last 10 years had long been Old Navy. ON is the abusive boyfriend of the plus-sized clothing world. It has a plus section, and for a while it was in stores. It has now been relegated to online-only. Maybe because we fatties tarnish the brand? On their website, they advertise 288 dresses in straight sizes (XS-XXL) and 78 plus-sized dresses. That’s nearly a four-to-one ratio. FOUR-TO-ONE.

Target is another box store trying to appeal to the plus-size crowd (albeit ridiculously at times — remember the “manatee” incident?) What do their numbers look like?

Target's Dress Selection

Target’s Dress Selection

Target's Pant Selection

Target’s Pant Selection

Target's Top Selection

Target’s Top Selection

When I searched for women’s dresses on Target’s website, 282 of the tops were in women’s straight sizes (XS-XL) and 71 were in plus sizes (1X-4X). That’s a four-to-one ratio of straight-to-plus dresses. Pants have a similar ratio, with tops faring slightly better with a three-to-one ratio. OH, YAY! I AM SLIGHTLY LESS LIKELY TO FEEL BAD ABOUT MY TOP SELECTION!

What about the price differential? I think a lot of retailers have caught on to the fact that bitter fat chicks like myself do these sorts of comparisons, and have thusly renamed their different clothing items to make such comparisons difficult. I have stuck with basics to make the comparison process easier. Let’s look at Old Navy again:

Black t-shirts shouldn’t be very different, right?

Old Navy's straight-size V-neck tee

Old Navy’s straight-size V-neck tee

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 9.49.19 PM

Old Navy’s Plus-sized V-neck tee

Can I just say that it pisses me off that they use mannequins for the plus size clothing and actual people for the straight sizes?

The plus-sized tee is almost $7 more. It is literally seven dollars more to be born with big tits or various bedonkadonk. And it’s not even the most drastic sticker shock I’ve found! Let’s look at some more examples at different price points.

Nordstrom is a solid department store that sells a lot of high-quality basics, like this Eileen Fisher pencil skirt:

Eileen Fisher Pencil Skirts at Nordstrom

Eileen Fisher Pencil Skirts at Nordstrom

Notice that the petite and regular sizes cost the same, while the plus size skirt is $10 more. If it is a matter of increased fabric, shouldn’t the petite be less expensive?

Caslon Drawstring Maxi at Nordstrom

Caslon Drawstring Maxi at Nordstrom

Sandra Ingrish Tunic at Nordstrom

Sandra Ingrish Tunic at Nordstrom

Not only is the Sandra Ingrish top $14 more, it also comes in fewer colors. Again, the petite and regular sizes are the same.

Sandra Ingrish petite vs regular prices

Sandra Ingrish petite vs regular prices

Determined to figure out some rational reasons for the price differential, I redoubled my Google-fu efforts. I finally found a logical argument from an actual pattern-maker/designer:

When drafting a multi-size pattern for a garment, you start with what is called a base size. Ideally, this size falls in the middle of the range you’d like your garments to cover. For an XS through XL range, the base size is Medium. For a 0 to 16 range, the base would be an 8. If you grade correctly, you can hang you XS size right next to your XL size and they look the same, just larger/smaller. Sometimes proportions change a bit, but really the design should translate the same.

Let’s say you have a fantastic dress in an 8 and wonder, “Why isn’t it available in a 20, or a 22 ,or a 24!?!?” Well, typically when you grade your garment beyond a XL or a 16, the jump between sizes increases more than the jump between a size Medium to a Large. So to fit for a plus size, you have to start with a whole new base size that sits in the middle of the Plus size range. A good example of this at a retail location would be Lane Bryant, who doesn’t go smaller than a 12.

Essentially, what the author is saying is that plus-sizes require a whole new pattern, and cannot simply be upsized from an existing straight-size pattern. I guess it’s just unreasonable to expect a manufacturer to desi– OH WAIT WHAT?

Black Dress from Modcloth

Black Dress from ModCloth

Top from Modcloth

Top from ModCloth

Notice the price points for these items. Identical styles for a variety of sizes (albeit probably slightly different patterns) for the same price! ModCloth is not the most affordable online store, but I am heartened by their commitment to provide cute, quality items in a large range of sizes:

“A lot of vendors will encounter a challenge when trying to design for plus and stop there,” Technical Designer Goretti explained. “You want to feel flawless. You want to put it on, zip it up, and go out and not deal with too large arm holes or restricting fabric. When working with designers, I get to be your advocate to make sure what’s getting made ultimately is amazing — and not letting the limitations of fabric or patterns get in the way.”

ModCloth suffers the same problem regarding their ratio of regular-size to plus-size clothing. I did a search for dresses, and found 2,278 dresses in the XS-XL range. How many dresses in the 1X-4X range? 489. That ratio is worse than both Target AND Old Navy.

As far as I can tell, it’s possible for manufacturers to make plus size clothing that is cute and not overpriced… they just aren’t. There is a dearth of options. Designers and manufacturers can charge more because we will pay more, regardless of the ethical implications. I know that if I find something cute and well-fitting, I will buy the shit out of it in multiple colors because who knows when I will find something like it again? Not knowing if/when I’ll be able to find something that makes me feel cute and comfortable is manipulative and almost cruel. Despite my criticism of the plus-to-straight size ratios at most stores, at least it looks like the industry is finally moving in the right direction.

2 thoughts on “The Strange Economy of the Fatshion Industrial Complex

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