“It’s easy to be fashionable when you’re thin”: The Australian fashion industry’s sizeism problem

The fashion industry’s precarious relationship with curvy women has a complicated history –  from former Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld’s documented disdain for larger women, to athleisure chain stores including Lululemon, whose employees have been accused of “fat shaming”.

In Australia, standard chain fashion stores cap at an Australian size 14 or 16 depending on the brand. Considering that the average Australian woman wears a size 12 or above, there’s a significant discrepancy between supply and demand.

Alexia Frangos is a freelance writer and co-founder of 808 Threads, a curve dress hire website committed to providing size 12-22 women with luxury dresses to hire. Frangos says the business was born out of personal exasperation with the lack of curve options on offer when she was looking to hire a gala dress in 2013.

“I was getting frustrated that there were no hire boutiques that catered to anyone past a size 12 or 14. I did see a lot of hire businesses popping up on Instagram and Facebook, and I got frustrated that they only catered towards size 6 and 8.”

Two and a half years later, 808 Threads remains one of the only Australian dress hire platforms to accommodate curvy clients.

Fashion design graduate and supply coordinator Eliza Coventry argues that interest in curve ranges has increased, as “consumers are becoming more and more vocal about the gap in the market.”

But what has actually been achieved so far?

Forever New introduced a curve range stocked online and in key flagship stores, but it’s unavailable in smaller stores. Australian brand Cotton On has extended their in-store size range to 16, and this year released an exclusively online range entitled Curve with their mainstream styles adapted for sizes 16-24.

However, consumers and members of the curve community alike criticise the accessibility of this fashion.

“They’ve just missed the mark on that unfortunately… they’re just a bit off in terms of you should just have it [instore]. You’ll get heaps more sales if they had them in the physical stores. There’s definitely enough room to put them there, there’s no doubt about that,” says Frangos.

This highlights the barriers curvy women face in accessing fashionable clothing in Australia.

These include having to shop exclusively online and pay extra money for shipping and/or return postage when purchasing clothes from mainstream brands whose largest size isn’t big enough.

Finding occasion wear requires a significant amount of premeditation. It isn’t possible to just pop into your local shopping centre and find an outfit for that night. You have to take into consideration the factors of shipping cost and time, lack of options freely available, and suitability of the garment for the occasion.

American fashion journalist Lindsay Schallon refers to this as “invisible labour”, the extra effort women have to go to in order to source stylish outfits.

“It’s easy to be fashionable when you’re thin,” Schallon says.

Some have called for a clothing standard to be re-implemented in Australia, similar to that which exist in France, the UK, Spain and the USA.

During her fashion design degree, Coventry recalls that when designing a garment for mainstream fashion, they were instructed to use a size 10 to work out the fit. This is why a size 8 or 10 is referred to as the “sample size”. However, the “lack of standardised sizing in Australia is how different brands can end up with drastically different sizes for a so-called 10.

Within Australia, there’s discrepancies in sizing between major fashion retailers, documented in many people’s experiences. A woman who wears a size 10 in one brand can find herself in anything from a size 8 to 14 across different labels. It adds even more obstacles for curvy women, who find themselves sized out of particular brands of clothing.

“It’s probably a utopian dream, but I would love for the Australian fashion industry to have a universal size guide,” says Frangos.

Currently, Australia doesn’t have an established clothing size guide or any size regulation for adults, despite a decade of debate on the issue.

Walk into any fashion store across the country and you’ll likely bare witness to the many anxieties that come with clothes shopping, particularly for sizes at the end of the mainstream spectrum.

Customers often express a level of ingrained shame when asking for larger sizes, insisting that “last year they fit in X size”. One season’s resizing of the denim (moving some styles a full size smaller) can be cause for a flurry of confusion, chagrined exchanges, embarrassment for customers and a loss of potential profit for the company.

Customers use fatphobic slurs against themselves in change rooms. Other shoppers express their dismay that there’s nothing that suitable for them, or lament the fact they couldn’t shop alongside their friends.

The industry’s excuses are wearing thin, there is clear demand for more inclusive and consistent sizing in mainstream fashion.

“It’s definitely a market that hasn’t been put to its full potential at all, there’s a lot of money that people could be making but they just refuse to even think about it and participate,” says Frangos.

Image by Rachael Sharman