The phrase plus-size rests on uneven terrain. At once it is a functional term, which saw its first uses in the 1940s, and which has historically been invoked by the fashion industry to distinguish clothing created for bigger bodies from normatively sized garments. On the other hand, plus-size has, in recent years, both become synonymous with the fat, female body itself, and is the discursive “ground zero” for debates emerging from within and outside the fashion industry about everything from beauty and body ideals, to consumer retail equity. One way to frame the problematic shift in use and the implications of the term is through a Foucauldian approach in acknowledging that ideas are not fixed. Rather, they change through time and across cultures, forcing the construction of meaning and, for example, having great implications in the definition of bodies. Thus, it is possible to further that while there have always been fat people and clothing to fit their bodies (as well as words to label and to describe both, including “stout,” “embonpoint” and “fuller-figured”), plus-size, as a contested and controversial consumer category and as a terminological shorthand for the fat, female body, is culturally and historically specific.
This working paper will invoke historical examples to identify the emergence and early use of the term plus-size in American fashion media, putting them in dialogue with visual and textual examples culled from contemporary (2000-present) mainstream, American fashion media—including editorial fashion spreads and advertisements from publications like Vogue, V, Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times “Style” section—as well as trade journals like Women’s Wear Daily. In doing so, I seek to “locate” plus-size as a mutable Foucaldian discursive formation that foregrounds the current anxieties surrounding the fat, female body in contemporary American society, as well as its marginal position as fashion’s “other.”