Plus-size fashion has gotten a bad rap. Over the past several years, activists, fatshionistas and industry leaders seeking to capitalize on the body positivity movement have advocated for inclusive sizing and for abolishing the term plus-size altogether. Plus-size as a material and discursive construct, they argue, marginalizes consumers and further entrenches fat stigma, and they aren’t wrong. Long tucked away in the dark corners of department stores and ghettoized online, plus-size fashions are conventional, conformist and, above all, moralizing. As anthropologist Mary Douglas famously wrote in her famous text, Purity and Danger (1966), humans are uncomfortable with porous or ambiguous margins. Thus, the natural response to the disorderly fat, female body—a body that so exceeds Western definitions of what constitutes a beautiful body—is to bring order to it. Through body-obscuring cuts and fat-concealing flourishes, plus-size fashions contain fat flesh and hide big bodies that threaten to breach the margins of fashionable dress.
It is undeniable that the plus-size fashion industry has a long way to go in levelling the sartorial playing field, so to speak. However, what could be gained if we unpacked and problematized our kneejerk tendency to villainize plus-size? What if we considered plus-size dress as a contemporary form of armor—one which makes the fat, female body decent and socially-legible within a culture that so abhors fat? This paper will do just this—reframing plus-size dress as the raw material for fashioning “positive” forms of fat, female embodiment. With fashion and style guides targeted at women whose bodies are considered beyond or outside of normative sizing systems (today, a US size 14 or above), and which span the twentieth century, I will bring to light the empowering discourses of plus-size self-fashioning.