The first mentions of a “stoutwear industry”—the historical predecessor to plus-size fashion—appeared within the pages of Women’s Wear in 1915. These early calls by industry professionals to pool the collective knowledge of large-size garment manufacturers in the creation of a specialized sector of the burgeoning ready-to-wear industry emerged from the observation that nascent ready-to-wear sizing systems, which privileged standard bodies, had rendered the so-called “stout” woman fashion’s other. Beyond the issue of good fit, however, these early discussions of the potentialities of stoutwear were bolstered by a secondary, perhaps more curious concern—that of how to make the stout body appear more slender.
Drawing upon the notion that the discourse of stoutwear—and specifically what I deem its “slenderness imperative”—was systematically applied to various fashion practices, and namely to advertising and garment design, this paper employs Michel Foucault’s preoccupation with how power is “productive.” Bridging the ontological divide between discourse and practice, it will consider how the discourse of stoutwear was productive of its material output, but will also show the role these practices played in “making” the stout body. From the seemingly trivial (such as the way the stout body was illustrated within advertisements for stoutwear) to the more obviously enduring and far-reaching (as in the deeply entrenched notion that garments for larger women should slenderize), here I will examine the ways discourse materialized outside of the rarefied spaces of the professional print media.
Although historical in scope, paper will conclude with reflections on how the legacies of stoutwear endure through the plus-size fashion industry’s preoccupation with “figure flattery.”