Here at The Gloss, we talk a lot about plus-size women’s role in the fashion industry today. We cover body-positive fashion campaigns, movements, designers, and more, and more often than not, we find that those wonderful things are often lacking. It begs the question: if plus-size representation is, if not rare, than inadequately present in today’s industry, then how was it before? How did we get here? And how can we talk about it in a way that makes it more than just a spectacle?
The Masters of Arts Candidates at New York University’s (NYU) Visual Culture: Costume Studies Program are doing just that in their exhibition, “Beyond Measure: Fashion and the Plus-Size* Woman.” According to a press release,
“The exhibition will explore the shifting discourse surrounding the plus-size woman in relation to fashion and the body. Through a series of objects, the exhibit will examine the plus-size woman’s place within fashion and its defining entity, the fashion industry, from the perspectives of designers, manufacturers, the general public, and the individual women themselves.”
Though the exhibition is small—there are only about eight objects on display—it spans a vast timeline, from the mid-18th century to modern day, through photos, portraits, dresses, and more. With an overall goal to “present the plus-size woman taking her place as a women of fashion in fashion,” I was excited to hear about how to exhibition came to be, and how the minds behind it all think it could impact the fashion industry as a whole. I had the opportunity to speak to Lauren Wilson, one of the student curators of the exhibit, to learn more. Read on for our full interview!
The Gloss: What made you all decide to focus on plus-size women in fashion for this exhibition?
Lauren Wilson: The Costume Studies M.A. program focuses on research in fashion in a broad aesthetic and cultural context. One of the topics that we focus on in our History of Costume courses is how the body interacts with fashion, as they are inextricably linked. A lot of the students who are co-curators on this exhibit have really taken an interest in how fashion manipulates, distorts and greatly influences the image of the body. So that was our starting point—fashion and the body.
We really wanted to also tackle a topic that was relevant to the dialogue of fashion today, but also something that has not received a lot of academic attention, and therefore, given curatorial attention. The topic of plus-size fashion has been “trending” on blogs and social media, but also had never been given the proper space to be explored through the lens of fashion academia. We knew it was going to be a tough topic—it is a charged subject, but we felt it was a conversation that deserved to be started in fashion academia.
TG: Where did you find the pieces, and how long did it take to curate the whole thing? What’s your favorite piece in the exhibit?
LW: The exhibit is actually a class that meets throughout the fall semester with the final project being the physical exhibit at 80WSE. The class is made up of seven students who are responsible for procuring their own object for the exhibit. How we sourced each object was up to each student. There is a garment from the 1930s that a student found on Etsy, while another student found a photograph dating from the 19th century from a private collector. The experience really varied for each student.
I think it is difficult to really choose a favorite object in the exhibit as they all work together to explore the topic, but the object that really guided the whole class’s thought process when it came to choosing objects was an 18th-century portrait of Madame de Saint Maurice by Joseph Siffred Duplessis which is currently on display at the Met. It is a beautiful portrait of a larger woman fashionably dressed for the time in a white muslin negligee with pink silk ribbons. She became the inspiration and the “poster girl” for our exhibit. She encompasses much of what we were trying to convey throughout the whole exhibit, the plus-size woman not being antithetical to fashion but seamlessly melding with it.
TG: What time period do you think represented the biggest shift in discourse surrounding plus-size women in the fashion world?
LW: I think popular knowledge likes to place a lot of attention on the changing body image of women in the 1950s, when there was an embrace of a larger figure, but really what we found most interesting was the discourse that surrounded the body in the late half of the 19th century. In the 19th century, fashion is highly aware of how to manipulate the body to fit a “fashionable” figure. Most popular would be the corset. We also see advances in medicine and an interest in sport, all which contributed to a hyper-awareness towards the body and its image. One of the most interesting objects is a photograph of “A Ticket to Nettie the Fat Girl,” from the early 20th century. We see the cultural conscious viewing unfamiliar bodies, bodies not fitting into the fashionable ideal, being seen as morally undesirable and inferior.
TG: Tracy Jenkins, the curatorial director for the exhibit, said the following in the press release for the exhibition: “After careful consideration from the curators of the exhibit, the term ‘plus-size’ is used here for its association with fashion, the primary focus of this exhibition.” In this day and age, as I’m sure you’re aware, the term “plus-size” has a certain stigma attached. Were you afraid of alienating any of your patrons by using this terminology? And similarly, why do you think there’s such a stigma attached to what, really, is just a term?
LW: Trying to figure out the vocabulary we were going to use in the exhibit was one of the largest discussions we had after we decided this was to be our topic. We actually filled an entire whiteboard with different terms that have been used today, and throughout history. This included curvy, full-figured, plus-size, plump, voluptuous, Rubenesque, stout—and the list goes on—are all either biased or even demeaning to certain groups. We ended up deciding on plus-size, as Tracy said, because of its association with the fashion industry. This topic of plus-size could really be seen at from so many different angles, but at the end of the day, we are a program that focuses on fashion so this is why we chose this term. However, if you look at the formal title of the exhibit, “Beyond Measure: Fashion and the Plus-Size* Woman,” you will notice we included an asterisk next to the word plus-size. This was to de-note that we understand that there are a myriad of terms that are used to describe this subject. We wanted to let people know how aware we are of the stigma attached to this word, and most other words we could have chosen.
TG: What, in your opinion, is the biggest problem with representation of plus-size women in the fashion industry today?
LW: I think one of the biggest problems has been their lack of representation as being truly a part of an aspirational fashion image. There are the main fashion weeks, and the large fashion media outlets, both print and online, who still present images of what is considered the ideal image on standard-sized models. Then there is just an entirely separate category for the plus-size woman. She is seen somewhat pushed to the side, in terms of mainstream fashion. It is almost like a separate but equal mentality. What is exciting though is that is beginning to change. Take Ashley Nell Tipton, the winner of this season’s Project Runway. She can designs for both the plus-size woman and the standard-sized woman equally as beautifully. It just so happens that her winning NYFW show was designed entirely for the plus-sized woman, but it wasn’t treated as a “plus-size collection,” but rather a beautifully made and presented collection at the highest realm of fashion no matter what the body type.
TG: If people had to walk away with one major thing to think about from Beyond Measure, what would you want that to be?
LW: One of the reasons we chose this topic was of course because of its relevance today. It has become a topic which we read about everywhere in the media. It is not a new topic though. There have always been larger bodies or bodies who don’t fit the fashionable image of the time, but all women, no matter what size they are, have always had to clothe themselves and thus they have always actively participated in fashion. We really want people to leave this exhibit recognizing that the plus-size woman, while not always given the proper platform, have always had a space in fashion and it has ebbed and flowed just like everything else within the fashion system.
Beyond Measure is on view at 80WSE, NYU Steinhardt’s gallery space, from January 13 to February 3, 2016, and its opening event will take place on Thursday, January 28 at 5:00pm. Click here to learn more!
(Photos: Courtesy of Ya’Ara Keydar, Student Curator for Beyond Measure)