The release of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue every year is a significant event in the fashion industry. It’s an event that rarely made it onto the mainstream news, however ... until Robyn Lawley featured in the 2015 edition. Robyn Lawley was the first plus-size model to grace the magazine’s pages in its over 50-year history.

This shows progress in the attitudes of the fashion and media industries towards curvy women. It’s also a testament to the growing strength of the plus-size fashion industry and the increasing confidence of plus-size women. However, it also highlights the challenges that plus-size women still face every day, not least because it took until 2015 for one of the most famous magazines in the world to include a model who is representative of the majority of the global female population.

What is Plus-Size Fashion?

There is no universal definition of plus-size fashion, and it is a term that often causes confusion. For example, the Oxford Dictionary defines plus size as clothing for women "of a size larger than the normal range". As you will see below, however, "normal" women (the majority of women) wear clothes considered by the fashion industry as being plus-size. Therefore, they are not necessarily larger than the “normal range”. This, of course, begs the questions: what is normal and who decides what normal looks like?

A better definition is that plus-size fashion is clothing for women who are larger than the women on whom the traditional fashion industry typically focuses. This means clothing in Australian sizes 14 to 26.

The Days Before Plus-Size Fashion

There has always been fashion, but the modern fashion industry traces its roots back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. This was a time when production methods were becoming more modernised and streamlined, and there was a standardisation of sizes. This standardisation was created by manufacturers, but it is possible to argue that this then impacted society’s perception of women.

In general, there is a trend of women getting bigger in terms of weight, height and dress size. That said, since even before those early days when sizes were first standardised, there has always been diversity in women’s size. This is most obvious when looking at different cultural groups. Despite this, plus-size clothing was an afterthought and didn't feature as an option for many designers and manufacturers.

This issue was explored in a recent exhibition at New York University in the US. The exhibition was titled Beyond Measure: Fashion and the Plus-Size* Woman. The * is to signify the ambivalence of the exhibition’s organisers around the use of the term “plus-size” —they debated using other terms before settling on this description.

Ya’ara Keydar was the curator of the exhibition and carried out a lot of the research to gauge the shifting discourse surrounding the bigger woman in relation to fashion and the body. She is a fashion historian and currently teaches Fashion in Museums at NYUSPS in the Center for Applied Liberal Arts. Keydar told the US newspaper Metro at the time of the Beyond Measure: Fashion and the Plus-Size* Woman exhibition: “Sizes were standardized in the second half of the 19th century, and everything that exceeded it became marginalized. Plus-size garments require specialty, they require a very thorough understanding of pattern-making. You can’t just enlarge a pattern and gradually hope that it will fit your plus-size model, you have to spend a lot of resources on that, and that was something that many brands just weren’t ready to invest in.”

Plus Size Fashion is Born

Lena Bryant was one person who bucked the trend in those early days of the emerging fashion industry. In fact, Bryant is the businesswoman and designer credited with starting the plus-size fashion industry. She opened her first store in 1904. It was a small store but it was on New York's Fifth Avenue, one of the most famous shopping streets in the world. The shop's bestselling item in those early days was a maternity dress.

In the 1920s, however, Bryant spotted a gap in the market—good-quality, fashionable clothes for "stout-figured" women. She realised that the big manufacturers were simply ignoring the full-figured market. Bryant set about measuring 4,500 of her own customers before designing a plus-size clothing range. The maternity line dropped to second place due to the success of her plus-size clothes.

Today, Lane Bryant (it is Lane rather than Lena) is a plus-size clothing brand with over 700 stores in the US.

Other brands in the US and in other countries followed Lane Bryant's lead, including Evans in the UK, which opened in 1930.

Despite pioneers like Lane Bryant and Evans, plus-size women’s fashion remained marginalised. In fact, if you look at advertisements for plus-size clothing from the 1940s and 1950s, you would be forgiven for thinking it was misleading advertising—the models look far from plus-size. This is an issue with which modern advertising is still battling.

Plus Size Fashion Grows Up – A Bit

The period between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, however, was significant in the industry, particularly in the US. This was because baby-boomers were growing up, and they were getting bigger—from 63.6 kilos to 74.5 kilos. The increase in the average weight of Australian women over the same period of time was not as great, but women are bigger today than they were in the 1960s. The average weight of an Australian woman in the 1960s was 63.8 kilos. Today it is around 71.1 kilos, which is an increase of about two dress sizes.

These women needed clothing that fitted them and looked good. The brands slowly started to follow.

The plus-size fashion industry also started its slow progression into the mainstream during this period. This included the launch of what is widely regarded as the first modelling agency to specialise in plus-size models. It was called Big Beauties/Little Women (the agency also specialised in petite models). The woman behind the agency was Mary Duffy, a plus-size model herself. She sold her company to Ford Models in 1988, which still has a division for plus-size models today called Ford+. In fact, most major modelling agencies in places like Australia, the US and the UK now feature plus-size models.

One of the first major fashion houses to launch a plus-size clothing brand was Max Mara, the famous Italian fashion label that specialises in ready-to-wear clothing. In 1980 it launched the plus-size clothing brand Marina Rinaldi, which is now one of the most popular and well-known of Max Mara's brands.

It wasn't until the mid-1990s, however, that plus-size fashion really started to take off in Australia. It was around this time that major department stores started to place more emphasis on plus-size ranges.

Plus Size Fashion Today in Australia

Across the world there has been a shift in the fashion industry towards offering more choice to plus-size women. This particularly applies in countries like the US, the UK and here in Australia. In recent years, bigger clothing brands in Australia have seen increasing competition from independent labels that specialise in plus-size clothing. These include Curvy Chic Sports, Camilla Jayne, 17 Sundays, Hope & Harvest, Sonsee and more. This is pushing the industry forward, driving innovation and giving women more control over the fashion they wear—control that used to be in the hands of unrepresentative individuals who promoted unrealistic, and often unhealthy, body ideals.

Other positive events have taken place, too. For example, plus-size models appeared on the runway at New York Fashion Week for the first time in 2013, wearing a range from designer Eden Miller. In addition, plus-size models now regularly feature in major magazines and have become famous worldwide.

Robyn Lawley's place in history as the first model to appear in the Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated was mentioned earlier, but her impact on plus-size modelling, general attitudes to plus-size women and the plus-size fashion industry is wider than that. In addition to Sports Illustrated, Lawley has a number of other significant firsts to her name. These include being the first plus-size model to appear in GQ Australia, Australian Vogue and Australian Cosmopolitan—the latter put her on the cover. She is also a fashion designer and has written about body image.

It is impossible to mention the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue without also mentioning Ashley Graham. While Robyn Lawley featured inside the 2015 edition, Graham was on the cover the following year.

Other notable plus-size models who are breaking the fashion industry mould include Margaret Macpherson, Laura Wells, Georgina Burke, Whitney Thompson (winner of America's Top Model) and Candice Huffine (the first plus-size model to appear on the Pirelli calendar).

Despite this progress, the plus-size fashion industry is still seen as a subset of the main fashion industry by many. This is despite the fact that a lot of women wear plus-size clothes.

Just look at the announcement in 2013 by major UK department store Debenhams that it was introducing plus-size mannequins into its stores. This was a positive move, but the fact it warranted an "announcement" shows progress still has to be made (not least because it took until 2015 for Target in Australia to make a similar move).

The progress that is being made does, however, have to be recognised, including the recent decision by Target to use models with a range of different body types.

A Changing Future

Today the plus-size fashion industry is worth billions—over $20 billion in the US alone—and that figure is growing. As it is such a huge market, it is not surprising that big brands and major corporations are starting to take notice.

It also make sense they are taking notice when you look at figures on the weight of Australians—over 63 percent of us are either overweight or obese. Other key figures from this report include:

  • 56 percent of Australian women are overweight or obese (and 71 percent of Australian men)
  • This is up from less than 50 percent in 1995
  • This figure jumps in older age groups—66 percent of women over 45 are either overweight or obese (and 79 percent of men)

Of course, plus-size women are still marginalised to varying degrees by the fashion industry and in the media. The same applies to men, although not to the same degree. The media must take significant blame for that marginalisation. Just look at the countless stories of air-brushed models depicting impossible-to-achieve body ideals. In addition, the media are completely unrepresentative of the general public. A study in the US found that only 10 percent of female characters on the top television shows were plus-size, a figure considerably lower than the reality of the population watching those shows (67 percent of American women are overweight). This sort of portrayal on screens and printed publications has an impact.

One section of the media that is forcing this change—and, by extension, is changing the fashion industry—is the blogosphere. Leading plus-size fashion blogs likSugar Coat ItNicolette MasonA Quaintrelle LifeGabi Fresh and Jay Miranda are changing attitudes by demanding more, celebrating plus-size fashion and promoting positive body confidence.

It has been a rocky road to date for plus-size fashion, but the future has never looked better.

Back to blog