The best local vintage store in the city is closing down and I am heartbroken. Last week several friends and I made a pilgrimage there to say goodbye and see if we could find any treasures to come home with us. Meeting up at the shop: we were a mixed bunch, in terms of body types, style, and era preferences. We were all regulars, so the store owner was nice enough to get out some of her stock bins and let us all paw through them. My petite friend found an amazing Victorian lawn dress that fit her like a dream, while I hit the holy grail of vintage shopping in the form of two slips with contrasting lace that fit like they were custom-made. As we pawed through plastic tubs of nightgowns, day dresses and lingerie I couldn’t help but think about the women who had worn these before us, the history and a disappearing culture of women sewing for themselves, their friends and their families. It’s easy to feel like being plus-size is a modern day invention, because we never see pictures of the women who came before us. We forget the traditions of women sharing and passing on tailoring and style tips across generations. Through vintage collecting, it’s easy to picture them more clearly.
Vintage is harder to find in larger sizes, but I’ve been collecting pieces I love for a few years now. A lot of it is homemade, created custom by ladies of earlier eras when they faced the same dilemma that modern plus-size customers do: stores didn’t cater to them, or only sold ugly and unflattering pieces. The dresses that I own testify to the ingenuity and design skills of these home designers. I have dresses embroidered with pink butterflies, adorned proudly with rhinestone buttons and made from crazy novelty print fabric that reflected the bold personality of the original wearer. While we’re spending our time musing about visible belly outlines and crop tops, I love to try and imagine the woman who created and wore my vintage botanical bird print dress. I can picture her as a talented rebel, someone who decided that she was going to fuck the stores and just do her.
It wasn’t just home designers who were doing it for themselves though. Department stores did sell plus-size clothing and lingerie that was bold and full of attitude, many of which have survived and found a loving home with plus-size vintage collectors. Almost all of the vintage loungewear and nightwear I own has tags on it, indicating that it came from a store rather than being custom-made. I recall a tale from a friend who’s grandfather owned a little boutique dress shop in Philadelphia. How she would visit the shop as a child in the late 1960s and while her grandfather owned the store, all the dresses were altered in a back workroom, by women. I’ve found some treasures like a pink, yellow, and purple plaid dress that still had tags on it: I now proudly wear it every time I really want to stand out in a crowd.
We talk a lot about how plus-size customers need to be better represented in current advertising and by major modelling agencies, but we don’t talk about the toll that going unnoticed by history takes. Think about glamorous 1940’s photos or 1950’s photos and tell me how many fat women you see in them. I honestly can’t think of one. Plus-size women have always been under-represented in the imagery of their time. Thankfully, the internet and online publishing have given us the tools to amplify our voices that previous generations didn’t have.
“…one woman leads to another.”
– Margaret Atwood
When I think of quitting writing about plus-size activism (which I sometimes think about a lot) I try and picture the woman who embroidered butterflies on my dress or the woman buying silky slips with contrasting lace getting ready for a date. Plus-size women throughout history have done what we all do: they’ve kept quietly pushing and living and being seen, even when it wasn’t popular or pretty. I am blown away and inspired by the revival of sewing and tailoring tutorials on YouTube and Craftsy. So next time you buy a retro inspired dress, think of the women who came before us. They’re part of our community and our history, even if they seem invisible and far away. Let the lineage of these amazing hidden women passing on their gifts, lift us. We owe it to them to keep pushing, even when we’re worn out and tired.