To the fat girls

“Why is it that the makers of the fashions do not give the fat girls a show? The matter is, however, by no means a joke to “the fat girls.”

Want to guess the date of that complaint by the “fat girls”? Give up? 1882. Yes, in 1882 the unknown columnist of “The Art of Adornment” in the long-gone magazine One Continent wrote this as their lead for a report on “STYLES FOR STOUT WOMEN.”

In the nineteenth century, most heavier women wore the same sorts of fashions as any other women, just on a larger scale. Our writer in 1882 has quite a bit of advice for her “fat girl” readers, and it’s a bit of a familiar downer. Sure, heavier women loved plaid, but it was not recommended, especially on the horizontal. Vertical stripes — now there’s a possibility but do not overly ornament your look — all those tassels and fringe were fattening. Bright colors only drew attention to one’s circumference; voluminous dresses just made one’s figure all the more ample.

Why not try, the author suggested, a “plain black silk skirt” — well, that doesn’t sound fun — “trimmed with two flounces” — and those could be pleated! — “a tunic and a waist” — that would be a longer (tunic-length) vest over a shirtwaist blouse.


image: my private collection

So here is a woman, unnamed, in a silk black dress, with narrow lines of ruffles. Her sleeves are elaborately puffed and gathered; the yoke of the dress is outlined with ruffles. Her outfit is a common one for the “heavier” woman of the 1880s: dark colors, narrow trims, basically a similar dress to “regular”. Keep in mind, the concept of a “regular” body is very very much a twentieth-century invention — as standardization took hold for packaging, ingredients in cookbooks, measurements — the same rules were applied to human bodies in terms of height and weight. By World War I, there were “ideal” standard body dimensions. Mass-produced clothing demanded sizing that reflected manufacturing processes, not real bodies. Our lady is in an era of dressmakers and perhaps a bit of purchased clothing, including that offered for the “stout woman”.


image: again, my collection.

Here she is again, a few years later, in another studio photograph. Three children, it’s probably summer (the baby has bare legs and feet), everyone is slightly bedraggled at this point in the game, and a lady, a few months (maybe a year; the bottoms of that baby’s feet look a bit smudged with dirt?) since the last birth, sits in a patterned skirt, perhaps a much-laundered cotton calico print, and silk jacket whose shell buttons are matched by the dark shirtwaist beneath. Her hem used to be trimmed with a self-fabric ruffle but the ruffle is limp and the hem seems undone and drooping. At this point, who cares about a steadfast gaze into the camera; just take the photograph, won’t you?

In the 1920s to 1950s Sears and Wards usually did not offer separate sections in their catalog for “stout” women — every style of clothing either was available in an extended size range or wasn’t. We might think that plus-sized women had dowdy, ugly clothes to choose from, but the reality in the catalogs was nearly every style could be had in a larger size (although keep in mind, a size 18 in the 1950s is about a size 12 today, give or take a bit).


Sometimes, as in this lawn dress from the 1920s, middle-class women and girls just looked bad in what was in style. The worst might be these dropped waist dresses with gathered skirting. An amazing style that made every female, from child to youth to adult, look mis-shapen and sad, even on the most illustrious of occasions.


But here we go. In the mid-to-late 1940s a group of lovely gals on a nice spring day. Every woman veers on the edge of “plus” with some firmly over the line. But style, grace. You can see the ways everyday women made life grand. Those marvelous belts, narrow and not too tight, marking the dress’s middle point. The lovely florals, the detailing of ruffles, piping, contrast collars. And the woman in the middle, striking her pose and holding her clutch purse just so.

Source for the 1882 column is “The Art of Adornment: Styles for Stout Women, Notes on Dress,” One Continent (June 28, 1882) 1:20, p. 318, digitized and available on American Periodicals Series database.


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