I want to start by saying that I love my body and I love to shop for clothes. But it wasn’t always that way. I have always been tall and curvy, so finding garments that fit my body has always been a challenge. As a teen in the 1990s, I probably struggled the most, even though I was at my smallest. I was 5’9” and fit into a size twelve. I was not fat; I was just tall and much bigger than the typical sizes found off the rack at retailers available to me. Still, the otherness of shopping above a size ten was overwhelming (and to this day still can be). I got used to the idea that fashion wasn’t for me, and I was lucky to find garments that even fit on my body. I never liked the term plus size, because to me, it was another way to say fat. I didn’t want to dance around the fact that even though “plus size” offered me more options, the fashion industry thought I didn’t deserve to wear pretty things because I was, at least by their estimation, fat.
It gets better… sort of
When online shopping became more popular, finding cute outfits became more accessible… sort of. While there was more access to sizes larger than a ten, many retailers did not cut their garments to fit larger bodies. I could sometimes find something cute that also fit, but it was more likely I would find pants made for a size two body where inches were added to the waist and thighs, but no consideration was put into the shape of the actual human the garment was meant for. The result is that your butt crack hangs out, you muffin top, the waist is in the wrong place, or there is simply no coverage for your boobs.
As the internet became a larger part of life, retailers began to learn that, yes, fat women like to buy clothes! We started to see retailers who cut their patterns for us, gave us more length in the skirt, better bras, and variety in hem length. There were more and more fabric choices, and some retailers finally began representing their products using models with bodies like ours. Having plus size women model the dresses was a game changer for me. I could look at each item and realistically gauge what it might look like on my body.
Of course, other problems arose from this evolution in the market: the game was new to most designers and retailers, so there was a lot of guessing about what we might like, and most models were and are still on the smaller end of the spectrum, leaving larger shoppers high and dry. It was assumed that we probably hate our bodies, so many garments were shapeless and boring. But we must have been buying sexy clothes when they were available, because the other option was skin tight and showing… everything. I personally sort them into three categories: shapeless pillowcase, sparkly club wear, or actual clothes meant for humans.
You can’t spell fun without F-U
In recent years, the market for plus size clothing has gotten better. Its easier to get great prints, fabrics, and cuts, as long as you know what works on you. Shopping can be fun now. When I decided to get married, I figured shopping for a wedding dress would also be fun. Why wouldn’t it be? I was going to spend a few grand on the nicest dress I ever wore in my life, right? There would be champagne and a group of loving supportive family members there to cheer me on. When you add that all together, it’s bound to be fun, right?
Well, not really.
Right off the bat I felt out of place in the wedding dress world. I did some online research first, and found that only a small percentage of retailers and boutiques even carried my sizes. Generally the larger companies did, but almost none of them offered plus size models. I would have to look at the size two models, with no curves or boobs, and guess what the dress might look like on me. I found a few boutiques who offered my size. Though none of them really advertise that fact, and its really embarrassing to call up shops and ask if they can help me. So I depended on word of mouth to find wedding dress shops that even had dresses I could try on.
Finally, I gathered some close friends, put on my brave face, and marched into a lovely little shop called The Dresser in Fullerton, California. The woman who helped me was lovely, the dresses were of great quality, and they carried my size which was a size… twenty-two? Which, in and of itself is not an issue. Except, I’m a size eighteen. What? Why are wedding dresses sized up? No matter, my eighteen body would wear whatever size as long as I looked great. Certainly an $1,800 designer dress would be exquisite… until it wasn’t. I tried on every dress that came in my size and budget. They were made of lovely materials, sparkly, poufy, soft, or smooth, but none of them were meant to fit my body. It was high school all over again. The cuts did not flatter my shape, and the sample sizes were either far too big or so small that I couldn’t try them on. I left the lovely little shop feeling demoralized despite my friends’ supportive words.
Was it just me, or did other women feel like this? I asked my friend who is plus size and getting married this year also. Her response was, “Honestly, I just want someone to tell me what to wear and be done with it.” But where’s the fun in that?
On shopping day two, I visited David’s Bridal, and Strut, a shop in Long Beach dedicated to plus size wedding dresses. My experience at David’s Bridal was exhausting and disappointing, because even though they offered my size, they did not have the samples I wanted. The dresses I wanted to try were either not available at that location or were way out of my price range, and the sales girl kept trying to stuff me into other dresses. I actually nearly cried at one point, but kept it together.
At Strut, I ran into nearly all of the same problems as I did at The Dresser: designs in my size that simply were not created with me in mind. I felt like a monster when I finally viewed myself in the gigantic mirror, friends gathered round with hopeful faces. I looked beautiful from the front in a sparkly, structured A-line which made my boobs look fantastic, until I noticed in the mirror behind me that my generally attractive back was oozing out of the backless design, smooshed and contorted like your face when your Aunt Gretta comes to town. I wanted to take it off immediately, but the well-meaning sales lady offered instead to add the bejeweled attachment the dress came with. It was a train wreck: my lumpy contorted back fat was now bejeweled. Maybe I should just elope. I changed back into the dress I walked into the shop wearing, and immediately felt better. I am not a monster; I think it was just a beautiful design meant for someone else. The ladies at Strut were so nice, but I left empty handed.
I did not give up. I tried several retailers who offered custom designs, thinking that I might be able to dictate what I wanted based on my twenty years of experience dressing myself. It went well mostly, but the cost was far beyond my reach, unless I settled for rough materials and lace I didn’t like, for a few grand. Maybe I could just wear a dress I already owned…
Then something amazing happened: I was chosen by APW to be the first of many ladies to wear one of the new plus size wedding dresses they are creating with Lace & Liberty. First there was a phone call with Danielle and Annie from Lace & Liberty to talk about what I was looking for. I had created a vision board of dresses I liked, mostly from retailers who do not design for me, and we talked over the phone about what I liked from each one. They listened to me as I described what I wanted, what I needed, and what would just never work for me. I was cautious, but hopeful.
Soon after, APW flew me up to San Francisco and I met with Annie and Danielle in person. I was dubious based on how every other part of wedding dress shopping has gone, and I braced myself for the possibility that this would also not work out. But everything went so smoothly. Upon arrival, I was met with beautiful drawings of designs that manifested exactly what I had described to them. They offered me champagne; we looked at lace and discussed each design. My sister and friends were there with me. It was the experience I had wanted from day one. The best part was that each design was made with my size eighteen body in mind: my height, my rib cage, my arms, and no likelihood of contorted back-fat. …And the lace was incredible! It was like that scene in Pretty Woman where she gets to shop after the mean girls kicked her out earlier. I feel re-energized and excited again about my dress.
My revitalized hope and excitement stems, I think, from the fact that Lace & Liberty clearly did their homework. They knew where to add darts, cut down on bulky material, adjust a waistline, or change the shape of a sleeve to flatter the shape of a curvier woman. They were not adjusting a pattern created for a size two body; they were creating a pattern for me from scratch. It was clear to me that they had been asking plus size women about their needs, their frustrations, and, most importantly, what they wanted. I told them what I wanted, and there it was, sketched out on paper. The designs I saw were not just pretty dresses, but pretty dresses for me.
Throughout this journey, I’ve known that it was possible to look and feel beautiful in my own body because I have experienced it. I own many dresses from retailers like Torrid and Mod Cloth that work for my body and fit my style because they were made for women like me. It is unfortunate that the wedding dress industry at large hasn’t awakened to the idea that all women can look and feel amazing in their wedding dresses, but I’m glad its happening in small, independent, women-owned corners of the industry.
I look forward to the day that I am able to wear the realized designs. Wedding dress shopping is finally fun for me! I cant wait to feel the weight of the beautiful lace and lining, or see the light bounce off of my skirt when I move. I can imagine the swishy sound it will make when I walk.
I can’t help but think of my friend who just wanted someone to tell her what to wear. I want her, and anyone like her, to know that they don’t have to give up before they start. She is beautiful, and she deserves to feel beautiful. Because feeling beautiful isn’t something that should only belong to women small enough to fit in wedding sample sizes. Feeling beautiful should belong to every body getting married. And I’m so grateful to have some small part in changing that.
This post is part of our ongoing series chronicling the creation of our new plus size wedding dress collection with Lace & Liberty. As part of this project, we’ll be taking you through the creation of Gina’s wedding dress from start to finish. To read more about the upcoming dress line check out our announcement post right here. And if you’d like to give us your feedback on how we can make this collection as awesome as possible, you can fill out our survey right here.