Written by Sarina Mohan
May 4, 2021
“No one wants to see a curvy girl on the runway” is the infamous 2013 quote by Chanel’s then creative director, Karl Lagerfeld. Lagerfeld’s message was abundantly clear: he did not want to see fat women in Chanel. One of the most powerful voices in high fashion isolated an entire group of people from entering the sphere of couture because he did not like the way their bodies looked. When this quote hit the press back in 2013, fashion fans were not shocked. Throughout his life Lagerfeld had, in so many words, shared his disdain for having fat bodies represent Chanel. It is not only Lagerfeld who does not want fat bodies in his clothing. Even after his death, the entire fashion industry shares his feelings and has continued to gatekeep the world of fashion for only those who can fit into straight size clothing.
The marginalization of plus sized bodies has been an ongoing occurrence for centuries. Sabrina Strings’s book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, chronicles the rise of Fatphobia and traces it back all the way to the 17th century, when men began to correlate fat bodies with a dull personality1. Even the phrase ‘plus size’ is still considered somewhat taboo in the industry because of its relation to larger sizes. ‘Plus Size’ was only adapted into the fashion vocabulary in the 1980s, before that it was referred to as ‘stout wear’ and the wearer was called a ‘stout woman’. A 1917 article in The New York Times titled “Stout Women Can Now Be Stylish; this result is attained by means of corsets especially designed for them” described the stout woman as “a figure (often of matronly appearance) with generous bust, back, and hip curves that decidedly did not fit in with fashion’s demands for the slim figure.” The conversation on stout bodies in the 20th century fashion industry was mostly centred around how to appear slimmer or lose weight. Even then, fashion houses were reluctant to create size ranges that could comfortably fit everyone. The narrative has always been around how to fit into the body the fashion industry wants you to have.
1 Strings, Sabrina. “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia,” New York, NY: New York University Press, 2019.
Figure 1.0: Bryant, Lane. “Stout Women You Can Look Slender.” Good Housekeeping. September 1921.
Plus size women are often forced into clothing they don’t want to wear because it is the only option. Staple plus size fashion retailers often lean towards floral patterns, long shirts and ill-fitting pants. These unfashionable stores are almost like a punishment for being fat — with such a small collection, they limit the wearer from dressing how they want. Fashion trends cater towards slender body types, especially since the best accessory for these trends seems to be a flat stomach. Stores that cater to these body types, like Brandy Melville and Aritzia, are able to play into what’s in style because the garments are created for their target body type. Stores that vehemently oppose incorporating an inclusive size range contribute to industry gatekeeping. But more importantly, they reiterate the narrative that fat bodies should not be allowed to participate in the fashion industry. Women whose bodies fit into the sizes available in store have the freedom to dress however they want, because they have the luxury of fitting into the clothing at any given retailer. The fashion industry has even incorporated “plus size models” who are only slightly bigger than slim models. In 2017, Vogue was praised for including plus size model Ashley Graham on a cover with straight size models like Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid. The cover (figure 2.0) demonstrates that Graham is similar in size to Jenner and Hadid, yet the industry has labeled her as “fat”. This leads women to believe that there is a cap on plus sizes. Plus size women look at the models high fashion considers ‘big’ and can never picture themselves in those clothes because fashion’s perception of fat isn’t actually fat. Bigger bodies are confined to the uniforms created by plus size fashion giants like Torrid and Lane Bryant. The fashion industry is prohibiting plus size bodies from even considering dressing for themselves and dressing freely. The industry is squashing any plus size woman’s hope of meaningfully participating in fashion by taking control of what clothing she has access to, while also enforcing the notion that fat bodies can’t wear what’s fashionable. They are pushing their discomfort of these bodies onto the women who inhabit them.
Figure 2.0: Photographed by Inez and Vinoodh, Vogue, March 2017
Fashion and the way we dress serve as a major form of self-expression. Clothes both represent how an individual sees themselves and how others see them, which is why there is such a heavy correlation between fashion and self-identity. But when wearers cannot have full autonomy over their clothing choices, their self-identity starts to become blurred, and we must analyze if these clothes are truly representing who they are.
“Our clothing is the physical representation of our perceptions, our dissatisfactions, and our desires. When we look beyond the physical to our internal workings, we can create a change at the core. Unlike change that occurs in therapy, these difficult internal examinations are softened by the light of the wardrobe makeover . . . Taking care of yourself begins with self-discovery. The clothing you put on your back is an incredibly accurate indicator of what you think of yourself and your life.”
Baumgartner, Jennifer. You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You. Hachette Books, 2012, pp. xv-xvi
Figure 3.0: Racked, “Size, by the Numbers How much it costs to make plus clothing, the measurements of the average American woman, and more.” Digital Image. June 5th, 2018. Accessed May 3rd, 2021.
Now, imagine being a fat body in prison. Prison uniforms are designed to rip away the last remaining shred of freedom a person may have. Juliet Ash discusses the punishment of prison uniforms in her book, Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing as Criminality. Ash examines how prison uniforms are used to strip prisoners of their individuality, making them interchangeable. The last remaining sense of self is stripped away with an inmate’s outside clothes, with the uniform they become a prisoner.1 The question of rights around inmates’ clothing has also been mocked by the legal community. Gabriel Arkles documents American courts’ history of neglecting issues surrounding inmate dress. Arkles’s writing for the New York University Law Review highlights several cases where transgender inmates were overlooked and shamed for their request to access clothing like bras and underwear. Arkles cites the courts as calling these matters “frivolous”.2 The documentation of human rights violations against inmates continues for pages, but these have not come to a halt. Even straight size inmates are fighting for their rights to access fair clothing. But what if the freedom of fashionable self-expression had already been taken by the industry on the outside? Fat women have already been accustomed to being told what they could and could not wear when they were outside of prison. Clothing is always an issue on fat bodies, because the institutions, both in fashion and correctional facilities, want them to suffer for the bodies they have.
1 Ash, Juliet. Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing as Criminality. New York, NY: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
2 Arkles, Gabriel. “Correcting Race and Gender: Prison Regulation and Social Hierarchy Through Dress.” New York University Law Review, Vol. 87, No. 4, October 2012, pp. 859-959.
“Clothes are used as signifiers of the power of the penal establishment to bodily punish miscreants.”
Ash, Juliet. Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing as Criminality. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010, p. 3.
However, this punishment is amplified for fat inmates of colour who face additional oppression. For these women, clothing and uniforms have been used against them for centuries. Gabriel Arkles writes that American slave owners used clothing as a form of control. These owners had complete say over what those they enslaved were allowed to wear and, often, certain dress requirements had to be followed. Arkles writes that women were often forced to wear men’s clothing. Also, in some areas Black women had to wear their hair in certain ways or wear specific fabrics or colours1. Even before they were targeted by the prison system, Black people were forced into a uniform that removed their identity and merged them into one being. They could not have the identity they wanted — much like with prison uniforms, the institution didn’t want to recognize them as a person. The NAACP reports that the imprisonment rate for Black women is in the United States is 2x higher than for white women. Also, in 2014 there were 6.8 million incarcerated people in the United States, and 34% or 2.3 million people were Black. This problem is not specific to the United States: Black Canadians are one of the highest growing groups in federal prisons. In 2017-18, Black Canadians made up 7.3% of the country’s inmate population. This goes even further in Strings’s book, when she details that the creation of “fat black women” was born out of racist ideologies that separated “thin” white women from “fat” Black women. This strengthened the feelings of disgust towards fat people and Black people. To be fat was likened to being Black, and white people could not stand the idea of either. Therefore shame surrounding race and bodies began to grow2. Although fat bodies are targeted and harassed both in prisons and the outside world, fat Black bodies face immense punishment. These bodies are already in an institution that is trying their very best to work against them, simply by being there they are experiencing more punishment. Throughout history, the systems Black bodies have existed in have not wanted them to succeed. These bodies are struggling with generations of trauma surrounding uniforms, prisons and fatness. They are carrying more on their shoulders throughout their time in prison, all while still trying to fight for their human rights. These women are all too familiar with being forced into a uniform.
1 “Correcting Race and Gender: Prison Regulation and Social Hierarchy Through Dress.”
2 Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia.
Figure 4.0: Fisher-Quann, Rayne (@raynefq) “a tweet making fun of these women has 100k likes but I swear to god if Bella Hadid wore this exact outfit it would be on a million ’80s casual inspo <30′ pinterest boards, as always, fashion is judged exclusively by the bodies that wear it.” Twitter, July 14th 2020, 4:14pm .https://twitter.com/raynefq/status/1283132756919083008
Several workplace uniforms struggle to incorporate their plus size employees. A person’s career is heavily tied to their self-identity, with many people defining who they are by what they do. During their time in incarceration, many prisoners’ only sense of self-identity is being a prisoner. They are reminded daily of how they perceive themselves and how they are being perceived when they put on their uniform. As a whole, workplaces struggle to provide comfortable sizing options to plus size employees who have no choice but to wear these uniforms. In a study conducted by Injoo Kim et al. on medical uniforms (scrubs, shirt, pants and coat), they found that the uniforms were manufactured in men’s sizing only. Because of this, men’s satisfaction with the overall fit and comfort of the uniform was much higher than women’s. Also, it was reported that hospitals do not take comfort, fit, or general satisfaction into account when selecting a manufacturer for uniforms, instead the decision is based on economic and financial factors. However, the United States Navy released the changes made to their women’s uniforms in 1991. 30 years ago, they incorporated a size range that went up to a U.S. 18. At the time, this was an incredibly inclusive size range, given that many mainstream retailers were only carrying straight size garments. Although progressive for its time, these uniforms had their sizing issues as they came in three different body types; junior, misses and women’s. These sizes had varying hip measurements — for example, a size 14 junior uniform would have a 39 ½ inch hip, the misses measured 41 ½ inches, and women’s measurements were 43 ½ inches. Rather than providing accurate sizing, the Navy grouped women together based on their hip measurements. Although the various categories were unnecessary and irrelevant to accurate sizing, they were put in place to isolate those with larger proportions. But even in a modern context, including up to a size 18 is not inclusive enough of women’s bodies. A study by the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education found that, in recent years, the average size of an American woman jumped from size 14 to between 16 and 18. If the largest size available is the average size of women, many will have issues with sizing. Furthermore, in a study by Unal Utkun on uniforms in laboratories and workshops, they found that 61.9% of participants felt their uniforms were not suitable and could not comply to their body movements. The study examined a female uniform, which was found to be made up of men’s garments. Demonstrating that uniforms were never designed to fit the female body, women were instead required to meet the measurements for men or wear ill fitting clothing.
In all the research on the comfort and satisfaction provided by uniforms, conversations on plus size wearers rarely come up. The researchers only bother to understand how to better fit straight bodies into uncomfortable uniforms. If hospitals, factories and defence departments rarely take fat bodies into account, how can we expect prisons to? On wearing Corrections Canada uniforms, a CBC article quotes an inmate saying, “you feel a little less human.” It has been widely documented by researchers and legal experts like Ash and Arkles that the inmate experience strips inmates of their basic human rights, but the rights of fat prisoners are destroyed even further. These inmates are facing humiliation for their size. For example, an article by The Sun, titled “Fat Lags: Prison chiefs forced to buy 7XL clothes as number of obese inmates rises,” mocked inmates for “bursting out of standard issue wear” and demanding clothing that fits them. This article is one of the few that discussed plus sized inmates. Yet, rather than tackle the issue and try to understand why there is a lack of properly fitting uniforms for inmates who have a right to wear clothing that fits them, they took the opportunity to shame individuals who only wanted comfort. In April 2021, a correctional officer in Nova Scotia posted a 20 second Snapchat video of an inmate and captioned it, “feeding this fat fucking retard ice cream at 1:30am so she’ll go the fuck to sleep and stop crying ‘diabetic low.’” This humiliation is also encouraged by fellow straight sized inmates. Fresh Out is a popular YouTube channel where a formerly incarcerated man answers questions about prison and sometimes takes questions from fans. In the video “What happens if you’re fat in prison – Prison Talk 13.21,” he answers questions on what prison is like for fat people. Big Herc, the man in the video, spends almost 6 minutes shaming plus size inmates. He even says, “I don’t know how you were getting away as a fat motherfucker trying to run down the street, you can’t run nowhere, you know what I mean? So it must’ve been kind of cyber-crime you were committing.” These stories prove that fat inmates are not receiving proper care. Clothes do not fit, medical issues are being overlooked and, additionally, inmates are being publicly taunted for their appearance. The system believes that because they are prisoners, they are not human and the world believes that because they are fat, they are not a person. The combination of being a fat prisoner means that society is setting them up to fail. Because someone’s body does not look the way the world wants it to, they should not be exposed to mass humiliation.
The minimal positive reporting on plus sized prisoners being overlooked comes exclusively from men’s prisons. One instance from the UK details the shortage of men’s uniforms. Frances Crook OBE, the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said,
“Prisoners who are not young or within a narrow size range cannot get clothes that fit. So if men are on the larger size, they have to wear trousers that don’t do up and T-shirts that don’t cover their tummies. People are given slippers as they can’t get shoes to fit. This means that grown men are slopping about in shabby clothes and slippers.” This shortage caused plus size prisoners to wear ill fitting, uncomfortable uniforms for weeks.
Debates have been flying around for years on whether or not plus size clothing should cost more because of additional time and fabric used to create the garments. In 2014, Old Navy was charging extra for women’s plus size clothing, but not men’s. The store was selling the exact same pair of jeans in a wide variety of sizes, however, there was a $15 increase once customers entered the plus size range. The brand stood by their decision, despite backlash, in an effort to recoup manufacturing costs for a larger range of clothing. Time and time again, clothing retailers fall back on the excuse of finances when questioned as to why they do not have a size inclusive line. In 2018, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer released the Update on Costs of Incarceration where they detailed the breakdown on the overall cost of incarceration. There was no mention of the cost of uniforms, or of additional charges related to plus size prisoners. But on the Correctional Services Canada (CSC) website, they highlight “special sizes” for CSC officer uniforms. Under this heading, readers are simply told that additional sizes can be shipped in from the manufacturer. It is up to the officer requiring a “special size” uniform to facilitate receiving their correct size. This process includes contacting a support division and having the garments made specially to one’s measurements and then shipped. This could take weeks, and leave officers unable to work, or wearing unfit and uncomfortable uniforms. CSC has also stated that if an officer needs to change the size of their uniform, they must do so at their own expense. CSC has proven that they do not care for the fit, comfort or convenience of the employees outside of their designated size range. They are punishing their officers by assigning more work and financial losses for those who do not fit the provided uniforms. If CSC is blatantly disregarding the needs of their officers, how can they be expected to have respect for the bodies of the incarcerated people in their care? We can hypothesize that, based on the treatment of the CSC employees who require larger sizes, the plus size inmates are not receiving access to proper uniforms themselves. And if they are, it is clear that accessing them is not an easy or straightforward process.
Figure 5.0: Racked, “Size, by the Numbers How much it costs to make plus clothing, the measurements of the average American woman, and more.” Digital Image. June 5th, 2018. Accessed May 3rd, 2021.
Clothing can have a direct impact on the wearer’s emotions and mental health. There have been numerous studies proving the correlation between women’s clothing and their emotions, demonstrating that women are not themselves when they are uncomfortable in what they are wearing. A study conducted by The Clothing and Research Textiles Journal found that plus size women’s most important factor when finding clothing is camouflage. When they feel like they look unflattering they would rather blend in and hide. This is called ‘enclothed cognition’ and it occurs when the wearer of a garment subconsciously slips into the identity associated with the clothing. One study found that women who wear power suits negotiated better deals than those in more casual attire. This is because their emotions and behaviour were directly tied in with what they were wearing. This means that prison uniforms are more likely to make inmates take on the role of a prisoner and truly feel like one. But for fat bodied inmates, their experience with clothing is combined with their embodied experience: both are forces working against them and their emotions. Female prisoners struggle with mental health issues much more than male prisoners. The 2013 United Kingdom, Ministry of Justice report on inmate mental health reported that 37% of all female prisoners have attempted suicide and 16% have attempted it within the last year. Nearly half the inmates suffered from anxiety and/or depression, and 25% of female inmates showed signs of psychotic symptoms. Clothing that is comfortable and fits these women would help with their self-image, perception and overall emotions. Their lives have been stripped away, as have the last pieces of their identity, and these institutions leave them to themselves. A change in clothing can shape a change in behaviour and help these women through this journey. They do not deserve further punishment because once they are released from prison, their bodies are still on trial every day.
With the absence of clothing as a means of self-expression, women have gotten creative. Refinery29 has explored prisons that have implemented cosmetology programs in an effort to boost prisoners’ self-identity. The publication looked at the programs, the women, and the impact this addition has had on the inmate experience. But they also found the abuse female prisoners faced in an effort to obtain basic products, with prison guards trading sexual favours for makeup, sanitary pads and toilet paper. Women in prison have to endure abuse from those who are supposed to be protecting them in order to access basic human necessities.
Watch the video here:
Figure 6.0: Refinery29. “What Beauty Looks Like Behind Bars | Shady | Refinery29” YouTube, uploaded by Refinery29 on June 2nd, 2018.
There is currently very little research on prison uniforms, but even less on plus sized prison uniforms. The information that is available primarily focuses on men’s bodies. This speaks volumes and amplifies the institution’s blatant disregard for fat bodies, in addition to the sheer disrespect for human rights in prisons across the world. These women should not lose their self-identity along with their freedom. Prisoners of all sizes should have the right to uniforms that fit them and are comfortable to wear. Clothing should not be used as a punishment for the body you inhabit. Fat women in all areas of their lives are losing the freedom of self-expression because they do not have the option to dress how they want. The current systems in place work against women’s bodies, to the point where they are broken down to just another number, whether it be on the back of their jumpsuit or the label on their clothes.
Arkles, Gabriel. “Correcting Race and Gender: Prison Regulation and Social Hierarchy Through Dress.” New York University Law Review, Vol. 87, No. 4, October 2012, pp. 859-959.
Ash, Juliet. Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing as Criminality, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
Baumgartner, Jennifer. You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You. Hachette Books, 2012.
Bronskill, Jim. “Canada’s Prison Service Trying to Better Understand the Needs of Black Offenders.” Toronto Star, January 21, 2020. https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2020/01/21/canadas-prison-service-trying-to-better-understand-the-needs-of-black-offenders.html
Bryant, Lane. “Stout Women You Can Look Slender.” Good Housekeeping. September 1921.
Christel, Deborah A., and Susan C. Dunn. “Average American Women’s Clothing Size: Comparing National Health and Nutritional Examination Surveys (1988–2010) to ASTM International Misses & Women’s Plus Size Clothing.” International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education, Vol. 10, No. 2, August 2016. pp. 129-136.
Colls, Rachel. “‘Looking Alright, Feeling Alright’: Emotions, Sizing and the Geographies of Women’s Experiences of Clothing Consumption” Social and Cultural Geography. Vol. 5, No. 4. February 2007, pp. 583-596.
“CSC Uniforms, Dress Code and Scale of Issue.” Correctional Services Canada, Last Modified June 30th, 2008, https://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/acts-and-regulations/351-1-gl-eng.shtml
“Development of Sizing Systems for Navy Women’s Uniforms.” Defense Technical Information Centre. December 1991.
Fisher-Quann, Rayne (@raynefq) “a tweet making fun of these women has 100k likes but I swear to god if Bella Hadid wore this exact outfit it would be on a million ’80s casual inspo <30′ pinterest boards, as always, fashion is judged exclusively by the bodies that wear it.” Twitter, July 14th 2020, 4:14pm. https://twitter.com/raynefq/status/1283132756919083008
George-Parkin, Hilary. “Size, By the Numbers: How Much It Costs to Make Plus Clothing, the Measurements of the Average American Woman, and More.” Digital Images by Javier Zarracina. Racked, June 5, 2018. Accessed May 3rd, 2021. https://www.racked.com/2018/6/5/17380662/size-numbers-average-woman-plus-market
Jehring, Andy. “Fat Lags Prison Chiefs Forced to Buy 7XL Clothes as Number of Obese Inmates Rises.” The Sun, November 2, 2021.
Jennings, Rebecca. “Karl Lagerfeld’s Long History of Disparaging Fat Women.” Vox, February 19, 2019. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/2/19/18231624/karl-lagerfeld-death-controversy-fat-comments-adele
Jones, El. And, Bousquet, Tim. “Vile Video Taken in Nova Scotia Jail and Posted to Social Media Humiliates Woman Prisoner.” Halifax Examiner, April 2, 2021. https://www.halifaxexaminer.ca/featured/vile-video-taken-in-nova-scotia-jail-and-posted-to-social-media-humiliates-woman-prisoner/
Kim, Injoo et al. “Analysis of User Satisfaction for Unisex Medical Uniforms.” Research Journal of Textile and Apparel, Vol. 23, No. 3, September 2017, pp. 162-177.
Kraus, W. Michael, and Wendy Mendes Berry. “Sartorial Symbols of Social Class Elicit Class-Consistent Behavioral and Physiological Responses: A Dyadic Approach.” National Library of Medicine, Vol. 143, No. 6, pp. 2330-2340.
Kwon Y-H, Parham ES. “Effects of State of Fatness Perception on Weight Conscious Women’s Clothing Practices.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, Vol. 12, No. 4, June 1994, pp. 16-21.
Ministry of Justice. “Gender Differences in Substance Misuse and Mental Health Amongst Prisoners Results From the Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction (SPCR) Longitudinal Cohort Study of Prisoners.” 2013. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/gender-differences-in-substance-misuse-and-mental-health-amongst-prisoners–2
NAACP. “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/.
Neill, Brennan. “The Prices are Outrageous’: Concerns Raised over Monopoly on Ordered Goods in Federal Prisons.” CBC, December 19, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/federal-prison-prices-catalogue-1.4950577
Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. “Update on Costs of Incarceration.” Ottawa. March 22, 2018. https://www.pbo-dpb.gc.ca/web/default/files/Documents/Reports/2018/Update%20Incarceration%20Costs/Update%20on%20Costs%20of%20Incarceration_EN.pdf
Photograph by Inez and Vinoodh, Vogue, March 2017.
Refinery29. “What Beauty Looks Like Behind Bars | Shady | Refinery29” YouTube, uploaded by Refinery29 on June 2nd, 2018.
“Reinserting the Fat Body Into Fashion History – A Reading List.” Art History Teaching Resources. https://arthistoryteachingresources.org/2018/11/reinserting-the-fat-body-into-fashion-history-a-reading-list/
“Stout Women Can Now Be Stylish: This Result Is Attained Through Means of Corsets Specifically Designed for Them.” The New York Times, January 14, 1917.
Singer, Maya. “How Models like Ashley Graham and Gigi Hadid Are Democratizing Fashion.” Vogue. February 8, 2017. https://www.vogue.com/article/model-diversity-ashley-graham-gigi-hadid-kendall-jenner-march-cover
Strings, Sabrina. Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, New York: New York University Press, 2019.
Stuart, Hunter. “Old Navy Under Fire For Charging Plus-Size Women More Than Plus-Size Men.” Huffington Post, November 11, 2011. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/old-navy-plus-size-_n_6140478
Timmons, Marcus. “What Happens If You’re Fat In Prison? Prison Talks – 13.21.” YouTube, uploaded by Fresh Out on February 7, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVytyrBCSLw.
Utkun, Unal. “Improving Fit of Work Uniforms Used in Laboratories and Workshops” DSpace, Vol. 68, No. 5, November 2017, pp. 370-374.
Yeginsu, Ceylan. “More Fabric, More Money? British Retailer Is Accused of Charging ‘Fat Tax’.” The New York Times, May 16, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/16/world/europe/new-look-fat-tax.html