What does plus size mean? According to the Cambridge Dictionary, plus size clothing is designed for people who are larger than average. That seems straightforward. And the size of "plus size" varies from one country to the next, which makes sense, given that the populations of different countries vary significantly in height and hip-width. So, to know what plus size means for you, we should ask what is considered plus size in the U.S. This is a deceptively simple question.
What Size is Considered Plus Size in the U.S.
In America, we typically use plus size for women's fashion in sizes larger than the average. For larger menswear, we use the term "big and tall." In the U.S, most women's plus size clothing brands start at size 14/16 or 14W. However, many stores cut their standard sizes at size 10, relegating size 12 and above to the plus size section. To further complicate the question of what size is plus size, the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education finds that the average American woman "wears between a Misses size 16–18, which corresponds to a Women's Plus size 20W, with greater distinctions found when considering race and ethnicity."
If the average American woman wears between a misses size 16 and 18, or the equivalent of a 20W, how can plus sizes start at 14? Yet professional plus size models are routinely cast at a size 8, sometimes even as small as size 6. Yet, according to Plus Model Magazine, "In the fashion industry, plus size is identified as sizes 18 and over, or sizes 1X-6X."
So, how did we get here, where a simple question "what is plus size" has become so fraught with confusion?
History of Plus Size Confusion in the U.S.
The fashion industry as we know it did not exist before the late 19th century. Before then, nearly all clothing, from plain work clothes to extravagant ball gowns, was bespoke. Garments were tailor-made to the individual at home or by a seamstress. When clothing was produced for sale in shops, manufacturers quickly realized the need for standardized size labels to sell their wares. In fact, Lane Bryant was the first to publish the term plus size in an ad in the late 1920s. Yet what was considered plus size then has changed a great deal.
In 1939, the National Bureau of Home Economics conducted the first, large-scale effort to study and quantify the size and shape of the American woman. The study took 59 different measurements of each of 15,000 American women. Because the women were paid a small fee during the Great Depression, it's reasonable to assume the study skewed toward malnourished or underweight bodies. Still, manufacturers relied on the results, developing a size guide designating those women with a smaller hip girth than the study average as slender, with a minus sign next to the size. Women with a hip measuring larger than the study average were labeled as full, with a plus sign next to the size. This was the first attempt to truly define what was considered plus size.
In 1958, the U.S. government waded into the subject of women's body sizes and clothing. The National Bureau of Standards (NBS) took the earlier study results of 15,000 women and added to that the measurements of 6300 additional women, drawn from the ranks of female army members coming out of World War II. These women were likely far fitter than the average, and all were white. Nevertheless, these measurements were added to the Depression-era study to determine women's sizes based on this "representative" sampling. The resulting sizes ranged from 8 to 42, with the size 8 for a woman with a 31-inch bust and a 23.5-inch waist. Today, this is the equivalent of a size 00. The NBS updated these size standards in 1970, only to abandon them entirely in 1983.
What is Plus Size Today
Not so long ago, the answer to "what is plus size" invariably was frumpy styles in somber colors rendered in double knit polyester. It seemed the clothing was designed to hide a body that dared to stray from a size 8. Happily, today, we are seeing more designers bring a sense of joy and genuine style to their plus size designs, and some stores are celebrating inclusion and body positivity. True, some major stores have built their brand dismissing size 10 and above, yet even these are now moving toward inclusion.
While there is still much to be accomplished, the body inclusivity movement is making changes. We're seeing models of all shapes, sizes, and complexions making strides on the runways, magazine covers, and clothing racks. Celebrated designers like Christian Soriano create exquisite clothing for a wide range of sizes without even separating them into women's and plus sizes. The hashtag #bodypositive has more than 16.5 million posts on Instagram. The times, they are a-changin'.
Where to Find Fun Plus Size Fashion
Lane Bryant has been the go-to for women's plus size fashions for decades. Together with Avenue, they were long the primary stores for women seeking stylish clothing in plus sizes. Today, they are joined by new brands dedicated to reimagining what plus size means in fashion. Rather than hiding or disguising women's curves, they are celebrating them. Now, gorgeous colors and bold patterns are easy to find with a wide range of stylish clothing options. Look for Henning, Loud Bodies, and Universal Standard.Other fashion brands are joining the body inclusivity movement and offering an array of fun plus size fashion along with their standard sizes. They rely on wholesale boutique clothing vendors like Bloom Wholesale for the fun and fabulous styles that have finally brought new meaning to plus size.