Tim Gunn’s Plus Size Mistake

Image resultTim Gunn is “a design educator, author and Emmy-winning co-host of “Project Runway” according to the byline of a piece he wrote for the Washington Post.  The piece is called “Designers refuse to make clothes to fit American women. It’s a disgrace.” with the subtitle “Far more women in this country wear a size 16 than a size 6, but the industry seems not to have noticed.” I’m a fan of Tim Gunn on Project Runway and I had high hopes when I opened the article.  And it started off strong:

I love the American fashion industry, but it has a lot of problems, and one of them is the baffling way it has turned its back on plus-size women. It’s a puzzling conundrum. The average American woman now wears between a size 16 and a size 18, according to new research from Washington State University. There are 100 million plus-size women in America, and, for the past three years, they have increased their spending on clothes faster than their straight-size counterparts. There is money to be made here ($20.4 billion, up 17 percent from 2013). But many designers — dripping with disdain, lacking imagination or simply too cowardly to take a risk — still refuse to make clothes for them.

Yes!  This!  All of this!  Tell it Tim Gunn!

In addition to the fact that most designers max out at size 12, the selection of plus-size items on offer at many retailers is paltry compared with what’s available for a size 2 woman. According to a Bloomberg analysis, only 8.5 percent of dresses on Nordstrom.com in May were plus-size. At J.C. Penney’s website, it was 16 percent; Nike.com had a mere five items — total.

I know, right!  This is ridiculous.  Thanks Tim Gunn, I feel like you really get me!

This a design failure and not a customer issue. There is no reason larger women can’t look just as fabulous as all other women.

Right On Tim!

But then things took a disturbing turn:

The key is the harmonious balance of silhouette, proportion and fit, regardless of size or shape. Designs need to be reconceived, not just sized up; it’s a matter of adjusting proportions. The textile changes, every seam changes. Done right, our clothing can create an optical illusion that helps us look taller and slimmer. Done wrong, and we look worse than if we were naked.

Wait. What?  No. World of no, Galaxy of no. Universe of no.  Nooooooooo. Optical illusion?  I don’t need to be a walking magic trick, Tim, I just want options for clothes in my size. Also, it seems like you might be insinuating that fat people aren’t smoking hot naked, and if you are, then you’re wrong about that my friend.

Have you shopped retail for size 14-plus clothing? Based on my experience shopping with plus-size women, it’s a horribly insulting and demoralizing experience. Half the items make the body look larger, with features like ruching, box pleats and shoulder pads. Pastels and large-scale prints and crazy pattern-mixing abound, all guaranteed to make you look infantile or like a float in a parade. Adding to this travesty is a major department-store chain that makes you walk under a marquee that reads “WOMAN.” What does that even imply? That a “woman” is anyone larger than a 12, and everyone else is a girl? It’s mind-boggling.

You are so close, Tim – you are almost there.  Here’s the deal:  The idea is that fat women should have the same kind of clothing options as thin women in style, quality, and price point. We should be able to buy clothes that work for the reasons we want to buy them, whether it’s comfort, functionality, a personal style, something else, or some combination.

Some women may choose to wear clothing for the purpose of creating an optical illusion, and they are allowed to do that.  But many of us are members of the Fuck Flattering Club and don’t have a personal style that could be described as “now you see me, now you don’t.”

This season [on project runway,] something different happened: Ashley Nell Tipton won the contest with the show’s first plus-size collection. But even this achievement managed to come off as condescending. I’ve never seen such hideous clothes in my life: bare midriffs; skirts over crinoline, which give the clothes, and the wearer, more volume; see-through skirts that reveal panties; pastels, which tend to make the wearer look juvenile; and large-scale floral embellishments that shout “prom.” Her victory reeked of tokenism. One judge told me that she was “voting for the symbol” and that these were clothes for a “certain population.” I said they should be clothes all women want to wear. I wouldn’t dream of letting any woman, whether she’s a size 6 or a 16, wear them. Simply making a nod toward inclusiveness is not enough.

…I profoundly believe that women of every size can look good. But they must be given choices. Separates — tops, bottoms — rather than single items like dresses or jumpsuits always work best for the purpose of fit. Larger women look great in clothes skimming the body, rather than hugging or cascading. There’s an art to doing this. Designers, make it work.

So what I’m reading is that Tim is for more plus size clothes but only as he envisions them – created for the purpose of making us look smaller than we are, and certainly not as   envisioned by an actual plus sized designer who wants to dress fat bodies instead of disappearing them.  The problem isn’t Ashley’s collection, the problem is that it’s only one collection – one designer’s aesthetic. What we need is lots more fat people making clothes that they and other fat people want to wear.  If Tim Gunn wants to help out with that, and it seems like he does and I genuinely appreciate that, then his job is to make way for them, not stand in their way. Trust me, they’ll make it work

If you want to hear fat designers like Alysse Dalessandro and Yolanda Williams, and plus size models like Saucye West and Velvet D’Amour talk about plus size fashion, check out the Fat Activism Conference:


This year we have a kick ass line up of speakers talking about everything from Re-Imagining Fashion from an Inclusive Framework” to “Activism for the Introverted and Anxious” to “Building Fat Patient Power While Accessing Healthcare” and moreThis is a virtual conference so you can listen by phone or computer wherever you are, and you’ll receive recordings and transcripts of each talk so that you can listen/read on your own schedule.  We also offer a pay what you can afford option to make the conference accessible to everyone. The Conference will be held September 23-25, 2016

Click Here to Register!

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25 thoughts on “Tim Gunn’s Plus Size Mistake

  1. I agree it good he wants more plus size designers. However, why do then need to fit us in a box. If we make it to the point we like our bodies don’t design them to tell us they r wrong. Ask people what they want and they will make the money and make us happy!!

  2. I read this and was going to send it to you because I immediately thought you needed to post about it. I commented on the article directly and said that I just want choices. Let ME decide what I find “flattering,” if I so choose to give a fuck about “flattering” at all!

  3. I actually WANT large-scale prints and crazy pattern mixing, because those things make me feel happy and confident when I wear them. I happen to rock that look.

    Nothing is going to make me look thin, because I am not thin. I am not anything close to thin. But that’s okay, because I don’t really care about looking thin. I care about being able to express my personal style (“toddler grandma” plus lots of hats).

    So close, Tim. So close.

  4. And if occasionally we want a business suit, where the hell can we get it? And if we do find one, is it anything other than black? Not everyone wants to wear black 24/7.

    I do agree you can’t just make smaller sizes bigger and expect it to always work. All the women I know who are larger than a 12 are shaped very differently, and I’m sad when they (and I) can’t find clothes we are completely happy with.

    On a completely personal and off-topic note, I decided to do a sleep study and discovered I have sleep apnea and having a CPAP ROCKS!.

    Okay, I’m still working on finding a mask I really like, but oh, having a working brain is AWESOME!

    Ahem! We now return you to your regularly scheduled comments.

    1. I don’t know if this type of thing is in your price range, but I’ve had jeans made here: http://www.makeyourownjeans.com/ They also make suits! They are men’s-style suits, but they are tailored to your size in every way.

      I’ve been really pleased with the results. I’ve even maxed out some of the inches categories, but they said just to put the sizes in the notes section and they’ll take care of it. However, they do up charge for larger sizes…

  5. I’ve long been annoyed with books and so on that claim to tell one how to dress to provide an illusion, but then assume everyone should be trying for the exact same illusion. Just tell us the how, and let us decide what. I hope you all can straighten this Gunn fellow out.

  6. I’m so glad you wrote about this. I was angry after reading those comments. We don’t need another thin man to come and tell us how to dress to look less “offensive” to him. I don’t want a “special” selection of clothing made to make me look less how I am. I want clothes made in my size, period. I think Tim has a long way to come yet in his understanding of fat women and what we actually want.

  7. I believe that Tim wants to be an ally, but is operating under a very old playbook; the playbook that my mother’s generation suffered under. “Black is best if you’re big; avoid ‘loud’ prints on a big body” and that nonsense. If he is open to hearing from fat women in a younger generation, and to actually *absorbing* the information, he could be very persuasive in how fashion moves forward for us. A lot of people listen to his song; he just needs help finding the right key.

    1. I would agree. He’s starting on this path, and that’s a good thing for a big name in the fashion industry. That he needs to take a few more steps down that path is true, but I’ll take what I can get!

  8. I came here to say almost precisely what silentsgirl said above, but she said it much better and more eloquently than I would have. I believe his heart is in the right place, and he truly does want fashion to be inclusive for all women and all bodies. But he’s been subjected to the same fatphobic and body-hating rhetoric we all have been, and he’s still working his way out of it. I have hopes for him, though.

  9. Dear Mr. Gunn:

    You’re right that you can’t scale “straight-sized” clothes up for fat people. I’ve had it with pants with cuffs six inches too long, that are loose in the waist and still tight in the hips; or which, conversely, make me look like a snowman by squeezing my waist down into my hips. I want a selection of clothes that fit my body attractively and comfortably.

    While I generally prefer loose, flowing garments, I don’t think all day people should be told they have to wear clothes that “skim the body.” Making fat people look slim is as silly as making slim people look fat. What we need is not more illusion but actual garments made to fit our actual, differing proportions–in quality fabrics, in our choice of patterns and styles.

    Thanks for the effort, though…

  10. “I wouldn’t dream of letting any woman, whether she’s a size 6 or a 16, wear them.”

    Dear Tim Gunn,

    This is the fundamental problem.

    No woman of any size needs your fucking permission to wear anything.

    It’s true that plus size women lack options compared to their straight-side counterparts.

    But the answer to that is creating more options.

    1. Clothes that all women want to wear?

      But… women have differing taste and passions and preferences, and there is NO single article of clothing, let alone an entire line, that will be something that ALL women want to wear.

      I loved this for the first few paragraphs, but he should have stopped when he was ahead.

      Alternately, he could have said “The designs were good, although not to my particular taste.” Because taste IS particular, and that is the entire point! Fat women want to be able to choose to suit our own tastes, not get stuck with the five pieces at Nike. We want variety! We want to look different!

      It’s like how women get all upset when they’re at a fancy party and someone else comes in wearing the same dress. Yeah, with our limited options, we get that ALL THE TIME. And now, he says they should design more, but still stick to the limitations of “slimming.” NOPE! You’re still sticking us in the “everyone needs to look alike” box, and it’s annoying as all get out.

  11. Yes. I mean, I can imagine separates are easier to fit given how many different ways a woman can be size 16*. But that’s not a ‘what looks good’ concern, that’s a ‘our methods for creating standardized sizes for women are borked, especially at large sizes’ concern. There’s a difference between ‘unflattering’ and ‘none of these sizes actually fit many women that they should’.

    It’s hard because he was so close, talking about how you can’t just size up clothing from ‘tall, thin traditional model build’ and have it look the same way, but then rolled off into the weeds by assuming all women want their clothing to do the same thing. (Beyond ‘make them satisfied with it’.)

    * My own problem: my bust is much smaller than my hips, so anything not designed to be free at the hips will be prone to wardrobe malfunctions at the chest. Either I tailor the bodices of my dresses (or have them tailored) or I limit my selection and try things on. Or I stick to slacks and blouses/sweaters.

  12. The few times I’ve watched Project Runway, there are always a few designs I absolutely hate and don’t think belong on anyone. Many of those designs were praised by the judges, including Gunn.

    After comparing this year’s winner to some past winners, I really don’t see what’s so different about her designs, except they are on larger models.

    I really do think there is a hint of sizeism happening, even though I also believe Gunn wants women of all sizes to be happy in their clothes.

  13. I think he has good intentions. He truly believe that clothing should enhance a look in a certain way, it’s his perceptions. He is also going by what I believe a lot of the women he shops with tell him – that they want clothing to make them look a certain way. So, he is channeling their poor body image messages and trying to give advice that he thinks will help those people get what they are looking for.
    You know I was really happy Ashley won, but I also thought it was not a real win because some of the clothing was just ugly, and she had much better clothing during the regular season. I wouldn’t make it about size though, those clothes would look bad in any size!
    Finally, another project runway issue – Lane Bryant has a Christian Siriano collection which I was so excited about except for the fact that when I look at the clothes they are either way to young for me, completely monotone or they are in awful fabrics – polyester – I hate that! Why can’t we get nice clothes in nice fabrics and something for a woman over 40 that is not black?!?!? So aggravated, I loved Christian, but this was disappointing.

  14. Right on! I am so with you! I have struggled with my weight my entire life and clothing has been a major probem for me because of it. It was pretty much beyond embarrassing when I was in elementary school having to go to Sears to shop from the “Pretty Plus” collection….. my first pair of jeans??? Ugh. Forget about it! I was in 6th grade and they were a horrible blue acid wash with way too many seams that really had no function but were apparently “cool” at the time (1990) I had to writhe on the floor in agony to get those stupid jeans on and because I am short as well they were too long for me so I had to cuff them, I had attempted” tight rolling”, as was the style at the time, but that resulted in giving the jeans an almost Harem pant effect- gross. I slimmed down for a bit throughout middle school and high school due to softball and snow skiing, but I ended up pregnant with my beautiful daughter my freshman year of college. I refused to wear maternity cothes because the maternity clothes available at the time were almost worse than the pkus sized clothes of my youth so I wore mostly “hippie” style skirts and patchwork pants and oversized, vintage, men’s overalls. After giving birth, however, I found myself again having the same problems with my weight that I had as a youth. And now here I was in the plus sized section at a store that we will call “Style Insect” looking at racks upon racks of what appeared to be mumus, capes, and house coats. The selection was disheartening. The few items I managed to find that were age appropriate for a young “hip” mom were outlandishly expensive yet the same item in the “normal sized” section of the store were at least 20% cheaper…. and as someone who has enjoyed sewing since I was a child, I know for a fact that the extra bit of fabric it took to make a size 16 instead of a 12 was certainly not worth that much more money. So for the next several years I was stuck in clothing with very unflattering patterns (there was more zebra and leopard print in my closet than in the Nairobi National Wildlife Preserve!) that really tore away the little bit of self esteem I did still have. I was able to lose a bit of weight after a bad breakup and went shopping for smaller clothes and felt soooo good to be able to wear “normal” clothes again…. my jeans didn’t have rhinestones all over them and the sleeves of my t-shirts no longer came down almost to my elbow… I gained a bit of confidence and even had several favorite outfits and new clothes that I looked forward to wearing to work! Now another nearly 10 years has gone by and I find myself back in plus sizes and even after all this time (about 13 years now) the garments I find in my size are still just awful. I really don’t know many grown women who enjoy wearing sweat shirts with pictures of kittens on them or button down shirts with Winnie the Pooh embroidered over the breast pocket. I absolutely agree with you that we need more Big Beautiful People designing clothing for Big Beautiful People! Wonderful article. Thank you!

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