Should Thin People “Re-Purpose” Plus Size Thrift Clothes

I got an e-mail from blog reader Mikaela who was in a conversation online about the trend of thin people purchasing plus sized clothes at thrift stores, and then “re-purposing” them into straight sized clothes. She said “People were claiming that the thrift store is for anyone, so we don’t have a right to complain. That doesn’t sit right with me, but I can’t articulate why. When that happens to me I usually search your blog for the topic, but I couldn’t find anything – would you write about this please?”

At your service Mikaela, let’s do this:

First, if you’re not familiar with this idea, the basic premise is that thin people buy plus size clothes, then cut and sew them into straight size clothes. There are even people, like “refashionista” who have made entire blogs out of this concept.

Here are a couple of the type of the “before” pictures that she typically posts.

The first thing I notice is that she takes great care to make sure that we all see how “big” the dress is. It seems, to me, like a subtle(or maybe not-so-subtle) form of fat shaming. It also echoes, for me, the ridiculous before and after weight loss pictures and the idea that smaller is always better. But that might just be me.

Regardless, that’s not my biggest problem. My biggest problem is that, while the thrift store is for everyone and it’s certainly legal for her and other thin people who want to do the same thing to buy clothes that don’t fit them, that choice does not happen in a vacuum.

Plus size clothing is hard to come by. It’s much, much harder to come by in thrift stores. This is significant because fat people also get hired less and paid less than thin people, and thus are more likely to actually NEED the kind of cheap clothing that a thrift store would offer.

After reading through some of refashionista’s summaries, I get the feeling that she thinks what she is doing is totally cool because these are out of style clothes that nobody would want. Setting aside the fact that tastes vary greatly and there are people of all sizes who I’m certain really like the dresses that she finds so “frumpy” and such, even if it’s true there’s still a major issue here.

One of the ways that privilege works is allowing us to be oblivious to the issues of marginalized groups that we aren’t part of – but that doesn’t mean we’re not responsible for the harm we do. This isn’t just thin people – it’s all of us, because we all have privilege of some sort. As a white person, I first have to realize that I don’t know what I don’t know when it comes to the oppression People of Color face, then I have to realize that it’s my responsibility to seek out this information so that I can use my privilege to help dismantle the systems that privilege me and oppress others.

So people who aren’t plus size often fall into the trap of believing that the experience of shopping for plus size clothes is similar to their own experience. They may believe that fat people get to choose clothes that fit well, that are appropriate for the event/occasion to which we will wear them, and that we actually like. That’s just not true.

The fact is that fat people – including and especially poor and/or superfat people – don’t simply to have the freedom to only choose clothes that we like or that are “on trend.” Sadly, often we have to choose the clothing that vaguely covers our body, even if it’s not quite professional enough for the job interview, or dressy enough for the wedding, or a color we like, or exactly the right size. The fact that all of that is phenomenally messed up is the subject for (many!) other posts.  For today I’ll point out that the solution is to change the clothing industry, not our bodies.

The bottom line when it comes to “re-purposing” plus size clothes is that they already have a valid purpose, and that purpose is to clothe plus size people. If there were more than enough plus size clothes in thrift shops I would have no problem with thin people (who, by the way, already have a metric ass-ton more options in thrift stores in their size than fat people do that they could “re-purpose”) re-designing these clothes. But the truth is that buying the few clothes that exist to fit fat people, and turning them into even more clothing that fits thin people is an act of privilege that adds to oppression, so while I can’t stop people from doing it, I really wish they wouldn’t.

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15 thoughts on “Should Thin People “Re-Purpose” Plus Size Thrift Clothes

  1. I recently went to the thrift store and could not find anything that would fit, let alone would be appropriate for the occasion. The backup option was a new garment from a department store that was shapeless, having no style, still not occasion appropriate, and cost $82. May not be much for some people, but it is for the person I was shopping for. I ended up buying two dresses and making one. I’m lucky to have sewing skills.

  2. I will not remotely say I support what this ‘refashionista’ chick is doing, but I do think the context of what you’re re-purposing and how, that matters to whether it bothers me.

    For example, I know of at least two young women on Youtube who do things like take old t-shirts from thrift stores, which are several sizes too big for them in their existing state, and they convert them into dresses and unique overshirts. There is sometimes some sewing to it, but not always, because they’re meant to look hip and trendy so involve cutting and weaving the pieces together, similar to a no-sew tie-blanket.

    Both girls are college or first-job age. One is African-American and one is Asian-American. And while there’s a certain element of “look what cool thing I made,” to their videos, there’s also a distinct element of “we’re too broke too buy unique and trendy stuff, so we’ll make them instead.”

    I have no problems with what those girls are doing. I wouldn’t have a problem with some broke bride buying up some vintage plus-sized dresses to fashion a wedding gown out of them.

    But if what you’re mostly doing is just taking bigger-sized clothing and sizing it down to fit you, when you have the sewing skills (like this refashionista person obviously does) to buy thrift-store clothes close to your own size and alter them to your style, that’s shitty behavior. There was a jacket she cut up to a tunic that I could’ve probably paired with something myself.

    And as someone who had to spend way too much money on an outfit for a family wedding last summer, but who knows the thrift stores here never have anything decent in my size, it’s pretty shitty to see something YOU could’ve used destroyed so another person can come off as ‘thrifty’.

  3. Wow, good point! I enjoy the concept of refashioning thrifted clothes, but I have seen the plus size “before” clothes described in ways that make me cringe. Thanks for this sharp critique, so well said. If I ever see a garment in a size larger than mine that I’m tempted to buy and alter, I will remember your analysis. Thanks for this!

  4. It’s also very telling that these kinds of refashionings are so popular when they don’t require that much technical skill to do. I’m not saying that making a dress is easy — my sewing skills are amateur at best — but if you’re deliberately choosing a garment that’s so much larger than your measurements that you can just trace your patterns on it and cut them out, then there’s functionally not much differece compared to making a dress from a bolt of cloth you bought at the fabric store. Reworking a dress that’s your size or close to it into something totally new is much more interesting and technically challenging. Which suggests that these bloggers are making their money by scoring fatphobia points; this is just a mutated version of the ever-popular before and after weight loss photo “transformation porn.”

    1. I was gonna say! If you’re (meaning the people doing this) so bad at sewing that you need that much extra fabric…maybe find a fat woman who makes her own clothes from scratch because for some reason she can’t find anything in thrift stores, and either learn from her or, I dunno, pay her to make clothes for you?

  5. As FemmeAppeal points out, this isn’t a cut-and-dried issue, but I must say I don’t like her expression in those photos. I may be misreading it, of course, but to me she looks pert, as if to say, “look at this funny frumpy huge dress! No one would want this, haha!”

    Again, I may be reading in for sure. But it’s a sensitive topic for me, too—I have a low income which goes for a two-person household; I like old-fashioned clothes, and I cannot to save my soul find things that fit in most thrift stores. I’m a size 18-22, depending on brand, and it only gets worse as sizes go up.

    I’m pretty sure the solos doing this have no real idea that they’re creating hardship for anyone, but that’s definitely a manifestation of privilege.

  6. So she’s like, what, a size six? Why can’t she buy like 2 sizes up and repurpose those?

    I’m sure a fat person could also modify clothing to make it look cute, as well. Why is she so special, tbh?

  7. I see it too. The he he he look at me in this big fatty dress. It is sort of an invisible form of a mirco-aggression.
    Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Yeah it’s clever and thrifty but can you afford something nice in your size? go buy it!

  8. I knit, and I get a lot of my yarn by unraveling thrift store sweaters. (Almost a pound of cashmere for $5? Hooray!) Apart from the frugal aspects, I really enjoy doing this because it gives me a reason to shop in thrift stores. I’m somewhere in the 32/34 range size-wise, and I have found a piece of clothing in my size in a thrift store exactly once. I would otherwise never get to experience the thrill of the bargain hunter. But now, I will also look at it as revenge on those who are “stealing” the few garments I might have been able to wear. Taking some of my own back.

  9. Sure, thin people CAN buy plus-size clothing at thrift shops and make themselves feel oh so crafty by cutting it down to their size. I suppose they don’t have any concept of why this is a dick move. If they’re so handy with a sewing machine, why don’t they buy some fabric from the discount bin and make that into a new item already in their size?
    I can sometimes find shirts in thrift stores, but it’s difficult to find pants. I don’t really wear dresses, so I can’t say much on that front.

  10. It really is a dick move. When I thrift store shop, I see aisles of small sizes, but the bigger sizes all fit into one small end. I always feel for the broke people who are trying to find something in their size. Why not buy five small sizes and make a patchwork garment? Why not buy old sheets and table clothes and make things (I have a friend that does this)? Why not, I don’t know, be such an obvious jerk about it.

    Right now I’m so ridiculously broke I was relying on the free food at work for lunch the past couple of days. I would like, in the future, to be able to buy thrift store sheets etc to practice my sewing and maybe make some clothes as well as buy the occasional thing in my size. It would never occur to me to take the few larger sizes away from someone who might really need them.

  11. It doesn’t really affect your point at all, but the drop-waisted blue and white dress looks to me to be fairly close to her real size. I agree she’s making it look as huge as possible in the ‘before’ pic.

  12. She has been called out–I can’t remember if I or someone else did it a few years ago–she doesn’t care. I think it was because her posts kept showing up in my pinterest feed and I had to hide them all.

    The ONLY time I’ve found something for myself at a thrift store was when someone else obviously went through everything in the store, found items that happened to be my size and hung them all at the end of an aisle.

  13. As someone who is starting to get in to refashioning thrift store finds, I appreciate your thoughts and opinions. I try to see other perspectives as best I can, so that’s why I’ve fallen in to a little internet black hole on my lunch break as I ponder this. Thank you to those who shared their perspective in kindness without tearing down others.

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