In the early 20th century, the American ready-to-wear industry for stout women–whom we typically call plus-size today–emerged almost simultaneously as that for slimmer women. Stores like Lane Bryant offered a wide variety of clothing specially designed for stout women, who represented a growing portion of the population and had both the desire and income to spend on fashion goods. This essay explores how the industry evolved in the 1910s and 20s to serve them.
ANew York Times article in 1917 defined “stout” 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 (“Stout Women Can Now Be Stylish” 1917). By the mid-1910s, 12.7% of the total U.S. population was overweight; by the 1970s over 30% of women had a BMI over 30; and today, over 60% of women are considered overweight or obese (Cutler, Glaeser, and Shapiro 2003, Keist and Marcketti 2013, NIDDK 2018). This group has often faced discrimination and had difficulty in finding flattering and fashionable clothing.
Marginalizing the fat body has been the norm, both in the past and in the present. Plus-size women have been excluded from high fashion from the earliest days of stoutwear manufacturing at the start of the twentieth century. Stoutwear manufacturers created ready-to-wear designs for middle-class women, but designers did not make or promote high-fashion designs in vast quantities for upper-class women.
Mentions of stout women were peppered throughout editorials in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, but most of the commentary provided advice on how to look slender to achieve a more fashionable silhouette or more often how to lose weight. Well-known fashion designers discriminated against designing clothing for stout women in the 1920s–as they continue to do so today (“For the Stouter Woman” 1920).
Jeanne Lanvin stated that her frocks would not be noted “for beauty and distinction” unless worn by the “right type of person.” The right type of person was of the “right height, right weight, and above all, slenderness” (“Importance of the Cape” 1926).
Couturières ignored the specific body requirements needed by stout women. On the other hand, Good Housekeeping featured articles and The New York Times had columns specifically dedicated to stout women offering dressing advice
The ready-to-wear industry for stout women emerged almost simultaneously with that for slimmer women, or what many of the press called the stout woman’s “slender sister.” Though stoutwear shops were not as plentiful at first, they did exist. Lena Bryant, Lane Bryant’s founder, started her company as a clothing shop for maternity wear, but quickly realized the need to dress stout women. Lane Bryant strove to be the one-stop shop for stout women by offering them apparel in every category: suits, waists, skirts, sweater, coats, dresses, negligees, corsets, bathing suits and underwear.
Lane Bryant was the largest and possibly the most well-known store that specialized in stout women’s clothing (Fig. 2). It originally specialized in mail-order maternity clothing, but created its first brick-and-mortar store by 1900. In 1916, sales exceeded one million dollars (Fucini and Fucini 1985). They also advertised that they specialized in clothing for the “hard-to-fit.” This category included apple body shapes (large bust and small hips) and pear body shapes (smaller bust and larger hips), as these did not follow a standard distribution of sizing proportions (Lane Bryant 1917a, Lane Bryant 1917b). Good Housekeeping stated in 1917 that only in “good shops” could disproportioned women of larger size find a limited selection of ready-to-wear clothing (“Solving the Problem” 1917).
In addition to Lane Bryant, other stores that specialized in stout women’s clothing included Leonard’s, F. F. Models, Graceline Stout-Style, R and Z Stout Waists (Reuben and Zuckerman, Inc.) (Fig. 3), The Rosenbaum Co. (Fig. 4), Super Customade (Salomon, Blum and Co., Inc.) and La Mere Frocks. Although not specializing in stout women’s clothing, stores such as Gimbel Brothers, Blackshire, R. H. Macy and Co., Platt Bros., Charles E. May Company, Inc., Dolly Gray, Queen Make Everyday Dresses, Mandel Brothers and Barmon Brothers Company, Inc. (Fig. 5) offered clothing for both ‘average’ and stout women. Stout women’s specialty stores made stout women more confident in their clothing choices and created an environment where shop girls would understand stout women’s struggles with body shape and with dressing ‘appropriately.’ Stout shoppers would no longer need to be embarrassed in department stores that did not focus on stout sizes (Keist and Marcketti 2013).
Leonard’s of New York had a store along with mail-order catalogs for stout women. It sold dresses, suits, coats, skirts, and corsets. It advertised “quality and style” and “planned garments on lines of grace and individuality with distinctive finishing touches” (Leonard’s 1916). The Graceline Stout Style Dress used “scientific designing” to create clothing for stout women instead of cutting the same pattern from smaller sizes to fit the larger figure. Graceline advertised garments in a “graceful, youthful style, perfect fitting, and a number of the newest modes from which you can select your frock” (Graceline 1918).
The manufacturer of F. F. Models for Full Formed Women (Fig. 6) advertised “slenderness to every line of the figure… perfect fitting, smartly tailored and beautifully made” (F. F. Models 1918). Like Lane Bryant, they promoted stout women’s clothing specially designed and skillfully patterned to meet the requirements of a woman’s proportions that added slenderness, poise, and grace without requiring alterations, asserting that:
“long lines and youthful figures [are] so much desired by every full formed woman” (F. F. Models 1917).
Their clothing added length to the figure through a variety of fabrics appropriate for the stout woman in youthful styles. By 1919, F. F. Models, similar to other stout women’s apparel companies, claimed they had studied the full figure, stating that their clothing was “cut by experts who have made a special study of the requirements of the full-formed woman” to create a modish distinction and smooth fit “which are hers by right” (F. F. Models 1919). Another manufacturer for the stout woman was Drezwellsley Frocks, made “for all ‘types,’ all purposes, all figures, ranging from the slim to the stout; for maid or matron” (Drezwellsley 1917).
Separating stout sizing from “average” sizing was one of the first instances of differentiation by sizing. The New York Times suggested separating stout sizes from “average” sizes and creating different sections within the women’s department in stores, and predicted in 1917 that “in a very short time all of the larger department stores will have departments designed solely for catering to the needs of the stout woman” (“Stout Women Can Now Be Stylish” 1917, 72). The need for separate departments and unique boutiques sprang from the discouragement that many stout women encountered when shopping in stores for the average-sized woman. Some felt humiliated that stores did not have clothing in their size so that they would have to rely on a tailor or dressmaker, especially at a time where many consumers viewed homemade clothing as inferior. Stout women also felt an “air of superiority” from slim salesgirls when they were told “we haven’t your size” (“Cater By Method” 1918, 28).
Plus-sized women’s clothing retailers seemed to hold conflicting views about their customers. Some retailers viewed plus-sized customers as difficult due to sensitivity about their size, whereas others found them to be easily pleased and appreciative of the efforts to fulfill their needs. The New York Times urged retailers to acknowledge plus-sized women as important paying customers (‘‘Catering Trade’’ 1922). By making the plus-sized woman feel significant, retailers would generate more revenue, customer loyalty, and word-of-mouth promotion. One retailer stated that if a plus-sized woman could not solve her ‘‘particular problem’’ in one store, she would remain faithful to stores that were able to fulfill her needs. Retailers tried to increase sales of plus-sized women’s clothing by training sales people to be courteous and sensitive to the plus-sized woman’s needs (‘‘Providing Dresses’’ 1924).
Print sources like Vogue, Good Housekeeping, and The New York Times provide pre- and proscriptive advice for proper dressing. Most sources urged that by following their advice and avoiding certain faux pas, stout women could appear slender and fashionable.
Styles and Advice (1910-1919)
While stout clothing was available in the early part of the 1910s, the choices were limited and the drawbacks many (Keist 2017). Slender women at the time had more ready-to-wear choices than ever before, but as The New York Times reports the stout woman was “sadly neglected in the early development of the manufacture of dress” (“Variety the Keynote” 1926, 39). Anne Rittenhouse of The New York Times advised that, as long as stout women chose silhouettes that flattered her, then fashion would be in her favor. Design and fabrication often were adapted from fashions for the “average” woman to fulfill the needs of stout women (Rittenhouse 1912).
The fashionable empire-waistline style of the early 1910s was flattering to both the slender and stout figure (Fig. 8). The higher waistline created a smoother, straighter line over the hips that flattered the figure more than a dress with an anatomically correct waistline. Stout women also were advised to avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing that exaggerated curves. Instead, any garments that were worn close to the body should be draped to camouflage the apparent size of the woman (“Panniers” 1912). One of the most common stout dress styles of the 1910s featured long somewhat full sleeves, a high neckline, a blousy bodice with a belt and a full ankle-length skirt–often accented with added draperies such as sashes or extra panels. This sort of dress seemed to be the quasi-uniform of the 1910s stout woman (Fig. 9).
Some designers, manufacturers, and businesses thought the stout woman was more trouble than she was worth. She was referred to as the afflicted, as a problem, and as the cause of ‘‘manufacturing difficulties’’ (‘‘A Chance’’ 1922). A common belief was that designing clothing for slender women was just ‘easier’ than designing for stout women. Malsin, from Lane Bryant, found that ordinary grading was not possible for stout women’s clothing and needed a new system for a stout woman’s proportions. Standard grading of patterns worked well for slender and average-sized patterns, but as Malsin stated “it is impossible to make such garments by the ordinary process of grading as it is by use for regulation sizes” (“Scientific Specialization” 1915, 4). The process of altering styles to make the waist appear smaller and elongate the height was often termed a “science.” In the spirit of the Progressive Era, advertisers used technical and scientific words such as “cleverly adapted,” “specialized,” “scientifically perfect,” and “manipulated” to entice more stout women to purchase their clothing.
A key principle was that the majority of the garment pieces should be of the same color and fabric, although designers could incorporate other colors into a gown. Manufacturers of stout clothing followed this strategy and offered only limited color selections; most clothing was made of dark colors such as black, navy blue, plum, brown, or dark green that would obscure the silhouette and hide flaws. Stout manufacturers preferred gabardine, georgette, broadcloth, chiffon, velvet, taffeta, charmeuse, silk jersey, and crêpe de Chine fabrics as they were more forgiving to the figure (“Design and Materials” 1916). Fabrics made with spun yarns were more matte in comparison to smooth, filament yarns made of silk or newly manufactured rayon that tended to be more lustrous than those of cotton, wool, and linen. The sheen of satin fabrics magnified curves and was best avoided by the stout woman who could use optical illusions to disguise her form.
Properly fitting undergarments, such as the corset, were important for the average-sized woman to create the silhouette popular at the time, but for the stout woman they were imperative. Sources deemed the corset as the most important part of dressing for the stout woman.
The corset was “the most important auxiliary” item that let the stout woman fit in with the current fashions; it allowed “the ‘new’ stout woman to free herself from the unsightly lines of the past and take her rightful position in the world of fashion” (“Stout Women Can Now Be Stylish” 1917, 72).
Corset companies like Bon Ton stressed that the corsets for stout women were made from fabric that was tested for strength, with scientifically placed boning for shape and support, elastic inserts for added comfort, ample room for both the diaphragm and the bust, and “substantial” hose supporters, to take the extra strain.
The typical 1920s silhouette was incongruent with stout women’s body shapes. The boyish silhouette with its minimal curves, de-emphasized bust and hips, and dropped waistline would not flatter the stout figure. In the 1910s few manufacturers specialized in stout fashion and thus consumers’ choices were limited; the growing number of plus-sized clothing manufacturers in the early 1920s showed increasing recognition of the plus-sized women’s demographic (‘‘Increase’’ 1923). Some American manufacturers hired specialty designers to study the plus-sized woman’s form. These designers found that creating clothing for stout women was no different than designing for average-sized women in that the overweight wanted stylish garments that fit their figure and personality. They wanted garments that were designed for their body type in youthful lines that promoted slenderness. They did not want to purchase garments designed for the average woman in larger sizes. The ‘‘regular’’-sized garments in larger sizes did not have the ‘‘stylish stout effects’’ because they were not properly cut and proportioned for the plus-sized woman’s body type (‘‘Youthful Fashions Adapted’’ 1921). These afterthought garments would neither properly fit nor flatter the stout figure.
Appropriate styles were modified from styles worn by the average-sized woman and adapted with concealing and flattering lines. In order to dress correctly, stout women were often encouraged to ignore highly fashionable clothing and to dress plainly and inconspicuously. Stout women were advised not to call attention to themselves by overdressing, trying too hard to follow popular fashions (unless properly modified), or wearing the fads of the season and other ‘‘wild frocks’’ (‘‘The No-Longer-Slim Bride’’ 1922). Stout women were urged to dress for their figure in styles that were age- and figure appropriate. Tight, long skirts were to be avoided because these would give a ‘‘sausage-like effect.’’ Incorrect waistlines and skirt lengths were said to shorten and widen the already stout figure. The stout woman was told to avoid the higher hemlines that were decidedly in fashion.
Like prescriptive advice in the 1910s, much of the advice provided to women in Vogue and Good Housekeeping stressed hiding the figure through fabric additions and optical illusions. Extra fabric included pleats, flares, draperies, ‘‘floating’’ panels, sashes, apron backs with bows, and the use of jabots. Although extra fabric additions were recommended, embroidery and other embellishments were to be avoided, as this would give an overdressed appearance and contradict the term stylish stout (‘‘Fitting the Flat Back’’ 1923). Design details such as diagonal lines and diagonal trimmings provided visual illusions to slenderize the stout form. Flared skirts were often worn in longer lengths as they would provide height and supposed slenderness to the wearer. Sleeves were finished with extra fabric and decorations such as fluting, rows of buttons, and wide and unusually shaped cuffs. These treatments added attractiveness to the wrist and directed attention away from other areas of the body.
Although slender women largely stopped wearing the corset in the 1920s, plus-sized women were advised to never abandon the corset. Vogue stated, ‘‘Only the perfect skeleton can permit itself entire freedom from the ghost of the corset’’ (‘‘Figures That Do’’ 1923, 60). Corsets were designed to meet the requirements of the simple, straight, fashionable silhouettes by providing a smooth, unbroken line in the front and back of the garment. Stout women were advised to wear their corsets at all times for:
‘‘training one’s figure is much like training children’s manners—it cannot be done for guest days only, but it must become a habit’’ (Gardner 1924, 60).
Corsetières realized that stout women’s body proportions were more varied than average-sized women and that the stout needed support in different ways. Even if a woman was of the same size as a friend, her proportions could still be very different. Many corset companies offered corsets tailored to specific figure types and ‘‘problems’’ including tall heavy, short heavy, large above waist, and large below waist.
These early conventions surrounding stout women and fashion would shape the discourse surrounding stout women and shape their experiences for decades to come.
For Further Reading:
- Keist, Carmen N. “How Stout Women Were Left Out of High Fashion: An Early Twentieth-Century Perspective.” Fashion, Style & Popular Culture 5, no. 1 (2018): 25-40. http://dx.doi.org/10.1386/fspc.5.1.25_1
- Keist, Carmen. “‘Stout Women Can Now Be Stylish:’” Stout Women’s Fashions, 1910-1919.” Dress 43, no. 2 (2017): 99-117. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03612112.2017.1300474
- Keist, Carmen N., and Sara B. Marcketti. “The New Costumes of Odd Sizes: Stout Women’s Fashions, 1920-1929.” Clothing and Textile Research Journal 31, no. 4 (2013): 259-274. https://doi.org/10.1177/0887302X13503184.
- Cutler, David, Edward Glaeser, and Jesse Shapiro. “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 17, no. 3 (2003): 93-118. https://doi.org/10.3386/w9446.
- Drezwellsley Frock advertisement, Harper’s Bazar, July 1917, 4.
- F. F. Models for Full Formed Women advertisement, Harper’s Bazar, March 1917, 123.
- F. F. Models for Full Formed Women advertisement, Vogue, February 1, 1918, 112.
- F. F. Models for Full Formed Women advertisement, Harper’s Bazar, March 1919, 107.
- Fucini, Joseph J., and Suzy Fucini. Entrepreneurs: The Men and Women Behind Famous Brand Names and How They Made It. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/246767525.
- Gardner, Edith. “The Older Woman: Underlying Points of the Well-Gowned Matron,” Good Housekeeping, November 1924, 61.
- Graceline Stout Style Dresses advertisement, Vogue, January 1, 1918, 100.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Overweight and Obesity Statistics.” Accessed July 7, 2018. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/ health-statistics/overweight-obesity.
- Lane Bryant advertisements, Harper’s Bazar, February 1917a, 166.
- Lane Bryant advertisements, Harper’s Bazar, May 1917b, 33.
- Leonard’s advertisement, Vogue, November 1, 1916, 173.
- Rittenhouse, Anne. “Desirable Clothes for Stout and Elderly Women—No Reason for Not Dressing Well—Should Choose Styles to Suit Their Flesh and Their Years,” New York Times, August 11, 1912, 62.
- —–. “A Chance to Make Money,” New York Times, April 27, 1922, 27.
- —–. “Cater By Method to Stout Persons,” New York Times, August 11, 1918, 28.
- —–. “Catering to the Stout Wear Trade,” New York Times, August 13, 1922, 41.
- —–. “Design and Materials Especially Adapted to the Figure of the Older and Stouter Woman,” Good Housekeeping, September 1916, 87.
- —–. “Figures That Do and Do Not Lie,” Vogue, November 15, 1923, 63.
- —–. “Fitting the Flat Back to the Full Figure,” Vogue, November 1923, 45, 128.
- —–. “For the Stouter Woman,” Good Housekeeping, April 1920, 69.
- —–. “The Importance of the Cape and Scarf,” Good Housekeeping, June 1926, 72–73, 222.
- —–. “Increase in the Stout-Wear Trade,” New York Times, February 11, 1923, 45.
- —–. “The No-Longer-Slim Bride,” Vogue, April 1, 1922, 60.
- —–. “Panniers Come Back into Favor in Paris,” New York Times, September 16, 1912, 13.
- —–. “Providing Dresses for Stout Women”, New York Times, August 10, 1924, 42.
- —–. “The Science of Adding an Inch to a Woman’s Stature and Subtracting Several from Her Waist and Hips,” Good Housekeeping, October 1916, 76.
- —–. “Solving the Problem of the Large Figure,” Good Housekeeping, July 1917, 72, 124.
- —–. “Scientific Specialization in Stouts,” Women’s Wear, July 9, 1915, 4, 9.
- —–. “Stout Women Can Now Be Stylish.” New York Times, January 14, 1917, 72.
- —–, “Variety the Keynote of Millinery Show,” New York Times, August 1, 1926, 39.
- —–. “Youthful Fashions Adapted to the Older and More Mature Figure,” Good Housekeeping, September 1912, 59.