It’s no secret that the fashion industry has a plus-size problem: Any time a model larger than a sample size appears in a magazine or on a runway, it’s considered news. And these newsworthy moments are few and far between. While looking for an explanation for this phenomenon, it’s easy to blame sizeist designers for only catering to the lythe among us—but it’s possible that we’ve been overlooking a significant source feeding the problem.
After publishing a story about a Washington State University study that found the average American woman is now a size 16, Dominique Norman, an alumna of the school’s fashion design program, reached out to share with me that she was the first student there to create a plus-size collection, which she designed for her senior project. While that fact is remarkable in and of itself, it became even more so after she shared that Washington State is one of only a handful of schools in the country to encourage students to explore plus-size design—and to give them the necessary tools for success.
“Due to this deficit of representation in curriculums throughout the United States, I became inspired to create a collection that accurately reflected the average American woman and challenge the typical designs and silhouettes that are available in the plus-size market,” Norman, now a graduate student at New York's Parsons School of Design, said. The 22-year-old graduated from Washington State this past spring, and under the guidance of Dr. Deborah Christel, one of the study’s authors and a professor in the school's Department of Apparel Merchandising, she was able to create a line of garments that not only reflected her as a designer, but her as a person.
For fashion students learning to create professional apparel, a “fashion size 8” is considered the standard. While you might see size 8 and think, “hey, that’s not so bad,” the term is wildly misleading. I previously wrote about how sizes in the U.S. are not standardized and relatively meaningless—and by most measures, a fashion size 8 is actually closer to a size 2 or 4, which is hardly representative of the everywoman.
Just like in any field, there are people who have managed to achieve major success without the tutelage of a top academic program. Ralph Lauren, one of the top American designers, only attended two years at a non-design school before dropping out, and Michael Kors went to New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) for less than one year before leaving to make it on his own. But for every Lauren and Kors, there's a Donna Karan, Tom Ford, Derek Lam, Narciso Rodriguez, Norma Kamali, Nanette Lepore, who went through the design school machine, and no doubt took with them the ethos breathed into every piece of fabric and stitched into every seam that less fat is more, and more fat is bad.
“Can you be a successful designer and never attend college? Absolutely," Joanne Arbuckle, dean of the School of Art and Design at FIT, told fashion showcasing platform Not Just a Label in a recent interview, "but that’s not the norm and that is the critical message.”
Christel’s influence as a professor with a background in plus-size apparel was crucial in helping Norman develop the confidence to create her line, but a teacher at her high school planted the seed early on that fashion is for everybody and every body. This teacher helped her realize she wanted to “create an identity for myself through fashion.” She was determined to carve her own way, despite the fact that she was entering a world where nearly every magazine cover girl and every fashion show features women with un-relatable proportions.
“A big part of it is addressing the needs of women, specifically,” Norman said. “Not everyone is shaped that way. Not everyone wants to be shaped that way. Some women who are curvy have no problem showing off their curves. And a lot of designers don’t have experience working with different body types and aren’t familiar with how to address those concerns.”
Back in 2014, Emme, the first-ever plus-size supermodel, sought to fix the university plus-size problem herself by helping to roll out a first-of-its-kind program at her alma mater, Syracuse University. She embarked on this project after realizing that brands simply didn't offer chic options for a woman larger than the industry standard.
“Instead of hitting my head against the wall, I put on my business hat," Emme told MTV News at the time. "And I realized I had to go to where designers actually learn how to design clothes, and teach them how to design clothes for all women…So when they graduate, they’ll influence the manufacturers making the clothes, and we can finally then see a shift in the business."
But two years later, progress remains slow. Even at Cornell University, which offers a handful of plus-size dress forms to its design students, catering to a larger woman is not necessarily that school's priority. (A dress form, for the unfamiliar, looks like a mannequin without a head or limbs and is used by designers to craft a garment.) “We want students to be successful and work in areas of the industry where they will be successful,” Susan Ashdown, a professor in Cornell’s Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, told me. She said she sees the plus-size market as a niche one (despite a 2012 study that found plus-size women account for 67% of the U.S. population) for which flattering garments are simply difficult to make.
Ashdown’s comments were surprising, given that she was instrumental in helping construct the school’s first plus-size dress form back in 2013 after students expressed interest. Thanks to her background in 3D body scanning, she was able to use the dimensions of an actual size 24 woman who she’d scanned to construct the form out of foam material. While this form and a few others she helped create continue to be used by current students, Ashdown said there hasn’t been a great surge in demand.
Along with Washington State, Cornell, and Syracuse, Ohio's Kent State University in Ohio and New York's FIT and Parsons offers plus-sizes courses, too. But still, it’s tiny portion of what is taught at schools nationwide.
This past spring, Parsons student Nayyara Chue started a petition to increase the number of plus-size dress forms at the school. She nearly reached her goal of collecting 9,000 signatures, but the school has yet to confirm whether or not it intends to fulfill the request and a school official admitted to CNN Money earlier this month that plus-size dress forms account for just 4% of its 450 forms. Though that's better than at most schools, it's still not a good look.
"I'm not going to design for a size I can't relate to anymore," Chue told CNNMoney, echoing Norman’s feelings. "To look for a plus-size mannequin, I'd have to go through every floor [of the school] to find it. There was one size 22 in the entire school."
“What comes first? What creates change?” Norman asked, when we spoke last week. “Is it a change in the industry and seeing greater plus-size representation, or is it a change in the curriculum?”
It’s impossible to say at this point. But adapting curricula for the modern woman is worth a try.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.