Friday Fluff: Vintage Fashion Advice for the Stout.

By | January 14, 2011


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If only she'd stood up straight.

“Following the Fashion”, a December 1794 caricature by James Gillray, which satirizes incipient neo-Classical trends in women’s clothing styles, particularly the trend towards what were known at the time as “short-bodied gowns” (i.e. short-bodiced or high-waisted dresses). This caricature satirizes the figure-type which is most flattered by high-waisted dresses, contrasting it with a body-type which was not flattered by the style…

Source: Wikimedia Commons

…Simplicity should be the style keynote for all stout people…

The woman who is stout should remember that solid colors always draw less attention to stoutness than checked, flowered and horizontally striped materials. She should wear over-blouses with her suit skirts instead of tucked-in waists, and they should be the same color as the suit itself. Her dresses should be made without waistlines, and the belts should always be narrow and tacked slightly lower than where the waist-line really should be.

For the woman who has large hips we recommend fullness of the material and a skirt that is worn an inch or two longer than the prevailing mode. The woman with broad shoulders should also wear clothes with plenty of fulness, for it is a mistaken idea that snug-fitting clothes hide stoutness. As a matter of fact, a tight dress instead of making a stout woman appear smaller, actually accentuates the size of the shoulders or hips.

Source: The New Way Course in Fashionable Clothes-Making (1926)

The stout woman should avoid the appearance of being too large for her clothes. The youthful styles should be left for the youthful figures. There are many becoming styles for the stout woman without making the figure conspicuous. The fronts, neck lines, lack of fullness in the skirt, good corseting, ease in fitting, all have a tendency to slenderize her figure. These should be desired rather than a pretty dress pattern that is attractive on the figure in the picture. Keep in mind, “Will I look attractive in that dress?”

Source: Home Sewing Course, by Helen Hall (1936)

It is interesting to know that most irregular size, stout women would not have abnormal flesh distribution if good posture had been maintained!

Source: Modern Pattern Design, by Harriet Pepin (1942)

…[W]e must choose our hats very much as our frocks are chosen. The short, stout figure should be made to appear taller; the tall, angular figure should be made to appear shorter and broader. It is as important that the hat suit the lines of the figure as it is for it to suit the lines of the face.

Source: The New-Way Course in Millinery and Hat Design (1928)

If the too-stout woman… wears the wrong kind of dress she looks even stouter than she really is. The same holds true with the short person, and the thin person. But all of us, whether we are tall or short, stout or slender, have some certain point of beauty—and it is our duty to see that the clothes we wear emphasize this “good point.”

Source: The New Way Course in Fashionable Clothes-Making (1926)

For as long as fashion has existed, women (and to a lesser extent, men) have been actively reshaping their bodies — first using corsetry, later via dieting — in the service of popular styles, while simultanously using various styles to visually reshape their bodies. We practice this superstitious fashion alchemy with the idea that we can fool others, or ourselves, into believing that the fantasy body we have inside our heads is our body in reality. Fact is, no matter what you put on it, a fat body looks fat. A thin body looks thin. And that’s not a bad thing.

Do you like stripes, or ruffles, or short skirts, or layers, or bodycon dresses? Wear them. Fuck all that well-meaning fashion advice: it’s arbitrary, often contradictory, always exhausting, and it doesn’t work. Whatever size you may be: wear what makes you feel good. You look fabulous when you feel fabulous. Be yourself and wear what you like. The only benefit to looking like everyone else is the ability to be ignored — and who wants that?

And stand the fuck up straight! You don’t want to suffer from “abnormal flesh distribution”, do you?


34 Comments

Shieldmaiden1196 on January 14, 2011 at 12:54 pm.

I like this bit:

“we practice this superstitious fashion alchemy with the idea that we can fool others, or ourselves, into believing that the fantasy body we have inside our heads is our body in reality. Fact is, no matter what you put on it, a fat body looks fat. A thin body looks thin. And that’s not a bad thing.”

I’m finally to the point in my life when I can accept that my body is ‘not a bad thing’. And this is a VERY GOOD THING.

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Ashley on January 14, 2011 at 12:56 pm.

I say wear whatever the hell you want, whatever makes you feel good because at the end of the day, all you really have to please is yourself.

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Courtney on January 14, 2011 at 1:10 pm.

Is the style depicted in the cartoon really more flattering on the body on the left than the body on the right? They look about the same to me.

And now, off to write my future best seller about standing yourself thin! With POSTURE! The revenue will surely keep me in ginormous hat plumes for all eternity.

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Lesley on January 16, 2011 at 12:14 am.

And now, off to write my future best seller about standing yourself thin! With POSTURE! The revenue will surely keep me in ginormous hat plumes for all eternity.

Lo, mightily did I LOL.

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The Bald Soprano on January 14, 2011 at 1:30 pm.

It’s interesting to note that that caricature is as much about class (St. James vs. Cheapside –high society vs. merchants) as it is about body size.

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Lesley on January 16, 2011 at 12:14 am.

Indeed. It’s hard to have any conversation about fashion without invoking class, I think.

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purplekeychain on January 14, 2011 at 1:47 pm.

I love that “youthful figures” and “the stout woman” are mutually exclusive. Ha! You are so great for posting this.

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Mulberry on January 14, 2011 at 2:39 pm.

That advice about not wearing horizontal stripes – how far does it go back anyway? I’m imagining this stout cavewoman being told that she’s wearing her tiger-skin in the wrong direction.

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Lesley on January 16, 2011 at 12:15 am.

This is probably depicted in a cave drawing somewhere.

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AlisonofaGun on January 14, 2011 at 2:50 pm.

I feel like a self-hating fatty for saying this, but…I feel better when I dress in clothing that is “flattering” to me. I wear jeggings and sometimes even leggings-as-pants despite people claiming fat girls shouldn’t wear them. But, I feel prettier in a dress with an empire waist and a hemline above my knee, than I do in say..a strapless floor-length gown, or a barely-butt-covering sheath. I guess ideally I wouldn’t care if I looked pretty, but thinking I look pretty makes me feel good. Ugh. I’m embarrassed now.

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Awlbiste on January 14, 2011 at 4:04 pm.

I’ve always loved the fashion spreads in women’s magazines that tell you how to play up your assets and downplay “bad” things. How to dress for a large butt, ample bosom, wide hips, large thighs, etc. Except! Each tidbit is only if you have one of those things, apparently nobody reading a woman’s magazine is fat all over! (And by loved I meant think is hilarious).

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mimi on January 14, 2011 at 4:18 pm.

I’m confused! I thought there “were no fat people” before about 10 years ago.

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Lesley on January 16, 2011 at 12:16 am.

Holy shit, you’re right. I’LL ALERT THE MEDIA!

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shyvixen on January 14, 2011 at 7:40 pm.

I think the ‘stout’ 1794 lady looks cute, is it just me?

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Christine on January 14, 2011 at 9:34 pm.

Gosh, I don’t know about “abnormal flesh distribution” but did poor posture cause the poor thin one torso to become the same length as her hand? Huh, and here I thought the only thing I would suffer from my crappy slouching was a hunch back.

Also I LOVE the image of cave women worrying about horizontal v. vertical stripes with their tiger pelts. :)

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Zoe Danger Awesome on January 14, 2011 at 9:34 pm.

On the topic of fashion, I was reading my mothers in stlye mag and it was the size issue, which was, as always, unhelpful. but they did bring up your blog as something for fashion forward plus size ladies to read. so that’s cool

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Snuffycup on January 14, 2011 at 11:11 pm.

Maybe it’s just me, but the thin woman in the illustration seems much more invisible and inconsequential, for me she’s easy to miss and ignore. The fat woman, you see her, but not so much the thin woman. Me thinks this was probably also part of the fashion goal (Women should not be seen, of course, they are of no real consequence! Humph, humph, humph!, moustache twitchings galore) although probably not so boldly stated.

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Jami on January 15, 2011 at 11:11 am.

I happen to disagree. When a fat woman wears horizontal stripes, sleeveless tops and dresses, capped sleeves, or big patterns, she makes herself look bad and opens herself up for ridicule. More then that, she brings all us fatties down.

Don’t believe me, go over to PeopleOfWalMart.com sometime, or it’s sister site BeachCreeps.com and take a look at fat women in halter tops that look like they have a second pair of breasts on their back, or in clothing so tight they look like 50 pounds of mashed potatoes in a 5 pound bag.

Horizontal stripes and big patterns are only good for women so thin that their chest is concave. Even “normal” weight women shouldn’t wear them. If you have big arms like me stay away from anything sleeveless as it’ll look like you have two barrels strapped to your sides – and anyway, no one wants to see your bat wings. I don’t even look at my own.

When you dress appropriately for your body, you’ll look better, and if you look better (and hopefully get compliments rather then “hey fatty” remarks), you’ll feel better. It’s basically the same as having good hygiene as opposed to going out smelling like a garbage truck.

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fatvegancommie on January 15, 2011 at 1:03 pm.

In my opinion, that website is very negative and hateful. Would anyone like to be photographed unawares, including the people who run that shallow mean-spirited site? I guess they always look perfect, even when they are taking a shit or picking their nose.

and i can’t apologize for “bringing fat women down” by wearing a two peice bathing suit at the beach, despite my large hanging belly. I actually thing I inspire other women of any size by my radiant self-confidence.

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Lesley on January 16, 2011 at 12:19 am.

Fat women in two piece swimsuits are INVARIABLY AND WITHOUT EXCEPTION a huge inspiration for me! So there’s that.

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Zoe Danger Awesome on January 15, 2011 at 2:39 pm.

Really? Jami. Pray tell, when I am wearing my awesome 1980s multicolored horizontal striped dress how I am bringing other fat women down. No, really, explain this to me. I have big arms, and I show them off. My thighs are probably as big as some womens waists, but I still show off my legs. I love my body, and I will not hide it because some assholes might put a picture of me on the internet and make fun of me.

I cannot be blamed for the asses over at People of Walmart, and more importantly, my body cannot be blamed for the asses over at People of Walmart.

Good day.

PS I look fucking awesome in that dress

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Lesley on January 15, 2011 at 7:42 pm.

You think I’m bringing fat people down by wearing pretty much everything you list above, but I think I’m bringing them up by proving that fat bodies aren’t relegated to only wearing clothing that is dark-colored and sacklike. And given my compliment-to-insult ratio these days is at least ten to one, I think I’m doing pretty well.

You say tomato, I say tomato.

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Awlbiste on January 15, 2011 at 8:45 pm.

Whole lotta body negativity up in this comment. :(

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rosanna on January 16, 2011 at 2:52 pm.

I really wish people would stop saying ‘no-one wants to see x,y,z”. Stop being so completely self-centred and arrogant. You do not speak for everyone. Some people don’t want to see fat bodies, some people couldn’t care less and some people actively want to see them. Everyone has preferences about attraction and physical attributes but as someone who isn’t keen on blond hair on men I have never once suggested that all blond men should wear hats or at least dye their hair and eyelashes because I understand that the world doesn’t revolve around me. :)

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Savannah D on January 16, 2011 at 6:31 pm.

This kind of reminds me of when people say women who wear short skirts are opening themselves up to be catcalled or harassed, when really someone who’s interested in putting women down in that way will do it to any woman. I think fat people “invite” harassment/criticism simply by having fat bodies in the first place… you can be as “inoffensively” dressed as possible and there will still be some assholes out there who’ll rip on you for being fat. So why not wear horizontal tiger stripes?! (Can someone please make this cave drawing of “the do’s and dont’s of animal pelts”?)

Also, am I just gay, or does the thin lady in that illustration kind of look like she’s wearing a giant vagina??

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Lesley on January 18, 2011 at 6:10 pm.

I think it’s a little from column A and a little from column B, honestly. I did not see the vagina until you pointed it out, but now it’s ALL I see.

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The Real Cie on February 17, 2011 at 4:25 am.

That’s what I was going to say! The only people who can get away with wearing those damn low rise jeans (which I hated even when I was a 110 pound thirteen year old, back in the dark ages, because I was afraid if I bent over I’d inadvertently moon everybody!) are people who naturally have not a fat cell upon them! I used to work with a young lady who had the Jughead metabolism (eat everything in sight and never gain a pound) and she was the only person who could pull off the low-rise jeans. The rest of us, whether average-weight or heavy, end up with rolls hanging over the waist of those damn things.
I feel much happier dressing in casual, loose clothes, although there are heavyset women (i.e. Queen Latifah) who look wonderful in tighter-fitting clothes–but clothes that are cut for a larger woman, not for the twiggier set!

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Veronica on January 15, 2011 at 12:26 pm.

It’s really depressing to me to note for how long (fat) women have been following these bullshit pieces of advise on how to not stand out; to minimize ourselves; to look as close to the Ideal Woman(TM) we can. Oh, and “—and it is our duty to see that the clothes we wear emphasize this “good point.””? Fuck you – I recognize no such duty!
Your commentary on this is great, imo!

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purplekeychain on January 15, 2011 at 2:37 pm.

@Jami, all your comments make me very, very sad, and I am surprised to see that you even read this blog at all.

To say that I bring you down, as a fatty, because you think I should hide my body behind my clothes, is ludicrous. To further say that one opens ones self to ridicule by virtue of being fat and wearing clothes is preposterous.

People look “bad” in clothes that don’t fit them. Full stop. Your references to web sites whose sole purpose is to criticize and denigrate and humiliate people because of their bodies, fashion choices and socioeconomic statuses is disgusting. Style is style, and to say that one person cannot or should not wear a particular trend because they are FAT is also disgusting. In fact, your entire comment is both offensive and disgusting. Your hatred for your own fat body is your own, and to cast it onto others is a blatant perpetuation of socially acceptable fat hatred, and fully illustrates why Leslie’s activism is so important.

To equate being fat and wearing “unflattering” clothes with smelling like a garbage truck is laughable. And it also makes me feel very, very sad for you.

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TracyL on January 16, 2011 at 2:38 am.

Someone once sent me photos from the people of walmart site and what I got from looking at them is that those folks are brave and individual and really don’t seem to give a damn what anyone else might be thinking about their choices.
And I admire them for that. I am not that brave. I have avoided horizontal stripes like they are the cause of death fat almost my entire adult life. I bought my first horizontally striped shirt a few months ago but I actually have to psyche myself up to wear the darn thing.

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drst on January 16, 2011 at 1:48 pm.

Likewise with people on the beach. I love going to the beach, because you get to see all kinds of bodies in all kinds of shapes and most people are just enjoying being on the beach. The shame is on the folks bringing that kind of hate and negativity to it, especially anonymously online where they can’t be held accountable.

Not to mention, most people don’t bother getting dressed up to go to Walmart since it’s not like people are there to be looked at.

And the WalMart thing is totally classist as well.

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Willow on January 17, 2011 at 1:08 pm.

Know what, Jami? I have had two surgeries that have rendered my leg and my arm completely useless due to healing time for 3 months and 2 months, respectively. I used to hate my fat legs and arms, until I couldn’t use one or the other anymore. I am ineffably grateful that I now have (mostly) working limbs, and my surgeries made me realise that it is better to have fat working limbs than to have limbs that don’t work or to lack limbs. Which made me not care that my legs and arms are fat: They work. So to Halifax with you and your idiocy.

And I am not trying to put down people who have non-functioning or missing limbs. People often live very rich lives with these conditions. My point was to say that once I lost use of such-and-such limb, I realised that the size of that limb didn’t matter and that I was being an idiot to hate my fat legs and arms.

I’ve probably bungled what I’m trying to say, but…. Jami, seriously. To Halifax with you. And your Troll hat smells suspiciously like… a garbage truck.

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kbryna on January 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm.

LOVE this, precisely because it documents, so carefully and academically, that “stout” folks have been around for hundreds of years. (I always think of Dickens characters when I need proof of pre- 1990s fat people; I also love that 19th century heroines are often described as having plump arms).

The people of walmart site makes me feel very, very sad. It’s just body-snarking of one kind or another. It’s mean.

My bigger issue is that many “plus size” departments and stores [I am looking at you, Lane Bryant] feature all of the “Fashion Don’ts” mentioned in the blurbs: bright colors, big patterns, huge florals. Which are fine on whoever wants to wear them, but I prefer black, grey and dark solids.

Also, both women in the illustration look awful. And now that you mention it, the thin lady does, in fact, appear to be wearing a vagina.

the 18th century is fantastic.

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contemporarycontempt on January 23, 2011 at 9:01 pm.

A diet is a corset you wear on the inside. See also exercise. It is very interesting how body modification trends change as dominant ideal types change, and equally as interesting how the methods to change the appearance of the body differ. Is the focus external or internal? And what factors play into this? Ah, complications…

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