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Why Aren’t Fashion Design Students Learning How to Design for Every Body?

Every year hundreds of fashion design students receive their degree and enter into the fashion industry bright eyed and bushy tailed. Yet only a small percentage of those students have education and experience designing for more than the 2% of women in the United States that they are taught to design for. The tall, thin, standardized sizing is the standard curriculum for fashion students, while only about 5 universities in the country include plus size in their curriculums.

After research from Washington State University came out that 67% of women in the United States wear a size 14 and up, media took notice. Movements like Refinery29’s #SeeThe67 or Lane Bryant’s #PlusIsEqual came and went, yet curriculums have not changed much to reflect this number.

The real question that still needs to be asked and answered is:

Why aren’t fashion design students learning how to design for such a large portion of consumers?

I became the first Apparel Design student at Washington State University to create a plus size collection as my culminating project. I’ve been curvy for as long as I can remember. I always wore sizes bigger than my friends, and spent hours shopping to find what fits. This was one of the main motivators in becoming a designer. I wanted to learn the art of designing for every body, including my own. I felt completely misunderstood by designers and retailers, and that the only way I could see a change in the fashion industry is if I became that change I wanted to see.

I had to ask, why are diverse bodies still underrepresented in the fashion industry? Especially with the increased visibility of plus size models, the lack of design education to serve the 67% of plus size women in the United States does not seem to add up. The answer could lie in many places. It could be that the fashion industry always has been and always will be a reflection of a certain standard of beauty. It could be that capitalism is organized in such a way to keep the cycle of oppression going—to only allow certain people access to certain things, while keeping the idea of normalcy in place so you continue to spend money to attain the things that are exclusive to certain people.

I think the real answer to the question of why students aren’t learning how to design for every body, is that most designers and educators don’t know how to do this, themselves, so they cannot teach it. It’s a specialization that requires time and skill, but with so much of the market being plus size, it is past time to have students learning how to design for the plus size figure.

Being able to design for every body expands a designer’s market, which in turn expands their capital. In terms of dollars, it makes sense to have an inclusive design practice.

So where does it start? With the consumer? With the students? With the educators? With the designers?

I believe the answer is everywhere. It starts with students expressing interest. It starts with consumers demanding their sizes be served. It starts with educators meeting the needs of their students to provide a well-rounded education. It starts with designers making clothes for every body. When all of those factors work together, the fashion industry can finally begin to accurately reflect its consumers.

Where do you think an inclusive fashion industry starts? Let me know of your thoughts in the comments!

Written by Dominique

I'm Dominique! I'm a fashion activist with a Bachelor's Degree in Apparel Design and Merchandising and a Master's Degree in Fashion Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies. Bylines include V Magazine, the Observer, and theGIRLMOB. I like my pizza with bacon and ranch, I'm always listening to soca music, and I'm here for radical body positivity!

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  1. Upon opening my pattern making book from when I studied fashion design, there’s a picture of a theoretical person called the standard measurements and it goes on to include a whole spiel about why we “need” her. If I find it, I’ll take a pic and post.

    But most schools only allow sizes 2-8 to walk down runways of student shows. They’re all about the hanger body. Even as I was learning to make things on myself for practice, I got really nasty treatment from one professor in particular. She was also pretty cruel to a classmate with extremely wide hips but wasn’t plus size.

    It’s a taught size bias.

    • I get so upset reading something like this bit i get so HAPPY that you are TALKING about it! Fashion Schools (i teach in one but i refuse to teach 9 or 10 heads or unreal proportion) its so ABSURD that they teach WOMEN this….. to lie about THEMSELVEs! Even the tall thin models don’t look like those sketches my teachers had taught me to make. It’s unethical. I am so excited to be here in this conversation which is so close to my heart!!! I launched an online class this morning for plus size fashion sketching and illustration so its a great coincidence!

  2. It is a boring scheme created by commerce to meet the following goal: Get people to be one size so that it is very easy for us to make money. They do not want to do any effort to earn your business. The essence of the problem is that we, ourselves as consumers have failed to demand what we need and let commerce steer our choices as if we were sheep. The example we see every day is when we have accepted that we need to buy all kinds of garbage with each little thing we buy in the grocery store. We have to have different standards when shopping so that we can shape industry to our needs and not the other way around.

  3. It is way easy to design for human coat hangers! Design schools turn out students with that mind set. The average size is 14 so why not use those measurements as a starting point? AND teach with size 14 and 24! The money is out there so …

    • Ay, Tina, you said it!!!! I teach at Parsons Achool of Design and in my own business and in both i REFUSE to teach unrealistic proportions…. its so misogynist to do so an my students are 95 percent ir more female so what gives? We are so beautiful in every size and shape! A GOOD designer can make everything and everyone feel and look beautiful

  4. I always liked block patterns I have dresses,tops and pants that had change of color or design or texture that changed dimensions of my body…the illusions etc. I think designers who do it have fun creating ….clothes and they also I think widen their buyer market.

  5. All curvy bodies aren’t curvy in the same way. I met a woman who’s the COO of a large lingerie manufacturer that specializes in plus size – she is passionate about the market, but concedes it’s far more difficult to design for plus… They have to build additional dies (manufacturing equipment) above a C-cup, and the patterns can’t just be sized up.

    So you take designers who never learned how to do it and they’re teaching, and the manufacture of the products costs more and have to build special equipment (high barrier to entry) AND you have different shapes of curves… And the result is it’s too difficult to figure out all the facts so you default to what’s easy and cheap – even if you’re walking away from billions worth of sales. If you can hit your targets without plus, why bother with all that trouble? … because you’re not plus, so you have no empathy, and no drive to overcome the challenges…

    That’s why it’s SO CRITICAL to have plus size men and women in design school, just like it’s critical to have women in STEM majors, and in IT, and science, and running companies – because only when we see women in all their shapes, in all fields, as normal are we going to reach our full potential as a society.

    P.s., Design schools can start by dealing with the fact the average US woman is only 5’4″… I.e., the majority of women of ALL sizes are “Petite”, including Plus sizes… Yet fit models are 5’7″, models are 5’9″-6’0, and half of us are <5'4"!!!! So let's not forget, the size bias isn't just about hips, it's about height/length, too.

  6. Ethnic clothing is adjustable and looks amazing on everyone. Ready-to-wear is often unethically made and fits: no-one. We think the problem is “us”. It’s not. Once in a while you may get lucky to find something that fits you. Many women all over the globe still have made- to-measure clothes.

  7. When i worked in Rocawear the Plus Size garments were all based off of the junior-sized garment, just “blown up”. That isn’t serving the customer. Plus size fashion that’s scaled up up from tiny fashion doesn’t focus on the beauty. When I moved to Paris in the nineties I saw all of this African fashion and all of it was so well suited to a curvier, fuller figure that it just made me want to be fuller figured…I felt so …. invisible. I wanted to fill those crisp cotton dresses with the huge prints…. large prints look amazing on larger bodies… and the clothes weren’t tight.. they were airy and loose… everything about them made you want to be those women. THAT’s the purpose of fashion. To make everyone SHINE!!!!!!!

  8. I think it makes so much sense… that a designer would be an amazing designer when designing for their own body (and thus a tribe of people with that body and taste) because they can test everything and they know how it feels and function and how they want to look, I always tell my Parsons students and clients :”Design for yourself- what do you want, what do you love?” It seems so strange to design for an imaginary person. And fashion…… tries to be too BIG — smaller businesses can focus and hone their niches and serve them with heart and soul….something that doesn’t get a lot of attenthion in fashion schools. When I was a student all I heard was the recurring phrases “dog eat dog” and “YOU DO NOT WANT TO SEE HOW YOUR CLOTHES ARE PRODUCED!”. I don’t think there’s a single fashion student who comes to school dreaming of a world like that. I say stay out of school and keep your dreams, and make them real! It’s hard to do that when you graduate in massive debt and have to do whatever they say because of it. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until after I graduated that I realized that Fashion Design was a corporate world… and that I’d be inserted into a corner somewhere far, far , far from what I had imagined. Working with students is the best, because we can work and hone all of our ideals, every student deserves that. Students come with vision, but I feel it’s “processed out of them” and can take them a long time to snap back.

  9. When I was in fashion school I had to fight tooth and nail to be a plus size collection. I did it and it didn’t live up to be goals as plus size woman because the professors didn’t get it. Honestly since then the plus size industry has come up so much nut that being said it at toddler phrase when it should grown woman. Keep it up designers and keep up the fight

  10. All of the reasons are true, including ignorance of how to design for average size women. It is the norm if 67% of women are 14 and above. The most outstanding explanation to me is the willful, and designed oppression towards a “class” of people who the fashion industry believes, should not have access to high fashion. It goes into racial and cultural discrimination as well. I applaud those who are outstandingly brave and brash enough to throw that belief system back in the face of “traditional” thinking fashion designers.

  11. I’ve been pushing for more teaching in design schools since the 90s. What other industry literally ignores 67% of the market?? Why do stores pretend that women over size 18 never get pregnant, never need exercise gear, never need work clothes or have different tastes in styles and colours than the ubiquitous ones on offer? Its absolutely crazy. Can you imagine telling a designer, “Hey, there are customers right there *points* who are begging for good clothing at this price point, and you’ll have few competitors. Orrrr, you can go play in that pen over there *points* where the competitors are so crammed in, trying to get the attention of 25% of the market.” Yay! I wonder why so many young designers fail in an overly competitive market….

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