Research on plus-sized women’s clothing in the early 20th century brings surprising insight to the world we live in today. | 10 min. read
When retail merchandising professor Carmen Keist was in high school, she loathed shopping for clothes with her friends. While they sifted through the latest fashions on the racks of Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle and The Limited, she found herself sidelined — they didn’t make clothing in the larger sizes she needed.
“My friends asked me why I wasn’t shopping, and I always came up with some reason that I didn’t want to,” she said. “I didn’t want to say, ‘I’m too fat.’”
Though there were a few plus-sized teen clothing stores at the time, shopping often felt lonely for Keist. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a moment that occurred years later while doing research for her master’s degree felt so fraught with emotion.
Keist, who had long loved both history and costume design, was flipping through a century-old needlecraft magazine at Iowa State University when she came across an ad selling a “stout women’s corset.” The ad stopped her cold. “I thought: ‘Wait a minute, they’re calling me stout!’”
Keist couldn’t get the ad out of her mind. In a turn-of-the century culture that celebrated whip-thin Gibson girls — thin, fashionable women drawn for magazines by artist Charles Dana Gibson — the options for larger women were scarce.
“I really started to think about living 100 years ago. What would I wear? Could I buy clothing? How would I look?”
That curiosity spurred a yearslong quest to understand the clothing choices and challenges of plus-sized American women of the early 20th century, from high fashion to everyday clothing.
While Keist’s research is unique — she is one of just two people in the world to zero in on these topics — its implications are vast. Her work has illuminated the bias that has threaded through our culture against larger women in the past 100 years and the real challenges these women faced as they tried to overcome it.
Her findings may even help explain some of the most insidious practices that fuel the plus-sized women’s clothing industry today — and the attitudes about larger women themselves.
“Plus-sized women have been marginalized, and these patterns have been in place for a long time,” said Keist. “We’re starting to realize that, and we’re also realizing that it doesn’t have to continue to be that way.”
It may seem as if our culture has always revered thin bodies for women, but that isn’t the case. Keist noted Lillian Russell, a well-known stage actress and singer in the late 1800s who was revered for her beauty and style, tipped the scales at 200 pounds.
“Then, (a larger body size) was connected to health and wealth,” said Teresa Drake, an assistant professor who teaches wellness and dietetics. She pointed out that when food wasn’t so plentiful and most people were doing hard physical labor — right up until about the 1900s — larger women had higher status.
But a flurry of changes around the turn of the 20th century began to alter attitudes. Scientists began to understand the links between calories, consumption and weight change. Bathroom scales were patented. It suddenly became much easier to measure and, to some extent, understand factors that led people to be larger or smaller. At the same time the Gibson Girl set the standard for an ideal woman.
Into this perfect storm came another advance: ready-to-wear clothing. Until the late 1800s, women mostly sewed their own wardrobes. But starting in about 1890, stores and catalogs began selling clothes that women could simply buy off the rack. While companies zeroed in on providing clothing options for average-sized women first, it wasn’t long before they saw opportunity to clothe the 13 million “stout” women who represented more than 10 percent of the American population.
If companies liked the idea of ringing cash registers that selling to these women represented, it didn’t mean they necessarily catered to their tastes, said Keist. Magazine features in Good Housekeeping might showcase the latest fashions in bright colors: rose, violet and yellow. Stout sizing, however, typically offered a smaller selection of dark colors that companies noted for their slimming effects.
Keist suspects not every larger woman was thrilled with the options. “It’s easy to imagine (being a plus-sized woman) going to the store and being so excited about a new, cool thing called ready-to-wear and then being so disappointed that the only choices are brown, blue and black,” she said.
And good luck finding clothes with embellishments as a larger woman: ruffles, folds, lace and embroidery, common trims for women at the time, were nowhere to be seen in stout women’s clothing. Instead, stout women typically chose from plain, more masculine styles.
By the time World War I rolled around, larger women weren’t just subtly encouraged to try to hide, or at least be embarrassed by their weight. They were told in no uncertain terms that their size was a detriment to the war effort. Keist noted a diet book author who advised women that they should “tell loudly and frequently to all your friends that you realize that it is unpatriotic to be fat while many thousands are starving.”
Brutal? Absolutely. But the other terms thrown around by fashion journalists and other writers of the time — that larger women were lazy, undisciplined and even smelly — aren’t so far off from the descriptors we still hear today. And outside the fat acceptance movement, fat is still a dirty word.
“It’s so negative,” said Keist. “If you want to make someone feel terrible about themselves today, the word you call them is ‘fat.’”
I really started to think about living 100 years ago. What would I wear? Could I buy clothing? How would I look?