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FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE FITTING ROOM

 

I’ve been in the fashion industry for more than 30 years and have worked for some of the biggest brands and retailers in this country. I was educated in this industry from the ground up, learning to sew Barbie clothes by hand beside my beloved meema. I was smitten!


I went to design school, and I sketched, draped, and graded my way to a career. Early in my profession (pre-NAFTA*) I visited textile and garment factories here in the U.S. working hard to get the clothes to sit just right on the fit models. I picked trims and revised sketches. I matched colors and prints. I selected fabrics that would fit and flatter a three-dimensional body, not an avatar. In my free time, shopping and dressing became my sport. It was so much fun for me to curate a look, mixing and matching inexpensive pieces with an investment piece or a unique vintage find. I always loved clothes and the thrill of the hunt, right up until 2009, that was the year my relationship with fashion and my body forever changed. Why? Because that was the year I completed breast cancer treatments, treatments that left me bloated, disfigured, and bald.


I worked hard for three years to lose the weight the steroids packed on and I learned how to strategically dress to camouflage my radiated, deflated, folded breast. My hair came back, and I was relatively pleased with my clothed appearance. Since I worked in fashion and always shopped as a part of my job, it was really easy to shop for myself as well, I had unlimited access to great clothes and sample sales. Then I got breast cancer again, which led to long term medication and a hysterectomy. That treatment plan packed 30 pounds onto my body and those pounds are the ones that will not budge. Mind you, I have met with doctors, I have intermittently fasted, kept food diaries, I have consulted with a nutritionist, and I have worked out. I would drop 3 pounds and then with one small indulgence, a craving for a sandwich, a handful of French fries, or heaven forfend, a Christmas cookie and whoop I’d gain 5 pounds (or more) back in the blink of an eye.


I have mostly made peace with my larger body by opting not to look in the mirror any longer than is absolutely necessary. I work in a very different aspect of the industry now in a different city and state and thankfully, my office is pretty casual. However, I had to attend a conference where I would be networking with many respected apparel industry leaders and for that occasion, I would need to dress more professionally. Normally this would mean that I would reach for my tapered black pants and long beige blazer and be done with it, but at this conference, I was asked to give a presentation. Center stage, in the spotlight, so shopping was mandatory.

 

I found out I would be speaking at this event only 2 weeks prior – so knowing this, I fired up my laptop and ordered a bunch of stuff from some familiar retailers online hoping to find something professional and fashionable to wear. As a backup, while on a brief business trip to a city with many more shopping options than my own, I went to a few stores – and I’m still traumatized.

 

Six blocks from my hotel, my first stop was a retailer that has beautiful aesthetics and a luxury vibe. This renowned brand offers such great style … yet their clothes are poorly made. The fabrics are cheap, the fit is inconsistent, and the stitching is shoddy. I could not bite the $350 bullet for polyester blend trousers and matching blazer, but I did try on a dress, a dress that was huge in the armholes, shapeless across the bust and tight everywhere else. I walked further down the street to a global company known for high-style fast fashion. Normally I would never waste my money on fast fashion believing it to be the scourge of my industry. But this particular retailer can briefly sway my principles. An adorable navy wide leg pant beckoned from the rack, and I immediately envisioned it with a pale blue silk blouse and my own t-strap pumps. So, I went into the fitting room with what I can only assume was my size (more on that later). I stepped one leg in and then the other and by mid-thigh I knew they could go further but they would most likely tear. As I looked at the side zipper, I quickly surmised that it was much too short for where it was placed, and it would in no way withstand a curvy woman sitting down. Upon further inspection I realized that the aforementioned zipper was made for a dress, not pants, it was much too delicate. Feeling fat and annoyed I walked in the rain (of course) and ended my evening at a modern, classic American retailer known for its professional apparel. I grabbed my assumed size in two dresses and made my way to the fitting room. These button front dresses would not close across my hips. Would. Not. Close. I went back to my hotel room, took a long hot shower and cried a little.

 

By the time I returned home, packages were waiting for me. I scurried upstairs to my diva closet to try on my internet haul in peace. The package I was most excited about came from an Omni-channel mall staple – a curvy fit, stretch wide leg trouser. I ordered two pairs, one in my size and one a size up. Neither would go past my mid thigh. And stretch? Hah! Barely. I was expecting a nice forgiving ponte … what I got was a crappy mid-weight twill that looked like the bottom part of a fast-food uniform. I immediately opened my email and actioned the return. The second soft-pack envelope was from a high-end department store, and it held a cute cream-colored jumpsuit. And said jumpsuit actually fit! It fit, but the fabric was completely see-thru. I mean, not only could you see that I was rocking some fiercely comfortable pale pink granny panties, but you could also see every little lump, bump, and dimple. Jumpsuit – returned. Reason? Unsatisfactory quality. The last envelope was from a casual lifestyle brand that offers a collection of modern career wear. Now, my closet currently houses few dresses from this same retailer, and I wear them regularly. Some are even a few years old but have held up nicely. But the new dress I tried on? Nope, way too small. And in case I need to spell it out – that dress was the same size as the ones in my closet. Now I knew I had to spend my weekend at the mall.

 

Feeling much more like Danny DeVito than Dita Von Teese I opted to start my day a local higher end department store, knowing if I found something to wear – it was now going to cost me.


I found several items that appealed to my sense of style and comfort. But what size was I? In a full-on identity crisis, I picked two of each dress, three of every pant, and two of each top. I made my way to the fitting room. I looked at the clothes in front of me with disgust, even more than I hate shopping, I loathe undressing and redressing in the middle of my day under fluorescent lighting, in front of skinny mirrors, and atop musty carpeting. So, yes, I was cranky and feeling defeated long before the first dress slid over my head.

 

But the dresses in my assumed size not only fit but actually felt a little big. So, I made a note in my phone that this one particular private label brand at this one particular department store ran big. Next, the pants. I grabbed the pair that was two sizes bigger than the pants I tried on from my internet haul. They were swimming on me, much to my shock … and delight. So, I tried on the ones that were my assumed size, and they too felt and looked big. Is it possible I could be a size smaller than I think I am? This was a brand I was unfamiliar with from a fit perspective so I tried them on, fully anticipating that I was hallucinating and would probably have to go back to the bigger ones and get them adjusted. But they fit and they looked nice. I tried on one of the blouses I picked up (a different brand than the pants and dresses which surrounded me) and it looked great – but also felt big. I poked my head out the curtain – and asked the saleswoman if she wouldn’t mind grabbing me a smaller size. I literally sashayed to the three-way mirror, the blouse and pants looked great together. Polished, professional, and dare I say, feminine and flattering. After I redressed myself, I jotted down brands and sizes in my phone, purchased the pants (size large) and blouse (size medium), and went home. I was pleased but also really annoyed.

 

Why is it so damn difficult to buy clothes as a curvy middle-aged woman?

 

As a little girl I had some very specific ideas about what I wanted to wear, as a teenager even more so … just ask my mom. And I’m still like that. I know what I like and what I don’t. I’m pear-shaped and curvy. I’m over 50 but not old. I’m at the top end of standard sizes but too small for plus sizes. And obviously – my size and fit vary from brand to brand. Currently in my closet I have tops and blouses in a range of sizes from medium, large, and extra large. I have blazers that range from 12 to 14 to 16, some of those 16’s are tight, and some of the 12’s are loose. My dresses are predominantly size 14 or extra large, but I have a few that are size 12, some that are a large and even two that are mediums. My jean drawer holds a range of sizes and fits from 12 thru 16 and includes both stretch denim and rigid. I’m confounded by how ill-fitting armholes, sleeves, and back sweeps have become. Garment to garment fits and grading have become completely discordant. And don’t even get me started on outerwear. Old coats from the 80’s and 90’s still fit fine – and coats I have tried on over the past 10 years are made to be worn over a tank top and leggings. It is utterly insane.

 

The fashion industry has never been known for consistency.

 

We have always known that a size 6 in one store may be a size 4 in another or size 8 elsewhere. There are retailers that practice vanity sizes and others that cut clothes for the young and slim but not the general population. But I’ve found that the problem also lies with the businesses themselves, who they are hiring, and how they are or are not training them. The fashion industry is unique – it’s creative, trendy, fast, and when done right, highly profitable. Apparel companies have always been at the forefront of technology. Evolving quickly from hand sewing to machine sewing and sketch pads to 3D imaging with vigor.


New hires at these organizations are often exceptionally tech-savvy individuals that can whip out a line in weeks, sharing design files with the factories instantly but many of them are not coming out of design schools. And what these young tech-savvy professionals don’t always understand is the mechanics of clothing. How these designs will fit a body that moves, bends, and stretches. If they haven’t been taught how fabric selection and fabric weight can impact the fit, then they will forever be designing for the clearance rack.


I mentioned the dress zipper sewn into the side-seam of a pair of pants at that fast-fashion retailer, but I also spotted a lovely (on the hanger) satin skirt with an elastic waist, but the elastic used in the skirt was only tacked on the top and hung freely and untethered when it should have been encased in a proper waistband. The type of elastic used was too thin, too lightweight, and rolled once I had it on. It absolutely refused to stay flat or remotely near my waist. The elastic used on that skirt is more suited to be a hidden waistband in a pair of lounge pants, not on a satin skirt. At the store level, across a myriad of brands over the last decade I have seen raw unfinished seams, dresses and jumpsuits that offer no feasible way to get in or out of them unless you are a contortionist, and disproportionate layering pieces. Online it is nearly impossible to sort by fabric content and fabric construction. Images are photoshopped not necessarily photographed — and fabric opacity is manipulated.

 

If companies learn to invest in their employees, their employees, in turn will be vested in the business.

 

There are so many companies struggling to remain competitive and relevant in this challenging post-COVID world that often, the simplest solution is overlooked. If apparel companies committed to an immersive learning and on boarding plan for all new hires, they will continually reap rewards. Send new design employees to the factories for a week or two to watch the clothes being sewn. Let them sit through fittings and operate a sewing machine. Have them meet with fabric vendors, trim vendors, and challenge them on closure clearance and the space needed to get a head, shoulders, and hips into a garment. Teach them the nuances of the industry, have them observe shoppers in the store. Send them for additional training and advanced learning opportunities. I can recall my first few months in the design program at my alma mater. We were told by our professors that we could put anything we wanted to on paper, but we had better be able to explain to them how to make it, how to get in and out of it, and what fabric it would be used. We were challenged to think through every facet of the design. And I know this, my college was invested in teaching me all aspects of the garment industry and in return, I was invested in my own success. I have maintained a career that has weathered a few decades, economic disruptions, recessions, and policy change. As an industry we have to do better. And then, maybe then, I can order clothes online that are made appropriately and fit properly!



Hotel room selfie before my speech.


* NAFTA stands for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was negotiated by President George H.W. Bush during his 1989—1993 term in office and went into effect under President Bill Clinton in 1994. The agreement is between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and was initially created to help lower costs of trade and bolster North American trade. The agreement eliminated almost all tariffs and taxes on imports and exports. The agreement also eliminated trade barriers between the three countries.

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