Stoutwear and the Discourses of Disorder: Constructing the Fat, Female Body in American Fashion in the Age of Standardization, 1915-1930

(public Defense to be held on May 31, 2018)


 Image from an article titled, "Science at Last Turns Its Attention to Stout People" (1916)

Image from an article titled, "Science at Last Turns Its Attention to Stout People" (1916)

While the sister disciplines of fashion studies and fashion history have over the past three decades done much to expand the scope of fashion research through studies that look beyond the Eurocentric hemline histories and designer monographs that for so long commanded the attention of scholars, one area of research that continues to be woefully overlooked is that of so-called ‘plus-size’ fashion and, more generally speaking, of the large, non-normative female body. Indeed, while feminist scholars and cultural historians have made excellent progress in mapping both the histories and politics of fat in the United States, a systematic survey of fashions for larger women has yet to be written, however. This omission from the canon of fashion studies literature is particularly glaring given the fact that plus-size fashion has itself increasingly become a political flashpoint for large-size consumers—or the roughly two-thirds of American women who wear a US size sixteen or above[1] and who have grown weary of fashion’s marginalization of their bodies and identities.

In seeking to at least partially fill this vital gap, my research aims to map the early history of the plus-size fashion industry in the United States by looking explicitly at its crucial building up phase between the years 1915-1931 and as recounted within historical fashion periodicals, while theorizing how the fashion media—with its vast influence—has been implicit in the discursive construction of the fat, female body. Taken together, this work will not only account for an overlooked history of American fashion; it will also make a methodological and theoretical contribution to the field by creating a research paradigm for thinking about the relationship between dress, discourse, power and the body through an historical lens.


Description of Research Project

Although the present debates and controversies surrounding plus-size fashion in the United States—which mainly revolve around the notion that the fashion industry has for too long ‘ignored’ fat, female consumers[2]—might suggest otherwise, large-size fashions have held a constant, if marginal, place in American fashion since the turn of the twentieth century. The target of advertisements for weight-reducing pills and ‘scientifically engineered’ reducing corsets, and the subject of numerous editorials and advice columns about how to eradicate excess flesh, the fat body has not been absent from fashion’s histories; rather, it has historically functioned as fashion’s other. Seeking to first and foremost dismantle this anachronism, my research begins in 1915—the year when the industry trade journal Women’s Wear triumphantly announced the vast market potential of a new consumer category of dress called ‘stoutwear’—and concludes in 1931 when, ravaged by the economic strain of the Great Depression, stoutwear faded from view. In-part spurred on by the advent of standard sizing—which itself functioned to create ‘standard bodies,’ and by consequence, rendered entire categories of bodies deviant—stoutwear, the proverbial great-grandmother of plus-size fashion, emerged to cater to an estimated one-third of American women whose bodies belied their ability to buy fashions off the rack amid the vast technological strides that were being made in mass manufacturing.

In spite of its seemingly altruistic origins, however, stoutwear quickly latched on to the early twentieth century’s self-preservationist conception of the body, or the notion that fixed bodily attributes may be altered or improved upon through “body maintenance.”[3] The technological intrusion of film and still cameras into daily life and the subsequent proliferation of images of idealized bodies in the media engendered a set of circumstances in which tolerances for bodily deviations began to narrow. Indeed, long before the ‘obesity epidemic’ entered public discourse in the late twentieth century, fat had become a deeply stigmatizing bodily attribute, just as the slender bodily ideal was in its ascendance. Alongside weight-reducing products and the growing popularity of women’s fitness, stoutwear was therefore but one technology among many that brought ‘order to disorder,’ so to speak, in aiding women in their pursuit to appear slenderer.

Emerging from a visual and textual analysis of historical American women’s and fashion media—including titles such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Ladies’ Home Journal and The Red Book Magazine—industry trade journals and largely overlooked early fashion and style guides, my dissertation bridges two strains of thought:  that, on the one hand, of the historical origins of stoutwear as an industry and, on the other, of stoutwear as a ‘soft’ technology that aided in the discursive construction of ‘stout bodies.’ In doing so, I rely upon a theoretical framework that emerges from disciplinary discussions of the practices of ‘fashioning’ and ‘self-fashioning.’ While fashioning has been defined as a material and discursive practice that renders what is fashionable,[4] the concept and practice of self-fashioning has been theorized as Foucauldian “technology of the self,” or a process through which one acts upon the physical body in the pursuit of self-improvement.[5] In many ways, mine is a top down examination of how fashion discourses originating within the industry end up ‘written on the body,’ so to speak. Indeed, by tracing how the ideologies underpinning the early stoutwear industry were manifested in fashion’s discourses—that is, in the design of garments, in the fashion media, in retail spaces, in advice columns and, eventually, on the bodies of large women—I am to answer the question of how the stoutwear industry was implicit in the construction or ‘fashioning’ of the stout body. Importantly, this research embraces the inter-disciplinary, multi-methodological nature of fashion studies as a field of study by contributing to extant studies of the body, beauty, identity, consumption, modernism and technology, and dialogues with the disciplines of women’s and gender studies, cultural studies, sociology and dress history.


Dissertation Committee

Professor Klas Nyberg (Centre for Fashion Studies, Stockholm University), Professor Caroline Evans (Central Saint Martins), Professor Hazel Clark (Parsons School of Design, The New School), Dr. Andrea Kollnitz (Centre for Fashion Studies, Stockholm University)



Professor Christopher Breward, Edinburgh College of Art (Edinburgh, Scotland) and Director of Collection and Research, National Galleries Scotland. 



[1] Deborah A. Christel and Susan C. Dunn, “Average American Women’s Clothing Size: Comparing National Health and Nutritional Examination Surveys (1988-2010) to ASTM International Misses & Women’s Plus-Size Clothing,” Jouranl of Fashion Design, Technology and Education (published online August 5, 2016),

[2] For an overview of these debates see “Why is the fashion industry ignoring the plus-size market?” The Business of Fashion, April 12, 2015 (accessed March 17, 2017),

[3] This term was first elucidated by Mike Featherstone in his article “The Body in Consumer Culture,” Theory, Culture & Society 1.18 (1982).

[4] Agnès Rocamora contends that fashion media stands as a crucial intermediary in the fashioning of Paris as a fashion capital through discourse. See Rocamora, Fashioning the City, xv). See also Jenß, Heike, “Introduction,” in Heike Jenß (ed.) Fashion Studies: Research Methods, Sites and Practices (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 21.

[5] Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body (Cambridge: Polity, 2000) 25-26.