The History of the Plus-Size Woman

Have you ever thought about where the term “plus-size” even came from? Let’s talk about it…

Before the fashion industry was created in the late 1800s, women & men would make their own clothes for their exact shape. Thanks to the progression of industrial growth, mass manufacturing took over the job and began making our clothes. The term “plus-size” was first found in a Lane Bryant ad in the late 1920s. However, the term did not stick & became commonly used later on in the 1940s-50s. Around this time, the National Bureau of Home Economics conducted the first-ever large-scale scientific study of women’s body measurements in 1939.

It became extremely expensive for clothing manufacturers and businesses to not have a solid standardized sizing method. So, the National Bureau of Standards was asked to provide sizing standards for the industry. By utilizing the sizing data & measurements obtained from their study of over 21,000 women, the sizing designations became a combination of a number that represented the bust size, letters that represented height, and a symbol to indicate hip girth.

(T) Tall(-) Slender
(R) Regular(No Symbol) Average
(S) Short(+) Full
Based on measurements of American Women

Over the course of time, women who were classified as above average in size were subject to labels based on their appearance. In the 20s, it was ‘stout’, and later it passed through many other terms, such as ‘regal,’ ‘chubby,’ ‘chunky,’ and ‘full-figured.’ Today, some of these terms are offensive to us, yet at the time they were considered to be inclusive and appeared prominently in ads for clothing and fashion columns as acceptable terms.

Terms to describe our size went through a grueling cycle. From approval & satisfaction, to neutrality, then years later, a shift towards unrest that triggered discourse and outrage. Today, plus-size bodies are much more accepting and inclusive, but we still deal with the ideology of labels. From BBW to Curvy, it’s hard to decipher which terms are truly “accepted”. I’ve heard of terms such as ‘balanced’ & ‘comely’ being some favorites for many full-figured women & there are still terms from long ago that we still use today!

A concrete, universal definition of what size is plus size would help women know what to look for when shopping, as would standardized clothing sizes across global stores. If we can achieve that, the plus-size movement would have plus points for all.


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