Clothing is a very emotional thing, particularly for people who have a hard time accessing it (and that covers a bunch of different people for a bunch of different reasons). That's why my response to these pictures (all the pictures) from Target's new plus sized line is so emotional. And a lot of those emotions are conflicting.
Three plus years ago, I went into my local Target in search of a plain T-shirt. It should have been simple — I mean, it was a T-shirt, right? Instead, I left the store sans anything at all (which is rare on a Target trip) because they'd gotten rid of their entire plus size department and replaced it with maternity wear.
I want pregnant people to have clothing. Everyone has to get dressed to leave the house, after all — public decency being a thing. But fat people also need clothing so that we can leave the house; when retailers take plus size clothing out of their stores, it feels a little like retailers don't want us to leave our houses.
Obviously it isn't that kind of personal. Probably. Maybe. (Sometimes I have my doubts.) But the result is the same: It's harder for people to find basics in a brick and mortar store and at an affordable (and even Target isn't accessible for everyone) price point. Throw in Target's other missteps (the Manatee Grey debacle and the "plus sized" dress that was pictured on a maternity model are both mentioned in the Refinery29 article linked above), and a lot of fat people have been ready to give Target the old middle finger.
Enter a brilliant marketing move: Target collaborated with bloggers Gabi Gregg (of fatkini fame), Nicolette Mason, and Chastity Garner. I've never met Chastity but I like and respect Gabi and Nicolette a lot — and I'm hardly alone in that. By using the three bloggers in the photos for the new line, Target has created a lot of buzz and a sense of connection with fat people who feel a sort of fashion/fatshion connection with their favorite bloggers.
But because fashion is subjective and the plus size market has been so historically underserved, there was literally no way for Target to get this one right for everyone. And I've been watching the reactions with a whole lot of interest.
There is primarily the objection that the line doesn't do anything new or edgy. On the one hand, I just never expect basics to be new or edgy. I just want a black T-shirt. I just want a cardigan. But on the other hand, I do feel people's objections on this one: Before Target yanked plus sizes out of some of their stores, they were carrying super cute ruffled stuff that was on-trend and fun to shop for. It’s not like Target can’t sell cute fat clothes; they just haven’t been.
Also, and I say this as someone who is really happy to be old enough to be mostly irrelevant when it comes to what gets marketed as trendy, what I find edgy and what the mainstream (read: youthful) market finds edgy are often two different things. But fashion recycles itself anyway (and plus size fashion runs about five years behind the rest of fashion, I think) and hopefully we all know this. I remember the 90s and all the flutter sleeves that I didn’t want to buy back then because they were horrific to me — that they are back with a vengeance comes as no surprise.
When I look at the Ava & Viv collection, there are some pieces I like and there are some pieces I don’t and that seems about par for my reaction to anything carried at Target when it comes to the clothing they sell for anyone (except their kids stuff, I love the kids department).
This is where things get emotional, though. Consider the stylistic variety that is available in straight sizes. If you don’t like what’s on offer at Target, there are countless other stores at which you can shop. Heck, if you don’t like what’s available at Target, you can just come back in a month and they’ll have new stuff because they’re constantly bringing in new styles anyway.
But that is not how it’s generally worked for fat people. Historically, if I don’t like what’s “on-trend” in a plus-sized store, I’m screwed because my options are few and far between. Instead of a mall full of stores, I might have one store available (less since most of the Lane Bryants in my area have closed, the Avenues have moved to strip malls, and the department stores offer overpriced crap I hate or can’t fit into). Every discovery of a new resource is thus an exciting moment full of possibility.
And when that moment falls flat because you don’t like what’s on offer, especially if what’s on offer feels dated, out of sync with style preferences, or just not very inspired, it can be a tough blow. Sure, not every retailer has to meet the needs of every customer, but when there are only a small handful of retailers from which to choose, the practical effect is that there are people who go completely unserved.
I’m kind of used to this feeling. I was crushed when Torrid moved from a Hot-Topic-goth style of store to carrying more trendy and young office-appropriate stuff. The only source I had other than making things myself had dried up. It wasn’t like I was wailing and gnashing my teeth but a formative and validating experience had disappeared from existence.
There are huge gaps in the plus size market: items manufactured in the US, items manufactured ethically anywhere, a greater range of sizes at more price points, more natural fibers — oh, man, quality denim. My imaginary kingdom in the clouds for quality denim. Even Lane Bryant’s questionable-quality denim is approaching a hundred bucks at this point so affordable quality denim might be beyond even the power of dreams.
I’m not trying to tell people they should like what Target is offering. Nor do I think people should feel grateful for what they consider to be a sub par selection, especially when it comes to sizes (personally, I’m just hoping some stuff is a little stretchy). But I do think this collaboration is a fascinating sign of some of the ways in which plus size fashion is more accessible now than it was in the past. I mean, we have room to be angry because a store is offering things we don’t like! And then we can shop at a couple of other stores. I’m not suggesting a victory dance but I do think it’s a positive sign and that we as consumers should use this as leverage to continue to pressure retailers to respond.
For me, though, the collection itself is secondary to those pictures. Fat people, actual fat people instead of size 10 models who may be lovely people in their own lives but who do not look like the average plus size shopper, wearing the clothes and moving in them. Gabi and Nicolette and Chastity all look like they are having a good time in those clothes and that is something that has been desperately absent in plus size retail.
None of these pictures are depending on cleavage to impress people or convince them that fat is sexy (even though, really, not everyone has to be sexy and there shouldn’t be a penalty for that — your body is still worthwhile and acceptable and deserving of dignity). None of these pictures suggest the least bit of shame. Everyone just looks like a regular person doing regular things, probably on the weekend.
And that is such a powerful visual.
I was in Target this past weekend. And on my way out, as I went past a register with my stuff I’d already paid for, the cashier (a little older, a little fat) caught my attention.
“Did you know,” she asked me with obvious excitement, “that there’s a new collection for larger women that’s going to be in stores?”
I told her I did know and I asked her when it was going to be available and if we were going to have it locally. She didn’t know the date (mid-February in stores) but was thrilled to tell me that it was supposed to be in all the stores.
My exchange with that woman feels like a victory. And if some other fat woman gets to walk into Target and just buy a T-shirt without thinking about it, then that’s a victory, too.
But here’s what I need: I need for that person, and for the people who don’t like the aesthetics of the collection to work together. Because there’s no doubt that we need to keep pushing for more inclusive size ranges, more ethical production, more styles, and more accessible price points. And I’m not sure we can do that by simply writing off a collection as worthless when it’s giving us awesome marketing that really is kind of a big deal, y’all, and still serving a young demographic.
Maybe I’m just feeling particularly optimistic these days, but come February I’m going to go check this one out in person. What do you think of the collection? Maybe more importantly, what do you think of the state of plus size fashion/retail at the moment? Because I think it’s hella better than it was but I’m at the point where I really want stores instead of just online service.