Plus-Size Fashion Gets Rare Curatorial Attention at New Exhibition

A new exhibit organized by NYU's costume studies program surveys the role of the plus-size body throughout fashion history.
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Chantal Fernandez
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A new exhibit organized by NYU's costume studies program surveys the role of the plus-size body throughout fashion history.
Madame de Saint-Maurice, Joseph Siffred Duplessis, 1776. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Madame de Saint-Maurice, Joseph Siffred Duplessis, 1776. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When graduate students in NYU's Visual Culture: Costume Studies Program decided the theme of their annual exhibition, entitled "Beyond Measure: Fashion and the Plus-Size* Woman," one of their first hurdles was figuring out the right language. 

"Is she fat, is she plus-size, is she stout, is she plump?" says Ya'ara Keydar, a student and one of the exhibit's curators, referring to an image of Madame de Saint-Maurice on display at 80WSE, New York University Steinhardt School's gallery space. "We don't think that there is one appropriate term today, and the word 'fat' kind of shifted from a descriptive word into a very charged word, which some people find is offensive." The students decided on "plus-size" because of its ubiquity, but added an asterisk to highlight the problems with the term. 

"Beyond Measure" opened on Wednesday and will remain on view until Feb.3. While there are only about eight objects on display, the exhibit manages to span the mid-18th century to present day with photographs, dresses and even video clips to show the plus-size body in many different roles throughout fashion history.  

"Ticket to Nettie the Fat Girl," early 20th century, gelatin silver print. Photo: Unknown photographer/ Courtesy Chere Hughes at Mindful Resource

"Ticket to Nettie the Fat Girl," early 20th century, gelatin silver print. Photo: Unknown photographer/ Courtesy Chere Hughes at Mindful Resource

"During the 19th century, you see how the body becomes kind of the center stage for fashion and manipulations, and you can see how attitudes towards the large body shifted massively," says Keydar. One student found an early 20th-century photograph on Etsy that demonstrates how deviant the large body became: A group of men is captured selling tickets to see "Nettie the Fat Girl," outside a circus-like tent.   

In addition to Etsy, students searched Ebay and shops like Beacon's Closet for objects to display. One screen features a slideshow of images published by Refinery29 last year depicting plus-size models in the Spanx-like padding they wear during photo shoots to manipulate the appearance of their bodies. "They are considered plus-size but you'll never see double chins, you'll never see cellulite, all those marks," Keydar says. "Plus-size models need to be 'perfect' just like any other model."

Marie Dressler Dress, mid to late 1930s Gottfried Co., Cleveland, Ohio Printed cotton, lace, metal, plastic  Courtesy NYU Costume Studies MA Program

Marie Dressler Dress, mid to late 1930s Gottfried Co., Cleveland, Ohio Printed cotton, lace, metal, plastic Courtesy NYU Costume Studies MA Program

"Beyond the Measure" also features an early plus-size model of sorts: comedian Marie Dressler, who posthumously inspired the Gottfried company in Ohio to start a line of dresses for larger women in the 1930s. "Almost every museum costume collection has quite a few plus-size dresses, and yet you'll almost never see them on display," Keydar explains. "Unless it's a very famous woman, like Queen Victoria or something like that, you'll never see these dresses outside the storage room."

Keydar noted that she and her fellow student curators discovered that while the traditional fashion world doesn't recognize plus-size fashion or bodies in a way that justifies the 67 percent of American women who technically fall into the category (size 14 and up), a strong community exists online and through social media. 

The exhibit features clips from "Project Runway" season 14, which was won by plus-size fashion designer Ashley Nell Tipton. Photo: Lifetime

The exhibit features clips from "Project Runway" season 14, which was won by plus-size fashion designer Ashley Nell Tipton. Photo: Lifetime

"We wanted to give the plus-size woman her own space with regard to fashion and a voice through these particular objects," adds professor and curatorial director Tracy Jenkins. The group of curators hopes to start a conversation about not just the history and diversity of plus-size fashion, but also how rare it is to see these topics addressed in a museum setting. And the response has already been strong — tickets for an opening event on Jan. 28. are almost sold out. Parsons professor Leah Sweet will give a keynote address and Buzzfeed writer Kaye Toal, designer Eden Miller and model Stella Ellis (whose career as a muse to Jean Paul Gaultier is featured in the exhibit) will also participate in a panel discussion. 

"There's a lot of sporadic attention paid to certain plus-size figures in fashion, but it's still a larger issue," said Jenkins. "Plus is not equal with regard to the runway."

"Beyond Measure: Fashion and the Plus-Size* Woman" is on view at 80WSE through Feb. 3. See an online tour here.