The History of ‘Plus Size’ and the Fluctuation of the Ideal Body Throughout History

The first usage of the term ‘plus sized’ was found in a Lane Bryant ad in the late 1920s.

The Beginning of the Term ‘Plus Size’

Up until the late 1800s, we all made our clothes from home. There were no Forever 21s or malls to buy the latest trends. Everything was tailored to our exact shape, and we weren’t defined by what brands considered to be a size 6 or 8 that year. Thanks to a developing fashion industry and industrial growth, mass manufacturing took over the job of making our clothes.

The first usage of the term ‘plus sized’ was found in a Lane Bryant ad in the late 1920s. The term, however, did not stick and did not become commonly used until the 1940s-50s.

It was in 1939 that the National Bureau of Home Economics conducted the first ever large-scale scientific study of women’s body measurements. The study took 59 different measurements on each of the 15,000 American women who volunteered. It should be noted that because the volunteers for this survey were paid a nominal fee for participating, and that it was during the Great Depression, this may have skewed the data toward underweight body types. The results were published nonetheless.

Soon clothing manufacturers and businesses estimated that not having their fashions marked with some sort of standardized sizes was costing them millions of dollars every year. So, the National Bureau of Standards was asked to provide sizing standards for the industry. The NBS utilized the earlier study and added the measurement data of an additional 6,300 women. The sizing designations became a combination of a number that represented the bust size; one of three letters, (T) tall, (R) regular, or (S) short for height; and a symbol to indicate hip girth, slender (-), average (no symbol), or full (+).… we think you get it now.

Over the course of time, women who were classified as above average in size, whether it be height or hip girth, and no matter how skewed the numbers, have been made to “suffer” labels put on their size. In the 20s, it was ‘stout’, and later it passed through many other terms, such as ‘gracious,’ ‘regal,’ ‘chubby,’ ‘outsize,’ ‘full-figured.’ Today, some of these terms are clearly offensive to us, yet at the time they were considered to be inclusive and appeared prominently in adverts for clothing, patterns, and fashion columns as acceptable terms. ‘Chubby,’ like every single term before it, was changed after it was deemed to have a negative connotation. Each time a term was replaced with another, and it was a relief from the oppressive and judgmental term before it. The change would bring approval and satisfaction; then a period of neutrality; until years later the shift towards unrest begins again and along with it, feelings of discourse, unworthiness, and even outrage.

This makes you wonder, is it really the term we have an issue with, or the negative connotation of being “outside the average,” regardless of the word? Our issue with and distaste for “plus size” is no different than the distaste for all of the others that came before it. Is there a magic word that would function properly in labeling for distribution that would not somehow become offensive?

“Too Thin” Models

In fact, ‘skinny’ has never been “in” either. You can find plenty of vintage ads telling women who were naturally “minus size” that they aren’t good enough, as well. Skinny women were seen as even less desirable and appealing as women on the other side of average. So how did they end up with the glamorous jobs of strutting down the catwalk and gracing the pages of our magazines?

Well, that job used to be held by wooden and wicker mannequins in the dressmakers’ windows. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s when they began to be replaced by the first ever ‘living mannequins.’ These were women considered to be almost ‘freak-ish’ in the world due to their height and slender frame, especially in a time when a woman with a larger body was a sign of health and fertility.

Living mannequins were paid very little and would often live in-house, being ‘called upon’ several times a day to parade in model gowns for perspective buyers. With the exception of a few celebrities and fashion industry insiders, only women of poor economic standing became models. And they were heavily criticized and looked down upon because they wore a fashion for money, rather than for the sake of its beauty.

The mannequins needed to be able to display any gown, no matter the size of the gown. The undersized females gave also the dressmaker the benefit of appearing as a walking hanger; no distractions from the gown by the model. Combine this necessity with the low economic status of the women, and the slender figures of fashion models seem nothing more than logical (and maybe a bit mean).

At the time, the term “model” referred to the one-of-a-kind gown made for individual sale. The irresolute status of ‘mannequins,’ the earliest fashion “models,” is made clear by this blurred line between subject and object-hood. Although poorly paid and barely respectable, they were still considered exceptionally glamorous.

Not until Twiggy in the 1960’s, and then later with the rise of the supermodel era in the 90s, did models become a more sought after ideal. With models like Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, and Kate Moss becoming celebrities, the world began to recognize their influence.

In today’s world, it is still noted that being curvier and sexy takes the attention away from the design, and even triggers sexuality. While a lot of women see models as the ideal body type, the only job models have is to wear the clothes. Their bodies aren’t supposed to be distracting. The clothes are supposed to take center stage.

So, how is it that we let these women of poor status who were looked down upon and deemed worthy of such judgment and disregard, to rise to the top and become our ideal?

‘Plus Size’ in Modeling

As American sizes increased, companies began to engage in ‘vanity sizing,’ dramatically altering what we believe about the numbers we wear. For example in 1958, a size 8 was a mere 31” bust, 23.5” waist, and 32.5” hip! By 2008, a size 8 had increased by about six inches for each of those measurements, becoming roughly 1958’s size 14 or 16. Continuing to consider the fact that “models” are needed to be runway hangers and clothing displays, not ideal body types, anything above a size 16 in the 1940’s (approx. modern day size 6) would be considered above average for a model. The term ‘plus model’ is not the same as a woman who wears plus size clothing.

Why the Term is Blurred – between women and garments

Note, “plus-size” was only meant to refer to clothing, not the woman who wears it. So how did it stick as a label for women, too?

We can just look at the term ‘model’ for an example of the crude evolution of language. Calling these women ‘models,’ whether intentional or not, was stripping them of their human-hood and demeaning them to nothing more than the object they displayed. So, it is understandable to assume the sentiment behind the labels we choose as a society – And that referring to a woman as the labeling of an article of clothing, would feel insulting.

Influence and Change

With social media brainwashing us on a daily basis, we are flooded with images that are posed and even “touched up” to intentionally exaggerate the favorite body part of the day. We see images of photo-shopped freckles and waists, beauty marks and stretch marks erased, and we end up envying the woman in a photo; one that likely doesn’t even look like that in real life. We allow ourselves to diminish our own beauty because of our own made up belief that we should look like anyone other than our best self. Magazines, movies, and television are meant to be art; and social media is the epitome of image control. When’s the last time you posted a photo from an unflattering angle or without a filter?

Our beauty ideals are constantly changing. Every time a new model, TV star, or singer breaks through, they can change what we consider to be beautiful. But it is all of us that make this generalized ideal, and we do this by what we allow to be popular or where we choose to spend our dollars. If only short, freckled, girls with bucked teeth generated sales, then that is what we would see everywhere.

So, if we want to change what we see in the magazines and in the movies, we need to change what we support. Do you not appreciate the way a Kardashian looks but still follow her on social media for entertainment’s sake? Unfollow her account! Otherwise, you are supporting her and that only keeps her brand thriving.

Support women who talk about the things that you want to see more of. Support the companies that portray more of what you want to see. If you don’t like how thin the models are in the newest campaign; stop buying from those brands. Where you put your money speaks more than what you complain about. Branding won’t change because we hope it will. It only changes when the money does. 

There are of course many more things to consider when analyzing how our ideology and sentiments are created and how they change over time. Things like the textile rations of the World War II era; the start of Hollywood; the rise of industrial food complex at a time when our lifestyles were becoming more sedentary; ethical and regulatory changes in our workforce; immigration policies; rapid growth of technology; instantaneous worldwide access, these all contribute to the changing world and the moving target of an ideal weight or body type.

Because the woman’s ideal body is ever-changing and it is influenced by countless factors, there is no one creating this ideal – it is something that we, as a whole, fall into believing. Even just over the last decade, with the rise of boutique studios and athleisure, strong is now sexy (and we absolutely love it).

This means that it isn’t men, it isn’t other women, and it isn’t body type vs. body type. This knowledge is powerful because now we know that despite the influences that we cannot control, there are many that we truly can.

Don’t be a sheep; create your own body ideal target, without putting another down.

Change your relationship with the media you consume.

Support companies and brands that promote what you agree with.

And as always, keep the conversation open.


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Written by Megan Taylor
Megan is a beauty expert who is passionate about all things makeup and glam! Her love for makeup has brought her to become a beauty pro at Glamour Garden Cosmetics.