On clothing and big busts.

This morning I read a post on clothing for big busts and feminism. I'm not here to take issue with that specific post; as I type, the comments count stands at 45 and no doubt will rise further, so there is a forum at The Hand Mirror if anyone wishes to debate the issues around feminism and a facebook thumbs up to a clothing shop which offers clothing for smaller women with larger busts. (I am deliberately using the term 'bust' rather than any alternatives given the nature of google searches)

But the link to a shop called Emma dovetailed nicely into some things I have been researching of late. The clothes on her website look pretty, not anything I expect to fit, and indeed smaller than my size. I'm not bothered by that - why would I pick one shop out of the majority of shops purporting to sell clothes for New Zealand women? But when the Wellington Young Woman's Collective published this on their fb page:

Hey ladies, here is a shop I discovered in Berhampore today which is FANTASTIC. Lovely handmade, locally designed ladies clothes and jewelry. And they fit ladies with big boobs, which is rarer than it should be. Yay for awesome local businesses! x

I was really pleased. Information on where to find clothes which fit for women with big busts is not easy and I'm surely not alone in having no interest in trawling fashion sites for information given that they norm a body size which is so thin as to make a large bust physically impossible without surgery. My sister and I have been discussing this issue via fb and email lately and I realise from her and slowly from myself that the key issue in terms of not finding anything to fit isn't necessarily fat, but body shape. Websites or networking sites which celebrate female diversity in a politically aware sense are possibly the only places to get this information. The clothing manufacturer called Emma may be only making clothes for smaller sizes now, but it is a useful start. Not to mention that if you spend a bit of time finding a bra for a larger cup size, you will notice not just a difficulty getting a larger cup size in a high band size, but also in a small band size. Not everyone who is a size eight is still in children's clothes; actually some of them want and need to look formal and professional for their career/work, and spilling out of their suit or squashed down the sides isn't dignity-enhancing. I could be quite wrong, but it seems to me that men's formalwear is designed to be much more accommodating of different shapes and sizes. I've been along for the project of male suit buying a few times and the process seems much simpler.

This weekend I was playing around on the internet, as is my habit in those precious moments when the children are asleep and I am not. I thought about what I have learnt about body shape from reading sewing blogs and the information on the seriously useful Pattern Review website and from critically reviewing garment construction after this reading. I used to wonder why no one saw a market on websites like Felt for clothing which fitted larger busted women and indeed larger sized women more generally. Now I understand more about garment construction and alterations, I realise two things: the most obvious one is that if you are selling clothes you make yourself, there is a better margin in small sizes as less fabric is involved. The second is that now I understand the amount of work involved in altering a pattern for a larger bust (the alteration that makes the most difference for me but other alterations also take a whack of time), I realise that clothing for a busty woman would be so expensive that it would not sell. This also explains why plus size clothing ranges in shops are all about draping knits which accommodate a range of body shapes. The cost of producing garments for different shapes as well as for different sizes would be too much. The arrival of plus sized clothing which is semi-formal, work-friendly, in mainstream shops like Postie Plus is fantastic in my view, but now I understand why I'm not going to find a shop with a semi-fitted cotton or linen blouse to fit me in any size, ever.

So whereas once I was mucking around making my own washing powder and using cloth nappies on my babies, now my 'homegrown' efforts centre not just on the garden, but also on making or altering clothes that are suitable for work. The op shops are full of clothes for the kids and we get a fantastic and much appreciated few bags of hand-me-downs each year for them as well as clothing presents from relatives. Although they like me to sew for them, I don't need to. My London wardrobe is nearly all worn out and the sewing machine is my ally. Those of you who sew yourselves may be ready to post, helpfully, about the patterns which are drafted for B C and D cups. Which is great. If you are a D cup or less. Contra to what the pattern companies suggest by omission, there are lots and lots and lots of women who are larger than a D cup. Larger than an E cup actually, which is the highest size this interesting website explicitly goes to. Ah yes, bras. The most expensive piece of kit the large busted woman finds herself purchasing, if indeed she can find one to fit. My sister told me about Avokado last year so I went and got a fitting and a bra when I was in Auckland and indeed it is a revelation in good quality, well fitting bras for large busted women. They have a hefty price tag, but it was bloody wonderful that they existed at all. It's not like I was getting away with cheapie bras beforehand. It's not just about spillage and pain from ill-fitting bras that meant I wasn't with the cheapies (they go nowhere near my size), but the backpain as well.

I don't think I will be making my own bras any time very soon. I would like to master dressmaking and shirtmaking (skirts are relatively easy for me to both make and to buy ready to wear) in the medium term and appreciate that although it takes some budgeting, I can actually source bras which don't hurt or spill massively. The other site I found in my weekend websurfing was Carissa Rose. The other side of the world no less, but I'm pleased to see this shop exists.

Is this because I am an extreme size, some kind of statistical aberration? Actually no, although even if I was, it would be good if I could find things to wear which allowed me to participate in formal workplaces with dignity. I have many times walked out of our local specialist lingerie store where exactly and only one bra ever fits me, and cast my eye over the women in the street. It doesn't take a measuring tape to work out that it's pretty common to have a bra cup size which exceeds a DD, and a band size which exceeds an 18. These two web pages here and here offer some interesting insight into the world of pattern and bra drafting.


Megan said…
Great post Sandra. My friend Sarah makes dresses to sell at markets - when we did the xmas market at hoki she didn't sell any off the rack, but almost everyone who tried one on ordered one with alterations. People really are all different! I feel lucky that I have a 'boy' figure that doesn't even need a bra (that comes with it's own issues - just ask me about my 6th form ball!). My main problem is finding trousers that are long enough - now if only I had some style :-)
ps I am occasionally jealous of feminine curves!
harvestbird said…
Thank you for this post, which I read with interest. It seems to me that the matter of fitted clothing for larger women (whether large all over or large-busted) will continue to spread as a topic of discussion in tandem with the online interest in fashion by younger feminists and larger young women.

I am something of a classic plus-size figure - large bust, short-waisted, widest at the hips (or "tits on a barrel" as I have said in moments lacking in self-charity) - and am fortunate to be able to buy and wear those knitted draperies you describe (although the story of their production is the unhappy trail evoked in the Hand Mirror post). But I recall quite a different style of dress for my grandmothers, both of whom were larger women who sewed their own clothes, which would not be found I think in stores today. My paternal grandmother in particular wore housecoats and dresses exactly fitted at the bust that stopped just above the knee, pretty much from when she stopped working (around age 25) to her death in her late eighties. Those frocs had scoop necks and cap sleeves and I remember her with a deep tan twelve months of the year, despite the fact she lived in Western Southland.

One thing I think that has also changed is that women don't wear much in the way of corsetry anymore (the politics of control underwear notwithstanding). For this liberation I am thankful but I suspect in the past body cinchers and the like played a role in standardising larger women's torsos so that sewing a garment to fit involved fewer variables. I don't know.

I don't follow fashion and I don't sew. Who knew I had so many opinions on these matters? But when I think about the politics of women's clothing and the bodies it fits in this country, I inevitably think about the other women in my family and the ways in which now, perhaps for the first time, home seamstresses are attempting something like a cross-generational aesthetic or strategy of design. I know, too, that when my maternal grandmother died I altered the way in which I dressed to suit the few pieces of hers, mostly machine-knitted wool cardigans, that I took from her extraordinarily broad collection of clothes.
Thank you both for your comments.

Megan you definitely have style! I'll be interested to know more about Sarah next time I see you.

Harvestbird I could see your paternal grandmother in my mind as I read your comment! I recall women wearing those styles (they looked comfortable as well). I think you might be right with corsets and other moulding undergarments and also I suspect that while some women sewed almost all of their clothes, others may have bought off the rack most of the time but got a good suit made locally (there is always someone who can sew in need of some cash) and it is in those suits that they were most likely to be photographed.

Somewhere recently I read an observation that women gave up the so called tyranny of controlling undergarments and then subjected themselves to the tyranny of having to mould the perfect body through diet and exercise. It might have been in Paul Campos' The Obesity Myth.
Anonymous said…
Hi ladies,
British company
makes clothing for ladies with a D to G cup, dress sizes 8-16, the collection is getting bigger all the time and they ship all over the world,

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