Fashion, ‘The Rules,’ and Hiding Your Body

So many of the rules of fashion for non-normative bodies seem to boil down to a mandate to hide your body. Concealment is the order of the day, and it’s presented as the mode, chic thing to do; if you expose your body, if you admit you have a body, you are not fashionable. It’s frustrating, intriguing, and horrifying to see this kind of fashion advice perpetuated, because along with the advice comes very dangerous ideas about bodies and their occupants, about who is allowed to show their body and who is not. Sadder still is the fact that many people internalise this advice and follow it, unaware of the implications embedded within it, the attitudes it reinforces.

In the case of fat folks, mainstream fashion advice basically boils down to the need to hide the body behind cleverly draped fabrics, to avoid bold prints and colours. Sometimes people are directly told to wear or not wear specific things in the interest of making themselves slimmer, to distract people from the reality of their bodies. In other cases, the advice is more subtle; people are told which kinds of fashion ‘flatters,’ by which the advice-giver means ‘slims.’ Or they are informed that some things, like horizontal stripes, just aren’t done, because they look bad.

This advice comes with a hidden statement: fat bodies are disgusting and gross and ugly. You should not subject other people to your body, because it is wrong and shouldn’t be seen in public. When dressing, you should at all times consider the needs and interests of others, which means you need to hide your body to avoid damaging delicate eyes. Don’t wear tight clothing, or short clothing, or bold clothing that calls attention to the fact that yes, you are fat. Don’t wear patterns, because they might highlight the fact that you have rolls of fat and dimples and big arms and thighs.

It’s wrong to be fat in this world, and it’s doubly wrong to openly admit that you are fat, to wear clothes that make your fatness inescapable. Even more wrong to be fat and not care, or to actively embrace it; the fat woman who wears horizontal stripes is a threat to society because of what she stands for, and this is why she is told not to do that. The fat woman who actually loves the ripples of fat on her back and wants to wear tight knit dresses to show them off is gross and reprehensible.

But instead of saying this, people retreat to the rules of fashion. They murmur things about draping and lines and flattering cuts and fit but what they mean is hide your fat, because it is disgusting. And as these things are repeated, they become hard and fast directives that people must follow to be fat and fashionable; at the same time, of course, designers don’t produce things in large sizes, and some openly express fat hate when they explain why they don’t make garments for fat people.

Be fashionable, they are told, follow the rules, but good luck finding garments that will adhere to the narrow social standards for fat bodies. Perhaps it’s best you don’t go outside at all if you can’t find appropriate clothes; maybe you should read that as a sign that you aren’t meant to be in public.

For people with visible disabilities, fashion advice likewise focuses on hiding them and minimising them. If you have a limp or wear braces, you should wear loose, flowing skirts so your disability is not as evident. Keep your prostheses tucked away and hidden in long sleeves and pants because no one wants to see them. Wear clothes that draw attention away from your disability, because otherwise people might feel awkward. But don’t wear anything too bright and vibrant, too patterned, because then people might be reminded that you exist.

Your comfort is less important than that of others, if you are disabled and want to go out in public, you see. You have an obligation to make yourself as small and non-threatening as possible, because to be visibly disabled is to be bad and frightening. Openly and freely admitting that you have a disability—wearing running shorts with a prosthesis, for example—is wrong and not acceptable. You certainly can’t celebrate your disability and have fun with it. Don’t decorate your braces or wear custom clothes designed to enhance and draw attention to your disability. That’s not nice, you see. Your body offends people.

The rules of fashion revolve so much around hiding bodies, around identifying imperfections and attempting to erase them rather than admitting that they exist. Even people of slight to medium build with no evident disabilities are reminded that they need to wear ‘flattering’ clothes that slim and streamline their appearance, ‘highlighting their best features.’ If you have broad hips, for example, you should slim them down so as to avoid causing offense or upset. If your belly is fleshy or has stretch marks because of a pregnancy, conceal it, because no one wants to see that sort of thing; you are under an obligation to hide the realities of what your body has gone through in the course of its life.

We wonder why so many people experience a sense of shame about their bodies? The rules of fashion remind them on a regular basis to be ashamed of themselves. These rules are reiterated by parents, friends, partners, and everyone around us. They are commonly accepted and rarely challenged and those who do step outside the rules are called daring and given skeptical looks, instead of being lauded for making their own rules.