Fat-Positive Shopping Is About More Than Garments

Last November, an important institution was lost when Re/Dress NYC closed. The store had gone beyond making clothes available for fat customers: It catered to them. And it didn’t do so with polyester and spandex and minimizing garments, but with a collection of stellar vintage clothes in a variety of styles and sizes for customers of all tastes, with an attentive staff that enjoyed working with customers and helping them pick out things to take home that they would love, and love being in.

Clothes shopping while fat can be an exercise in frustration. Many stores don’t stock larger sizes at all, or if they do, they offer a narrow range, like 14-18. Those clothes may still fit poorly, or don’t mesh with the taste of the dresser, because they’re designed in the belief that all fat bodies are the same and that all fat people want to cover their bodies in shame and misery. Some stores only offer larger sizes online, for fear of having actual fat people in their storefront, which would of course upset the other customers. Finding environments that don’t just sell a wider range of sizes but actively welcome the people who wear them is rare and such spaces are to be treasured.

What was offered at Re/Dress wasn’t just a chance to buy awesome vintage clothes in a range of sizes meant for fat bodies. It was also an environment to be yourself in. It was an environment where fat bodies weren’t things that needed to be hidden and minimized and controlled, but could be celebrated and embraced. Writing about the closure, the staff discussed the customers of the store and the kinds of experiences they had:

One time there was a thin mom and a fat daughter that came in for a birthday outfit. They ended up buying a whole new wardrobe for the daughter because it was so supportive and the outfits were amazing. The emphasis was on things being bright and sparkly instead of darker/slimming clothes. Re/Dress changed up their whole shopping dynamic.

Fat-positive shopping isn’t just about having a rack of clothes that fit, or even a whole store of clothes that fit. It’s also about creating an environment that is positive for the customers, that embraces the full range of expressions and styles. Just as people of other sizes don’t dress uniformly, fat folks don’t have a single fashion sense, nor do they want to march around in lockstep wearing the same kinds of garments. Some people want to wear torn leggings, sparkle sweaters, and rainbow skirts. Others want sharp business suits. Some people want fabulous wrap maxidresses, others want tunics to layer over jeans.

An environment where all bodies are treated with love and respect is critical, because shopping can be a hard thing to do for someone of any size. Trying on garments can be frustrating; a sensitive personal shopper or helpful staff member who can help pull things that are likely to fit your size and type, and might look good on you, is important. Someone who can assess taste and help people select items they might enjoy, as well as push people to branch out a little to explore new things without being aggressive, is valuable. Someone who affirms and celebrates identities, who creates a space for people to explore their identities, is also critical.

This requires a mixture of training and innate skill that not everyone has, particularly when it comes to meeting the shopping needs of populations that tend to be marginalized. The attitude towards fat shoppers in many environments is dismissive and contemptuous. Entering a place where you are embraced as a customer and people are genuinely delighted to see you can have such a profound impact on self esteem, on what you buy, on how you feel about it.

There are few resources for fat shoppers who want to find clothes they love without feeling like they’re doing a walk of shame. In stores with mixed sizes, they may be sent off to the corner to repent for their sins while picking through a thin rack of garments they don’t like. Stores with a focus on larger sizes, like Lane Bryant, may not necessarily be fat positive; their advertising material doesn’t necessarily scream acceptance and celebration of fat bodies, even as the company has made an effort to acknowledge an array of different body types with lines of clothing tailored for different figures.

What was lost with Re/Dress wasn’t just a great selection of vintage clothes for a population that often doesn’t get to access them, but something more. An environment where people could go in and be accepted as they were by staff who were ready to help them find what they needed, whatever that might be. A space where people struggling with identity might be able to take a break from that with shop attendants who were ready and willing to help people select costumes, or dresses to attend weddings, or entire wardrobes, a store where bodies were something to be proud of instead of covered up.

The success of Re/Dress, and genuine mourning on the part of shoppers who loved the store, does create a glimmer of hope. It set a precedent by illustrating that there was a market for genuinely fat-positive shopping, not just ‘stores that stock plus sizes,’ and that creates the possibility of more spaces like this. Sadly, many of them will probably be located in urban areas, because that’s where the customer base is likely to be, and that’s where fat positivity tends to be more concentrated. Rural fat folks will still be forced to order online or travel when they want to find garments, because of the simple mechanics of doing business and making a business viable.