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The UK: clothing utopia for smallish fat women

I moved to the UK a year ago, and I want to share the lowdown on clothes shopping here. In short? It's a veritable paradise if you wear a US or Canadian 14W-18W (maybe up to a 20W). This is because around half of normal British shops carry large straight sizes: 20, 22 and sometimes 24. Almost all of them carry sizes at least up to an 18.

Let me explain why this is a big deal to me.

I grew up in the US in the 1970s and 80s and lived there until 2003. Then I moved to Toronto and was unsurprised to find that Canada is just like the US when it comes to large sized women's clothing. Through my entire life until the past year, I've had to shop in plus-sized stores. I could never just walk into a department store and find something that fit me. I'd have to go to the fat lady section, hidden in the back of the top floor or the basement, with vastly inferior styles and quality and higher prices. Alternatively, I could shop at Lane Bryant, the Avenue, Ashley Stewart, Addition Elle, Pennington's or one of a very few regular stores that carry 16s and 18s in North America. The trendy shops have always been out of my reach.

I've worn between a 14W and a 20W (16-22 in straight sizes) all. my. life. Yes, it's been a good 30 years that I've been in that size range, ever since I got to be tall enough to wear women's clothing. Before that, I occupied an even deeper circle of sartorial hell: the boy's "husky" section.

I've always needed to shop in the plus-sized ghetto because the vast majority of American and Canadian clothing lines stop at a size 14. Now some people will say "there's been size inflation since you were growing up and US 14s are like British 18s." Well, as far as I can tell, size inflation in the US has been in waist measurement only. My waist has always fit into a smaller size than my hips; it's my hip measurement that's the deciding factor. With bigger waists, US clothes are even more ill-fitting on me than they used to be.

Additionally, British straight sizes are not two sizes smaller than US straight sizes. They are only one size smaller, if that (for me, anyway). They're two sizes smaller than US plus ("W") sizes, which run a size bigger than straight sizes. Got it? So I have UK 18s and 20s, US 16Ws, and US straight-sized 18s in my wardrobe right now. Complicated.

Let me tell you, most British clothes are cut more generously in the hips and chest than North American clothes. Women with pear and hourglass shapes, take note. They also seem to be proportioned for shorter women. I'm 5'-4" or 5'-5", and I never wear petites in the UK. I wear "mediums" or "shorts." Yes, they have four inseams on most women's trousers: tall, medium, short and petite. The petites are actually made for women who are around 5' tall, not for women who are really medium height, like me.

I freaking love British clothes. The 20s fit me. They really fit, almost perfectly. I can even wear an 18 in some dresses. Some brands are cut straighter through the hips and those aren't as good for me, but my god. I can walk into a department store and buy almost anything I want. A mini skirt? They've got it in my size. A cheap but decent looking suit? Ditto. A nice dress for a wedding? No problemo. I was looking for one, and I found 10 of them to try on at Debenhams. Ten that I liked and eight of them fit! It was the first time I'd ever been able to choose something based purely on style. In North America, I'd count myself very lucky if I could find something that fit, was appropriate, and didn't look cheap.

This isn't true at every department store, mind you. Marks and Spencer has up to a 24 in most things. Debenhams carries up to an 18, 20 or 22, depending on the clothing line. Monsoon has everything in their regular line up to a 22. Evans, the UK plus sized chain, goes up to a UK 34, and I wear an 18 or 20 there just like I do at the other shops. However, House of Fraser is hopeless (their clothes are cut narrow through the hips and end at an 18) and John Lewis seems to be as well (they don't have sizes on their hangers, so it's hard to figure out what, if any, ranges go higher than an 18).

SO... if you're in the US 14-20 size range and are thinking about visiting the UK, bring some money for clothes. If you wear a 14W, there will be very few places that don't have your size. Almost every UK shop goes up to at least an 18.

Oh, and I'd like to take this opportunity to link to my favourite UK fashion maven, Buttercup Rocks! She has a Tumblr, Buttercup's Frocks, and a a Fatsion set on Flickr (and so do I, actually).

Here's me in some British clothes. Click on the picture to go to the description on Flickr:

The bad news? If you wear over a North American 20W or UK 22 then you'll find a better selection in North America. The UK has fewer plus sized shops because the smaller, more common plus sizes are easy to find at regular stores. I think we should have a shopping post for size 24+ Brits visiting the U.S. and Canada next.

The desire for weight loss is never about weight loss | The perfect body-positive gift

pani113's picture
December 5th, 2011 | Link | Everything looks great

Everything looks great too!

"Fat can be beautiful. Intolerance is ALWAYS ugly!"

DeeLeigh's picture
December 10th, 2011 | Link | Thanks, pani.

Thanks, pani.

Beanietude's picture
December 5th, 2011 | Link | The biggest problem I have

The biggest problem I have with UK clothes v. US versions is that here in the UK, on me, everything is too short. Trousers are just that smidge too short and longs are way too long. Shirts are too short (though the fashion for midriff-baring tops seems to be changing slowly) and the shoulders are normally too narrow for me (my shoulders are uberwide). I'm 5'6" and a US size 18-20/UK 20-22, hourglass-shaped. But you are right, if you are pear-shaped there are a lot more choices out there. And slowly more stores are coming to realise that, guess what?, us fat folks have money and may want to spend it on clothes! I'll be happier though when the online ghetto is no more... Next, I'm looking at you! My money is good enough for *some* of your clothes provided my fat ass doesn't darken your doorstep? Yeah, I don't think so.

moxie3's picture
December 5th, 2011 | Link | Glad you found an area that

Glad you found an area that carries your size. Being an apple I feel discriminated and feel that plus size clothing has always been designed for the pear shaped woman. If pants fit my waist then the legs/hips are too large, it's always been a problem for me.

I do like the catalog from Britain called "Simply Be" and think their clothes are really cute but being a child of the 60s are probably too young for me!

DeeLeigh's picture
December 6th, 2011 | Link | I think they make clothes

I think they make clothes for an average figure, which means that the same pants that fit you in the waist and are too large elsewhere are too big in the waist for me. When I lived in the US, I felt like all plus sized clothes were designed for apple-shaped women.

Marshfield December 5th, 2011 | Link | I adore that blue dress! It

I adore that blue dress! It looks wonderful on you.

DeeLeigh's picture
December 6th, 2011 | Link | Thanks!


richie79's picture
December 11th, 2011 | Link | My wife's experience would

My wife's experience would probably confirm this. In the US she's never far from a Fashion Bug, Avenue etc where she can walk in and pick up 24/26s in most styles off the rack, even if she has to pay a bit more than in say Wal-Mart or Kmart (where 250lb-ish me buys clothes because finding 42" waisted mens' jeans in England has become virtually impossible). On the other hand whilst stylishly-dressed 'mid-size' fat women and girls are by no means an uncommon sight, there does seem to be a strict cut-off of 18-20 in the UK high street chains, after which point the options become limited to Evans (massively overpiced, dwindling in-store selection) or the online ghetto, much of which seems to be dominated by one chain of companies (Simply Be, Marisota, Fashion World etc) and again carries a hefty price premium.

For what it's worth my perception is that the decline in availability of 'supersize' clothes has been driven partly by the sudden explosion in the popularity of WLS (six people this year alone in my by no-means extensive circle of acquaintances, and Govt figures suggest a national increase from about 200 procedures per annum to over 11,000 in 2010), a noticeable reduction in the numbers of larger fats and (despite a new round of shrieking about our 'shame' at being the alleged fattest European nation), correspondingly lower demand. I would say that historically the US has been much more fat accepting than the UK and this might also account for some of the discrepancies in availability, however spending Thanksgiving in Boston impressed upon me that things are now every bit as bad there with 'obesity' wedged to the top of both the political and media agendas.

"What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right" - Albert Einstein

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