The Evolution of Plus Size Dresses: Fashion’s Overlooked Category

Not many years ago, finding plus size dresses was a challenge. That was particularly true if you wanted something a bit more colorful or that even vaguely resembled current trends. Today, plus size clothing is more widely available than ever before. The move toward inclusivity in the fashion industry with the rise of plus sized models like Ashley Graham, Kate Wasley, and Paloma Elsesser is also in full swing.

That’s a stark contrast to most of the 1900s when women with curves simply weren’t catered to, and off-the-rack clothing was designed to fit some generic womanly ideal. Interestingly, the fashion world wasn’t always that way, and plus sized clothing has evolved a lot over the centuries.


We tend to think of fashion as being focused primarily on women with slender bodies, but if you look beyond the 1900s, you quickly realize this is only a recent development. Sure, from 1900 onward, women with curves have been left out, but before that? Not at all.

In fact, between the 1600s and the 1800s, curvy women were seen as being healthy (and often wealthy). Curves were to be aspired to and slenderness was a sign of sickness or being too poor to afford enough to eat. At the time, clothing was custom-made for each woman. There were no off-the-rack dresses, plus size or otherwise.

Fast forward to the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, and things begin to look very different.

The Rise of the Modern Fashion Industry

When clothing was custom-made, fashion was largely a personal thing. Trends existed, certainly, but there was really no fashion industry to speak of. That changed near the end of the 1800s when automation and mechanization made it possible to mass produce clothing. This ushered in a new era when sizes began to be standardized and specific manufacturers stood out.

With the rise of manufacturers, the modern fashion industry was also born. Interestingly, this also coincided with a shift in clothing size production. Manufacturers were most interested in creating clothing that would fit the most people in order to maximize productivity and profitability. Simply put, they designed clothes that fit most people, but not all, so they could make as much money as possible, while dealing with the fewest hurdles.

The result? An almost complete lack of anything resembling plus size clothing for the average woman. Wealthy women were able to have clothing custom-tailored to their needs, but most women simply had to make do by purchasing mass-produced clothing and then having them altered.

The Birth of Lane Bryant

Lena (Lane) Bryant made her fame by providing the same type of alterations discussed above. Women would pay her to alter their clothing to suit their needs or personal sense of style. In the early 1900s, she was approached to design a dress suitable for an expectant mother, something that was simply not done at the time.

That single maternity dress spawned an entire business – Bryant quickly found a market and established her company by focusing on mothers and newborns. However, just a decade later, she shifted gears and began offering clothing “for the stout women'' (plus size dresses and other garments were often referred to as ‘stoutwear’ at the time, a practice that has thankfully disappeared).

The enduring popularity of Bryant’s company (one of the most popular for plus size clothing today) is a testament to something that the fashion industry has always ignored: women have always been of varying sizes. So-called “normal” sizes are a complete fabrication.

Other Manufacturers Begin to Take Notice

Spurred by Bryant’s success (and partially informed by the research conducted on body shape differences in plus sized women by Bryant’s husband, Albert Malsin), other manufacturers were established. Evans was founded in the UK in the 1930s, and others followed suit. However, despite the growing number of manufacturers, plus size fashion options remained relatively small.

The 1960s, 1970s, and Today

Revolution was in the air in the 1960s as the counterculture got into full swing. Women across the US (and in other Western nations) began to rebel against the notion that the average woman was slim and athletic. The impact of this movement would not be seen for some time, though – not until the 1970s. Beginning in 1977, Fashion Group of NYC predicted the downfall of the Baby Boomers Junior segment as Boomers began to become adults. This also coincided with the founding of the world’s first plus size modeling agency – Mary Duffy’s Big Beauties – Little Women.

The result was an explosion of clothing lines specifically designed for larger women from manufacturers around the world. In 1980, Max Marina Rinaldi became one of the first high-end clothing lines designed specifically for plus size women. Jump forward to 2013 and you have the first-ever plus size fashion line at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week (Cabiria).

Today, the revolution continues, with more and more manufacturers offering plus size dresses and other clothing designed for full-figured women.

The Changing Shape of Plus Size Fashion

Plus sized fashion was little more than an afterthought for a very long time. Full-figured women had to make do with what they could find and alter items that did not fit well. Even once the industry recognized the demand for plus size dresses and other clothing, though, manufacturers really did little to offer customized solutions to this segment of their audience.

For a very long time, plus sized clothing was simply a scaled-up version of manufacturers’ normal clothing. Rather than engineer clothing specifically designed for larger women, they just added inches in circumference, width, and length, hoping to accomplish through sheer volume of fabric what they could not through research and intentional design.

Part of this is due to Albert Malsin’s research. Lena Bryant’s husband conducted in-depth research and measured over 4,000 plus sized women. However, his research was too broad and findings were unable to be adapted to manufacturers of the day. To simplify the process, he broke down those 4,000 women into three categories – full-busted, full-figured, and flat-busted.

While those terms are certainly no longer used in the industry, their implications have been with us for over a century at this point. Because Melsin simplified his research findings, it gave manufacturers carte blanche to create plus size dresses that fit into those three categories, rather than attempting to address the much wider diversity of body styles and types in the real world.

It was not until Lane Bryant and Catherine’s, two mainstays of the plus sized clothing industry in the US, teamed up that things began to change. The two companies took a full three years to study and measure over 14,000 plus sized women. It became the most extensive female sizing study in the United States in six decades and provided a great deal of information about how women’s body shapes, sizes, and clothing needs varied.

That research opened up an incredible world of possibilities. No longer were manufacturers limited to general body types. They could draw on in-depth information to create plus size dresses, jumpsuits, pantsuits, and other clothing that fit properly, flattered the figure, and was actually designed for real women, rather than some imaginary generalization.

Plus Size Dresses Today

Once, not that long ago, being a plus sized woman meant that you were limited in clothing choices. There was little available that was cute or girly or fun or cheery. Solid colors were the norm, while the few patterns available would have been more at home adorning furniture than the human body.

Today, that has changed and continues to change. The wide range of plus size dresses and other clothing available is astounding and encompasses almost anything imaginable. Want something light and floral for spring? No problem. Need a dress that’s professional yet includes a touch of whimsy? Shopping for something that can work for both a formal event, yet can also be used as daywear? It’s all available.

The trick to finding great plus size dresses and other clothing is choosing the right retailer. Yes, you can head over to your local big-box store and buy something off the rack, but quality, fit, and durability are questionable there. And, while many manufacturers are now offering a much wider array of clothing options, they are only part of the equation. Fashion retailers often give little more than a nod to plus sized shoppers, making it harder to find what you need.

Types of Dresses Today

As mentioned, the sky’s the limit when it comes to plus size dresses today. You can choose from swing dresses, or add a touch of fun with a flare dress. Maxis are always popular, particularly for those who adore long, flowing garments (and with a fun print, these are great all year long).

You will even find plus size pencil dresses with matching accessories if you’re going for that retro look. Bell sleeve dresses, A-line dresses, ruffle hems, mixi dresses, and more can be found with the right retailer.

Of course, finding the right style is just part of the process. It’s also important to make sure that you choose the right size, and there’s more to that than just finding the right number on a tag.

How to Choose the Right Dress

One side effect of having very few options in the way of dresses and body type-specific clothing is that many curvy women do not understand how to choose the right dress. This is also a direct result of size standardization. Sure, you might wear a size 18W, but what does that really mean in terms of inches? How do you even begin to determine what size you actually wear?

Understand that with a dress, more so than any other garment, you’ll need some specific measurements. These are as follows:

Shoulders – Make sure you measure from the top of one shoulder to the top of the other, straight across your upper back.

Bust – Use the measuring tape to measure the fullest part of your bust. The tape should be taut, but it should not create any pressure (if you can feel the tape pressing through your clothing, it’s too tight).

Waist – Your waist is measured at the smallest point above your belly button. The tape measure should not rest on your hips.

Hips – Start with one hip and wrap the tape measure all the way around to the body so it comes back to its starting point. Make sure you’re measuring the fullest part of your hips.

The four measurements above will help you determine your size, but there’s so much more that goes into choosing the right dress. For instance, you need to determine your body shape – is it apple-shaped? Pear-shaped? Hourglass? Triangular? Square? If you need help, learn how to take your measurements with our helpful guide.

Clothing fits each body type in a different way, and depending on your shape, you will want to emphasize different parts of the body. You also need to consider the cut of the dress and the type of fabric – certain cuts are better suited to specific body types and certain fabrics will help you accentuate, drape, flare, and more. We offer a great guide on all types of body shapes.

Don’t forget the power of accessories, either. Dresses can be transformed with the right belt – and different styles, thicknesses, colors, and materials help you fine-tune your style in a myriad of ways. The right shoes, the right clutch or purse, and even jewelry will make a big difference in the look and feel of your outfit.

Connected Apparel – Your Source for Plus Size Dresses and More

With the rise of ecommerce, plus sized fashion has moved online. You no longer have to make do with what’s available from big-box stores or peruse the one or two racks of plus size dresses at other clothing retailers. However, finding the right online store can be challenging. At Connected Apparel, we create contemporary dresses that make you feel comfortable and at ease, while allowing you to explore your own personal style.

We focus on three aspects – design, quality, and fit. We also understand that designing clothing for plus sized women requires more than just scaling up smaller clothing. Our designs are meant to flatter all body shapes and sizes. The goal? To make you feel confident, empowered, and comfortable.  Learn more about which silhouettes flatter plus size bodies.

Shop our collection of plus size dresses and jumpsuits to flatter every size and shape!