Second Hand September is a much-needed celebration of pre-loved (and more sustainable) style. Sara Brown investigates why it’s not always open to all...
As I run my hand over the cold hangers of the charity-shop rail, a glimmer of a rainbow catches my eye. It’s a truly epic multicoloured check blazer, and what do I spy next to it? A beautiful Burberry trench coat. I’m thrilled to find such holy-grail items buried here...but they aren’t for me. I keep going. My hand makes its way past these size 8s, the 10s, 12s and 14s, until I get to my section – squished at the back – labelled ‘24+’.
To say that we get the dregs feels a lot like an understatement. If I’m lucky enough to find anything in the plus-size section, it’s usually a ‘grandmother of the bride’-style dress, or a dinner-lady tabard, much like the ones I used to wear at Rainbows as a five-year-old. As a size 24, it’s hard, and often feels impossible, to shop sustainably.
"There’s a whole lot of [plus-size] women ready to give brands their money."
I’ve been plus-size all my adult life; I’ve also been captivated by the fashion industry ever since I can remember. I studied fashion design at university, and by the time I was making my graduate collection, supposedly ‘bigger’ (than sample size) sizes on the catwalk were still rare. I had endless debates with my tutors about the fact that I wanted to design clothing that fit me, and I was the only person in my year to create clothing for a body bigger than a size 8. Since then, I’ve designed and consulted for big names such as Asos and Rixo, and I’ve even started my own size-inclusive brand, Dolly Rocket. But somehow, it still feels like the industry has a long way to go.
We’ve been living through an age of waste, and we know it’s got to change. We’re ditching single-use plastics and recycling is now second nature. But what can we do when it comes to our wardrobes? For many, shopping second-hand, swapping clothes or buying from sustainable fashion brands can be a simple step forwards. But if you’re trying to do this while also being over a size 16, it’s much harder. In 2020, Fashion United forecasted that by 2022, plus sizes would account for 22% of the clothing market in the UK. On top of this, in the past five years, we’ve seen a 450% increase in Google searches for sustainable-clothing brands in the UK. These stats point towards great demand, so why do the options still seem so... rare?
As writer and fashion consultant Aja Barber points out, ‘Fatphobia still plagues us.’ I know first-hand that behind the scenes in the business, there are still plenty of non-plus-size people arguing that they know best about what plus-size women want. Outdated views remain, and brands fear change. In an industry that knows it has a waste problem, Barber tells me that we’re seeing brands incinerate unsold clothing rather than re-evaluating what sizes the market requires and creating plus sizes. How is this okay?
When brands are resistant to making changes, one of the main excuses given is budget. It’s true that expanding a brand’s size range will incur costs. They’ll need to spend time and money working on their fit, and to be truly representative, they need to shoot their marketing campaigns on a wider range of bodies, meaning paying for more models and making more samples. But as the average woman in the UK is a size 16, there is demand for bigger sizes. There’s a whole lot of women ready to give brands their money.
"We’ve been living through an age of waste"
Thankfully, new sustainably produced clothing isn’t the only way to be kinder to the planet. I’m always reminding myself that the most sustainable piece of clothing I can wear is one that already exists. With apps such as Depop, Vinted and By Rotation, shopping second-hand or renting items is on the rise. My top tip for second-hand shopping is setting eBay alerts. I have a number of saved searches for things such as ‘size 24 vintage’ and ‘size 24 Asos dress’, which means I can easily check for newly uploaded pieces, and I’ve found some cheap treats on there. We even saw Love Island ditch fast fashion in favour of using pre-loved clothing from eBay this year.
But the lack of new plus-size clothing also has a knock-on effect on eBay. You can’t sell or rent out plus-size clothing that doesn’t exist yet. The search for second-hand clothing over a size 16 is something that Sarah Ruppin, the founder of Ahead of the Curve, a virtual vintage market, knows all too well. Ruppin tells me that her traders ‘often spend months collecting and saving pieces especially for the fair’ and pre-1970s plus-size clothing is extremely rare. Personally, I love that Ahead of the Curve takes care of this leg work for us. It also makes vintage fashion accessible to people with disabilities, who might find shopping in person difficult. We can’t ignore the struggles they face when trying to buy sustainable clothing either.
One approach many smaller brands are taking is ‘made-to-order’ production. This is how I produce clothes with my own brand, Dolly Rocket. It means that I create less waste because I only make the sizes and styles that are wanted. It also allows for custom fittings and bespoke lengths. This is especially helpful for bigger bodies, as when the body grows, we see greater variations in body proportions, and it’s harder to find a universal fit. Fellow designer Mary Benson also produces in this way. Benson makes dresses in sizes 6 to 30, and she tells me that around ‘60% of her sales are in sizes between 16 to 30’. Other brands I love that also create in this way are Carmen Christine and Freya Simonne, who make their pieces from second-hand textiles, making them even more sustainable.
Although there’s a long way to go before the fashion industry is truly as size-inclusive and sustainable as it needs to be, Barber reminds me, ‘There are so many good brands that are open to doing bigger sizes, and we need to focus on making sure we show support in that direction and reward the right people for their efforts with our pounds.’ I couldn’t agree more.
shop sara's faves for planet-friendly plus-size fashion:
Rehab Vintage // Hand-picked, size-inclusive vintage fashion with weekly themed edits.
Hurr Collective // Rental platform with a growing plus-sized selection, including Dolly Rocket and Selkie.
Birdsong // London-made, not-so-everyday staples in sizes 6 to 30.
Lucy & Yak // Home of dungarees, co-ords and fun prints in sizes 6 to 32.
Aesthetic Laundry // Female-founded brand that’s great for high-quality jersey basics in sizes 6 to 30.
Lora Gene // Timeless, premium pieces that you can re-style year after year in sizes 6 to 28.
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