Common misconceptions about designing for size & gender diversity

When I first started tackling the task of creating size charts for my indie pattern company, I knew that I wanted to approach it in a way that would include a wide range of diverse body types.


Moving through the world in a petite-plus body while navigating a complex relationship with my own gender identity gave me a first-hand experience of how the “standard” in “standard sizing” really doesn’t work for a lot of (in fact, probably most!) people.

Ruby stands in front of several plus-size dress forms.

 

In trying to come up with an alternative, I did lots of research to see how others were approaching this design challenge. There were very few resources out there, and the few companies committed to inclusive design were not sharing much about their technical, grading, and fitting processes. The few examples I did find still left much to be desired. 


Having an educational and professional background in both fashion design AND human sexuality education has given me a unique perspective that I am eager to share with other designers and fashion industry professionals.

On February 22, 2022, I will be hosting my first educational webinar on Size & Gender Inclusive Clothing Design. You can read more about the event, and register, here.

This 2-hour webinar for fashion industry professionals will provide an introduction to the key concepts critical to designing clothing across a wide spectrum of sizes and genders.

An overview of alternative approaches to size charts, grading methods, fittings, and marketing techniques will help design students, new designers, and experienced industry professionals to set up their fashion lines in a way that serves a more diverse range of customers.

 

Ruby smiles holding a pair of scissors, leaning over a cutting table. Cardstock sewing patterns hang on the wall behind her, above a sewing machine.

 

Here are five common misconceptions that I found repeated over and over again when I was researching size and gender-inclusive design:


CW: The following paragraphs mention fatphobia, gender dysphoria, and narratives about gender and body shape.


Vocabulary:

binary gender, gender binary: a social system in which people are categorized into two genders, male and female, based on external genitalia and assigned at birth

cisgender: a term used to describe the gender identity of someone whose gender matches the gender they were assigned at birth

fatphobia: fear, hatred, and stigmatization of fat people.

gender dysphoria: psychological distress experienced by someone who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

genderless, gender-neutral: having no gender

gender-expansive: a term (often used in place of gender-neutral) to describe something that encapsulates many or all genders

LGBTQIA+: an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans/transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual/aromantic/agender, with the “+” denoting additional identities (such as pansexual, bigender, genderqueer, genderfluid, pangender, and more, as well as room for growing and evolving identities). 

nonbinary: a term used to describe the gender identity of someone whose gender does not fall within the gender binary. Similar terms include genderqueer, agender, gender nonconforming, and genderfluid, among many others.

non-cis: an adjective to describe any gender that is not cisgender (i.e. trans, nonbinary, genderqueer, agender, genderfluid, etc.)

plus-size, fat, people in larger bodies: language used to refer to bodies that are larger than what is typically accommodated for in various aspects of design. Different people prefer different terms, and all three are used somewhat interchangeably here.   

queer: often used as an umbrella term to refer to people across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum (formerly used as a derogatory slur, not every LGBTQIA+ person identifies with this term).

trans: an umbrella term to describe the gender identity of someone whose gender does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. 

unisex: a term used by the fashion industry to describe clothing marketed as having no gender

Please note: It is best practice to always refer to others using the language they use to describe themselves.


  1. Genderless, gender-neutral, or unisex clothing is shapeless and boxy.

First of all: all clothing is gender-neutral. The clothing itself doesn’t have a gender, but rather we impose gender on clothing by the way we describe it. Certain styles of clothing may be designed for particular body proportions (with which we associate binary gender stereotypes), but you’ll likely find that clothing made to those standard proportions don’t even fit the majority of the cisgender people who identify with those descriptions (shoutout to my fellow non-hourglass-shaped femme folks!).

The idea that all people of non-cis genders want to cover themselves or hide their bodies in large sack-like garments is just not true, and likely based on the false assumption that all non-cis people have a fraught relationship to certain body parts or proportions. While gender dysphoria is real and affects many people, it doesn’t manifest in every person the same way, and oversized boxy clothing is certainly not what everyone likes, wants, or needs.


  1. In order to design for nonbinary or trans bodies, you should “average together” what we currently think of as men’s and women’s sizing standards.

You never know someone’s gender just from looking at them. Non-cis bodies come in just as many shapes and sizes as cisgender bodies do. By assuming that neutrality is somehow an “average,” you’re actually probably designing something that will fit even fewer people. This practice also reinforces the assumption of a gender binary by suggesting that all non-cis people must fall somewhere “between” these two categories. This mentality also creates yet another “ideal” for people to measure themselves against and furthers feelings of inadequacy when proportions aren’t close enough to this “average” or median standard, which is quite the opposite of inclusion. 


  1. People in larger bodies want to “hide problem areas.”

This is such a tragic assumption when it comes to plus-size clothing design. Currently, about half of the American population measures into a size that the industry would categorize as plus-size. One half! That is so many people. And those people have just as diverse a range of style preferences as their thinner counterparts, who have about 8x more options when it comes to shopping for clothing.

To assume that all people in larger bodies must want to hide or minimize themselves results in a limited range of styles available to this huge market segment. It also reinforces the fatphobic ideas that fat bodies are undesirable and in need of altering, containing, and visibly obscuring. When most designers do not think to question this mindset, the plus-size styles produced are often boring and homogenous, and people in larger bodies do not get to access to the same range of personal expression through clothing as people in thinner bodies.


  1. Designing for larger sizes requires using a completely different pattern block or sloper.

I’ve seen this referenced a lot in the patternmaking community, and I have lots of thoughts about it! The reason companies need to use a different block to design for plus sizes is because they’ve already locked themselves into using a particular block and grading process for their straight sizes, and they’re probably worried that it would be too much work or alienate their current audience to change the whole thing over to a different process (don’t get me wrong, it is a ton of work!). There is also pretty much no information out there on what alternative drafting and grading processes look like, or if there is, it’s kept behind lock-and-key as industry trade secret.

While drafting for two different proportional blocks can be a workable solution, it also results in a split right down the middle (around a US “women’s” size 14-16 or so) between one block and another. Because body size falls along a bell curve, most people are going to fall right into that split, which makes it difficult for those people to figure out which pattern to sew from, or which line to shop from. I’ve developed my own method of pattern grading across a wide size range (which I’ve noticed some other designers use as well) that provides a more elegant solution to this problem.


  1. Size and gender are two completely separate design challenges!

For some reason, size-inclusive and gender-inclusive design are rarely talked about together. Most of the conversations around expanding sizes and plus-size design are centered around cisgender women’s bodies, and are often accompanied by a rather feminine aesthetic (perhaps because fatphobia is so often weaponized against women, whose bodies are frequently objectified in our culture). 

On the flip side, pretty much all the ink being spilled about gender-neutral or gender-expansive design centers around this idea of youth (Gen Z) as well as an assumption of thinness. The vast majority of the images we see in media of trans and nonbinary folks (if we see any at all) portray thin bodies, rendering fat trans and nonbinary folks even more invisible. The separation of size and gender diversity as two separate design challenges more often than not leads to the exclusion of fat queer bodies.

 

Over the past year, I’ve been approached by several pattern designers and fashion industry professionals who wanted insight into how I’m drafting for a diverse range of bodies and building an inclusive brand. It’s taken a while for me to feel comfortable claiming expertise in this field; but after reading articles and attending webinars from well-established companies and sources on these topics that seemed to really miss the mark entirely, I’m feeling increasingly confident that I really do have an important perspective to offer. I am ready and excited to begin working with others towards a more inclusive fashion future.



3 comments

  • I am excited to watch you grow! It is evident in your brand, your writing and your self confidence. I honestly think you are going to be a household name someday. I dont know another designer embracing bodies as you do: as bodies. The skin we are in.

    Donna Jones
  • Ruby, this is just so beautifully written and thought out and inspiring! I hope you get a lot of positive feedback and participants! Are there ways to target fashion students and educators that might be interested? I’m so proud of you!!!

    Roberta
  • This is really great information Ruby. Though, I knit instead of sew I found this really helpful for my business, as I want to serve people who the fashion industry has excluded, limited, and shamed. Bespoke sweaters to fit a person’s body as well as their identity.

    Ann

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