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Why Is It So Hard to Find Plus-Size Vintage Clothes?

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Why It's So Hard to Find Plus-Size Vintage
Vintage clothing

“The same problems you would have faced in 2005, you would have faced in 1975, if not worse,” says Laura Mason, curator of the Lo Marie Vintage Etsy shop.

In a 2017 video on her store’s YouTube channel, Mason addresses an issue that’s top of mind for people who want to shop vintage but find their size is excluded from the usual available inventory: For as rich an array as the United States has of vintage clothing stores — with shops specializing in everything from designer wear to accessibly priced A-line dresses — the availability of vintage clothes isn’t limited by price; rather, it’s limited by size.

That is, trying to find plus-size vintage clothing (that isn’t a caftan) is like trying to find a proverbial needle in the haystack, assuming the needle is a plus-size garment and the haystack is the overall retail market. Even for straight-size people, finding vintage clothing above what today would generally be considered a size eight is an often unfruitful pursuit. Which leads one to wonder: Why is plus-size vintage shopping so hard?

A common answer to this question might be that everyone in the 20th century was smaller than people today. Indeed, adult obesity rates in the US grew from midcentury into the 1990s and up until the early 2010s, before plateauing. (There are racial and socioeconomic disparities that disproportionately affect people of color and low-income people, of course.) Statistically speaking, the proportion of overweight and obese people is greater today, but those people still existed in the 20th century.

To better understand the lack of easily accessible plus-size vintage clothing, it’s important to examine systemic causes, not population data. There was a brief period of time in the early 20th century when retailers prioritized the manufacturing and marketing of “stoutwear” (the term used from roughly 1915 to 1930 to describe sizes beyond the straight range). In the period of time just before World War II up until the 1980s, retailers ignored stoutwear and plus-size women in favor of a more slender physique.

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The Virtual Instagram Mascot for the Ikea of Brazil Has My Heart
Lu, the avatar

“About receiving disrespectful pickup lines. Guys, I’m annoyed… ” Lu wrote in Portuguese on her Instagram account on Thursday morning, paired with a face-palm emoji. “And hey I’m virtual! I keep imagining the real women who go through it every day!”

These are the first several things you need to know about Lu: She is beautiful, she doesn’t take any shit, and also she is not a person.

She’s the brand mascot for Brazil’s Magazine Luiza, which is effectively Ikea meets The Sims — an enormous home furnishing, home goods, and consumer tech retailer that reported $37.6 million in profit last quarter. It has about 900 IRL storefronts that house samples of hundreds of thousands of items that can be ordered online. In 100 of them, there are no products at all, just the ability to peruse virtual items on a tablet and then order what you need to make your dream home real. Magazine Luiza also has a rapidly growing e-commerce business and a large network of consumers who set up their own digital “stores” to make commissions off their friends and family.

All this is less interesting to me (for the moment) than Lu, a hyperrealistic animated woman who will sell you anything from a baby monitor to a giant chocolate egg to a banana-yellow minifridge that can brew its own beer, but will also give herself the space to be wildly unprofessional.

Lu, watching the World Cup this summer in a head-to-toe display of patriotism, flashed a blue-and-yellow manicure and told her 630,000 followers that she was “mega nervous and anxious” about the game. To resist biting her nails, she was wearing linen gloves she received from Época Cosmetics. Then when Brazil lost, she cried and didn’t advertise anything.

In 2018, the fashion world loves an Instagram influencer avatar. Lil Miquela, the 19-year-old Brazilian-American model designed by the LA robotics and AI startup Brud, has 1.4 million followers and got a print feature in New York magazine this spring. In July, Elle asked whether avatars like Miquela and Shudu — an artificial model designed by British photographer Cameron-James Wilson and popularized when she sampled Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line — were “the perfect influencers.”

The answer? No. Only Lu is perfect.

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