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Out of size, out of mind

The yearly season of Christmas dos and New Year’s parties arrived as usual, regardless of the pandemic. The shops online and on high street began to offer festive garments back in October if not earlier. The selection of party wear from sequin tops and skirts to classic black dresses and suits seemed abundant. Whether one is a party person or not, most of us attend some events with a dress code this season.

For the ones who like to dress up and socialise, even a small get-together is a big enough reason to buy a new dressy outfit in these times when our lives have been restricted and limited for almost two years now. Today, when most of us have access to the Internet and clothes from thousands of brands are just a few clicks away, the only problem would seem to be deciding which outfit one likes best. Some of us, however, would consider ourselves lucky to be able to choose clothing on the basis of looks.

Meeting a diverse range of consumer needs

Fashion brands, especially in the United Kingdom, have come a long way in meeting the needs of consumers who do not fit into the narrow, discriminating sizing chart of 4-14. Nevertheless, buying clothes outside of that size range is not always made easy. Not all of us are eager to order garments online due to incorrect or missing size charts and product information. Personally, going through the hassle of scheduling delivery times, then trying on the clothes at home just to notice that none of them fit and then having to handle returns, is a waste of time and energy.

For someone like me, who still likes to shop in-store and try things on in fitting rooms, a lack of plus size offer in brick-and-mortar stores can mean there is no chance to buy new clothes whatsoever. When I moved to the UK from my home country Finland some years ago, I was thrilled of the idea of actually being able to go into the local town centre and find something to wear from the shops. They were not all trendy brands catering for young adults but compared to the poor selection I had got used to in Finland, shopping for clothes was easier than ever. And even if I couldn’t find what I was looking for in my home town, big shopping centres with large stores were just a quick train ride away.

The crumbling high street

When I returned to Finland in 2020, I was disappointed to learn that the variety of clothing offered to people outside of the so-called normal size scale and their accessibility had not improved like in the United Kingdom, but in fact declined. H&M, which was the first high street brand in Finland to have shed any light on the clothing selection for consumers outside narrow sizing just over ten years earlier, had decided to take down their plus-size clothing departments from their stores completely. You could still order them online, but they would no longer be available in any of their physical stores.

Lindex, a northern European high street label, which used to have an on-trend collection of clothes in sizes 16-24 on top of their main ranges, had removed the plus-size collection completely and only added sizes up to 18 to a small part of the main selection. Other brands with a slightly bigger variety of sizes such as KappAhl and Esprit, which used to have a number of stores in the Helsinki city centre, had mostly vanished into thin air.

Stockmann, a heritage department store chain from Finland, used to offer broad selections of clothing in a variety of sizes by their own in-house labels and from brands like Michael Kors and Tommy Hilfiger. In the end of November 2021, the main department store in the centre of Helsinki offers a women's wear selection of approx. 30 pieces altogether with sizing up to only 22 from three brands. And that selection includes jeans, coats, work wear and casual wear, meaning there is a choice of two or three per garment type. No festive clothes are available. And this is the best they (can or want to) offer.

Obviously, the closing down of the physical stores can be as a result of the pandemic and its impact on consumers' spending habits. When people were told to stay at home, it was a big hit for the fashion industry anyway, let alone to the physical stores in empty cities and shopping centres. But, the narrowing down of product offering and the size variety begun already before the pandemic.

What should I wear?

In 12 hours of writing this, I will be attending a work-related party with important guests invited. During the weeks before Christmas, I have visited all potential shops in Helsinki city centre and one shopping centre in Espoo. I have browsed through the selection of all the major online retailers operating in Finland and my go-to brands. Before, I used to order some things from British online retailers with better selections and was looking for that option now as well, but since and due to Brexit, most of them have stopped shipping outside of the United Kingdom.

The result: I have found nothing to wear for this occasion. So, tonight, when there’s an event to dress for, first of its kind since the beginning of the pandemic, I will be wearing an old, worn out floral dress and tights. I think it is rather shocking. And yes, this is a so-called first world problem, which doesn’t have an impact on my health or safety, but thinking of the millions of clothes designed and produced each year, is there really nothing the garment market can offer to people who are my size?

I was ready to invest in an outfit for tonight, but the fashion industry simply had nothing to offer for me and decided to not take the money I would have spent. In the midst of an alleged financial plight of the fashion industry I cannot help but to wonder, what are the heads of fashion companies thinking? More importantly, the message that fashion brands are sending to consumers like me with the design decisions they make is that we are not valid. We are not good enough to be served like people with 'normal' sized bodies. We do not reach the industry’s standards of valuable customers only because of the ways our bodies just happen to exist. In this way, we are simply shut out of the world of fashion.

Stay at home

This experience of finding nothing to buy is not new to me. It has been going on for the past 15 years and I’m afraid the end of discriminating fashion product offering isn’t anywhere to be seen. As my main problem with clothes is having a body that does not fit in the Western size mould and yet I find it extremely hard if not impossible to find anything to wear, how is it for people who have to use a prosthesis or other medical aids? Or who use a wheelchair or have a different posture to the one we see as the ‘normal’?

Two years ago I wrote my dissertation about women with rare illnesses and their clothing needs. Just interviewing a couple of dozen women from the UK, the US, Germany and Finland showed clearly how even the most basic of their clothing needs are not met, and for which they tend to avoid social situations let alone events with any kind of a dress code. They stay at home only because they cannot find garments that would be anywhere near the appropriate attire.

There clearly is a gap in the market. With today’s and especially tomorrow’s innovations in design and technology, and consumers being ready to spend their money in clothing that fits them, it cannot be overwhelmingly hard to start filling in that gap. Production-wise, fashion brands could easily tap in the market only by adding a few more sizes into their selections. Considering other body types and needs when designing collections should not be too demanding either. So is this about attitude?

When Adidas and Marimekko launched a collection together earlier this year, consumers were confused after finding out that Adidas was selling the collection in plus sizes, whilst Marimekko did not sell the bigger sizes at all. This, according to Marimekko, was their own commercial decision. How can any fashion brand wanting to stay prevalent to consumers, compete in the market let alone succeed, afford this kind of customer picking-and-choosing whilst openly discriminating others? This cannot be the way forward in the 21st century. For 2022, I wish to see more brands to take steps towards inclusive and non-discriminating fashion for everyone. It cannot be too much to ask.


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