(Style)

Finding A Plus Size Wedding Dress Shouldn't Have To Be This Hard

It’s time for a change.

For brides-to-be, finding the picture-perfect gown should, in theory, be an exciting, life-changing occasion. For women seeking a plus-size wedding dress, however, that’s often not the case.

Despite progress made in recent years, the fashion industry at large remains slow to adequately serve the plus-size customer, especially in regards to the bridal market. While over 67% of American women are plus-size — with many planning to shop for a wedding dress at one point — the variety is still extremely limited. The process of in-store dress shopping often includes trying on samples, which may only go up to a certain size (and wedding dresses often run small anyways).

The issue is rooted far deeper than just hesitancy from designers, however. Like many issues facing the plus-size community today, the problem lies in the misconceptions of who these women truly are.

Age-old stereotypes exacerbate the issue. One being that plus-size women will never find love with another human — a narrative furthered in the media by the likes of Netflix’s Insatiable or Sierra Burgess is a Loser, in which fatness can never be seen as desirable. In these films and others, love is either attainable only after weight loss, or as a rare exception to the “normal” romance stories fed to society, in which a one-in-a-million man can look beyond a woman’s size to see her true beauty. Furthermore, there’s the assumption that those who are dress shopping are exclusively looking for conservative styles as if the community at large is a monolith with one singular aesthetic.

When fashion blogger Sarah Chiwaya tied the knot back in 2012, the size-inclusive wedding dress options were underwhelming. “Everything was online-only if you could find it, but even then, there were no guarantees,” she recalls. In-store bridal consultants proved to be no help, telling Chiwaya that she should be grateful for whatever she could find, regardless of whether or not it fit her aesthetic. As those very consultants ignored Chiwaya at one fitting, she fell off the platform and shattered her elbow due to the lack of assistance.

Needless to say, her bridal experience was anything but seamless.

“You need to treat plus customers with the same respect that everyone else is getting because this is already a very emotional and pressure-filled situation for women to be in,” she says.

That emotional pressure isn’t just limited to ironing out wedding details, there’s also the pressure to look picture-perfect by the time you say “I Do.” At the time, Chiwaya felt entrapped by the wedding industry’s toxic diet complex, pressured by stylists, friends, and messages from society at large to lose weight and slim down before the big day. Like many other women, this led her to the belief that she was unworthy of finding her fantasy gown because she didn’t fit the “traditional” bride's body type. But in the years since, things have changed: Plus-size women have more of a voice, more of a presence, and more of a determination to fight for the equal treatment they deserve.

What hasn’t changed much, however, is the bridal industry’s reluctance to adequately serve them.

Having designers and stylists who genuinely understand the plus-size bridal experience is crucial, and that includes creating space for brides to be part of the process. “If you want someone to come in here and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a gown, I should be able to try it on my body and see that visual,” says influencer Sabrina Servance, who is getting married in Florida this month. “I shouldn't have to envision it by putting a size 10 around my neck.”

Blogger Rosey Blair, who is currently in the midst of planning her own wedding, explains that plus-size brides must be more “flexible,” amending to the constraints of the stylist.

“I wish there were more opportunities for us to try on a gown before actually purchasing it,” she says, describing the difficulties of having to order a dress for an additional cost of shipping without seeing how it fits prior — spending extra without the personalized experience that often comes with shopping for wedding gowns. “You have to be okay with an exorbitant amount of money kind of just floating around in the air.”

Blair found that the in-store options available were the more traditional — and, quite frankly, lackluster — style gowns for plus-size brides. “I think that [designers] still feel that we would like to cover up our bodies,” she says. “There's a big misconception that we're just super safe when it comes to our fashion choices.”

That lack of style diversity complicated her dress-seeking process, forcing her to work harder and research smarter to eventually find her perfect gown (which yes, she had to order an off-the-rack style and customize it with a local tailor).

That’s not to say plus-size wedding dress options aren’t available. On the contrary, the number is growing season after season, from brands like BHLDN and popular shops like David’s Bridal. Online retailers like ASOS and Azazie have also joined the bandwagon. TORRID even launched their Ever After Bridal Collection in 2019, featuring styles in sizes 10-30 for under $400. Some other options to explore: Halseene, Studio Levana, Lane Bryant, Kiyonna, and Strut Bridal. Still, most of the options today still skew more mass-market versus luxury designer.

For Justin Alexander Warshaw, the CEO and Creative Director of Justin Alexander, successful growth has come in partnering directly with boutiques and shops to educate and encourage them to provide a range of sizes in-store for brides to try on. “Regardless of size, from 2 to 32, every woman wants a fit that's going to be designed for their body,” he says.

This upcoming season, Justin Alexander will be reconstructing their size charts to better reflect modern women and be more inclusive of today’s various body shapes. Warshaw’s hope is that this will help to simplify the fitting process, as is often a major complication when it comes to larger bodies who can all individually carry weight differently.

But, even with proactive change, Warshaw explains that only 95% of the brand’s offerings are available in extended sizes because of an under-discussed design issue: fabric length.

“Unfortunately, the fabrics that we're purchasing are not always available in widths that wouldn't require additional seams or changes to the design. We can customize and create a dress in that size 32, but it would require us to create extra seams, and that's sometimes difficult to communicate down to the boutique and stylist level.”

The issue points to a broader one: Designers can only push so far; the system must evolve and change.

Curinne Infantolino of New York’s plus-size bridal boutique Ivory & Main notes that catering specifically to plus-size clients helped brides-to-be open their eyes to the possibilities that they otherwise never would have imagined — thanks to the expertise and wide range of options available than elsewhere.

“That’s actually the best part,” Infantolino says. “They come in thinking they have to wear an A-line or ball gown, and then seeing themselves actually fit perfectly into a fit and flare gown is mood-changing.” Adding, “At our store, we have over 300 options. So when you have this wide selection available to you, why not take the opportunity to push your comfort zone and try them all on?”

Despite its clear challenges, bridal shopping can indeed be a pleasurable experience for brides of all sizes. Remember to research beforehand while keeping an open mind, as knowledge is truly power in the hands of a bride-to-be.

“Start out with a shape that you really love, and then keep in mind that you could get in contact with a tailor or dressmaker to make it really, really special,” Blair says. “It’s obviously going to take more work, but just know that you can start at a base level and then add on from there.”

And Blair’s most important tip: Rely on your core circle to fight for you to be the most beautiful bride you can be. “I personally didn't know what an emotional time I would have [trying] on dresses in person, she explains. “I think that a lot of stylists still use phrases like ‘problem areas’ or bring up that conversation of wanting to cover up. And because you're already so overwhelmed with emotion, you can't really step up and do that self-advocacy in the moment. Bring a bridesmaid or a friend or family member that is prepared to advocate on your behalf.”

Chiwaya adds, “Research as much as possible, and remember that you are there to find something that makes you feel beautiful. Don’t let anyone steer you in a direction you don’t like. The options do exist out there, and if you feel you’re not being respected, take your money elsewhere.”