May 24, 2024

Clothes simply aren’t designed to fit our bodies

The first dressing room I remember was at Hudson’s, a Detroit-based department store where middle-class people in the town where I grew up went to get things that were “nice. ”

It was the place where my mother bought me overalls and hair bows, where she bought herself high-heeled shoes displayed like pastries on wooden pedestals, and where we picked out cloth napkins for relatives who were getting married.

On those shopping trips, my mother would gather a pile of clothes, hunting and pecking her way through the various women’s departments. We both loved this part. For me, the initial search on a shopping trip is when optimism is at its peak, the time when all the garments on offer might actually fit, when they still might actually look good. It is during the second act of the shopping experience when it all goes awry.

Despite its being a “nice” store, the dressing rooms at Hudson’s were, in my mother’s parlance, “jenky. ” The worn carpet was dirty; the dividers that created the stalls, flimsy; the ceilings, oppressively low. The lighting wasn’t just unflattering but outright cruel. As a little girl, I sat without thought on the floor, exhausted in the same way I feel now after a trip to an art museum—overwhelmed by sense, but also overwhelmed, I realise now, by the store’s manifestation of femininity: the puffs of perfume, the textures of raw silk and combed cotton, the fantasies that all that adult femaleness unleashed inside me.

Sometimes I curled up on the stained brown carpet and just fell asleep.

Meanwhile, my mother, always so neat and thoughtful, hung up her garments before changing out of her own clothes. She had once worked in a Hudson’s, and so was aware of all the perpetual folding and steaming that the saleswomen had to do. She unfurled each pair of new pants, stepped inside them, and examined herself in the mirrors.

This was the part that was hard.

“Trying on clothes often feels like trying to jam your body into a template of someone else’s. ”

My mom rarely liked clothes once she wore them. The promise she’d seen in each garment on its hanger was dashed once she had buttoned and zipped it onto her body. The hem was revealed to be too long, the waist too wide; the material hugged her too tight. But her language, my language, our language, for what was wrong was never about the clothes, but instead was about ourselves.  I’m too short, she’d say, or My arms are too flabby. And always, always: My butt is too big.  In other words, The clothes are not flawed. I am.

It was something I soon came to understand and practice myself. Trying on clothes often feels like trying to jam your body into a template of someone else’s – and most of the time, that is exactly what’s happening. Bodies are bespoke, and most clothes made since the 1920s are mass-produced industrial products: when the pants don’t fit, it’s because the proportions of a body don’t match up to the proportions that the clothing companies imagined for it.

In addition to all the other tacit work the fashion industry does to define what different body types mean, clothing offers a frank materialization of rightness. Pants are a physical object you can hold in your hands, reminding you that there are parts of your body that literally do not fit.

For everything that reveals itself to be too big, or too small, there is the clear indication that somewhere there is a thing that is just right, a body that is in the middle, a body that is correct.

This middle thing is somehow both an ideal and an average, made perfect by not being too much of anything. But what is this middle thing, this normal thing? My mother always said her butt was too big. I often say the same thing. But “too big” compared to what?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *