On the plus size
After top high street retailers recently became embroiled in a 'fat tax' row, Deirdre Reynolds looks at the challenges of shopping for curvier customers
Fashionistas: would you be willing to pay more than a slimmer friend for the exact same dress this summer?
Fat chance, says television presenter Elaine Crowley.
High street giant New Look got a dressing down last month over reportedly applying a "fat tax" to its plus-size range, after one shopper in the UK spotted a slogan t-shirt retailing for £12.99, while the standard version cost just £9.99.
As she puts the finishing touches to her debut plus-size fashion collection, chat show host Elaine blasted the £3 price discrepancy, insisting she won't penalise women for failing to squeeze into the 'perfect' size 10.
"I think it's quite disgusting for them to do that," says Elaine, whose line of evening gowns for Irish retailer So Amazing, available in sizes 12-20, launches later this year.
"I can understand if it is an evening dress or a wedding dress, and you're getting something made bespoke - some fabric can be very, very expensive. But if you're going into a high street shop, where the margins [are bigger], I just think it's discrimination. I don't think there'd be £3 of a difference in the fabric - maybe three cent."
With the average Irish woman now wearing a size 16, according to Debenhams, who in 2013 rolled out larger mannequins to match, New Look isn't the only brand pursuing the so-called 'plus-sized pound'. Earlier this year, Marks & Spencer launched a new plus-size collection, M&S Curve, available in sizes 18-32 and featuring more than 100 products, from coats to cotton basics.
Meanwhile River Island, H&M and Zara, as well as online retailers Boohoo.com and Asos, all formerly better known for catering to slimmer shoppers, have also increased their sizing.
From sexy Bardot tops to form-fitting jumpsuits, Nicola Furlong from Wexford says she loves being able to wear the same on-trend styles as her size 10 pals - but refuses to pay more for it.
"I love wearing all the latest styles," says the curvy model, who blogs at 'Be Your Own Kind of Beautiful', "but I don't see why I should pay more for something just because it's bigger.
"Normally, I'm a good [size] 16-18 on the bottom and 18-20 on the top.
"Shopping for plus-size on the high street is definitely a lot easier than it used to be.
"There's a much better range out there - even Penneys goes up to size 20 now, so you can go in and get a bargain. I also find Boohoo.com good most of the time for their sizes, and their prices are good as well.
"New Look do actually have some amazing clothes, and I would sometimes buy there, but I just think it's ridiculous hiking the price [for bigger sizes]," adds the mum-of-four. "They're not going to do it in the men's section, are they?
"At the end of the day, every girl wants to look good and feel good in what they're wearing - they shouldn't be penalised because one girl has a little bit more weight on her than the other."
With many high street stores only going up to an 18, however, and some - such as Topshop - stopping at 16, for 'inbetweenies' who are too small for 'plus-size' boutiques, but too big for 'standard' or 'straight' ones, finding fashionable and affordable outfits can still be a challenge.
"Our best-selling sizes would be from size 14 to 22," says Nessa Cronin of Vanity Fair boutique in Newbridge, Co Kildare, which stocks nearly 70 brands from size 8 up to 28.
"What I struggle with is that a lot of our brands will stop at a 16, so I've a size 18 girl who loves a Traffic People dress, and I can't get it for them in an 18. I do not understand why manufacturers haven't realised that they need to increase their size range.
"What I hear most [from curvy clients] is that they want the same clothes," she continues. "At the moment, little floral tea dresses are very popular for summer, whether she's an 8 or a 28.
"So much of the plus-size clothing is oversized 'cover me up' kind of stuff, and what I've learned is that a size 10 or 12 girl has just the same hang-ups about her arms or stomach, or whatever she feels her problem area is, as a size 20 or 22 girl. In fact, I think my curvy customers are probably more confident than my size 8 and 10 girls."
As a plus-size model, Nicole Quinn from Kildare has long since learned to embrace her curves, but claims that not everyone has got the memo.
"As someone who is a size 16-18, I find it almost impossible to shop in a lot of high street stores," says the founding member of Celtic Curves, a collective of models and bloggers aimed at promoting positive body images among Irish women.
"A lot of the time, they stop at a 16, so if it's something I need a bigger size in, I can't get it, and if they do go to an 18, most of the time it's in selected lines, [with] very few size 18s on the rails. I think it's very frustrating to shop here, and wish shops that say they go [up to] a specific size would make sure it's included in every line they carry, and order enough sizes in. Shopping for a wedding once, I couldn't find anything in my size and had to travel to another county to get a dress that actually fit. As the average size is a 16, it should be much more accessible to find these sizes in shops."
"I hate shopping on the high street," agrees Elaine Crowley. "I could be a 12 in one shop, a 14 in another shop, and a 20 in another shop - so the sizing is ridiculous, number one, and, number two, the choice isn't really out there.
"You get specifically for plus-size, you get your standard boutique, but for the whole mid-range - forget about it. I think a lot of clothes are made for your standard size 8-10 model, [but] what looks good on a standard 10, will not look good on a standard 16."
Knwon for her Jessica Rabbit-esque curves, now the TV star-turned-designer is hoping her new range will make dressing for formal events a lot easier, at least.
"It just happened organically because I'd been doing red carpet stuff for the last 15 years," she explains. "I could never find a dress, and unfortunately designers don't tend to want to dress someone who's a size 14-16, so if you have the VIP Style Awards or if you have the IFTAs, they're not exactly beating down your door.
"When I hosted Miss Ireland in 2015, So Amazing sponsored the dresses, and they actually had a lovely range of dresses, and could order in my size, so for the past few years, if I have an event, I go over to them, we look at their templates and they'll tailor something to me. We've been messing around with dresses to fit somebody who has my kind of figure - boobs and ass and a smaller waist - all the time. Then a few months ago we decided to make a range of them because people were asking for them.
"Hopefully, the collection will be ready for autumn/winter this year. I'm just waiting for the first sample to come back - and can't wait to try it on!"