The Right Fit:
Plus-Size Apparel Needs Assessment

2016-2017

Body Map Sample 2.JPG
A Participant's Body Map
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Background

This project sought to identify plus-size apparel needs for Canadian women who wear sizes 20+ and specify design considerations for this cohort to inform designers and retailers about how to meet needs of the larger plus-size market.

 

Plus-size women in North America are underserved by the apparel industry. Even when these consumers find something that fits, the design rarely aligns with their self-image. Women in the higher range of plus-sizes face additional barriers in finding clothes because retailers often do not offer plus-size fashions over size 20, at least in brick-and-mortar shops, and often not at all. Our research team was composed of two apparel designers, a service designer, a social worker, and a social justice scholar; we came together for this project because we believe that all people, no matter what size, shape or need, deserve to have access to clothing that fits properly and feels good to wear.

My Role

In this project I led the development of the research funding proposal, collaborating with a multi-disciplinary team to map out innovative, immersive research methods. I contributed to participant recruitment, selection, workshop planning, materials collection, and workshop facilitation. I led the body scanning activity and co-facilitated the co-design activity. I also contributed to thematic data analysis and co-authored multiple papers and presentations on our results.

Challenges

Plus-size women desire clothes that fit their bodies and reflect their personal style, but clothing options in this size range are limited. Previous research has identified dissatisfaction in plus-size clothing options but has not examined the specific user needs of the larger plus-size cohort. Clothing over size 20 is often not available in brick-and-mortar shops, but online purchasing introduces other challenges like added (and often prohibitive) shipping costs, and fit and quality issues that come from not being able to try on clothes or assess fabric durability before purchase. Research in this field has not previously taken an immersive, user-centred approach to evaluate what this cohort wants and needs when it comes to their clothing.

Limitations

Our project had a small budget ($7000), which limited the time and resources we could spend on this qualitative research.

Methods

Our study employed a novel co-generative mapping approach that combined body mapping, body scanning, and co-design to tap into participants' embodied experiences and identify their functional, expressive, and aesthetic apparel needs.

Secondary Research

Existing literature was consulted to identify existing research findings, themes, and gaps in user needs. 

Demographic Survey

Demographic surveys aided in ensuring participant representation from diverse races, ages, and clothing sizes.

3D Body Scanning

Participants had a 3D body scan, creating an accurate digital measurement of their body for use in the co-design activity.

Body Mapping

Participants traced their body silhouette, then wrote, drew, and crafted reflections on their relationship with clothing.

Co-Design

Researchers worked with participants in visualizing design features or providing technical terms on their ideal garments.

Needs & Features Chart

Participants filled in a chart that identified their garment needs and provided ideas for achieving these features.

Tracing Body Map Pixellated.png
Participants cooperate to trace their body silhouette for the body mapping activity.
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Body Map Sample 1.png
A completed body map.
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Body Scanning 4.JPG
A participant gets ready for her 3D body scan
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The Right Fit - Figure 1.png
A selection of aspirational clothing featured detailed in the co-design activity
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Results

The body mapping activity at the beginning of the workshop fostered trust and a feeling of camaraderie among participants and facilitated deep reflexive thought about their thoughts and feelings about clothing and their bodies. The findings indicate many considerations for designers creating plus-size apparel: bra friendly necklines and armholes (these should be checked after grading along the extended size range), sleeve styles that accommodate a range of bicep circumference measurements, the integration of lingerie guards on sleeveless tops, the use of a false button closure to eliminate gaping along center front, pockets that are proportional to the garment size, and improved fabric quality as well as access to fashionable shades and prints. Modular styling was recommended to provide variable styling solutions for different bodies. Also, designs must consider the plus-size body shape in relation to designing the length of blouses/tops, position of the empire line, as well as trouser waistlines and pant legs. In addition, entire garment categories are systematically neglected for this cohort, including professional apparel, winter coats, and lingerie.

The Right Fit - Figure 4.png
Design Considerations for Plus-Size Apparel
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Impact

This study identified 12 plus-size specific design directives and mapped out a designer checklist to guide user-centred apparel development for plus-size bodies. The research is being finalized for publication to amplify the reach of these findings.

Publications

Tullio-Pow, S., Schaefer, K., Barry, B., Story, C., & Abel, S. (2021). Empowering Women Wearing Plus-Size Clothing Through Co-Design. Clothing Cultures 7(1).

 

Schaefer, K., Tullio-Pow, S., Abel, S., Story, C., & Barry, B. (2017). The right fit: A clothing needs assessment of women with plus-size bodies (20+). In ITAA 2017 Proceedings: Anchored By Our Past, Navigating Our Future. St. Petersburg, FL. Winner: Alvanon Research Award

Schaefer, K., Abel, S., Story, C., Tullio-Pow, S., & Barry, B. (2016). Unlocking embodied knowledge for better design: An introduction to co-generative mapping. In ITAA 2016 Proceedings: Blending Cultures. Vancouver, BC.

Story, C., Abel, S., Barry, B., Schaefer, K., & Tullio-Pow, S. (2017). Disarticulating 'fatness': Design activism and the counter-hegemonic practices of co-designing clothing plus-size women. In Nordes 2017: Design+Power, 7 (no pp. avail.). ISSN 1604-9705.

Reflection

In the recruitment phase of this study, we received over 70 responses in just over 48 hours. Compared to the research team’s individual previous experiences, we recognized how remarkable this was – recruiting people for a research study can typically be a very slow and tedious process. This enthusiasm for our study underscored the neglect that these women have faced by the fashion and design industries. We were extra mindful of this during our workshop because we wanted our participants to know we took their experiences, thoughts, and feelings seriously, and how much we valued their time and contributions to the research. The responses from participants during the activities also forced us to re-evaluate common fashion narratives about strategic dressing for specific body shapes, reminding us that our socially formed assumptions need to stay out of the research. For example, common directives like wearing black to appear smaller, or avoiding bright patterns or horizontal stripes to avoid drawing attention to larger body parts were not prioritized by our participants – they wanted to break away from these ideas and explore new options, bright colours, fitted clothes. This reminded us to leave our assumptions at the door and let the participants define their wants and needs for themselves.

Co-Designing 4.JPG
A Participant Creates Her Ideal Garment Design
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