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Toxic shopping

Owning my own clothing shop was a real eye-opener.

Pre-shop (and pre-Fatosphere) I hated clothes shopping. Loved clothes, just hated having to find them. You know, going into every shop in the mall and not finding ONE single nicely fitting garment, berating myself for not fitting into the clothes, believing the fault was somehow in my body rather than some randomly-sized piece of fabric. Finishing the day purchase-less, depressed and full of self-hatred.

Oh, I used to come out with some pearlers. ‘It will all be fine when I’ve lost the weight!’, I’d moan, trying unsuccessfully to zip up something that said it was a size ‘curvaceous’ but actually looked like a cylinder stretched over a large pear. ‘If only my stomach wasn’t so fat!’ ‘I’m so vile!’ ‘I’m so gross!’ Blah blah blah – none of it was true and it didn’t achieve anything except to leave me miserable.

Then I discovered body acceptance, located a few good plus-size designers who made clothing that I liked and fitted me well, and concluded that actually I LOVED clothes shopping. I loved trying on clothing that was made for a body like mine. I had no problems when things didn’t fit because clearly it wasn’t anything wrong with my fantastic bod, but just the cut, style, size or fabric of an inanimate object made by somebody far away who had never met me. Oh, but when I found something I loved that did fit? It was heaven. It was magic happy-land, full of fantastic wardrobe selections, being appropriately dressed for any occasion and people saying agreeable things like ‘I love your outfit! I really like your style.’

Somehow from there I fell into clothes shop ownership.

And had a revelation.

Back in those sad shop-hating days, I was not the only person in the world who had loathed finding clothes! I wasn’t the only human in Australia who would make unkind, hate-filled comments about my own body! In public!

Working in the shop some days is like watching a bizarre reality show called ‘When Social Convention Attacks’. It’s a stream of fabulous people from all walks of life, all shapes, all sizes, all abilities, all backgrounds … all coming into the shop looking AWESOME and then just uttering hate all over their amazing selves.

From my body-acceptance viewpoint I find it really hard to hear, even though I once came from the same dark place. The thing I find most amazing is that there is no real similarity in the people who utter such things, except that they are all human people. Fat, thin, short, tall, all the gender permutations, all the cultural backgrounds, all the abilities. All doing the socially-acceptable thing of hating on themselves. Yes, even the women who happen to perfectly fit the social beauty ideal, still come into the shop and say dreadful things about their poor bodies.

Initially I was prepared to be offended. I now admit that no amount of self-acceptance will ever entirely reconcile me to a thin person asking me ‘Do I look fat in this?’ I tell the truth: no. (One day a very thin woman looked my fat body up and down, her gaze lingering on my hips. ‘Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?’ she sneered. That was a tough moment for keeping my professional calm but I managed. I told her the truth again: ’That dress does fit you well.’)

It’s hard to know what to say when somebody asks me if they look fat in the dress and they do, because they are, and they also happen to look great. I am happy to describe myself as fat, but I know many people don’t take it so well. I usually prefer to focus on the fit of a garment, as above. I tell the customer ‘the dress fits you well’ or ‘I think I can find something to fit your shoulders more comfortably’. Oh, I long for the day I can say ‘Yes it makes you look fat: you look GORGEOUS in it!’ and the customer won’t be offended.

I have worked out that there is no point in me showing offence just because somebody has made one of those two-edged insults (my dear, if you think YOU’RE too fat to be allowed out, what do you think of ME?) Sometimes the comments are clearly aimed to offend, in which case it’s their problem, not mine; and just as sensible for me to ignore the jibe and get on with the job. More often, it’s not meant to offend at all. It’s just one of those things that we have been taught to do to ourselves, to punish ourselves to not living up to the impossible ideals of a Photoshop society. Any anger I feel needs to be directed against society as a whole and not individual people.

Most often it’s just dispiriting. When customers blame themselves if a frock doesn’t fit I remind them about the Shop Rule: ‘It Isn’t You; It’s The Clothes’. If a dress doesn’t fit, either the size or the cut is wrong. We simply turn our efforts to finding something that does fit. Why should a wonderful, complex, living body be blamed if a piece of sewn-together, randomly sized fabric doesn’t fit it?

Most people joyfully embrace the Shop Rule and get into the vibe. Some people simply don’t get it.

We understand that everybody is at a different stage in their journey of self-acceptance. It is up to us as the shopkeepers to encourage an accepting and positive environment, and that means finding nice ways to remind people to join in. We tell people about the Shop Rule; we stock different sizes as much as we are able; we use body-positive language; we ask friends and customers to model clothing for us so that the garments can be viewed on lots of different bodies.

We do get people who want to buy a garment that is too small for them because they are ‘losing weight, and it will be inspiration’. While that makes us really uncomfortable, we can’t make customers’ decisions for them, but we usually recommend that people buy in their current size so they can enjoy the garments right now. Our dresses are like puppies – they want to be loved now, not put aside to feel lonely!

We don’t buy into customers’ negative comments about themselves. If somebody says ‘I can’t wear that style until I’ve lost weight’ we tell them up-front to go ahead and try it on, since they’ll look just as lovely at any size. If somebody loves a dress and it makes them happy but they are scared to wear something sleeveless, we will always point out that there are no laws against bare arms in Australia, and tell the customer the truth when they just look really comfortable and good in a garment. And we always come down to Shop Rule no. 2 – You Must Feel Comfortable – by which we mean if you want to wear the garment then you jolly well should!

Having said all this, there is one thing I just can’t bear to hear: negative comments about other people. It’s bad enough hearing perfectly good people trash themselves, but it’s frightening when that negativity is directed outwards.

Some people are just toxic. Two women once looked at our shop sign which mentions sizes 6 to 34, and said very loudly ‘We didn’t even know there was such a THING as size 34!’ (I was scandalized but my business partner calmly replied ‘Of course there is,’ and left it at that, which actually did the trick.) One fantastic customer who we adore, often comes in with her mother, who tells her that she looks ugly in everything, and criticises individual parts of her body non-stop. It’s horrible to hear. And every now and then somebody will come in with a toxic friend or partner who will attempt to vet everything they choose, and try to stop them selecting clothes they love: in the words of one toxic husband ‘You can’t have that, it makes you look porky’ (Grrr, that comment nearly did make me lose my cool). Sometimes a group of friends are dominated by one cruel person who will hog all the time and energy of others while making oh-so-funny comments that undermine their friends’ confidence.

You know, it is amazing how often people creep back later, without their toxic friends, to try things on again in peace and tranquility. Toxic friends don’t win anything in the end …

Trying to keep our little business positive can feel like a losing battle when gorgeous customer after gorgeous customer plays the ‘I’m so …’ game. A game that we are taught to play from a very early age, and which some unscrupulous people use as a weapon to hurt others. It is so prevalent, even people who desperately want to be body-confident sometimes find themselves doing it subconsciously.

Interestingly though, knowing how prevalent it is can actually be helpful. Understanding that nearly everybody does it – seeing it played out again and again and again and again – this helps it to become more visible, more recognisable. Seeing that all kinds of people succumb to self-hatred, that there is no connection whatsoever to what they say about themselves and very evident reality: this has turned out to be valuable in my own struggles not to give in to it.

Next time you’re in the dressing room struggling with a zipper on some garment that just wasn’t cut out for you, try to remember that you’re not alone. All over Australia, people of every conceivable shape and size are doing the same thing, and blaming themselves, and feeling awful about it. Remember that, then take some soothing deep breaths, get dressed again, leave the dressing room, go find your shop assistant and explain that the garment didn’t fit. Ask for something that fits your perfectly good body. And repeat after me: ‘It Isn’t Me: It’s The Clothes’.

And don’t bring a toxic friend shopping!


Dressing Rooms and body image

So, last blog I discussed a bit about the challenges and benefits of running a clothing shop that stocks a bigger size range – not ‘plus size’ or ‘non-plus size’ but PEOPLE size.

As well as having a shop where the majority of customers could reasonably expect to find their size, we dream of a shop where the entire experience is positive and inclusive.

We can already tell that this is something that it’s going to take time and effort to achieve. To begin with, as a tiny startup business our not-too-pricey premises are just too small to achieve what we’d like in terms of a physical experience. There isn’t as much room as we’d like for customers with wheelchairs or prams, and we only have one dressing room.

But the dressing room is where we decided to start in creating a nicer, more body-positive environment. So that is the topic of this blog post.

We were lucky that the premises we could afford to rent included a separate space that was originally used as an office. It’s spacious and private – the perfect start for a dressing room.

We are not fans of dressing rooms that are too small, rickety or exposed. It can be so confronting, society being what it is, to try on clothing in a public environment, that anything that increases a sense of personal security helps.

We have set the room up as a vintage ladies’ boudoir, with an antique dressing table and boudoir chair, cosy rug, 2 mirrors, pretty prints on the walls and plenty of room to hang up clothing. We’re currently on the lookout for the perfect dressing room robe, so that customers can fling on something modest, generously sized and attractive if they want to pop out into the shop without having to get fully dressed again. There is plenty of room there for several people to share the space, so friends and partners can pile in together and have giggly fun trying things on.

We’ve also set up a separate space outside the change room, for somebody to wait while the room is occupied. Again we aimed to make it as comfy as possible with an antique chair and lamp, a coffee table and heaps of books and magazines to leaf through. If somebody ends up spending serious time there we will offer them a cuppa while they wait.

We love our dressing room setup, and wish we had room for more. But in our eventual plans, that will come. In the meantime it means a lot to us when a customer goes in for the first time and makes the happy noise!

Customers have reported to us that a pleasant, comfortable environment for trying clothes on helps with self confidence and positive body image.

This might seem crazy, but I hadn’t made the connection between a comfortable environment and positive body image before! I certainly have had awful experiences trying on clothes in tiny curtained-off spaces where privacy is not exactly guaranteed. Worse still when there is no mirror, so you have to come out into the public space to see whether the dress clings nastily to the tummy or doesn’t quite zip up the back. I certainly had noticed that an uncomfortable dressing room can bring body issues to the fore.

What I hadn’t realized before is to what extent an environment encouraging a relaxed, leisurely approach to trying on clothes, and which showcases the customer’s body in an attractive setting, has the opposite effect.

I suppose it makes sense. It is true that we decorated the dressing room nicely to encourage customers to relax and be kind to themselves. The pretty environment showcases a body positively and – hopefully – reminds customers that they deserve a bit of luxury and a bit of something special.

We’ve found, interestingly, that only having the one room isn’t that much of a problem. In fact, quite the contrary. The shop is so small that customers tend to interact with each other. It is common for a customer to dance delightedly out of the dressing room to show off a nicely fitting dress to the entire shop, and it’s also common for customers to share the dressing room, offering it to another customer while they look for more to try on. We’ve had some very pleasant experiences seeing customers make friends with complete strangers in the shop! Something about that cosy little room makes people slow down and calm down and start to experience the shopping expedition as a treat rather than a chore.

It is also common for friends to share the dressing room together. Only the other week I was lucky enough to be in the shop when three young women came in, clearly good friends out on a girly shopping trip. All being completely different sizes and shapes, I was thrilled that they could all enjoy the shop together, since there is no way they would usually all be able to find something to try in the same shop.

They all piled into the dressing room together and had a ball, laughing, popping out to select garments for each other to try on, and generally having a whale of a time. It was brilliant fun, for me as much as for them. It was one of those moments that all the effort and cost and hard work of opening the shop was completely worthwhile: the type of reward that is worth more than money.

The dressing room experience has convinced me that I should look at my own home environment and how it impacts on my body consciousness. It may only help a little to have nice surroundings, but if it is possible to make that happen, every little bit helps.

I would love to know more about your own thoughts and experiences: what makes you feel more positive about your lovely body? What do you wish more shops would do?

Happy fashion!


A shop for all sizes

Hello, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Blossom and I have been very kindly offered the opportunity to contribute to the Axis of Fat. I have been a fan and reader since the Axis’ inception, inspired by the wonderful writers and their sound good sense. I hope I can also contribute in some small way towards a more tolerant and understanding culture.

A bit about me: I am a fat middle-aged cisgendered white woman living in Canberra. I have a wonderful husband and several feathered and furry children. During the week I’m a mild-mannered fat public servant, and on weekends I am part owner of a newish ladies’ clothing and accessories boutique specialising in retro and vintage-style looks.

I’d love to share with you my experiences as a newbie to the fashion industry. This forum is social, not commercial, so apologies but I will not be revealing the name of my shop or be linking to it. This is a blog not an advert. For the same reason I’m happy to chat about the industry and my experiences in general, but I’ll be trying not to mention too many business names, although I might drop occasional brand names if the situation is appropriate.

I’m a latecomer to the fashion industry. It was never in my plans to own a frock shop: This was something that just sort of happened. I know plenty about historic clothing and the culture and sociology of clothes and fashion. I have always loved certain kinds of clothing and adore dressing up. I even – gods help me – used to read and enjoy fashion magazines. But I’ve never been a fashion plate – I’m an eccentric dresser, not a trendy dresser – and I didn’t know much about buying and selling garments.

Then our shop came along. (My business partner, fortunately, knows a lot more about fashion than I ever did.) When we opened the shop we made a deliberate, calculated decision to stock the largest range of sizes we could. We now sell as many sizes as we can get, currently from Australian size 6 to 36.

Why did we do this? It was because of our own sad experiences as consumers. I’m certain you know what I mean.

Those dreadful shopping trips with friends where you are the only in the shop who cannot wear a single stocked garment, so you stand around looking at earrings and helping friends in change rooms and trying to disappear. Those fruitless searches in shops that say they stock your size but can’t ever be bothered ordering anything that big or small, because after all nobody like you can possibly exist, right? Those trips into department stores where the two racks of frumpy, poorly-made clothing that you have even the slightest chance of fitting into are hidden in the darkest, loneliest part of the store so that nobody else has to look at your corpulence. The times you’ve paid premium prices for something ugly and unsuitable and ill-fitting because it actually goes over your stomach and you have to wear something. The times you’ve ordered a garment on the internet and when it arrives the alleged size 20 fits more like a size 14 and you want to cry.

So why didn’t we then stick to plus sizes only? Why the full range?

It’s as simple as this: we believe that everybody has the right to beautiful clothes. We believe that nobody needs to be made to feel bad about themselves when they shop, no matter what size and shape they are. We believe that a clothes shop should be a clothes shop for people – not just people who look a certain way.

So we set up our little piece of paradise and started to stock it. Herein lieth my first blog post: I’d like to share with you some of our experiences at stocking a shop for all sizes, and question why more shops don’t attempt to do the same.

We started with our few solid, reliable flagship brands, ensuring that we sourced the right type of retro-look garments only from companies with a good range of sizes. A good range means at least Australian sizes 8 to 20. We were lucky enough to find several, and some went up to 22 – 24, and down as small as 6, so that was a good start.

Good, but not good enough! We needed to make up a much better range in the larger sizes, so we went looking for plus-size suppliers who could go to at least Australian size 36. This was a little harder and we’re still looking for more stockists with clothing to suit our funky young customers, and with a better range of prices, all in that retro sort of style. Suggestions welcome!

We were ecstatic when we were offered the opportunity to stock a lovely Australian brand that supplies EVERY size in beautiful, well-made alternative clothing. You can bet we jumped at that chance – but this is only one label, and they specialise in a particular look. Furthermore, being all Australian-made they are very high quality but not cheap. And we’re not all made of money!

From time to time we get approached by new local designers. We love to stock Australian-made and love the idea of helping out new businesses, so we take them seriously. It is disappointing, however, that most of them stock very small size ranges – 8 to 14 is the usual. The reasons for this are twofold – firstly, that it is extremely expensive for a new designer to produce a startup label. It may simply be impossible to afford more than a couple of lines of three or four sizes to start with. Secondly, these are the sizes that are most acceptable by the majority of retailers. But honestly. Four sizes? When we try to stock sixteen? Some new designers have been good enough to agree to expanding their size ranges so we can stock them – and that is actually very brave and generous for a new designer who doesn’t yet know how well their designs will sell. There is a financial risk there for both designer and retailer.

Herein lieth our next issue. Sixteen sizes represents a lot of financial outlay. Simply, it costs a lot more to get in a lot more sizes. Perhaps this is one reason why more startup businesses don’t stock many sizes.

But you know what? We have laid out that finance and believe it is absolutely worth it. We sell widely across the sizes, with the majority of sales actually being in the 16 to 24 size range. So although it is costly to stock more sizes, it does translate into sales.

Of course a bigger size range also means that, with our teeny shop, we can’t keep a lot of lines in stock for each size. We simply run out of room! It can be a bit hard when we crow about carrying all these sizes and in reality we only have room for each size to have three or four different lines on the racks.

The way we get around this, of course, is to offer to order particular garments in for customers to try on – in other words, buying a lot of our stock to order. With two of our brands, this is a pleasure and so easy – we can get onto them and say ‘We’d like one of these, two of these, one of these’ etc. and two weeks later they turn up for the happy customers to try on.

Sadly, more often, we are at the mercy of the stockists, who are at the mercy of the designers, who are at the mercy of the fashion industry that demands a new line each season. So sometimes we order something for an eager customer, only to discover that it is no longer in stock, and will never be made again. Or else we order something from a catalogue and it hasn’t even been made up yet, and we have to wait three months before it is even manufactured. Or it simply takes three months to arrive, for no apparent reason … or, we simply don’t have the readies available to purchase to order and have to wait until we have more fluid finance before we can put the order in.

This means that we generally have quite a lot of garments on order sitting around in the back room waiting to be tried on by our poor, patient customers, who have to try and find the time to come out and see us. Unsold stock sitting around is a genuine financial burden for any small business. However we have learned that we need to be as flexible as possible to meet our customers’ needs while being sensible about – you know – staying in business. We need to offer lay-by, returns and exchange policies, and generally try to be understanding about what our lovely customers need in order to get what they want and have a nice time doing it. And sometimes we have to accept that an order will never be claimed, and put it back onto the racks and sometimes sell it at a big discount.

So to sum up: the challenges of running a shop that stocks a wider size range. 1) It is, sadly, fairly hard to find a full range of sizes that suit a range of ages and budgets and still fall within a particular style e.g. retro, vintage. 2) It costs more to stock more sizes. 3) It is harder to squeeze a full range of sizes into a small space. 4) The fashion industry is not really structured to allow easy purchase-to-order, and there are financial risks involved in trying to do so.

With all these challenges, is it really worth it trying? Absolutely. There are so many rewards. The first and best is definitely the customers. More sizes translates to a bigger marketplace, which is good for business. But there are other benefits. Funnily enough, selling to more people gives us niche appeal! We get a lot of gorgeous customers via word of mouth. If you like people, as we do, it is an absolute pleasure to have people coming in the door who represent all kinds of ages and backgrounds. To put it bluntly we probably have more fun meeting more people.

Like any clothing business we have our hits and misses, but when we hit we get a lot of return business and customer fidelity. Being a fatty I know exactly how nice it is when you can walk into a shop and find something that not only fits, but is funky and fun to wear and suits me. This is the kind of experience we really want customers to have, and when we are able to deliver, those people come back and bring their mates. That’s good news for us too, since we keep our faithful friends in mind when we order stock and often choose stock based on the preferences of the customers we know well. It’s a win-win.

To be honest we get real thrills out of fitting people with things they love. Yes it’s a business and we need to keep it running: we need to make a profit so we can do things like pay the rent and the other bills – but there is a definite personal benefit in participating in a happy sales experience. I can’t honestly begin to tell you how good it is for my own confidence and body image to see a customer waltz out of the dressing room looking knockout in a frock that loves their body.

Why does that make me happier about my own body? Because I can honestly tell you – hand on heart – that any customer can have that holy-cow-what-a-beautiful-human experience no matter what size or shape they are. Beauty comes in every size and every shape and every ability and every colour and every age and every gender nuance and every personal preference …you get the message. Seeing so many different types of people selecting their individual look and rocking it is very personally inspiring.

So my introduction to the world of fashion has led me to understand a little more about why so few shops stock more sizes, but also convinced me that it is possible and it is worthwhile on both a business and personal level.

Of course it isn’t all daisies and sunshine! In my next blog I’ll address some of the difficulties of creating a positive environment …

In the meantime – happy fashion!

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