Heather Senkler remembers when clothes-shopping could make her cry.
Senkler, 37, is a big woman, at five-foot-nine, 235 pounds and a size 18 to 22. She learned through painful experiences that stores, labels and the entire clothing industry in general offer1 little for women her size
“The selection in plus sizes is always so limited,” the Victoria resident said. “I have left clothing stores in tears, or close to tears, because I was getting so frustrated.
“You feel in some ways personally attacked,” she said. “What am I, not good enough? You don’t want me wearing your clothes? My money isn’t good enough?”
So she decided to take matters into her own hands and tackle the fashion industry — one stitch at a time.
Beginning next month, Senkler is teaching a course in sewing clothes for plus-sized women to create their own clothes.
She said a course like this is valuable because the lack of selection in plus sizes is not limited to retail stores. It extends to sewing patterns and tutorials as well.
Senkler has been sewing for most of her life. She is also active in theatre, working behind the scenes creating costumes. She has even done a little modelling.
She holds several university degrees, including one in physics, so she knows enough about numbers, measurements and clothing to alter existing dress patterns.
Interesting, stylish designs, measured out for smaller women, can be fixed to fit bigger women. It was a liberating discovery.
“You don’t make it big enough for me? Well, screw that,” she said. “I’ll make these clothes fit me, so don’t try to make me fit into the clothes.”
Senkler said it’s part of a bigger issue, the whole “politics of size.”
Why are runway models always so stick-thin when only a minority of women can even approach that? And why are designers so reluctant to work with the shapes of larger women? “When fashion magazines devote issues to plus sizes, why do they treat big women like some kind of special-interest group?”
She isn’t bitter or angry. She understands runway models are hired to be clothes-hangers, human devices to drape outfits upon. The point is designers and dress makers want people to notice the clothes, not the models.
Magazines may sound patronizing when they turn their attention to bigger women, but at least they are starting to look, she said. At last, they are trying.
Senkler still recalls her delight a few years ago when she saw a picture in a magazine of a plus-sized woman.
“There was a plus-sized woman, in a bikini, draped on a Jeep with a hot-looking guy,” she said. “That was so cool. I get to imagine myself at the beach with that hot guy and that’s OK.”
But retailers are something else. Why are retailers so willing to pass up a market of bigger women?
Bonnie Pollard, fashion stylist at Mayfair mall, sympathizes with Senkler’s travails with the fit of her clothes and the lack of selection in stores.
“There is this huge stereotype that says plus-size women only want classics,” Pollard said.
“The truth is they want to be fashionable and try the newest trends. But they want them in colours and patterns that suit their size ranges.”
Pollard gave good marks, however, to a few stores. Reitmans offers plus sizes in casual wear. And the Bay, in particular, has made a determined push to serve the plus-size market. It has installed a large, main-floor section for plus-size women’s clothes and has put a lot of pressure on its buyers to seek out interesting lines and items for plus-size women.
“I am now more comfortable in taking a client who is above a size 18 into the Bay,” she said. “I can find them age-range compatibility as well as size-range compatibility.
“That’s really exciting to see,” Pollard said. “It’s still nowhere near where I think it needs to be, but there is definitely much more variety.”
Linda Rafuse, owner of Satin Moon quilt shop and a size 22, is planning on taking Senkler’s course next month because she has simply grown tired of trying to buy clothes.
“Anything that is at all fashionable or even just a little different is always so expensive,” Rafuse said.
She is also hoping to pick up a few tips on how to alter existing, or off the rack clothing, to make it fit better.
That’s a whole different issue but also familiar to Senkler.
Altering existing clothes is more difficult than starting from scratch. But it is possible, and tailoring tricks exist that can accommodate people’s variations.
So if a plus-sized woman is embarking on a new commitment to health and fitness, the clothes can be adjusted to fit better as weight is shed.
But in general, the reality of being a little bigger is being a little more unique. Bigger women simply have more variation in the various places on their bodies.
So two women, both a size 18, will have different fits across different places such as the bust, the bottom, or the waist — variations two size-eight women won’t have.
“This is what 235 pounds looks like on me, but it looks different on every single person,” Senkler said.
She said what she really hopes to do with the class is to teach plus-sized women they don’t need to live in shapeless sacks. Neither do they need to try to hide, their bodies underneath layers that only make them look bigger.
“Let’s not dress for the bodies we wish for, let’s dress for the bodies we have” she said.
“This is exactly how big my waist is, how big my bust is and how big my butt is,” Senkler said. “This is it, take it or leave it”
The owner of The Makehouse, the Victoria store where people can sew their own creations, is delighted to offer classes for plus-sized women.
Jenny Ambrose said it’s hoped The Makehouse and the course will provide a social setting for plus-sized women to help each other as they pair off and pin the various creations on each other.
So far, since the store opened a little over a year ago, about 70 people have gone through The Makehouse courses.
The Makehouse, at 8331Ú2 Fort St., can accommodate about five students in a plus-sized dressmaking class.
For more information, call The Makehouse at 778-432-2294 or go online to themakehouse.ca.
— Richard Watts
© Copyright 2013