Black tie for the big boned

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With the exception of my high school proms (yes, I went to more than one prom--four, actually), I've never been to a black tie event. So, when I heard that Mark's brother's wedding, coming up the first week in September, was going to be formal, I was almost as excited as I was annoyed. Mark will have to wear a tux and I can wear something fancy! Fun! Visions floated through my mind of a simple, sexy, incredibly sophisticated dress (cut on the bias, of course) and a fun throwback hair fascinator. There could possibly be pin-curls or finger waves. In my mind, I saw myself as a 1930s starlet--Myrna Loy, maybe, or Grace Kelly.

You know where this is going already, don't you?

Friends, I am not built like Myrna Loy or Grace Kelly. On a really, really good day and with a very padded bra, maybe Mae West. The simple, sleek dresses I was envisioning were never going to work on someone with a wide ass, powerful thighs, blacksmith arms, and a tummy role. So, I widened my search.

Since the main problem is my ample bottom, I thought, maybe a wider skirted dress is what I need. With that in mind, I ordered a princess pink Vera Wang dress from Bluefly, thinking maybe I could do a Gwyneth Paltrow at the 1999 Oscars kind of thing. I knew it wasn't going to work the minute I took it out of the (huge) box. Your humble narrator is not so much the pink princess type. The skirt on that thing could have double as a two-person tent. And the color...I looked not so much like a pig, which is what I was afraid of with the pink dress, as like a champagne fountain made with Tequila Rose. Or a Pepto-Bismol explosion. It was truly, frighteningly, horrible.

So it went back. And I thought some more. Maybe Gwyneth Paltrow, whom I don't even like, is not a good style role model. What about someone a bit curvier? Liv Tyler may not be my exact shape, but she's a lot closer than Gwyneth, and she rocks an empire-waisted dress like nobody's business. Empire waists are also a go-to for the pregnant and famous crowd, and while I am not pregnant, I am beginning to have a belly that could be mistaken for it. Maybe when I was thinking 1930s, I wasn't going back far enough. I needed to go back to when plump women were the norm in the classes who dressed up. I needed an Edwardian dress.

So, I made my second order. From Nordstrom, I ordered a gorgeous navy beaded Adrianna Papell gown. I'd look busy and floaty and Renaissancesque, I told myself.

When it came, I liked the look of it. Not a huge skirt, but a multi-layered and loose-fitting one. Pretty beading. And not boring--it didn't look just like what I imagined everyone else would be wearing. Plus, there was enough going on that I wasn't going to have to worry too much about a lot of jewelry. I imagined myself, fleetingly, as a Cate Blanchett figure, an absolutely classic beauty, resplendent in an empire waist when pregnant or playing Queen Elizabeth.

And then the damn thing wouldn't zip. It was, of all things, too small in the bust. I need to be pre-menstrual to fill a C cup, and the dress wouldn't zip past my lower rib cage. Who, I ask, is it supposed to fit? And of course, the too-small bust size was the largest size the dress came in.

So back to square one I went. With less than three weeks before I needed to wear it, no dress. I decided to hope that the bust issue was a brand thing and not a problem I was going to have with all dresses of that style, and gave it another go. I ordered a royal blue OC by Oleg Cassini beaded silk chiffon dress, again from Nordstrom (because they have a good return policy). I'd looked at this dress before, then rejected it because the blue seems too bright, and the only other color it seems to be available in is white (an obvious no-no). But at this point, I'm desperate. It has the empire waist I've decided is pure fat girl gold, and I like the exposed back, as my back is one of my better body parts. I'm not totally sure it's not going to come and make me look like Gigantor Smurf, but it's worth a shot. If it does work out, I can tone it down some with neutral shoes and a bag, and skip the hair fascinator I was set on and go with a French twist or something. With a bit of a cleavage boost, I think I'll still have the capacity to look ethereally Edwardian. At least I hope so.

So the issue here? Same as with most clothes. I am not built the way I'd need to be to wear the styles that appeal to most to my aesthetics. It's not rocket science--sleek styles are not good for a non-sleek body. When it comes to my day-to-day wear, I've mostly learned to adapt to that already. I don't try to wear skinny jeans, for example. Doesn't matter how much the style appeals to me if I am just not built for it. But, since formal wear is something new to me, it's taking a few tries to translate what I already know about my body plus clothing into that realm. And, as usual, the manufacturers don't help. At my current size, I am sometimes able to get into the largest available size of "regular sized" dresses. Any bigger, and I'd need plus sized wear. That would make things exponentially worse. A search of formal dresses available in size 16 and up gives me very little hope about what I am going to do if the blue dress doesn't fit. This navy silk Tadishi dress comes in size 16, so it might work. There are a few strapless styles I could try, but I'd almost definitely have to have them altered. Mostly, though, you go above size 14 and you start getting two-pieced ensembles and dresses with sleeves. Not stuff I'm going to feel comfortable in when I am, in fact, not the mother of the bride. Almost all of the plus-sized styles have lacy stuff or embellishment or gauzy stuff on them. Nothing sleek.

In the grand scheme, this is not a major catastrophe. I can find something to wear, and it's not my wedding anyway, so what I wear is, ultimately, unimportant. However, it just serves as one more example of why women my size and larger get so frustrated about clothes. I have the money to buy a nice dress, I'm willing to spend it, and the dress just doesn't exist. Given the U.S. weight statistics, and all the scare-mongering about how horribly fat we all are, there have to be quite a few women in my demographic on this one. Shouldn't someone be catering to us? And not with second-rate, style-free, dowdy clothes, but with stuff that's actually stylish and becoming and well-made? Doesn't a fat girl's cash spend as well as a skinny one's?

13 Comments

Okay, I have taken the liberty of sending a link to your post to Sally McGraw at Already Pretty. I am a size 14/16 and would like to know what she has to say on the topic, as well.
BTW, we are NOT fat. We have beautiful, womanly curves.

Well, as I have learned for "More to Love" (which I would like you to watch on Hulu while putting me on speakerphone so I can laugh at you swearing), fat girls never leave the house, so why would they need fancy dresses?

I have had VERY good luck with ebay. Chancy, yes, but good dresses have sizing in INCHES which is easy to tell if it fits.

Have you looked at Boden? They probably have nothing fancy enough. J. Crew? Ye Olde Target Bridesmaids line? Lands End sometimes has stuff too.

Honestly, I know this will make me sound like a shill, but dept stores have done the best for me here. Why not go into a physical Nordstrom? Better yet--JC Penney, or yes, Sears. Honestly they make dresses for mothers of brides and other formal occasions that come in real people sizes. Because that's where real America shops. :)

And then just tell everyone you got it at Nords.

There's also consignment places. Amazon has some reasonable ones, but all of the dress places I know for bridal type stuff take bridesmaidlike amounts of time to ship.

Hi, I totally relate to this post. I, too, have the ability to shop at Nordstrom, but I always get annoyed that they completely forget anyone above a size 12. I'm right on the cusp between regular and plus-size (some misses are too tight, but the same item in plus is sometimes too big), and I still have a hard time finding anything at Nordstrom that looks good. Anyway, I recommend you take a peek at the Macy's plus-size shop. Here, I think it's called Macy's 14-24 or something, but it carries larger sizes. Every year, my husband and I attend a black-tie event, and more often than not, I get my outfits at the Macy's plus-size store. Some of their clothes can be frumpy, but they also have a fairly wide selection of cute, flattering dresses. Good luck!

I think that the new blue dress is going to look lovely on you. Can we see pictures when you get it?

I've had my best luck for formal wear to be a 'plus' specialty shop that's semi-local (Kansas City).

They cater to brides and bridesmaids, but have nice formals, too.

Now, I'm of the age to be the mother of the bride, so I actually LIKE the formals with the jackets. I have a wedding to go to in October, so I'm looking at dresses to wear to it.

I know that you're aiming for elegant, but I think that knee(ish)-length dresses can be really elegant. Plus, you have fabulously long legs, which you should show off! I've recently fallen in love with shorter formal dresses, and I found some cute ideas by Googling "short party dress".

Also, in the process I stumbled upon this blog: Fat Stylist. I'm hesitant to recommend it, because I don't like the word "fat", and I don't think it fits you, but she has a great page about short formal dresses (these for New Year's Eve) in real-woman sizes, not to mention some other things that you might find helpful in your search for evening wear that fits.

You're much more knowledgeable about blogs than I am, so I wouldn't be surprised if you already knew about this site. Just thought I'd share!

Just a thought, but there are lots of seamstresses out there (me included) who would love to custom-make an evening gown. No, you can't try it on before you buy it, but it will fit right the first time around if your seamstress is any good, shape issues aside. I created a wedding dress for a cousin who, frankly, is shaped like a large square and the pattern didn't even come in her size. It was heavenly. I also made an evening gown for a friend that fit her budget ($100), her body (curvy in all the right places, but hard to fit into commercial sizes), and her personality (bright red, racy, and with a subtle sheen). Both were extremely pleased with their purchases, and asked for my business cards to hand out.

Well, I obviously don't know much about upscale etiquette. But dressing up is super fun, and I'm glad the blue dress is a go!

Girl I totally feel you on this. I have the same dilemma for a cousin's wedding. And whenever I go shopping i think the same thing: for the fattest country in the world, we sure seem to stock a whole lot of super skinny people clothes and not much of anything else. it's frustrating~~!!
however: we are NOT fat! we are curvacious! and anyone who can't see and appreciate that isn't worth the time we'd spend talking to them.

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