Once considered an outpost of clothing where style was more by accident than by design, outfits for larger women have taken a giant step forward into high fashion in the past two to three years.
Leading the movement in that direction are mail-order catalog businesses, represented by giants such as Spiegel and smaller companies such as Jean Grayson's Brownstone Studio in New York. Some of the catalogs include their own lines as well as clothing from designers, who increasingly are entering the market for larger women.
Both demographics and economics are fueling the change toward higher fashion for the size-14-plus woman, industry experts say. While the country may be obsessed with thinness, America in fact is growing heavier and older. In addition, increasing numbers of women are working and want clothes that fit a particular image.
Mail-order represents an appealing alternative to retail stores for many larger women, said Ruth Ann Britten, president of Arthur Britten Associates, a Manhattan-based retail-consulting firm. Many are too embarrassed to try on clothes in stores, she said.
The newer styles debunk the notion that larger women aren't the least fashion conscious.
"People of all sizes increasingly are employed in decent jobs and find the necessity to wear decent clothes," said Maxwell Sroge, head of Marke/Sroge Communications in Chicago, a catalog consulting firm. "Large-size people want to wear as fashionable clothes as anybody else."
Kim Hansen, marketing director of Brownstone, said: "A lot of rules that people had in mind [about] large-size women . . . have been broken." The traditional straight lines and darker colors have given way to more prints, bolder colors, fitted jackets and dresses, and more stylish casual wear.
Role models such as Barbara Bush and Oprah Winfrey (before her liquid diet) also prompted heavier women to demand more stylish clothing.
Sales reflect that increased demand. Larger-size clothing is the fastest-growing segment of the women's apparel market. During the past 10 years, their sales have grown twice as fast as those for all women's clothing, said Mary Dale Walters, a spokeswoman for Oak Brook, Ill.-based Spiegel.
Between 1982 and 1986, sales of size-16-plus items grew 32 percent, compared with 7 percent for sales of all women's clothing, said Diane Specht, publisher of Plus Sizes, a retail trade magazine in New York.
Sales of large-size apparel jumped from $2 billion in 1977 to $10 billion last year, Ms. Walters said. That figure is expected to triple by 1992.
The market for potential customers also is growing. Between 1985 and 2000, the number of overweight women ages 30 to 44 is expected to increase 15 percent. That age group is considered the most fashion-conscious of heavier women.
Until a few years ago, most of the growth in the large-size market was in the low-budget to moderate end. Lane Bryant, owned by the Columbus, Ohio-based retailer The Limited, led the way in moderate pricing. In fact, some experts say The Limited set the ** stage for more fashionable women's clothes when it applied the principles of current fashion to the large-size business.
Before that, "the history of the large-size business used to be dumb clothes," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Howard Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a New York-based national retail consulting firm.
Last year, designers Adrienne Vittadini and Liz Claiborne entered the market for large sizes. Other designers making large sizes include Nancy Heller, Givenchy and Tamotsu.