Large clothing, small supply

Size: Makers begin to fill the need, but plus-size clothing remains hard to find in thrift stores where the poor shop.

March 22, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

For the 50 percent of American women who wear size 14 and above, it's a time of choice. New fashion magazines, once the exclusive province of the small and slim, cater to them. Designers have started plus-size lines. Catalogs advertise "women's" sizes.

But for Marie Yeargin, an unemployed mother of six who relies on thrift stores and clothing banks, finding something decent to wear in a size 22 is a weekly struggle.

"If I could get a nice work outfit, I probably could go out and get that housekeeping job I want," said Yeargin, 41, as she waited in line to look through a small rack of plus-size clothes at the Franciscan Center on West 23rd Street in Baltimore.

"I haven't been finding nothing for myself, but I don't give up. I'm still coming."

The availability of good-quality clothing for plus-size women has improved markedly in the past decade, but the clothes aren't trickling down to the secondhand and donated markets, clothing providers and customers say.

"It's always, always in demand," said Marie Sinnott, manager of the Wise Penny thrift shop on York Road, which is run by the Junior League of Baltimore.

"People just don't have it to give up. We get lots of little sizes."

Karen Johnson, 40, a West Baltimore woman who wears size 20 and visits the Franciscan Center, said, "If I do find something, it might be a nice blouse. I just come and see what I can get. And if I can find one thing, I'm satisfied."

Wear it, wear it out

The problem, providers say, is that although more plus-size clothes are available, people who buy them -- men and women -- hold on to their clothes longer than do people whose sizes are more widely available.

Because the clothes can be more expensive and harder to find, people are likely to wear them until they are too worn out to be useful to someone else.

"There's great fear," said Catherine Lippincott, who wears size 18 and is the author of the book "Well Rounded: Eight Simple Steps for Changing Your Life Not Your Size."

"Women pay more money for these outfits," said Lippincott, a spokeswoman for the clothing manufacturer Lane Bryant. "You're very scared you're not going to find anything as good again.

"No matter how much money a woman has, if she's been a size 18, she's been on a desert island and people have been throwing her a couple of coconuts."

Michele Weston, fashion and style director of Mode magazine, which is aimed at women sizes 12 and bigger, says it's a matter of time before the pool of larger used clothing starts to improve.

"We had 200 vendors [of plus-size clothing] 10 years ago, and now there are 2,000," Weston said. "When you look at that, you say it's going to go up."

The lack of such clothes -- and the consistent demand for them -- has led providers to try creative ways of getting donations.

Thumbs, not pinkies

At Dress for Success, a national program that provides work outfits for women who are interviewing for jobs, staffers have resorted to holding a monthly "Thumbs Up" day to promote their need for larger outfits. The campaign got its name "because our clients don't look like pinkies, they look like thumbs," said Nancy Lublin, Dress for Success founder and executive director.

Other providers approach weight-loss programs, looking for donors who have slimmed down and want to give away their old wardrobes.

That's what Chris Benzing, director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society's clothing and furniture bank program in Baltimore, did when he shed 70 pounds a few years ago. But he said those clothes didn't last long.

"When the demand does come, the donations of those clothes are always behind," he said.

Part of the problem, providers of used clothing say, is that corporations that make larger items don't have extensive donation programs.

Lane Bryant, perhaps the most visible maker of large-size clothing for women, had until recently told charities that it would help them only through donations to United Way.

But lately the company has been donating suits from its sample showroom to Dress for Success in New York and casual items to a local shelter, said Lippincott. The company is considering expanding its relationship with Dress for Success nationally.

Nice clothes in demand

Patrons of the Franciscan Center are frequently looking for nice clothes not just for work, but also for church. "I try to find a nice blouse and skirt for Sunday," said Linda Davis of Baltimore, 38, who wears size 20.

Yeargin participates in a local welfare-to-work program that keeps donated business attire on hand, but the clothing usually doesn't fit her. That's why she goes to the Franciscan Center, which provides clothing to about 400 men, women and children each week.

Yeargin was in luck yesterday, taking home a brown pantsuit, a print blouse and a black cardigan, and items for her children.

"Praise the Lord," she said as she left the center. "God sent me this way today."

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