The history of plus size clothing goes something like this: a young Lithuanian immigrant, Lena Bryant, was in financial dire straits when her husband died and the story goes that she sold her diamond earrings and bought a sewing machine, starting her dress making business in 1901. Her plus size creations were the first commercially produced maternity gowns, when she was asked to make something ‘comfortable but presentable’. Bryant created a comfortable and concealing tea gown by attaching an accordion pleated skirt to a bodice using an elastic band.
When Lena Bryant needed to borrow money for working capital and went to open a bank account, the bank officer misspelled her name as Lane Bryant and there started the original and till date one of the best known plus size clothing lines, originally started by Lena Himmelstein Bryant Malsin. The Lane Bryant clothing line is still the longest established and most recognizable plus size clothing line.
In those early days of the 20th century, pregnancy was still a topic not much spoken of in public; not being viewed as very seemly, so it was that the first mail order catalog for maternity wear came into being. This way pregnant women could make their purchases privately and did not have to disclose to all the fact of their ‘condition’.
There was also a perceived requirement to cater to fuller figured women or what were at the time referred to as ‘Stout-figured’ women. So by the year 1917, the revenues from Lane Bryant’s mail order catalog had exceeded one million dollars; in 1919 their “stout catalog” had 52 pages and the “maternity catalog” 76 pages.
By 1923 the company sales had reached five million dollars and sales of full-figured clothing outstripped sales of maternity wear.
Although statistical data suggests that the average women’s size in the United States is size 14 with over 60% of the female population wearing that size or higher, American retailers continue to predominately cater to smaller-sized customers. This exclusive attitude is beginning to change as companies realize vast growth in profits in the plus-size garment sector, and in year 2000 plus-size items were 30% of the total women’s retail market.