What Does It Take To Get Plus-Size Swimwear Right?

Eliza Huber
·6 mins read

One summer in high school, I worked part-time at Everything But Water, a swimsuit chain, at the local mall. Now, eight years later, I don’t recall the difference in technique between hanging a bandeau versus a triangle bikini. I do, however, remember all too well how stressful many women found the process of buying a swimsuit. Ask any woman you know, no matter what size they wear, and they’ll likely have a swimsuit shopping horror story or two; to this day, I hear them all the time. Almost a decade later, not a lot has changed. And for plus-size women, the problem is significantly worse.

In speaking with women size 12 and up about their shopping frustrations this summer, one thing was made abundantly clear: The fashion industry, for the most part, pays no mind to plus-size women, despite the average apparel size for a woman in the U.S. being between 16 and 18. Plus-size swimwear — which Cameron Armstrong, the founder of size-inclusive swimwear brand Kitty & Vibe, calls “the most vulnerable piece of clothing a woman [of any size] wears in public” — is an even more overlooked category. “I heard this narrative of negative feelings surrounding swimsuits far too often, in my own head and from so many others,” she tells Refinery29. Eventually, the stories got so bad that Armstrong, who had zero design experience prior to launching Kitty & Vibe, felt the need to launch the business just to remedy that.

Not only do few swimsuit brands offer options for women size 12 and up, but those that do often only supply options with unsatisfactory fits and an overall lack of style. Bikini tops rarely provide the kind of support that many women need to feel comfortable and secure, bottoms sag, one-pieces are too short, and swimsuit tops that do have underwire support are uncomfortable to the point of pain. For many women, these are realities they’ve come to expect when swimsuit shopping. Which brings us to the question at hand: Why is it so hard to make a good plus-size bathing suit?

According to Taylor Long — who, before launching her size-inclusive swimwear brand Nomads, was a curve model and an activist for size-inclusivity in fashion — the lack of fashion education is responsible for limited stylish, comfortable, and well-made swimwear options. “Most designers are not taught how to design for sizes bigger than a 0 or 2,” Long tells Refinery29. “I saw this first hand throughout design school, and honestly, I had to learn to design for larger sizes on my own. I’ve also heard horror stories from other designer friends, where pattern graders flat-out refuse to grade to plus sizes.” (A pattern grader is someone who takes a designer’s initial sample and creates the patterns for other sizes.)

During her first round of developing samples, Armstrong asked to see samples across every size and style. “I quickly found out this was not a typical ask, and it was quite an expensive one, which is probably why companies traditionally avoided it,” she says. “However, when avoided, it results in garments that fit perfectly on the ‘fit sample’ bodies, leaving plus-size bodies without the same well-developed fit.” In short, all sizes are then graded off of a size 2 body type, without taking into consideration body shapes or curves as the sizes go up.

In the case of Kitty & Vibe, Armstrong found that the solution was to scrap the sizing method most commonly used by swimwear designers and come up with an entirely new one. “I’ve always been frustrated with my swim bottoms that sagged in the ocean when wet, creating almost a diaper effect,” Armstrong says. “Other women I spoke to felt similarly, or had the opposite issue of never having enough fabric to cover their bum.” To determine a solution, she held focus groups in her New York City apartment, where she measured her friends and discovered something: women can have the same hip size — which is how nearly all bikini bottoms are sized — but different inseam measurements, which contributes to bottoms fitting differently on two women that share the same hip size. “Thus the Kitty Size was born,” she says. “For every hip size, we offer two inseam options to accommodate different booty sizes, so you never have too little or too much fabric, and you always have the perfect fit.”

Armstrong, who is straight-size, says the best way to create swimwear that actually fits for plus-size women is to *drumroll please* ask them. “I have the person who will be wearing the product actually give [me] feedback and help make the design decisions,” she says. Even after a product has been released, her team gathers feedback from all of Kitty & Vibes’ customers. “Some of the feedback we heard from the plus-size community includes [the need for] a thicker elastic waistband for sizes XL and up that doesn’t pinch nor dig on our bikini bottoms,” she admits. “They also requested increased support on the rib cage of our tops for sizes DD+.” Armstrong then takes this feedback back to the drawing board in order to create swimwear that fits even better.

Long likewise took a different approach to fit than most swimwear brands. “Instead of using a size S as our sample size, we used a size XL [12-14] and graded up and down from there,” she explains. “It made a tremendous difference in our overall fit.” Fabric and trims were also important considerations for Long, who chose power mesh throughout in order to offer a strong hold and lift.

But the swimwear industry’s hesitation to embrace the plus-size community isn’t only evident in the fit department. It also appears in the quality and style of the limited options that are offered, as well as the way that curve models are portrayed in advertising. When modeling, Long says that she’d often be styled in “matronly and modest swim styles meant for curvy and plus-size women,” to which she too often asked herself, “Who would wear these? Why don’t cute brands have extended sizes?” What she found out during her modeling career was that very few brands make stylish, sexy swimsuits for all sizes. Instead, most do up to a size 10 or 12, and then stop. “When brands do sell sizes beyond L, too often their offerings are watered-down versions of their other designs or are substantially more covered up,” she says. “The fact of the matter is, you rarely see fun prints or sexy details for curvy women.”

If my inbox is any indication, hundreds of new brands, all of which cater toward only straight-size women, are launched every year. The percentage of just-launched brands that design for women size 12 and up is significantly smaller. Cut that down to just swimwear, and it’s even smaller. But plus-size women like Long shouldn’t be responsible for fixing that. If things are ever going to change, influential swimwear brands need to acknowledge plus-size women as a customer base worth serving. And given that 67% of the population wears a size 14 and above, and as of 2019, the plus-size apparel market was worth an estimated $9.8 billion, they better start soon if they want to be influential much longer.

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