Fashion for the curvy
Sewit Haileselassie, 29, is a self-described ‘happily curvy’ woman and mother of two. She is wearing a stylish burgundy button-down under a knit greyish sweater and sports and trendy pixie-cut hairstyle. As a fashion forward shopper she looks for stylish and comfortable clothes but finds the lack of diversity exasperating. There are a few specialty shops around Hayahulet but even if she finds a top she likes finding alternatives from the waist down is a challenge. Sewit has had to be creative to be stylish. She has become friends with designers, shops abroad herself or through family, gets clothes specially made and even has her own tailor.
Sewit attributes the lack of options to the foreign imports that enter the country. “Most of the textile imports come from Taiwan or Thailand where the average body type is not exactly similar to curvy African bodies.” She says.
Mehbuba Kedir, 25, owner of one of the many clothing shops in Hayahulet admits there aren’t many clothing options for plus sized women. Most of the people that come into her shop, both men and women, buy whatever is available because they have no choice, she says. “They don’t look for trendy clothes,” she claims. Most of the items on sale are repetitive and follow the same style. Fast fashion focuses on ‘normal’ sizes because that’s where the most money can be made. She attributes this to a lack of market demand.
Sewit disagrees with this statement. “Supply creates its own demand. People like me have given up on shopping. Even the mannequins outside the stores aren’t representative.”
The experience can be irritating for the plus size/curvy/full-figured/voluptuous woman. The language used can be daunting for the uninitiated. The terminology and etymology involved has been enduringly contentious. Pejorative terminologies like fat are gaining traction among groups reclaiming the word. Plus size, a term that gained popularity in the 1980s to refer to clothes and the size of the individual, has replaced stout, chubby and hefty. Plus size itself has gained a lot of backlash for marginalizing the body as non-normative and disorderly.
Sewit prefers the term curvy. “Our society is not body positive. We have aligned ourselves with western ideals of beauty and the perfect body. African women have curves. “ Beauty standards are not universal. By conflating modernity with stick-thin figures, Sewit says, we have transformed our own ideals of beauty and femininity. Historically, Ethiopian sensibilities of beauty were more inclusive. She herself has not had difficulties adjusting to her new size but the response of others has not been positive. “No matter how much weight I lose I know I’m never going to have that body shape, and I’m okay with that.”
The dozens of shops that line Hayahulet road, shops found in Merkato and Piassa all forget the needs of the full figured. The lack of diversity is not restricted to women’s apparel. Clothing for men and even children can be difficult to find. Ready-made Habesha dresses are a tough reality to face for Sewit. “It is difficult to accept that the thing I love most is no long inclusive of me.” She frequently has had to pay more and work harder to find the right clothes. Habesha garments are increasingly expensive, no longer accessible to the full figured woman unless she’s willing to shell out thousands on a tailored dress.
There are many young local designers Sewit hopes will be more inclusive in their lines. Betselot Zewge, 20, is one such designer. She has always wanted to design clothes and is currently working on a plus size fashion line. She believes there should be equal access to fashion, regardless of size or shape. However, local shops are far behind the size inclusive trend. When shopping in Addis, ready-mades can only be found in ‘standard’ sizes. The few clothes that can be found in larger sizes are for older women. Betselot questioned what other people might want, especially young women her age and decided to create a size inclusive fashion line. Her designs focus on casual and comfortable wear that make women more confident and comfortable.
Plus size apparel has a conservative look, thereby attracting an older age group (40+). No crop tops, not too tight or too short, focusing on hiding the body instead of accentuating its beauty. Most outfits of this kind target an older age group. Or alternatively it is focused on the design ideals of distraction. By adding ruffles, gaudy decorations, or using bright vulgar colors and patterns, it deigns to make the body look more slender. Figure flattery of this sort is neither stylish nor classy. Betselot has found this to be a real problem. Most of the clothes that fit her also make her look much older than she is.
Sewit is of the mind that we should be more accepting of alternative beauty, be it in clothes, hair or makeup. Elevating plus sized fashion to the status of high fashion is a struggle in the international industry. High fashion, of course, is not necessarily pretty, slendering or figure flattering. Fashion tends to be brave and has something to say about the wearer beyond the body itself. For some though, it can be difficult to look past the body.
Betselot says women are judged based on their size and occasionally insulted or ridiculed by shop owners or attendants. Women her size are habitually neglected even though curves make the clothes more beautiful. There is a lot of fear and discomfort when curvy women shop because they are frequently told there are no clothes that fit them.
According to Betselot modern fashion in Ethiopia isn’t a central concern and doesn’t play a large cultural role. Mining the rich Ethiopian culture with modern fashion integrations, she hopes her work will gain international traction. Her upcoming fashion line Zemenay, which she has been working on for the past year, will launch as part of Poetic Fashion event in April at Fendika Cultural Center.
Creating a democratic and unproblematic shopping experience requires hard work from both designers and consumers. Events like Hub of Africa and African Fashion Week are turning Addis Ababa into a fashion center and showcasing budding designers from the continent. Integrating garments that exceed sizing standards with bodies effectively marginalizes the body. Plus size fashion must gain respect locally and in the fashion industry, Betselot says. “People must learn and understand what we are saying,” Incorporating large sizes into the spectrum of standard sizes available in retail shops is one step towards size inclusivity.
Contributed by Hiwot Abebe