Representing the creative future

Embodying Universal Bodies: Plus Size

A new first-year project on the Parsons MFA course tackles societal issues and seeks positive change through fashion design

Now in its ninth year, MFA Fashion Design & Society at Parsons is a leading course for emerging designers, helmed by fashion stalwarts Shelley Fox and Joffrey Moolhuizen (JOFF). This year, the first-year students took on a new challenge, intended to push the progressive, multidisciplinary approach of the course further. ‘Embodying Universal Bodies’ put a new spin on the ‘Personal Identity’ project that normally sees students examining their own place in the world. You can read about the motivation and meaning behind the project here

The class of 17 was divided into four groups, addressing the ageing, transgender, plus size and disabled communities. They then had to find a muse from their given community, and work with them to fill the voids left by other fashion designers’ privileges. This is what went down in the Plus Size group.

The muse: Maya S. Adamo Finoh (they/them)

The design team: Ariana Patawaran, Zhiqing Zhang, Yoshinori Momiyama, Zisu Tak

MAYA S. ADAMA FINOH: “I would be considered a size US 20/22, so most brands do not go up to my size or carry it in brick-and-mortar stores. I typically just shop online or go to thrift stores to find interesting pieces that fit me. The team asked what my favourite styles/trends are and what items I wished were available in my size. They took into account my experiences and collaborated with me to create designs that I felt comfortable in. So much plus size fashion is meant to modestly ‘flatter’ a fat figure (which really means create the illusion that you’re thinner), so it was refreshing to use bright colours and not shy away from accentuating various parts of my body.”

MAYA S. ADAMA FINOH: Society expects fat people to cover-up, not glorify themselves, and shrink their bodies down in shame. There are not many highly visible fat or non-binary models in the fashion industry, so I always viewed fashion as an exclusive field that I could never fully participate in. Being a part of the design project was deeply affirming and has encouraged me to seek out more modelling opportunities. I want to see more clothes for people over size US 24, and l want more designers to intentionally use models with a wide variety of body types.”

Zhiqing Zhang: “I hadn’t worked with a plus size model before; it’s not as simple as just taking a pattern and grading it up a few sizes. My design process became sort of a dialogue with the body – listening to what it demands and what it suggests you do. Fashion design is not only about self-indulgence or personal interests, but more importantly about progression and providing solutions. Contemporary fashion should focus more on inclusivity and sustainability.”

Ariana Patawaran: Clothes can restrict us or liberate us. Designers need to consider how different bodies inhabit clothes because clothes engender feelings. We are here to make people feel empowered, not disempowered! Beyond fashion and design, this project challenged my perception of beauty. We are deeply conditioned by what we see, constantly bombarded by images and ideals. But ideals of whom? Also, times have changed, so it’s important to ask when these ideals were created. There are geographical differences too. This project was an invitation for an urgent deconstruction and reconstruction of a definition that is almost always disconnected from reality. It was also a reminder to be responsible when creating fashion images, as someone is consuming them on the other end.”

Zisu Tak: “Working with Maya was exciting and inspiring. What frustrated me the most was our lack of experience working on a plus size dress as fashion students. The lack of size options applied to designs, colours and also underwear. We need more detailed and considered sizing in the fashion industry. We shouldn’t just try and make one garment fit every body; just adding a few inches or taking a few inches off existing patterns won’t satisfy all the different body shapes.”