I Tried to Find a Size 20 Wedding Dress. Why Is It So Hard?

Photo: Gen Umekita/Getty Images

As a fat person having a wedding in the fall of 2022, I was looking for something a little different when it came to my dress — I’m not particularly interested in “accentuating my curves,” as many dresses geared toward fat people advertise, and I’m much more frump than I am diva or pretty princess.

I am normally about a size 20 (which in and of itself gives me significant size privilege), and I had read that there are increasingly bountiful brands that offer interesting and fashion-forward dresses in sizes 16 to 30. I thought I would have options. What I soon discovered, though, is that while it is more possible than it once was to find a plus-size dress — Eloquii, Torrid, ASOS, and David’s Bridal, among others, sell wedding outfits you can try on and return (and there are great bridal stores that stock exclusively plus-size dress samples) — it is just as hard as ever to find the right dress and then actually try it on.

It is supposedly a truth universally acknowledged that the wedding dress, being possibly the single most remembered and photographed outfit of your life, should be the ultimate expression of your personal style. This means variety, which is exactly what the plus-size offerings available for easy try-on do not have. The vast majority are very feminine with a lot of big skirts, lace ruffles, and sequins. All this supposed industry progress is moot if fat people still can’t try on a variety of dresses across a range of styles and silhouettes, which it quickly became clear we cannot. So why not?

Early into my search, I came across a newer brand, Truvelle, that makes dresses with clean lines and interesting details up to a size 30 and had a long statement on their website about size inclusivity. But when I emailed my nearest retailer, I was informed the store only carried samples in sizes 10, 12, and 14.

“Most of them we could probably get on you well enough for you to get the idea,” wrote someone who works at Abigail Bride in Asbury Park, adding that the company uses these “in-between” sizes to accommodate both “tiny brides” and “curvy brides” because it’s too expensive for them to carry more than one size. But this doesn’t hold up: A very thin person would be able to use clips to get a solid idea of how a dress would fit, but a fatter person would not be able to get the dress on at all. And wedding-dress sizes are usually cut one or two sizes smaller than regular clothes. In wedding-dress sizes, I was actually more like a size 24.

When I reached out to the brand directly, I was told there was nothing it could do: “As much as we would love for every stockist to have Truvelle samples that cater to every size, we have no control over what a boutique chooses to carry in its store,” a spokesperson told me.

It was an odd pointing of fingers back at each other that illuminated a key problem: the troubled relationship between wedding-dress retailers and their designers and manufacturers.

I contemplated just buying a Truvelle dress, trying it on at home, and returning it, but almost all wedding dresses are nonreturnable. They are often made out of higher-quality, more expensive fabrics than our everyday clothes, meaning they are usually made to order one at a time; manufacturers don’t want to take the risk of producing a wedding dress without the certainty of its sale. (Same goes for standard-size ones.)

Because of the expense of producing a wedding dress, stores have to pay for the sample dresses customers try on while striving to stock as many styles as possible, so they buy as few samples as possible — usually just one size of each style.

Most of the fat people I knew who’d gotten married during the pandemic went to Anthropologie’s wedding line BHLDN. I figured its big size and footprint in the industry would mean it wouldn’t be as beholden to its bottom line and would be able to offer a full plus-size try-on experience. But when I called the store in Center City Philadelphia, I was told it had zero dresses available to try on in plus sizes. I was shocked: Anthropologie is headquartered in Philadelphia, which is, after Pittsburgh, the fattest city in the mid-Atlantic region. I followed up and was told to call its other store in the area, located a 45-minute drive from the city in the wealthy and heavily white suburb of Devon, Pennsylvania.

BHLDN offers 109 wedding dress styles on its website, and about half of these come in “plus sizes,” which it defines as a wedding dress size 14 or above; 40 styles are available up to a size 26. The Devon store had 23 styles available in plus-size samples to try on, and of these, I tried on seven. I actually fell in love with a dress only to learn that it only goes up to a size 18, as is the case for many of BHLDN’s “plus size” styles. I was a little crushed.

Is there a timeline for getting all 109 dresses available up to a size 26 and samples of all dresses available in all stores? Lori Conley, BHLDN’s general merchandising manager, said some styles may never expand beyond an 18 because they are produced by outside vendors, and she doesn’t have a timeline for the rest. But, she added, BHLDN just got funding this past spring to expand plus samples to all stores, so all stores now have plus-size dresses available to try on (though some have a greater assortment than others).

Still, nothing I had learned so far explained why the most common dress samples would be so small. According to a 2018 study, the average woman in America is now a size 16 to 18 (about a wedding-dress size 20) and 68 percent of American women wear above a size 14, so what, truly, is the wedding industry’s damage? Could it be that fewer fat people were purchasing wedding dresses?

When I reached out to David’s Bridal, the largest wedding-dress retailer in the United States, the company quickly disproved this theory, telling me, “Plus sizes are top sellers.” According to Heather McReynolds, vice-president and general merchandising manager of bridal and dresses, “Roughly 35 percent of customers are shopping for a plus-size gown.”

Boutique wedding-dress designer Elizabeth Dye thinks there is a bias against plus sizes. “There’s an industry perception that plus-size brides feel discouraged about their bodies, so they’re not going to make the big-ticket investment in an expensive gown. But it’s a vicious cycle. How about if they’re not discouraged in the first place?”

Dye said there is also a financial disincentive for brands to embrace plus sizes as a core part of their business. “As you size up, you can’t just make things bigger,” Dye said. “A size 22 dress can’t just be a bigger version of a size 8 dress.” Many companies that produce plus-size clothing simply use the straight-size pattern but make the garment from a stretchy fabric, an imperfect solution that is not an option for bridal.

Dye adds a $150 surcharge to any dress order above a size 14 because of the increased cost of the materials and the labor involved in redesigning a dress pattern to make it work for a bigger body. “It’s not great,” she said of the up-charge, “but with the size of the company we are … we’re just trying to accommodate what’s going to be a bigger investment from us to make the gown.”

Next, I decided to give a local store that aggregates designers a shot: Lovely Bride, the Philadelphia franchise of “the original indie bridal shop.” After inquiring by email about the specific dresses I was interested in, I learned that few of them were available in plus-size samples for try-on, but I ultimately tried eight dresses, including one I liked quite a lot — a simple, square-necked, three-quarter-sleeved dress from a small woman-owned company called Carol Hannah, which produces its garments on site in its Lower East Side shop.

Lanie List, the founder of Lovely Bride, told me she’s doing the best she can for the shopping experience of plus-size customers — absorbing the higher costs manufacturers charge for plus-size samples, for example — but said, “It’s hard when the majority of our business is not in plus size.” Only 5 percent above a size 18, to be exact.

A big part of the issue between plus-size shoppers and wedding-dress brands is marketing. When I pointed out to List that most of the photos on Lovely Bride’s social-media feature almost exclusively very thin bodies, and that perhaps that is part of the reason her company isn’t getting more plus-size shoppers, List didn’t disagree.

“If you excluded plus people before, it’s not enough to just make what you were making before in bigger sizes and call it a day,” said fat-fashion influencer Rosey Blair. “You have to joyfully overwelcome the customer.”

Lastly, going back to the drawing board, I found Rebecca Schoneveld, a boutique designer with an eponymous line that operates on a direct-to-consumer model. Since she makes the dresses in house at her studio in Irvington, it costs her less to create samples in many sizes, and since the customers come directly to her, she doesn’t have to split margins with a third-party boutique. All her dresses come in sizes 0 to 30, and people travel from all over the country to come to her brick-and-mortar location, including me. The array of styles and fabrics was dizzying, and I tried on some real lookers. The one barrier for me was price — most of Schoneveld’s dresses cost more than $3,000. (She has, however, just launched a more affordable line with dresses in the $1,600-to-$2,200 range.)

“It just started to make sense to me from a business standpoint since at least half the population is over a size 14,” she said of her long-ago shift to more inclusive sizing. “And people looking for those bigger sizes who can’t find them elsewhere get so happy when you can give them a good experience. It’s an easy sale, and it’s a fun sale.”

In the end, I learned that the wedding-dress industry works well for shockingly few people, that the snags and frustrations and exclusions I felt shopping for a wedding dress are more the norm than the exception, and that aside from a few lazy answers and fat-phobic defenses, everyone from the manufacturers to the designers to the stores wants to do better and is mostly held back by issues systemic to the industry. Models like Schovenveld’s and other ways to disrupt the traditional chain of production seem to be the way forward.

I eventually came back to the square-necked dress from Carol Hannah. The company’s branding is not particularly plus-size friendly, and I expected some catch to appear when I called to order it, but none ever did. It is simple and unfussy, it makes me feel elegant and comfortable, and — fulfilling a dream I never even dared to dream — it has pockets.

I Tried to Find a Size 20 Wedding Dress. Why Is It So Hard?