The Understated Power of Oversize Clothes

Words by Cortne Bonilla 

For one editor, designers’ recent emphasis on loose, billowing styles was the key to unlocking her personal style

There was a time I could hardly look at myself in a mirror. When I finally did, I’d spend up to half an hour critiquing and ridiculing the reflection staring back at me. It was the early 2000s, when jeans were low-rise and skintight, tops were cropped, and baggy trousers were still exclusive to working men, not self-conscious high school girls. I was trapped in a world of fallacies, where taking up space felt criminal—and I was diagnosed with a chronic under-eating disorder at just shy of 14.

For many people, clothing can serve as a way to body-check and monitor one’s shape based on how a size fits, or how it doesn’t. After years of therapy, mindfulness, experimentation, and openness, I, like many others, put aside size yet continued to struggle with how to dress. My outlook changed when I recently discovered—and embraced—intentionally oversize clothing.

Designers had started producing voluminous silhouettes before the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, from Demna’s exaggerated creations for Vetements and Balenciaga to roomy proportions at Molly Goddard and Marc Jacobs. The shift to life spent mostly at home in loose, comfortable clothes kicked the movement into overdrive; nearly four years later, it’s an adjustment designers can’t shake. Now more than ever, runways are displaying ease in the form of billowy or slouchy silhouettes, elasticated waistbands, and softer fabrics. And off the runway, women are wearing loose maxi dresses and ballet flats, instead of squeezing into figure-hugging minidresses and sky-high stilettos.

Oversized clothes

An intentionally oversize look from Tibi’s Spring/Summer 2024 collection ALBERT URSO//GETTY IMAGES

Tove’s take on oversize dressing: an oversize shirt and coordinating skirt COURTESY TOVE

Emma McClendon, assistant professor of fashion studies at St. John’s University and curator of “The Body: Fashion and Physique,” says moments of cultural, social, and political rupture lead to profound shifts in silhouette like the one we’re experiencing now. “I definitely think the pandemic has had an impact on the widespread adoption of oversized styles and fit,” she explains. “We became so used to the feel of comfort in our clothing during the height of lockdowns and work-from-home that it changed our sense of fit and feel, and the haptic relationship between our bodies and our clothing. So much of dress is about habit and becoming comfortable with the feeling of something on your body—even if it’s uncomfortable at first.”

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It’s not the first time in history fashion has made such a radical shift in fit and silhouette, McClendon adds. “The most obvious example is the rejection of corseted, multilayered dressing after World War I in favor of the short hemline, loose, drop-waist, body-negating silhouette of the 1920s. This style was considered a rejection of the hyperfeminine styles of the past, in favor of a more modern, androgynous approach to dressing the female body.”

In the present, I’ve felt that embracing oversize silhouettes is more than a point of runway fascination. It can be seen as a disavowal of previous norms—a rejection of the pressures, the mindset, the mirror, and the sensations that held me back, no matter how literal or figurative it might have been. Swapping my entire wardrobe for lax, cozy, soft, and roomy pieces didn’t help me to hide my body, but to neutralize it.

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My friend Christina Grasso, a New York City–based creative and co-founder of the Chain, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to eating disorder advocacy in fashion, often opts for menswear-leaning, oversize clothing as well. “I’m typically most comfortable in pieces that have an oversized silhouette,” she told me over text late one night. Our mutual favorite designers share a love of intentionally oversize fits. “I love brands such as the Row, Wardrobe.NYC, the Frankie Shop, and Teurn Studios, which I’ve found can be generously sized while still maintaining structure.”

While oversize clothing has been crucial to my recovery and growth, I can only hope that every body size will be able to embrace this kind of sartorial freedom. What some designers call “oversize” isn’t oversize for everyone—but the option should be available for all.

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Intentionally oversize clothes convey power and comfort at once.

This article originally appeared in harpersbazaar.com