03/14/2011 11:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shopping for My Mom: How Fashion Fails Real Women

In the 80s and 90s, there was a shop at Lexington Avenue and 66th Street called The Forgotten Woman. It was part of a national chain of about 30 stores dedicated to the larger-sized woman, with an impressive collection of evening wear. When the store went out of business in 1999, the New York Times obituary noted that, "while the retailer was highly successful in New York City, it was ill equipped to handle the added business after expansions into markets like Houston, Chicago and Beverly Hills."

The chain was ahead of its time. Today, when the average American woman is size 14 and the average bra size has expanded to 38 DD, it's harder than ever to find a national bricks-and-mortar retailer offering stylish, affordable evening wear for larger women. True, you can find designer larger sizes online from Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom's and Lord & Taylor. And thanks to QVC and HSN, you can find dresses up to 3X on TV. But sometimes you want the immediate gratification of walking into a store, having a sales associate help you, and going home with a bag in hand that day.

While there are specialty retailers that serve up affordable casual clothes for size 14s and above -- Chico's, J. Jill, Coldwater Creek -- when it comes to evening wear, the average American woman is the Forgotten Woman. Forgotten not only at retail, but also in magazines, newspapers, TV commercials and fashion runways.

Because American teens are getting bigger, too, you're more likely to find a 16 on the junior floor than the designer floor, but the style (frilly, pouffy, short, sleeveless, tie-dyed!) would look ridiculous on a woman of a certain age. Which means that if you're over 40 and bigger than size 14, you're doubly doomed.

Isn't it crazy to make it so hard to shop? Especially for women who, unlike their teen daughters, don't have to ask anyone's permission to buy anything they want?

I myself am not a large size, but I have a mother who is. She needed a dressy dress for a family party, and struck out on Chicago's North Shore. So she asked her fashion maven daughter to find her something special from New York. Of course! New York is the fashion capital of America. If you can't find it here, you can't find it anywhere.

I had just a few hours to devote to this project, but I thought it would be easy. Ha! Looking through my favorite designer racks in stylish New York department stores -- Tory Burch, Michael Kors, Diane Von Furstenberg, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Escada -- I found no size 16s. St. John, Armani and Chanel had only a few out-of-season suits. I went through the evening dress sections too, looking at designers like Tadashi Shoji, known for dressing celebrities such as Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique for the red carpet-- again, nothing above 14 in-store, just online. I really didn't want to go to the plus-size section, but did -- only to find separates.

At this point, any other shopper would have given up in frustration, but this was a mission for my mother and I didn't want to disappoint her. I headed to the personal shopping department; surely they were stashing all the fabulous size 16's somewhere in a special closet for favored customers. The personal shopper, sympathetic to my cause (she must deal with it daily!), shared with me that size 16s are in such high demand that they are always the first to sell out. Chic women of size know that if they don't get their shopping done early in the season, it's slim pickings. News to me; I always thought 00's were the first to go.

So what, I asked, was my mother to do? Make do, she said. But a sparkly new top, throw on a black skirt or pants, and hope that no one notices you. But this was a big event for my mom, and she wanted to stand out, not blend into the furniture.

Reluctantly, I headed back to the plus-size section and purchased a metallic silver jacket. My mom loved it, and wore it over a sleeveless silk black sheath in her closet that has saved her from many fashion emergencies. Crisis averted, but only because she wound up doing what the personal shopper suggested: she made do.

For me, this shopping experience was a game-changer. In my book How to Never Look Fat Again, I maintain that any woman can look her absolute best, no matter what her size, so long as she knows which clothes will make her look fat and which will flatter her body. But if you can't find cool clothes in your size, what are you supposed to do? Start sewing? You won't hear me criticizing my mother ever again for not dressing as well as her daughter. And to every fashionista who has ever made a catty comment about how badly big women dress, I say: go out one day and try shopping for a fabulous look in size 16!

When the hottest designers don't cut clothes in a size 14, they're saying they don't want to see the average American woman walking around in their clothes. Ouch! That hurts. When department store buyers don't make room for size 16 on the selling floor, that hurts, too. And fashion is supposed to make women feel good about themselves, right?

Empowerment issues aside, excluding the average woman is bad business. It's only a matter of time before some smart retailer insists that big-name designers wake up and smell the dollars. A designer once told me that she didn't make larger sizes because the extra fabric ups the cost of the garment. Fine; go ahead and charge more. Women are desperate to look good. They'll pay. I would have. And my mom would have loved it.

Charla Krupp is the author of the bestseller How to Never Look Fat Again, just out in paperback.

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