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The Style Files: A Plus-Sized Edition

When Brooke Benoit began shopping to wear hijab appropriate clothes, she found Muslim retailers weren’t helpful on her quest to find a style of her own.

My inspiration to begin wearing hijab came at a fiscally difficult time. My husband and I had poured all of our money into a small business and there was absolutely no room in the budget for expenditures such as a new wardrobe. The need to cover felt pressing; I was obsessed with figuring out how I could quickly acquire some hijabs and an over-garment. Inspiration struck again! I collected my thigh length leather jacket, favourite designer bracelet, and a few other higher end whatnots and had my first (and very successful) experience selling on eBay.


With my Paypal account plumped, I turned to online Muslim clothing providers, only to find that they obviously did not want my money. Site after site, I would scroll through pages of lovely abayas and jilbabs, click their “plus-sized” options and find a miniscule selection (if anything) to choose from. I was in the market for 3X sized clothes but that was a blown pipe dream, as it seemed that 2X was the largest any of these houses were willing to sell.


I returned to eBay, spending many days wading through the plus-sized specialty shops and pages, despairing at scrolling down to promising items’ descriptions and finding that the sleeves or hem were ¾ length, or there was a slit so high that it would render me unable to walk if sewn closed, or the material was not opaque or breathable. I had the added challenge of needing clothes that I could breastfeed easily in. It was depressing, but the aspiration to cover urged me on.


I spent a miserable afternoon in a local coat outlet searching the racks (which had all sizes mixed together) for something that I felt would work as an overgarment and finally settled on a light-weight, knee-length waterproof coat. It got me through fall to spring as my only overgarment and I still wear it occasionally. Then I returned to my e-searching.


Measure twice, buy once
While trying to find hijab styles I liked, I purchased several styles of scarves online and amazingly bought some that were too small! In addition to a handmade shayla that only covered from my hairline to my nape, I also bought a ‘crinkle’ style scarf that wouldn’t uncrinkle enough to cover my head. Long before the days of YouTube tutorials, a beautifully patterned Oman-style scarf proved far too big for my novice self to figure out how to wrap it. Quickly, I learned that a measuring tape was my best defence against wasting money while trying to build-up my new wardrobe.


Full-length skirts are the foundation of my wardrobe, and a denim skirt (to replace my beloved jeans) was one of my first purchases and a ‘must have.’ As a breastfeeding mum (clocking my 11th year of breastfeeding six babies, alhamdulillah), I find skirts and long tops with a light coat or overgarment to be the most efficient ensemble for me. At 5’4”, I am at the top end of the petite scale and can occasionally buy sleeves and hems meant to be ¾ length, but that fit me at the wrist or ankle – whether buying online or in person, I use a measuring tape to be sure. Now I regularly scoop up full-length and opaque skirts whenever I find them, but at the beginning I couldn’t scoop them up fast enough! Once, while bemoaning to a friend the plight of my formerly beloved plunder of calf-length and slightly slit skirts now being useless, she suggested that I try the ‘petticoat’ cotton slips worn under sarees. This was an awesome suggestion! The petticoats come in an amazing range of colours and, as they are made with drawstring waists, some do fit plus-sizes or alternatively are affordable enough to have custom made. I now have more than half a dozen which can be worn as slips under sheer or slit material, or can be “layered” under not quite long enough hems.


Many full-length plus-sized skirts and dresses are made much too long for me and as much as I loathe it – having already paid “extra for the extra material” – I do appreciate the way a professionally hemmed item makes me look and feel. Similarly, I have had several cute dresses nipped into thigh-length tops.


I prefer the clean lines of tunics over button-down shirts, but I find the latter to be easier to source from mainstream retailers. Tunics are also frequently made with scoop or v-necks. One unconventional trick I have learned is that since I nearly always wear a light coat or over-garment, I can wear scoop or v-neck tops backwards rather than wearing an extra layer under them or having to worry if my hijab will stay just so. I also regularly wear sleeveless tops, preferring the “layered look” but with less bulk.


Invest in yourself
Plus-sized clothes cost more. Sure, there’s the extra cost of a little added fabric, but sometimes it feels like there is even more added to the price tag. Although I find it frustrating that not only are good, modest, plus-size clothes hard to find,  they can be unreasonably expensive to boot. I hate to feel frumpy and think of my clothes as an investment in me; I feel good when I look good. I would rather buy one really useful and attractive quality garment than two or three cheaper quality items that often don’t “make the cut” in one way or another. My absolutely favourite plus-sized clothes are made by Flax Design and, though they are costlier than some retailers, I have found many of my favourite pieces at lower than retail prices by regularly checking eBay and shops that carry Flax seconds and off-season items. Flax is not a plus-sized retailer, but their largest size fits about a 4X.

Muslim retailers
Several years into shopping as a plus-sized hijabi, I still dread shopping at most Muslim clothing retailers, whose tempting homepage offerings don’t extend into their plus-sized selections. I have acquired a good selection of classic and staple skirts from Shukr after regularly prowling their latest releases. Unfortunately, the plus-sized selections have usually dwindled by the time items make it to sale prices, so I only turn to Shukr when I am ready to make a full-priced and needed investment.


An excellent and thorough list of Muslim and mainstream retailers with good plus-sized selections has been curated by Sakeena Rashid for her fun new ebook, ‘The Ultimate Guide to Hijab Fashion and Style’, which along with many hijab-related tips is available via her website: http://hijabstyleandfashion.com/


Looking back, my journey to my own style was difficult and compromised by a limited selection for plus-sized hijabis, but today I love my style, which I would call “Prim Bohemian.” My closet is full of natural fibre and quality clothes in dark and muted tones with plenty of stripes, paisleys, henna patterns and a few floral prints. For accessories, I have worn clunky-funky shoes for decades, and make my own semi-precious and precious gemstone jewellery, which you can only catch a peek of when I’m at home, often wearing harem pants and sleeveless traditional embroidered Moroccan dresses, cropped exactly to my liking.


Plus-sized Pro Tips:
If you love it – buy two! Don’t risk never finding a great piece again or wearing one out too soon.


Keep a measuring tape next to your computer (for online shopping) and in your bag to avoid “hopeful” purchases. Variations in plus-sized label sizes can be too great, so don’t trust the sizes – you must measure every garment to be sure it fits. Measure twice and buy once!


Reduce bulk: remove collars to create Mandarin collars, remove sleeves and icky poly linings if the item will be worn under an over-garment anyway.


Keeping it covered can take diligent work. You have enough digging to do, so let the most probable sellers come to you by registering with favourite shops to get updates on new arrivals and special deals.


If you don’t sew, find a good and affordable tailor who can make minor alterations (such as hemming skirts or shortening dresses into tops) that will make you look and feel well-dressed.


Brooke Benoit is an occasional artist living in Morocco where she and her brood of seven practice a radical approach to unschooling. Visit Brooke’s Polyvore for some of her styling inspirations featuring plus-sized Muslim clothing retailers: http://fluffeymian.polyvore.com/.