I recently sent a message to Scarlett & Jo, simply as a customer, just to say thanks. I thought it would be a quick, nice thing to do. But it wasn’t quick. I kept writing and writing and writing, due to the fact that I guess mine is quite a long story.
My story begins, as it does for many people, as an overweight child. I grew up in a wonderful part of mid-Wales and went to a lovely school where kindness and respect where inherent values held dear by my community. So, I was lucky enough never to be bullied, never to feel ostracised or alienated. I was a huge tomboy, but being ‘big’ never stopped me doing anything. Luckily I also have the type of parents who, when a nutritionist made me cry at the age of 5 by telling me I had to go on a ‘strict diet’, promptly removed me from the room and never came back.
Puberty hit me hard – and it hit me at ten years old. I suddenly felt, for the first time, uncomfortable in my new shape and nothing seemed to fit me because I was now a ‘big girl’, not a ‘big kid’. Luckily it was the 90’s so I spent my adolescence adorned in baggy unisex T-shirts and jeans. I was a pretty happy teen (as teens go!) until it came to clothes. I hated buying and trying on clothes and particularly formal ones.
I went to Uni in the mid-90’s and entered a world of formal dinners, end of year balls, graduations and parties. I had no idea how to dress for such things, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find dresses for such things! And then came the dreaded years of weddings and christenings. There is 10-year period of photos (real ones) of myself which I actually struggle to recognise myself in, wearing terrible, desperation-buy dresses, purchased from any retailer I could find who sold dresses in something resembling the ‘right size’. Which basically meant, covering me up. Baggy, misshapen dresses, with no tailoring and with all the bits in the wrong places. Or separates, which were the lesser of the two evils in my eyes, but which screamed ‘I couldn’t get a dress to fit me’. Again, these were happy enough years, until those wedding invites dropped on the mat.
Then came my thirties and a whopping helping of heartbreak which I guess in all honesty had me feeling at an all-time low in terms of how I felt about my shape. During this time a brilliant friend, who had heard me sing, convinced me to take her place in an acapella group called the Bung Bung Belles. She was leaving the area and her mum and their friend needed someone to take her place. I really wasn’t sure, but I trusted her and so I tried it. The first live gig I did was the scariest thing I think I’ve ever done. My legs shook so much I had to lock my knees and then my buttocks wobbled. These were the days before twerking was ‘a thing’! But, I loved it. I was soaring on the adrenaline for hours afterwards.
This is me at my first ever gig (note the trousers…)
I did some more gigs with ‘The Bungs’ and just loved spending time with Chris and Claire, two fabulous, strong, brave and talented women who I am so lucky to have learned such a lot from. They also wore amazing dresses and outfits and really ‘dressed for the stage’. Their look matched their style of music – mostly 40’s and 50’s tunes. I tried my best to emulate this with clothes that I had that kind of fit me and fitted in, but over time I started to feel like I stuck out a bit. I was holding my own, providing a solid third harmony to our group, but I felt like I was letting them down aesthetically.
I bought a dress online, after much agonising, from a retailer who does a small plus size range quite well. I took it to our next gig and though it felt really scary, I put it on and showed my fellow ‘Bungs’ Though they were lovely and supportive in what they said, I knew it wasn’t right. I’d tried, but it just wasn’t right. Around then I actually thought about giving up the singing. Hard though that was going to be – I felt I was setting myself up for a fall. It made me so happy inside, but on the outside, I felt like I didn’t look right. Standing between two beautiful, accomplished, slim women – easily double their width, I felt like a ‘big girl trying to fit in’.
Then one day, I was looking at the Evans website, where I mostly purchased (and still do) a lot of my clothes and I found an amazing dress that on first glance I thought was too good to be true. It was black with white polka dots, an empire line waist (just under the bust), an underskirt, sweetheart neck and integrated mesh shoulders and sleeves. I ordered it, it arrived, I tried it on and it fitted! Not as in, it covered me up, but it fitted. It fitted me, in all the right places!
I wore it to the next gig - and this gig was the turning point for me. It was a disaster in that I wore the dress with badly fitting tights that kept falling down, but brilliantly it was an International Women’s Day concert and the audience joined in as I ‘oicked’ my tights up between each song. We laughed along together about the pitfalls of hosiery and I was comfortable. Comfortable in a dress! More than that I felt like the dress and me were a great combination. So many people, who know me well, stopped to tell me I looked great. To this day, I’m not always sure how to deal with compliments, but it was great to hear and I felt like I was floating! A lovely lady, who I will forever be grateful to, told me later on that she always chose to wear leggings with dresses, not tights. I immediately bought a great pair of cropped black leggings with polka dots around the ankles and right there was my outfit – my stage outfit.
After this I checked out the label inside my dress and noticed the name Scarlett & Jo. I looked online. I couldn’t believe what I found! I read all about the company and its ethos and looked through each and every dress in complete wonder. The customer photos were just great and the fact that the company gave the height and size of each model was just amazing. I read all the customer comments on the Facebook page and was overwhelmed to find this big dress wearing community that I could feel part of and supported by. Not because I needed one, but because I like one, I ordered a second dress. It was a red, wrap front jersey dress with a great oriental pattern and fitted shoulders. I tried it on for my dear friend Annabel, who has been so instrumental in supporting me to wear dresses and said ‘but what will I wear it for?’. She said it didn’t matter and that I had to keep it because it looked good. So I bought a dress, just because it looked good.
Alongside the Bung Bing Belles, I around this time started singing with a local 7-piece party band. It wasn’t a ‘dressy’ type of band and as bands often do, it fizzled out quite quickly. But having experienced the big sound of a big band, and the vocal freedom and scope offered by a less formal style, I really missed it, really quickly. So, I started a new band, myself! I got together 4 brilliant musicians and we started practicing. I had no idea at the time whether I could in fact front a band playing blues/rock’n’roll/funk/pop but I seemingly suddenly had the courage to try. This was one of our first gigs, and the first outing for my red, wrap front Scarlett & Jo dress:
Four years on, our band, Tongue ‘n’ Groove continues to go from strength to strength and so have I, both musically and in terms of my performance and how I feel. My fellow musicians, Chris on Sax, Graham on Guitar, Jo on Bass and Jenks on Drums have been such great friends. They’ve supported me, encouraged me and challenged me to sing bigger, better and bolder. Every time I bring out a new dress, they whoop and whistle and tell me I look great. And with each new leap of confidence my dresses and my friends facilitate, there’s been a definite difference in how I hold myself, how I move and how I dress.
This was last week!
This is my lovely new Marylin Spot Midi dress! (and my first ever proper hair-do). I held off buying it for ages as though I’m much more confident in my look, my upper arms are still an Achilles heel for me. But then I discovered a world of ‘mesh undertops’ that can be worn under sleeveless dresses! This one is essentially a mesh crop top/bra with three quarter length sleeves and I love it!
I can’t get over how happy I look in the photo above and how different that is to how I looked at the first ever gig. Yes, I am more confident in my voice, my presence and I’m more experienced. But, I have this memory of my lovely, brilliant Mum, exasperated by a shopping trip for dresses with a grumpy, uncomfortable girl once saying ‘It’s not really the dress, it’s more the face you’re pulling in it that’s the issue!!’. We fell about laughing because it was true! But when I look at this picture, my face says ‘look at my dress!’. Even more than that, it’s saying ‘look at me in this dress’ and that’s incredible to see.
And that’s why I sent my message to Scarlett & Jo, to say thank you for the part they’ve played in this. I am now a big singer, in a big band, with a big voice, having big fun and with a big smile that proves it. I love my life and I am at my happiest stood in front of lots of people, in a dress. If I could tell my adolescent self this, she would pass out on the spot. And it’s not just my ‘singer-self’ who now wears dresses – I recently represented the company I work for at Kew Gardens sporting the Lollidot Cowl Neck dress and I rocked it!
I have a wardrobe full of dresses. I need a bigger one. There are dresses from other retailers and other plus size dress makers. These seem to be growing as the fashion world acknowledges or at least recognises financially that there are a huge number of customers and a complete market that they have ignored. But I feel Scarlett & Jo led the way in this and still do it best. Beyond this I feel they actually make dresses for curvy ladies which celebrate their best bits, rather than extending their ranges to include them. I scour other ‘vintage look’ websites who claim to have a ‘plus size range’ – this sometimes means they have two dresses in a 24. Or they might extend to 26-28 but you have to check each dress and experience the disappointment as you discover there is one left in a size 16. When you open up the S&J website – bang, there it is – up to size 32 on everything!
When I put a Scarlett & Jo dress on I can instantly feel that it was designed with me in mind, not a smaller person of a completely different shape. And that feeling of inclusion, of someone tailoring for you is so powerful. Clothes not fitting you has such an impact – it’s not just about the clothes fitting you, it’s about how you feel you fit in to society in as a whole. Scarlett & Jo, for me, not only gave me the scope to feel like I fit in, but to truly experience who I really am and enjoy that, celebrate it and have fun with it.
Proof of the quality and craftsmanship of S&J dresses is that my original polka dot dress is still doing the rounds, years and year later!
I’m 42 and I’m the biggest I’ve ever been (5’2” and a size 28). I had my gall bladder removed 3 years ago and my midriff resembles a whiskey barrel. And yet, I think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been and happier than I ever thought I could be. Yes, I know there are health risks in being overweight – I’m not naïve in this. But for a world of women who are overweight and may never combat that, there are also real health risks associated with low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.
So thank you S&J. Keep doing what you’re doing. You do it so well and I need you. Our gig list is growing and I can’t run out of dresses!
© Giles Bennett
© Mikal Janik
© Mansel Davies
© Cliff Chapman
© Dewi Alun Jones