Ezra Petronio

Gossip's Beth Ditto Discusses Her New Plus-Size Fashion Line

The Gossip frontwoman on the politics of making beautiful bigger.

Gossip’s Beth Ditto is a natural activist. A punk, feminist, and fighter for LGBTQ rights, the Arkansas native has used her music and personal narrative as vehicles for educating her live audiences, online readers, and anybody else willing to listen. Which is not a role she takes lightly. On top of being a founder of Girls Rock Camp (a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching girls how to read, write, and play music), Ditto has consistently spoken out for LGBTQ equality, drawing from her own experiences as a lesbian to support gay youth while rallying the rest of us to keep fighting for civil rights.

And now, Ditto’s work continues. As a plus-size woman, she’s fought for an extensive retooling of the fashion world, preaching the importance of body celebration and positivity as well as for the abolition of damaging beauty norms. And she’s in tight with the industry: Previously, she walked in shows for her friend Jean Paul Gaultier (with whom she recently collaborated) and Marc Jacobs, and designed a plus-size line for Evans in the UK. Which is probably why the launch of Ditto’s eponymous line seems so natural.

Out this week, the range consists of 11 pieces (ethically made in the USA) that reflect her own aesthetic evolution, as well as her penchant for quality-made merch. We talked about this, as well as about how her activist history came into play and why this should be just the beginning.

So, congratulations! You have a fashion line.

I am really excited about it, and it’s really, really crazy. It’s really overwhelming!

You started with the T-shirt collaboration [alongside] Jean Paul Gaultier, so tell me how that evolved into a fashion line.

I did a few collections with a plus-size clothing line in the U.K. called Evans, and I really enjoyed it, and before that it was always something I wanted to do. And there’s such a big market that’s missing. There’s so many really awesome entertainment people doing things, so I feel like I have to give them kudos, but I felt like on a larger scale, it was time to do something that was quality and nice, and people could feel good in and invest in. We don’t have options to go and buy something that’s ethically made or with a lot of thought put into it on a bigger scale; like, we don’t really have a high-end outlet or anything like that. So I was just like, “You know what? It’s time.”

So my business partner and friend Tara -- who’s also Gossip’s manager -- was like, “We’re gonna make it happen.” So we pooled our money and made it happen and started designing and, like, getting all this really crazy advice from our friends. It’s so crazy how involved it is. There’s so much work. And it’s just, like, having the idea -- it’s now or never. If you don’t do it, it’s never gonna get done. You can stand around and talk about it all day, but you just gotta do it.

You’re right! Melissa McCarthy recently talked about it too: How when it comes to plus-size clothing, it’s not like it’s in the artisan section. Pieces [seem] cheaply made and disposable. Fashion’s supposed to be an extension of yourself and self-expression, and it tells people who are plus-size that they don’t deserve that.

Absolutely, and I’m sick of that feeling. I want to feel good about what I’m taking part in. And it’s just another piece of the puzzle that’s missing in the struggle, really, to be recognized as a person. And that’s the thing, too -- when you go to Nordstrom or whatever, it’s called “Encore,” which, to me, that means what happens after the big show is over. It’s just like, wow. Like an afterthought.

So why aren’t designers outfitting people to feel confident and beautiful and to feel powerful?

It’s oppression. It’s female oppression. It’s absolutely this thing where it’s another part to making people feel ashamed of themselves and their bodies. That’s exactly what it is. That’s all it is. It’s weird, it’s strange, and I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around it for so long, and I can’t. Like, why is this a big deal? People just don’t understand, and it’s sad more than anything else -- for the women who aren’t part of a feminist community or don’t have access to that thought process: “This is who I am, and that’s OK, and I don’t have to change it.”

And there are all these things attached to it, like being unhealthy -- but anything can be unhealthy. I think it’s so rude to look at a thin person and be like, “That’s a healthy person.” You don’t know their daily routine, you don’t know what they’re putting in their bodies, you don’t know what they’re not putting in their bodies. It’s really strange to assume that if you’re a big person, you’re an unhealthy person.

It’s an incredibly prejudiced view of looking at people.

To me, it’s just another thing where [some people] have this skewed vision because they have a privilege attached to their identity, whatever that is. And it’s disheartening because it’s like, “Really? Is it that hard to be an open person without having to shut people down immediately for whatever reason?” It’s strange to me. What kind of brain is that? What kind of life is that to walk through and not understand? The biggest part of it -- with the collection especially -- is that I’m not going to wait around. And I always tell other activists when they ask for advice: Don’t try to change people’s minds, try to change your outlook on yourself and the way you see other people. Don’t try to change people’s minds, because that’s not going to happen, and it’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility in your life is to be happy and healthy, and let that be your focus.

How has your own style evolved? And especially in terms of your involvement with the fashion and beauty industries, because I imagine that would have an influence in the way you consume it yourself.

The thing that changes is you really get to see the thought that goes into these really beautiful pieces, and how quality it is. And having people make things for me that are really beautiful designs, you just think, Why can’t this be on a bigger scale? And I see why people want these things [that] are manufactured well and with fabrics made to last. And you start to realize the reason they’re expensive. But then you’re like, “But why can’t this happen for everyone?” And I think that’s what it is: You do get what you pay for, [and] it is OK to spend money on yourself because you deserve it. Especially any big girl I know who spends so much money on a lot of cheap things, because if you find something that fits you, [you buy it] in every single color, every single one they have.

I would rather just have one really great thing. And that’s the thing about being exposed to fashion and having that privilege: I’ve seen why these things are incredible and what it means when somebody puts a lot of thought into the design and a lot of thought into the fabric and the pattern and all of that stuff. And I’m just like, “This is what’s missing.” And that is probably the biggest thing. And in getting older, you start to realize that quality counts. It’s not quantity, it’s quality. When I was younger, I didn’t get that, but I do now. And [that] you deserve that -- you deserve better, and that’s OK. I think that’s the one thing about getting older. That, and I just want to be comfortable now. I just want to wear something that feels good and looks good at the same time, so why can’t I do that?

It’s the idea of investing in yourself.

Yes, and it’s OK! And you don’t have to change to fit the mold that people expect of you. And that’s what we wanted to do: It’s missing, so let’s do it, and let’s see what happens.

I love how in your writeup, you mention how your line chronicles your journey. And I love that description because I think that’s what we go on when we start to pay attention to how we want to present ourselves to the world. Has there been an aesthetic moment in your journey that’s made you the most proud? Where you felt like yourself?

I think really early on, around the age of 18, a big thing was not just my body size, but my identity -- like, coming out of the closet, and [whether] that meant I had to dress more masculine or play down my femininity ... or being able to dress as crazy or girly as I wanted to. And another thing was realizing, “Oh, I’m a punk.” That really changed everything for me. And being like, “Oh, this is where I belong.” So, as outlandish as you want it to be, as played-down as you want it to be, as as plain as you wanted it to be. Really that was a moment for me; all these [avenues] of self-expression that I had never gone down.

It seemed that before, being [LGBTQ] seemed to mean you had to play the part in terms of aesthetic. Like, society expected people to dress a certain way.

Right. And, you know, I think even as a gay person, especially coming out of the closet, you meet a lot of femmes that were like, “Oh, I felt like I had to dress like a ‘lesbian,’ whatever that means.” And then you’ll meet people who -- we call them butch -- will be like, “Oh, I felt like I had to be feminine.” And it’s so funny, the flip-flop. But yeah: There is an idea of what they think a gay person looks like. I had one friend tell me a couple of years ago -- and I laughed at it, because it was kind of funny -- “You’re looking very hetero these days.” And I was like, “What does that mean?!” But I don’t mind, it’s fine! There’s nothing wrong with looking hetero -- that’s OK.

That’s such a weird thing to say, though!

It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard. I still don’t get it.

I feel like fashion has really stepped up to reflect this rejection of labels in terms of how people choose to identify. And I think we’re starting to see that woven into style. Like, seeing gender non-specific lines, so maybe people are finally getting to dress like people. They can dress like themselves.

Yes! Exactly. And it is about time for that.

What are you most proud of about your collection? Is there a piece that stands out?

I will say that it’s the silver lamé jumpsuit, and it’s see-through, and it’s incredible. It’s just incredible. I love it so much. The denim jacket is my favorite, favorite thing -- but definitely the jumpsuit is just so cool. I love it so much. I cannot wait to wear it. And I have a feeling I’m going to be wearing it a lot. And then there’s a black one and a printed one, and one is silk jersey, and I just can’t wait -- it’s like a bubble suit. It’s amazing.

Even the images for your campaign are beautiful. Your heart is in it, and it’s so exciting when you see somebody do something that they love, because it makes you feel connected to that person, too -- like, "we’re in it together."

That’s the idea! Exactly. That’s exactly the feeling I want people to have: that we’re in it together. The shoot was so fun! So fun!

Who shot it?

Ezra Petronio and Katie Grand styled it. It was so great. It was really great to have high-end fashion people and highly respected stylists and photographers take part in a collection like this, because I don’t feel like it happens. And all it takes is someone to ask -- that’s the thing. Just ask! It was so good, so fun.

Do you ever have difficulty reconciling how you [dressed] then versus how you do now?

I’ve never had that feeling, never! I think because it’s all valid. I don’t believe in "wrong" in most situations when it comes to aesthetic -- I just don’t. There are things I won’t love, but I can guarantee that if I put them into context in my brain where they make sense, everything will be OK. And you’re a totally different person [now], so you can’t really do it. You have to remember that you were in the moment, and it was probably perfect in that moment. I would just own it!

Ezra Petronio