Back in January, Tess Holliday wore a floaty pink dress decorated with sparkly strawberry appliqués to the Grammy Awards. It wasn’t, to hear her tell it, terribly well received. But she loved it and didn’t think much about it after the initial criticism died down in her DMs. That might have been the end of the story of the strawberry-festooned poof were it not for TikTok, where the dress — a $490 number from designer Lirika Matoshi — has taken on a life of its own. (Vogue chalked it up to the sudden popularity of cottagecore along with the dress’ impracticality serving as a nice antidote to the grimness of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.) Vulture talked with Holliday about why the dress has garnered such a different reaction. (Spoiler: It’s fatphobia.)
Let’s rewind a little. When did you first see the strawberry dress?
I was rolling through Instagram, as one does, and I saw — I think it was sponsored — a post from Lirika’s Instagram. I saw how beautiful her dresses were but realized that I didn’t see any plus sizes on the site. I DM’d her. I just said, “Hey, your designs are ridiculously beautiful. Do you happen to do plus sizes?” I’m going to be honest: I’ve done this a few times in my life, and usually people don’t respond. It was the strawberry dress in particular, and she got back to me literally right away. I didn’t have anywhere to wear anything like that at that moment. I put her in touch with my stylist, Meaghan [O’Connor], and then probably six months went by. When I found out I was going to the Grammys, my stylist told me, “You’re gonna love what you’re wearing.”
Do you feel like you got in on the strawberry-dress ground floor?
All of this controversy has been so funny because there’s been so many people that are saying “You’re just mad that you didn’t make it popular.” That’s actually not it at all. I don’t give a shit about being the “first person” to wear it. People have been so mad about the fact that I’m discussing how plus-size people are treated. They’re like, “Well, that hasn’t been my experience.” Like, “Okay, Donna. Well, just because that’s not your experience doesn’t mean that it’s not real.” So it’s been … it’s been really wild. I also wish that people cared like this with actual issues, like Black Lives Matter and what’s happening to the USPS. But here we are.
You said that the dress put you on worst-dressed lists. What did that feel like? Do you recall which ones?
Part of me kind of regrets putting that in my caption because everyone then was like, “Well, I didn’t find you on worst-dressed lists! I only found one person that mentioned it.” The reality is my inbox was flooded with people criticizing my look for weeks. To be honest, the worst-dressed part, I feel, doesn’t even deserve my recognition or time. The real issue that I have is the erasure people are trying to do with my very valid feelings in regard to how plus-size and fat people are treated in fashion. The way that people just kind of overlook us and pretend that, you know, we don’t have style, that we aren’t trendy or fashionable. It’s dehumanizing.
Okay, so more of a worst-dressed list via your DMs and comments online rather than lists in publications?
Yes. It was ridiculous and frustrating. That day, Rick Ross literally pulled me aside and told me how beautiful I was. And I was like, “Wow, do I give him my number?” I’m such a clown. That’s what made me mad. I knew I looked cute. I spent two weeks with my DMs full of people mentioning me and rating my look. I’ve never seen so many thumbs down in my entire life. People were doing polls on their Stories.
Are you familiar with the world of cottagecore? You know, like, floofy sleeves, make your own jam, prance around the woods and pretend the world isn’t on fire.
My style is very eclectic, definitely more ’60s and ’70s inspired. I am familiar with what you’re talking about, but I can safely say I do not follow anyone that produces that kind of content. It feels very thin and able-bodied.
Do you remember when you realized the dress had become a thing?
I’m not gonna lie to you: I did not notice it until one of my friends stepped out of her Schitt’s Creek fandom long enough to send me a Twitter thread. This person was like, “I find it really ironic that Tess wore this dress at the Grammys in January, and no one gave a shit until slender people on TikTok were wearing it.” I looked, saw that it was in fact trending. I really started to examine, Well, why is this so popular now? Why are people acting like it’s new? That’s when I started to get a little frustrated.
This, I assume, didn’t come as a surprise though?
No. The dress is ridiculously cute. It looks good on everybody.
It did strike me as sort of funny that in this Vogue trend piece about the dress, they credit the size inclusivity as part of its appeal. But the dress actually only comes in up to a size 18.
She could expand her sizes, but, you know, [Lirika] dressed me and that’s a lot more than top designers have ever done. I can give you a much longer list of designers that have said no to dressing me that have actual plus-size ranges. I wore a $500 dress to the Grammys because (a) I loved the dress, and (b) that’s who would dress me. There’s a lot of stuff to break down, but I fully believe in supporting designers that actually give a shit about inclusivity. She might not be doing it perfectly, but she at least cares. That speaks to a larger issue within the fashion community: the erasure of plus-size and fat bodies, especially when it comes to high-end pieces.
Were you aware TikTok has admitted it intentionally suppressed content from fat creators, as well as queer and disabled creators?
You can tell from my TikTok that I was very late to the game, but I am no stranger to using my body and my platform as an act of resistance. Just by existing. That was why I joined as a fat queer person.
I’m often struck by how many of the popular audio clips are inherently fatphobic. There’s this one about becoming a “mammoth” and another where there’s a voice screaming “So you think I’m SKINNY” that really sticks in my brain.
Or the “Please don’t be ugly” one. It’s, like, youths doing it, and that’s part of why I jumped on there. I’ve done a couple, but I’ve also been rethinking what my future on there is going to look like. I’ve seen a lot of Black content creators calling for white folks to stop using the voices of Black folks to make TikToks because it’s like digital blackface. That’s valid. I hope in the new kind of era that we’re ushering in, there will be more people that genuinely think about what they’re doing and the impact that it has on a larger scale.
Even now that TikTok says it isn’t suppressing content from fat creators, there are still plenty of video trends that make you realize how much onus the app puts on being thin. Have you heard about this eating-carrots-dipped-in-mustard thing?
It’s been circulating on TikTok as a diet hack. A super-low-calorie snack.
I wish I had a dog I could dip in mustard. Something stupid. Dip half my cat in mustard.
I think PETA might have some thoughts about that.
Oh, I know they would. Don’t get me started on PETA. But really, this has been my entire career. It’s really hard as someone that has been doing this for a long time, since the beginning of what was body positivity on the internet. As much as I talk about how people need to love themselves and treat other people with kindness and respect, regardless of their size, their race, how they present themselves in the world, I realize that there is an entire young generation that is seeing these trends, and seeing all of this, and not realizing how incredibly harmful it is.
Earlier this summer, there was a viral image of two fat women wearing high-waisted shorts and baggy T-shirts and a tweet about how if two thin women wore the same outfits, it would be considered fashionable. How many more times do you think we’re going to play out this same narrative?
A very, very long time. As much as I’m tired of talking about this, I realize I still have a lot of work to do. If I have to keep being annoying, then you know I’m gonna do it.
Correction: This piece has been updated to clarify a detail about Holliday’s experience at the Grammys.