Irene Agbontaen: why is dressing as a tall woman so hard?

It's time that the fashion industry meaningfully included tall women in the conversation

By Irene Agbontaen - Sep 30, 2020

For as long as I can remember, I've always stood out for being tall. The tall gene comes from my mother's side of the family. She's not tall herself, but her brothers are. I've always been taller than your average..

Growing up, my height made me feel self-conscious. I was always asked to stand at the back for any school photos because I was tall. There was and is a sense of always being asked to stand in the background and that affects your sense of self-worth. Tall women hunch, lean and diminish themselves so they can be at the same eye level as others. We dim our light to just feel included. Tall women are not told they're beautiful; they're told to go to the back and blend in.

One of the first times that I realised that my height excluded from me from things was when I was at secondary school. My mother and I would go on desperate shopping trips searching for plain black trousers for me to wear to school. Nothing ever fitted; they were all ankle swingers or unfashionable – there was nothing for a young, on-trend teenager. In the end, I just stuck to the old school skirt. I couldn't shop at the same places as my friends. I'd stand outside the changing rooms when my friends were trying on all these great clothes knowing that they would all look bad on me. I felt ignored and as if there was no space for me.

The advantages to all that was that it made me look deeper for my style. The singer Aaliyah was a big inspiration to me growing up – she dressed like a man but with feminine accents. I could do that as I could wear men's clothes. Being tall helped me to find my own lane.

Everyone deserves to be represented and for so long, tall women have just been given the scraps. I'm five foot 11, so I'm at the start of the tall spectrum, but I have struggled to find the most basic wardrobe essentials. My brand, TTYA, was born out of not being able to find those key pieces. I just wanted not to have to wear men's clothes all the time. When I first started TTYA, I created classics that were cut perfectly for tall women.

Representation is important, but society remains intolerant of women whose height goes above five foot seven. The only tall women we see in the media are Serena Williams and Gwendoline Christie. When I first launched my brand, Gwendoline emailed me to say thank you for including women of our height in the fashion narrative. When tall women are represented in the media, it's through the prism of masculinity. If you look at Gwendoline's character in Game of Thrones, she plays a manly giant – being tall is always associated with those things. Serena Williams has always been an advocate for her own femininity; she doesn't want to be described in masculine terms just because of her height. Honestly, if I had a pound for everyone who asked me if I play basketball, I'd be a rich woman. You're either an athlete or a supermodel, there's no middle ground.

In fashion, terms such as diversity and inclusivity are now being used as marketing buzzwords. When brands talk about clothing inclusivity, they tend to mean solely plus-size. A brand isn't inclusive just because it does a limited curve line. What about everyone else that doesn't fit into that bracket? I'm not saying that every brand should have fingers in all pies, but if we're going to use the word inclusivity we must do so correctly.

A lot of big labels want to be able to widen their bracket and to appeal to all women, but they go about it in a half-baked way. There's never much research – they just make things longer. It makes me think, 'are there any tall people behind the scenes designing this or consulting on it?' I'm a tall woman designing clothes for tall women. I understand our frustrations, what's missing in the market and what needs to be done to serve us better. I want to make sure we have a voice and a space in the fashion world.

Inclusion and diversity needs to mean something. If you're going to claim that your brand embodies those things, then that needs to start from the inside out – in your ethos, your staff and your values. It shouldn't be just a shallow front of house statement. Don't just use a tall woman in your campaign but not fully cater to them in your collection. You can't just add three inches onto a piece of clothing and think that's enough - you need to think about the construction of that garment and how it will fit a tall frame. For example, if I have a longer torso, then my waist will be at a different height. Loads of brands don't want to do the research required when designing for tall women. Instead they take the shortcuts.

Since launching TTYA, I've started thinking about my height differently. Suddenly I was very aware that there were so many women that felt the same way as me. I'd receive so much feedback from customers who felt finally heard – one girl's mother emailed to tell me that I'd made her daughter's prom because she'd managed to find a dress that fitted her. Knowing that I'd helped others made me feel understood too.

Any tall woman who walks into a room seizes the attention of everyone in it and I've learnt to think of that as an asset. I used to think about how I would best fit in, now I think, 'how can I use this to my advantage?' Tall women command a space. To all my tall female friends, if you want to wear six-inch heels, wear them. Don't let anyone else's insecurities change who you are or diminish you.


Know your body ratio

Some people have a longer torso and shorter legs, or vice versa. Dress for your body shape; it'll make everything easier.

Don't go overboard when it comes to oversized

Only go up one or two sizes to achieve that effortless oversized look without it looking shapeless or overly baggy.

Find your wardrobe essentials

Once you have those in place, then you can layer clothes not necessarily for tall women on top.

As told to Ella Alexander.

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