As a bridesmaid in her brother’s wedding, Julia Starkey couldn’t have received simpler instructions from her future sister-in-law: She could buy any dress she wanted, as long as it was purple.
What should have been a shopping excursion full of possibilities proved to be a demoralizing ordeal that ultimately forced Starkey to purchase a custom-made dress online.
“All I was looking for was a color,” said the 37-year-old Somerville resident. “My dress cost more than’’ the bride’s gown.
Ryn Aaromson of Quincy is on the hunt for a bikini for summer, but the only options she has found in her size are the more conservative tankinis, which cover the midriff.
“They operate from the assumption that a fat woman shouldn’t show her stomach,” said the 25-year-old.
Aaromson wears a size 18/20, while Starkey wears 20/22, both well within the range of what the clothing retail market calls plus sizes. But finding fashionable, trendy garments that fit properly — or at all — at stores in Greater Boston has been a persistent challenge for both of them, and an experience that has been shared by many women in countless plus-size fashion blogs, and exacerbated by some retailers, who have pushed their larger-sized offerings online or eliminated them altogether.
But for one day last year, Aaromson, Starkey, and other plus-size shoppers were able to forget about the marginalization that often defines their shopping experiences. They attended the launch of the Big Thrifty in Somerville, a secondhand-clothing sale for all genders sizes XL and up.
The event returns for its second year on Saturday, from noon to 5 p.m., at Unity Somerville, 6 William St.
Among the offerings Saturday will be six bags of shirts, dresses, skirts, pants, and tops donated by 28-year-old Arlington resident Dianne Brown, who was inspired to clean out her closet of seldom or never-worn items after attending last year’s event.
Brown did not have high expectations of the Big Thrifty last year, based on her prior experiences looking for plus sizes in secondhand shops, which she summed up as “two lonely racks in the back with ugly muumuus.” But now, she said, she can’t wait for Saturday to arrive.
“Shopping as a plus-size woman can take you out of your comfort zone. We’ve all had that experience where you’re trying on stuff and you’re crying because nothing fits,” Brown said.
“It was great to go and know that you’re going to find something that fits you. . . It was like a candy store. And there were women of all different sizes and shapes, and everyone was laughing and having a great time. This is how shopping should be.”
Dubbed as “a day of bargain shopping for FATshionistas,” the Big Thrifty was the creation of Somerville resident Mimi Says, who, at size 30/32, is well versed in the obstacles of finding anything from basic work pants to a last-minute outfit.
She was inspired to bring the event to her hometown after repeat visits to a popular annual clothing rummage sale in New York City called the Big Fat Flea.
“I was hoping for a whole bunch of things; just for people to find connection,” the 45-year-old said about starting the Big Thrifty. “People finding accessible clothing, that they could have this wonderland, that they would walk in and have glitter in their eyes, and it wouldn’t hurt their pocketbooks.”
Says promoted the event last year through social media outlets, including Facebook and a LiveJournal community, Fatshionista, which is moderated by her friend Starkey, and where members from around the globe post outfit photos, help one another find plus-size resources, and debate body politics.
Soon, bags of donated clothing poured in for the inaugural Big Thrifty, which drew about 200 shoppers from across New England and into New York. With items sold for a maximum of $10, the event raised more than $4,000 for NOLOSE, a national organization promoting “fat-positive ideology,” according to its website.
Proceeds from Saturday’s event, including the $5 entrance fee, will benefit Impact Boston, a self-defense nonprofit organization.
For Starkey, the higher she moved up on the size chart as an adult, the fewer retail options she had. At last year’s Big Thrifty, she filled two duffel bags with clothing items for $150, or the cost of “two pairs of jeans and an ugly shirt” at a typical plus-size store, she said.
“I feel like marketing in fashion just has a hard time accepting that there are fat people who want to look interesting and will buy those clothes,” Starkey said while helping Says sort through donated clothes at her house last month. “When leopard print came back in style, I spent a year trying to buy a leopard-print cardigan . . . and I never [found] one. It was just horrible.’’
Starkey remembers staring “in horror” a couple of years ago at a suddenly vacant space at CambridgeSide Galleria that had housed plus-size retailer Lane Bryant. It was one of the few reliable brick-and-mortar options for plus-size shoppers in her area that was accessible by public transit. She said there are more shopping options in the suburbs, but many require having a car.
Teresa Fresina of Brockton, who plans to make her first trek to the Big Thrifty on Saturday, agrees. The recent closure of the nationwide Fashion Bug chain, which carried clothes up to size 32, and of the Catherines store, which carries up to a size 34, at the Westgate Mall has pushed Fresina toward thrifting.
“Everybody has their own opinion about size and health, but if someone has a job interview, funeral, a party, or even wants a pair of jeans, you need something for where you are right now, and it shouldn’t be a struggle,” said the 37-year-old. “There’s not a lot of plus-size clothing’’ at secondhand stores, Fresina said, “and what there is, is out of style. I don’t want to walk into a job interview looking like the set of ‘Dynasty.’ ”
For Lia Cowley, 31, an artist from Somerville, the Big Thrifty gives her the opportunity for a hands-on appraisal that online shopping does not.
“Plus-size clothes are often really poorly made and really overpriced,” Cowley said. “The Big Thrifty is really unique because you can see things in person and try things on. . . Most of my clothes come from the Internet and I can’t try them on, I can’t see’’ how they would fit.
Even though the average US woman is said to wear a size 14, which is at the beginning of the plus-size spectrum, retailers continue to underserve this market, said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for a market research company, NPD Group Inc.
The retail industry sees plus-size consumers as vocal, but does not consider them dedicated, or fashionable, shoppers, Cohen said. But part of the reason, he said, is that retailers don’t offer much plus-size product, and when they do, they don’t promote it.
“There’s a stigma associated with plus-size brands, and retailers that carry the full assortment will not necessarily promote plus-size because they feel it’s detrimental to their image,” Cohen said. The plus-size consumer “will come over time, but in the retail world, it’s about instant gratification.”
Sales of women’s plus-size clothing nationwide accounted for $14 billion from March 2012 through February 2013, or 8.2 percent of the total clothing market, compared with sales of $65.6 billion, or 38.5 percent of the total market, for women’s regular/misses clothes in the same period, NPD’s tracking numbers show.
An NPD study released last year indicated 62 percent of plus-size women say they have trouble finding clothes in styles they want, and 79 percent would like retailers to offer clothes in styles available to their “smaller-sized friends.”
“It’s a Catch-22,’’ said Amy Mendosa, 35, of Medford, while sorting donations for the Big Thrifty last month. “You can only buy what’s out there, right?
“People over a size 14 constitute a substantial portion of the populace. It’s sort of the fat elephant in the room that fat people are a minority.”
Events like the Big Thrifty have helped Mendosa part with unused items in her closet because she knows they will go to someone who will appreciate them.
“When you find something that used to be somebody else’s, there’s kind of a connection to that person. Like, ‘There’s someone out there like me,’ ” she said. “When I’ve found things at a thrifting event, I think it’s sort of a sense of not being alone.”
Says said she is aware that some might simply advise plus-sized people to lose weight, but the Big Thrifty is about supporting body acceptance.
“This is the body I have, and if I want to dress fabulously, I’m going to do that,” she said. “I’m not going to wait until some goal may or may not be reached, if I even have a goal. I’m going to dress in a fabulous way right now, and I’m going to provide that access to other people who want to dress fabulously.”Katheleen Conti can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti. Katheleen Conti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.