Dascha Polanco and Danielle Brooks have a lot in common. They both found stardom after being cast in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black — Polanco plays Dayanara Diaz, the formerly quiet, pregnant inmate-turned-heroin addict, and Brooks plays Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, the formerly cheery comic relief-turned-dead-eyed prison riot leader. Unsurprisingly, their characters are among the most popular on the show.
Polanco and Brooks are also both plus-size women of color, navigating a world of size-unfriendly showrooms, runways, and red carpets. InStyle brought the pair together to discuss what it’s like to get dressed for the spotlight when you don’t fit the typical celebrity mold. Read their candid conversation — on everything from sample sizes, to boob tape, to the intersection of race and size — below.
Dascha Polanco: I never knew that sizes existed beyond a 10, maybe a six, when it came to high fashion. Going to fittings or shows, everything they had was a [size] zero and two. I always said that I don't understand sample size. The sample size should be the sample of each size, not one sample of one size. It didn't make sense to me.
Danielle Brooks: The experiences I've had have always left me feeling like I was out of the box, like I was a problem… sample size has always been a two or a four. It's never been my size, so everything [I wear for red carpet events] has always had to be custom. I just don't understand why these big designers don't want to design for plus-size. Or they make it seem as if it's so difficult to design for anybody that's over a size six. That blows my mind. [There’s] so much money to be made in the industry, but they don't care. It's the market that they just decide to ignore. Clothing is such an expression of who we are, and it really sucks when the industry only gives you so many options of how you can express how you feel. I just find that unfair.
DP: Designers never tell you they don't want to work with you based on your size.
DP: [They say] “We love her, but, you know, not now." You know how impactful it would be to see somebody that's not your typical sample size on that carpet? You know how important that is?
DB: And they give us this run-around when it comes to designing… I wear a 14/16. [Designers] will give my stylist a 10/12. I can't fit a 10/12. It’s their way of saying, "We're not going to dress you. We'll give you what we got, but we're not going to waste our time dressing you." And that's just as bad. Because when you put that dress on and it doesn't fit, it makes you feel really bad about yourself.
DP: [Christian] Siriano, Michael Costello — they will dress you whatever you need. Jay Godfrey, too. It makes you feel so included, versus people just sending you a size two shirt [and saying], "We're going to make it fit.”
DB: I feel like I'm not really into fashion, to be honest. I'm into style, and I think that's what's been my saving grace. If I was caught up in fashion — what somebody told me I should be wearing, what designers I should be wearing — I would be on the floor in tears, really in a depressive place. But the fact that I decided to focus on style, which is something that is really created by how you feel, your spirit, what makes you feel good, that has really served me well. And it might not be all these big designers that I thought, when I first came into this business, I wanted to wear, that’s OK. I don't care if a shirt cost me $60. If that shirt looks good on me, and it makes me feel hot and sexy, or whatever, then I'm going to wear that instead of focusing on this $600 shirt that I can't even button at the breast.
DP: I've always dressed for my mood. And I can rock a shirt that's a dollar. In [Washington] Heights, they have these little shops and they have these little shirts for a dollar. I could rock that dollar shirt with like a $50 jean, and look like I'm a billion bucks. I feel good in it, and feel confident in it, and feel like, like not for nothing, but I feel beautiful. I feel like I'm walking my own runway. [Designer clothes] don't define me. They don't make me love myself more. In fact, [they] do the opposite.
DB: Exactly. I love wearing things that the world tells me I'm not supposed to wear. That excites me. I wore Marc Bouwer to the SAG Awards this year, I got to wear this really low cut [dress]. The whole dress was ombre from red to black, and then I got to wear a low cut dress where the boobies, they're coming out a little bit. Like, you don't know if I have a bra on or don’t. That was fun for me, because I never got to wear low cut dresses because I have bigger girls. Marc actually made a custom bra for me to wear, which just made me feel so included, and it made me feel so beautiful. I really love having fun wearing things that the world says bigger girls aren't supposed to wear.
DP: One time I wore this dress — and I [usually] have to tape my boobs up — but I didn't want to tape my boobs. I was hot. The tape that they bought wasn't the right tape, and it wasn't working. So I was like, you know what? Fuck it, I'ma go rock my boobs just like this. And sometimes people want you to wear Spanx, but sometimes I don't want to wear something underneath. I don't want to be gassy for the rest of the night.
DB: When I first got into all these little fashion shows, and going to these carpets, I felt so much pressure to find the top designers. I wanted to wear all these top designers so badly because I thought that that would help my career. I thought that they would put me in a certain category. But I realized it has nothing to do with nothing. If you're talented, you're always going to be talented, and what you wear is not going to make or break who you are. I truly believe that.
DP: [Luxury] brands don't dress me. They deteriorate my self-love. They deteriorate how secure I feel, so you know what? Take my middle finger up, and I'll be like, I'm going to go to Fashion Nova. [The clothing] might be $20, but they fit great, they feel great. They make me feel like, yo, I'm rocking these pair of leggings.
DB: If [brands] just found me and you — women that are two different sizes, two different shapes, that have clout — the plus-size girls would go crazy.
DP: It’s not only that. You know what else I noticed? That you have to be a white woman, first, in order to be dressed by a brand, whether you're a sample size or plus-size. That's another issue I have. OK, yeah, you have plus-size women, but it has to be a white woman first. It can't be a woman of color that's plus-size, it can't be a Caribbean girl that's a size 10. I don't understand that. It drives me crazy.
DB: Speaking as an African-American woman, I hear you, Dascha. I did not see many big women, if any, getting to be in the spotlight that way. As African-American women, we had the Naomi Campbells, we had the Tyras, we had Beverly Johnson, but for me it was a very specific look. But, to really see a dark-skinned woman grace a runway, I think is just becoming a very new thing. I'm just now getting to see someone like Alex Wek — someone with such rich melanin —was pretty incredible to me. Now if we could only get a plus-size version of an Alex Wek on multiple runways.
DP: It's changing, I think that's definitely changing. I think that there's more exposure, there's more definitely. But I don't think that it's where it's supposed to be. I keep telling people: this is a work in progress.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.