Clothing vs. Body

What to do when the clothes you own fight your natural figure shape.

In college, I wore what my peers wore. I had a limited budget, limited resources, and limited interest in style so I just imitated what I saw. And what I saw was jeans, jeans, flannel, Doc Martens, jeans, oversized sweaters, jeans, long-sleeve tees and, jeans. Also jeans. And the jeans that were in style at the time were flares, which balanced my hips relatively well, and I wore them without thinking and assumed I looked as good as I  possibly could.

After graduation I moved to San Francisco where I traded my flare jeans for wide-leg black dress slacks. And, again, I wore them without thinking and assumed I looked as good as I  possibly could.

It wasn’t until I moved to Minneapolis in 2000 and began exploring my personal style in earnest that I realized I didn’t look as good as I possibly could because I was wearing clothing that fought my body. Since I carry some squish right where mid-rise pants hit, their waistbands were cutting into me even when they fit properly, and some muffinage was inevitable. I was wearing blocks of color that bisected me and drew attention to my butt and hips. I never, ever layered, instead opting for heavy, bulky single-ply tops and sweaters.

Skirts were a revelation: They sat at my natural waist where there was extremely limited waistband dig, they flowed gracefully over my naturally lush hips, they FELT AMAZING. Learning to layer allowed me a far more artful way to stay warm than just throwing on the thickest, heaviest sweater I owned and disguising everything about my body in the process. Once I started wearing clothing that worked with my figure instead of against it, once I stopped pitting my clothing against my body, I looked like a completely different woman. And my confidence skyrocketed.

Sometimes, wearing clothing that fights your body is unavoidable: If you must wear a uniform, if you dress for dirty or dangerous tasks you may end up in garments that work against your figure. But it’s also possible to simply default to clothing that fights your body, to wear it because you don’t know what else to do, to follow the crowd. And you may not even realize you’re doing it. Here are some sure-fire signs that you’re pitting your clothing against your body:

Pinching, pulling, and subdivision: This is one of the most obvious signs of clothing fighting a bod, but it merits mentioning. Clothing that works with your form will sit flat and quiet against you without cutting into you, dividing up your torso, or otherwise hurting your physical form.

Unexpected results: You see a garment on someone else, like the look, purchase the item, wear it, realize immediately that it looks utterly different on you than it did on your inspirational model, silently admit that it might not be a good style for you, yet continue to wear it. Now, there’s no “right” way to wear certain garments, but in this situation you can see that something is “off.” The look or looks you’re creating displease your own eye, but you’re stuck on the vision of how they look on others.

Wardrobe malaise: If you either loathe everything in your closet or feel utterly indifferent to everything you own, it’s possible that you’re buying body-fighting garments. Exclusively. Nearly all people own a handful of items that make them look and feel utterly amazing. Everyone has the occasional, “I’ve got nothing to wear” moment. But if you suffer from a perpetual wardrobe malaise, you might want to reconsider some of your dressing choices.

If you feel like you might be in a clothing vs. body situation and don’t know where to begin making changes, try going drastic. If you’ve been wearing nothing but skirts for 10 years, try pants. Skinny pants, wide legged pants, flares, straight legs, any pants. If you’ve been doing loads of layers, pare down to a single layer of garments for a while. If you’ve been wearing low rise bottoms, try high waisted ones instead. Whatever you’re doing now, try the opposite. You’ll probably end up meandering back to a middle ground eventually, but starting out extreme will allow you to explore the gamut.

Finding clothing that caresses your body, flows with its natural curves and accents its natural angles can be extremely challenging. I don’t mean to imply that it’s a snap for anyone and everyone. But questing for garments that work with – instead of against – your body is a worthwhile project. Because once you find them, your confidence will skyrocket, too.

Image courtesy Gap.

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

Originally posted 2012-04-26 06:01:54.

Next Post
Previous Post

42 Responses to “Clothing vs. Body”

  1. Cheryl

    Beautifully stated, Sal. The fashion industry spends an awful lot of money convincing us that all we need is to buy the latest fashions and we’ll look terrific. I think that most people believe this nonsense because (here in America, at least) we’re never taught to develop our own style aesthetic. I love what you wrote about setting off on a quest to find what’s beautiful for our own bodies. It takes some effort to figure out what’s flattering and what isn’t. I did, and continue to do, my own exploring at the thrifts. They’re like a playground for trying out different styles. And so cheap!

  2. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Great post, Sal. There’s so much great clothing to choose from, why fight what nature gave us? I wore “dress pants” for years before I realized I don’t like the way they fit my body (longer torso, shorter legs). Plus they didn’t feel all that comfortable. Now I only wear dresses/skirts for work, and ahhhh, that feels better : >

  3. Kitty

    I had a uniform job for several years, and the best money I spent on clothes during that time was getting my work shirts altered to fit properly. They looked 100% better and made the uniform requirement much more bearable.

  4. JB

    This is so interesting to think about from a generational perspective. My mother grew up in dresses, which were probably cheap and ill-fitting and which she certainly had no say in picking out. When she finally was able to make her own fashion choices, she did as you suggest and went to the other extreme of pants, pants, and more pants. I, therefore, was raised to believe that pants equalled comfort. It wasn’t until I was well into my thirties that I realized I was much more comfortable in skirts and dresses – which my mother cannot fathom!

    • Copy Czarina

      I had the same experience with my mother (born in 1923), although the dresses she wore when she was young were beautiful and well made, and she certainly picked them out herself. But as soon as pants became acceptable work wear for women, she started wearing them every day and hardly ever wore a skirt or dress again. And she could never understand why I felt uncomfortable in pants.

  5. ModernSauce

    I love this idea of not fighting your body! I’m a pants girl forever but always had such a hard time fighting the way they were cut – always bunching, squishing and hanging incorrectly. And then I discovered skinny jeans and my life changed! I was never a fan and then I just got crazy (must have been drunk or something) and tried them on and realized that they were working WITH my shape! Hugging the curves but not cutting in elsewhere. Also, they show off my shoes better so it’s a win/win.

    Victory in the dressing room that day, I tell you!

  6. bubu

    I definitely agree with all of this – I fought my hourglass figure for years, and when I finally embraced it and started to worked with it, found clothes fit better, looked better, and made me feel better. However, I can’t help be struck by how your post intersects with the one from yesterday. I have seen the floral pants, and knowing what I know about my figure, in combination of my not naturally being attracted to that trend, have decided to forgo it. I sensed from the comments that a lot of people were not so enthused about the trend. But your comment in the midst there got me thinking about whether we were closing ourselves off, or playing into mindsets of how things “should” look… when do we cross over from working with our bodies and what flatters, to restricting ourselves or playing into limitiations of how and what we should wear?

  7. Virginia

    I love this. And I also think I’m really, really wearing all the wrong jeans. SIGHHHH. You are firming my resolve to stop buying anything I have to force my body into and hold out for things that fit…

    But, um, side note: Have you figured out the right pants for short torso/long legs/prone to lack of waist? My natural waist is so high, I muffin top in every damn thing and I’m OVER it. Are skirts really the answer?

    • Sal

      Hmm, skirts and dresses are going to be far easier than pants on a super short torso. Especially because they can move a bit and migrate, unlike pants which are confined by the rise/crotch and legs. Have you tried super high-waisted pant styles? I’m betting those don’t work either, but Talbots Heritage styles are nice and high, and Urban Outfitters typically has some edgier high-rise pants.

      • Virginia

        Interesting — I have avoided high-waisted pants because I felt like they would just magnify the high waist/short torso issue. But maybe I should give them a whirl… maybe with some sort of longer cardigan open over them to balance things out? Wheels… turning…

        I do love me some dresses and I should be doing more with skirts, I think. They are my go-to whenever I leave the house, it just feels weird to wear a dress or skirt to work from home. But maybe that is silly. Maybe — lightbulb! — what feels weird is wearing jeans that pinch my waist to work from home. Ohhh… we may be on to something here.

        • Katharine

          Have you tried looser low-waisted pants? Maybe with a wider waistband, but one that rides in a relaxed way along your hips? I find those really comfy — especially those kind of yoga-pant crosses with a jersey foldover waistband but more dressy material for the legs. Something like these ( only maybe not in a white fabric that allows passersby to see right through you…

        • virago

          Virginia, I have the same high waist/long legs issue, and for a long time, I favored low-rise jeans. (Although even the lowest-rise jeans come up pretty high on me!)

          Then I found a pair of Level 99 denim/Tencel sailor pants at a consignment store and have been very pleased with the way they look on me, esp. my flat rear, which appears a bit more bodacious in these trousers. I always wear them with a long tee (meaning to just above my hips), one that is semi-fitted or fitted to emphasize my waist and balance out the flare factor.

          Here’s a link to the trousers in question.

          No longer sold, unfortunately. Here are a couple of similar items.

          And I adore skirts and dresses for the very same reasons that Sal mentions. Especially dresses, because a) I am lazy and I don’t want to have to find a clean shirt to match and b) they don’t break up my body. One of my favorite outfits is a gray, knee-length bias-cut Ghost of England dress* I bought off eBay, paired with black cotton tights, knee-high black leather engineer boots and a long, fitted purple cardigan. (Ghost specializes in bias-cut dresses like this one, which drape along the body well.)

          * No zippers! No buttons! No pinchy waistband! Bliss!

  8. Anamarie

    I have a friend who constantly wears clothing that fights her body – she does exactly what you said – she buys clothing she likes on other people, who have different body types than her, and she always seems uncomfortable. I have become a lot better at choosing clothes that work on ME, but it took me a long time to realize that I didn’t always make the most flattering choices. Do you think this is something people have to figure out for themselves? I know my friend well enough that I could say something without hurting her feelings, but does that mean I SHOULD? I am not an expert. She even hired someone like you, Sal, as a wardrobe consultant, and didn’t want to go through the work of going through her closet and weeding out the old, out of style, unflattering, etc. clothes and coming up with a style. She just used the stylist to go shopping a couple of times for special events and keeps buying the same type of clothing she always has.

    • Sal

      That is a tough one, Anamarie. It sounds like she knows something is not working in her sartorial life, but might have some pretty big/influential forces keeping her from changing for some reason. Maybe start a conversation with her about how she chooses her clothes and why. Try to get her talking about her thought processes and motivations. She really does have to figure it out on her own, but if you can get that ball rolling, she might get there faster.

  9. Becky

    Great post, Sal!

    My moment of truth came when I bought a how-to book on tailoring. The book had a whole section of photos illustrating that if a garment makes a body part look “not right,” then the *garment* has a problem. Not the body part.

    This is a slightly different issue than finding styles that are comfortable and flatter, but I think they’re related. It taught me that if my clothes aren’t looking right, the solution isn’t to frown at my tummy and vow to do more sit-ups, but to change what I’m wearing.

  10. Dee

    Interesting to think about! I have pretty much been a pants person, never thought too much about it but although I like skirts and dresses they dont always “like” me. For one, 8 months out of the year I have to wear hose or tights with them, and if the skirt is not pinching my waist, the elastic of the tights and/or slip is! For me, just wearing pants and some kind of sock is much more comfortable and easier! I will wear skirts in the summer – and prefer if there is some give in the waist. Dresses are comfortable in the summer, but I still need pettipants or spanx to avoid the thigh chafing… I wonder if body shape has alot to do with the comfort thing. I have a larger waist and smaller hips/legs.

    • M

      I know part of the reason I didn’t like dresses and skirts growing up was feeling too embarrassed to say it was because of thigh chafing and even once I realized it, I couldn’t find a good way to deal with it because I really don’t like hose. So, I wore pants.

      Then once I realized that oh, this is where leggings and tights and pettipants and bike shorts come in, which is annoying, but I actually like it now. It gives me more freedom when biking in a skirt or dress, I don’t have to worry when the subway flips my skirt up, between different weight skirts, layering them with dresses and the various leg coverings, I can be even more comfortable temperature wise than I was when I wore pants (mostly jeans) all of the time. I know I have a more flexible work environment where leggings are ok most any time, but I really do like it. I have a relatively small waist when compared to my hips and thighs.

  11. Stacy

    Well said, Sal! I think it takes awhile to develop your style and figure out what really looks good on you. I had to wear suits in the early part of my career and none of the pants or skirts that came with them ever fit me right. I suppose I could have altered them, but I was so busy I didn’t take the time. Now I work in a business casual environment and I make most of my skirts and some of my tops. They fit, flatter and are comfy. I use the same patterns over and over again, as I drafted them to fit ME. On Fridays we have “casual” a.k.a. Jeans Day at the office, and that is much less comfortable. Sitting at a computer in jeans all day is not very comfy.

    • Katharine

      Why do you have to wear jeans? I use casual day to wear things that are (in my head) just a little bit too wacky for “regular business casual”. (And more fun shoes, like Converse high tops or my Doc 14-holes.) Tunics and leggings (for example) could be just as casual and more comfy. Or jean skirts.

      • Stacy

        I do usually wear something other than jeans. It is usually jeans skirts and very occasionally leggings. I’m still not comfortable wearing them in an office setting. I guess they are too comfy!

    • M

      Sewing has been so awesome for me too! I just decided to sit down and learn to sew with a machine about 7 months ago! A few months ago I made an infinity dress for myself and I love that it lets you experiment with many styles of dresses, which helps when you just want to see what sorts of shapes and styles of clothing work well for you. I get so many compliments when I wear a dress that was super simple to construct and relatively cheap because it works with my body.

      I really think for me the key to making my clothing actually make me excited about it was for me to start sewing and customizing it. Before that I wore stuff just that was comfortable, but many times wasn’t what I wanted because I couldn’t find that mystical item with my non-standard body size and shape. Now I can sew and it’s all possible and customizable at my fingertips! That’s awesome.

      • Stacy

        That is great! Sewing is a wonderful skill to have and really opens the doors on what you can do with your wardrobe. You can be so much more creative when YOU get to pick the fabric and style.

  12. tiny junco

    Yep. Clothes that work For Your Body is the basis of any authentic personal style. I’d only point out that choosing the right fabric and fibre is critical. A little stretch, a knit rather than woven weave, can make a world of difference in how a garment interacts with your unique physical form. steph

  13. Aziraphale

    I had a similar epiphany several years ago. As it happens, my body is quite well suited to jeans, and many styles look pretty good on me, so I was pretty comfortable with my university uniform of jeans and flannel shirts (I’m roughly the same age as you, so we both came of age during the grunge era). That transitioned to “smart” jeans or cotton pants once I started working. I occasionally wore a denim skirt, but other than that, it was pants all the way, and always flare or wide-legs. When skinny jeans came onto the scene, I initially balked (having been there, done that back in the 80s), but eventually tried them, and in doing so realized I had long been covering up one of my best assets: my legs. I’m short, and my midsection, while not bad, has never been my favourite body part. Wearing wide legs jeans with fitted tops concealed my shapely legs and emphasized my middle, as well as probably emphasizing my small stature. It wasn’t a bad look, exactly, but I realized that there are other silhouettes that make much better use of my natural shape and size. So in addition to the slimmer-fitting jeans, I started adding skirts to my arsenal. It turns out that many skirt shapes are phenomenally flattering, giving the illusion of a smaller waist and a fuller rear end — and no muffin top issues, ever! Plus they show my legs to their best advantage, especially if I wear a bit of a heel.

    I still wear jeans of all shapes. For me, nothing beats the comfort of a nice pair of low-rise, wide-leg jeans, except maybe a breezy skirt with no tights — but that’s only possible for a precious few months in the summer where I live. But now that I’ve realized what’s possible and have branched out a bit, I’m having a lot more fun with fashion (which includes reading your great blog!) Thanks again for the tips/reinforcement!

  14. Quin

    I was super into bootcut jeans in high school. I still am, actually, my favorite pair of jeans is a bootcut in a dark wash from Gap (that I’m wearing as I type this!), and they fit beautifully. But, though they look great with my uniform of jeans+sandals+tank+cardi, sometimes I want to wear a loose stripey sweater or a slouchy tee or something. And I was getting so frustrated because, as much as I loved certain tops, they just didn’t look good with the jeans.

    And then I went shopping with one of my fashion icons, my big sis. While we were out, she bought a pair of skinny jeans. I had always assumed those wouldn’t look good on me, since I have a pear figure with rather generous hips. But, my sis has a similar figure to mine, and they looked KILLER on her. So I tried some on too, under her advisement, bought them, and found that basically every shirt that looked lukewarm with my bootcut or flare jeans looked SO RIGHT with the skinnies. Plus, now that it’s spring, skinnies look extra mega cute cuffed with some gladiator sandals. A+ FOR SKINNY JEANS

  15. Rose of Sharon

    Dear Sally,

    You are so right-on when it comes to how liberating skirts are! I’ve never worn a pair of pants that fit correctly; being an Asian women, my torso runs longer than other peoples. The crotch area in jeans can be excruciatingly tight after a day’s wear. I’ve always loved wearing skirts. I just wish it weren’t so cold in MN. What’s funny about the culture here is that people think you’re dressed up if you’re in a skirt. No, it ‘s not that…I’M JUST MORE COMFORTABLE!

    P.S. Sally, I love, love, love your style. You’re perfect!

    • virago

      Oh, I hear you — I live in northern New England, and it gets plenty cold (and damp) here in the winter. To aid and abet my dress-love, I turn to tights. Sockdreams has lots of options (these are just a few), and their service rocks. (Not to push this retailer over anyone else — I’m sure that plenty of places in MN sell tights — just wanted to give you some ideas from a retailer I’ve had a good experience with.)

  16. Erika A

    Oh man, yeah. Around here we refer to my wardrobe evolution as “the defrumpification”. I am of average height with a true hourglass figure that’s on the short-waisted side. I was always drawn to long, flowy, drapey, lean styles and cropped tops, big patterns, and boot-cut jeans. I am both too short and way too busty to pull any of that off personally. It would either obscure my figure and make me look shapeless and lumpy or cut me in two in the middle in the most unflattering way.

    The two biggest changes I made to my wardrobe were wearing fitted (but not skintight) shirts and getting rid of anything (dress, shirt, sweater) that was overly baggy in the waist. I had to be talked into this repeatedly by friends and family, and I never believed them. Then I saw some pictures of myself where at the time I thought I looked great but the pictures said otherwise. I have a waist, and I realized that hiding it automatically made me look frumpy and ill-dressed, no matter how expensive the material or how well-made the garment was.

    I still struggle against my old clothing urges, but my thrifting buddy and my boyfriend are on “Frump Patrol” at my request. They gently urge me to put back on the rack things that are patently unflattering, and suggest alternate garments from the clothes I already have if I’m wearing something unflattering that I can’t get rid of. I had to realize that I wasn’t dressing to “look skinny” I was dressing to “look put together” and that when my look was correct, even jeans and a shirt looked good. It was kind of a revelation.

    But I still secretly pine for my flowy shirts. *laugh*

    • Anne

      Erika, the older I get, the more I value having “Frump Patrol” Buddies. I would never actually wear an outfit that my husband picked out but I have learned over the years that he does actually understand the idea of proportion and he can often spot when it’s off. Hang on to those people. They will be vital when you get to that age that you need a chin hair spotter!

      • Erika A

        Thanks Anne. 🙂 My thrifting buddy will DEFINITELY tell me if she spots a chin hair. She’s not shy.

  17. Vive

    Ah, I love “finding clothing that caresses your body”!! That’s it! I had abdominal surgery a few years ago, and since then I’m just not comfortable in anything that’s tight around my pelvis, particularly jeans. I end up tender by the end of the day, and I’m so aware of my middle while I’m wearing them. Once I gave up focusing on how this limited me, I started thinking about clothes that flatter and don’t make me hurt. Skirts, trousers, dresses — all clothes that I really love and didn’t wear enough. Why not optimize those instead of trying to make something work that just may not anymore?

    As a result, my style evolved, and ultimately in really good ways. I spent the weekend at a teaching retreat last month and wore my skirts, casual dresses, and sandals, comfy as I could be. Most others were in jeans or shorts. At the end someone told me how much she liked how I dress. I told her in all honesty that it was how I was comfortable. But her comment made me realize how embracing that limitation had turned out to be a sartorial blessing.

  18. BeautyStyleGrowth

    My body type is inverted triangle and ever since I started taking pictures of my self I realised I was wearing the wrong size clothes or clothes that didn’t flatter my shape. My blog style posts focus on dressing my body type and I’m having fun doing that. I now feel very uncomfortable in my ill fitting clothes. I’ve done a lot of alterations in the to make my clothes fit better.
    kemi at

  19. Adi

    This is a really good post! After being skinny all my life, I have recently started putting on weight due to a desk job. I am okay with that, since now I actually have curves and I have cheeks:) 🙂 But unfortunately, I still dress like I used to when I was thin. And that makes me look lumpy rather than *ahem* lush 😛
    This post is making me question if I am actually wearing the best possible outfits I can?

  20. Jess

    My first and most important rule: if it hurts to wear, do not wear it. I can definitely recall multiple times in middle school and high school where I wanted to wear cool jeans, even though they usually weren’t made in my size, so I would force myself into them, thinking that because they looked good on everyone else, they’d look good on me. Nothing like self-created peer pressure! Even if it was followed by a long road of almost too big jeans a t-shirts, I’m very, very glad I outgrew the Painful Pant Phase. And now I flat out refuse to wear any clothing that crushes my ribs, puts dents in my waist or tugs at my shoulders. (Oh except bras, because apparently they will never not pinch or pull somewhere.) Just not worth it.

    • Katharine

      Have you been professionally fitted for a bra, and tried out different brands in your size? Because a properly fitted bra doesn’t pinch or pull either, but one that’s the wrong size, or wrongly arranged for your body (e.g. different manufacturers use fit models with different breast spacing) sure as heck will.

  21. Copy Czarina

    How do you keep your clothes from fighting your body when your body is fighting itself? I’m very short, very busty, very curvy, with a short torso. I love 1950s styles and would prefer to wear dresses or skirts every day, but I also have arthritis in my feet and ankles and need to wear “sensible” shoes or big, clunky sneakers–and I can’t think of any way to make those work except by wearing pants (especially jeans). I also can’t think of any way to make that silhouette look good and feel cool in summer, but I need to be mobile, so I’m afraid I’ve got to put up with some discomfort from my clothes to avoid actual pain in my joints.

    • Sal

      Copy Czarina, do comfortable flats work for you? Would those work better with dresses and skirts for you? I’m sure you’ve looked, but just wanted to check. Round-toe flats can look great with 50s style frocks.