Make it Work


Workarounds for clothes that don't fit perfectly off the rack

No style expert worth her salt will openly condone wearing clothes that don’t fit. But THIS style expert knows that weight fluctuates, hand-me-downs happen, and occasionally a bargain lands in your lap that is so bargainous you’re willing to overlook slightly imperfect fit. (Emphasis on the slightly, I hope.) The occasional too-sheer blouse will find its way into your closet, too, as will the occasional shrunk-in-the-wash garment. So here are a few work-arounds I use when facing down challenging clothes:

Belts, vests, and blazers for upper body looseness


Most of you are likely aware that a belt can cinch a slightly loose waistline, but vests and blazers are great alternatives for garments that fit loosely through the entire bodice. This tie-dyed swing dress is voluminous on its own, but my harness belt works wonders at making it look appropriately sized.

PITFALLS: Any of these may cause bunching, especially if you’re attempting to cinch a garment that is TOO loose. Don’t expect to throw a vest over a blouse that is four sizes too big and have it magically transform into a garment that fits.

Layers for too-small garments


Layering is a good option for any imperfectly-fitting garment, as more garments in a mix mean that the eye has more to take in and less opportunity to notice flaws. But shrunken or small garments work best as under-layers. This top is, sadly, quite tight on me. But throw on a vest and scarf and no one’s the wiser.

PITFALLS: Sometimes someone IS the wiser. If you’re uncomfortable with how small an item is, or how tightly it fits, make sure it’s well buried in your outfit. Your self-consciousness about it may cause you to fidget, which will draw attention to it. Also be sure to stick to slightly small garments, and avoid anything that cuts off circulation.

French cuffs for long, slim pants


I’m calling these “French cuffs” because the DAY I first tried this trick for myself, Garance did a post in which she called ’em French cuffs. Simply turn excess pant leg inside the leg opening, stuff it up in there and make sure it’s sitting flat against the pant leg wall. This trick only works with skinny or slim-fitting pants, in my experience, but it can save you on hemming.

PITFALLS: If you try this with a supple fabric, the cuff may come undone as you walk. In addition to being best suited to slim pants, this technique is really ideal for jeans and chinos.

Rolled cuffs for short or long sleeves


Sometimes a shirt or jacket fits fine through the torso, but the sleeves are clearly meant for someone with arms far shorter or longer than your own. I’d wager that sleeve length is one of the hardest fits to nail since a few centimeters of cloth can transform a shirt from fab to laughable. You can sometimes distract from too-short sleeves by adding some bracelets to each arm, but a better bet is to roll your sleeves. For button-downs, undo the cuffs and roll twice for a 3/4-sleeve fit. Long-sleeved knits and sweaters can be pushed up, but they’re less likely to stay put.

PITFALLS: This is a casual look! Most law offices will not condone rolled sleeves.

Contrasting or nude underlayers for sheers


This blouse was far too sheer to be worn alone, and looked slightly odd with a nude cami, so I opted for a column of black underneath. Nude camisoles and other under-layers are the a great choice for making sheer garments wearable, but doing an outer layer like cardigan or jacket

PITFALLS: This isn’t a pitfall, per se, but obviously you can’t throw a blazer over any sheer garment and expect it to look fantastic.

Fashion tape for all manner of fit adjustments

I’ve sung the praises of fashion tape loudly and often, but I can’t do a post on making unruly garments work without giving it a mention. It’ll keep a loose belt end in place, secure a loose wrap top or dress, seal a button-down shirt at the placket, or in the case of the above outfit, tack down a floppy collar.

PITFALLS: Fashion tape is meant to be temporary. That means that by 3 p.m. or so, you might start coming unstuck. Bring backup tape, and don’t expect this to be a permanent solution!

Originally posted 2011-08-08 06:21:09.

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37 Responses to “Make it Work”

  1. Alice

    This is a wonderful post, I have problems all the time because I am an ‘unconventional’ shape so I totally love this (nothing ever fits my bust and it drives me mad). Cannot wait to try some of them out. You look absolutely lovely in the second photo from the bottom btw xo

  2. ABCD for Michelle

    My only advice–if you can’t make it work using the tips above, find a good tailor! I’m petite, so no matter how much I French cuff, roll up sleeves, or belt, sometimes things just don’t work. Take that extra money you saved when you thrifted/bought something on sale, and invest it in a tailor. I’ve had tons of petite ladies remark to me how my clothes always seem to fit me so well! It’s not a secret, and it seems obvious, but to some ladies it’s really not, so I’m here to tell you: For under 10 bucks, a tailor can make your clothes look like a million.

    Also, that vest over the sheer shirt has always been one of my favorite outfits on you, Sal!

  3. Sarah

    No tips from me, I’m afraid, you’ve got my pathetic few covered. I just want to say that the fashion tape trick particularly is new to me and I think it’s great!! I’m going to have to get me some.

  4. Ms. M

    I have to say, after a lifetime of “making do” with cheap and thrifted clothes, I finally got fed up and decided that I would no longer buy anything that doesn’t fit or can’t be altered to fit properly.

    There are a few exceptions: I do have a supply of camisoles to wear under low-cut or sheer tops, and some tight layering tees to wear under sweaters in the winter.

    I am spending a little more on clothes than I used to, but not really that much more. And it’s worth it to me. Getting dressed is so much easier when you don’t have to solve a wardrobe problem every morning. (I know some people love the creative challenge of solving a problem, but I’m not one of those people. I just want to get dressed and look nice.)

    Luckily, my weight doesn’t fluctuate enough to make a noticeable difference in the fit of my clothes on a day-to-day basis.

  5. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Great ideas – I have to try the French Cuffs right away. If I have a skirt that’s a bit too tight, I unzip it a little and wear a sweater or tee over it. Pitfall: if the zipper un-zips itself in the middle of a meeting : >

  6. Sarah

    Heh–I wear and have worn cuffed shirt sleeves to law offices regularly. I prefer 3/4 length both because I have short-ish arms and because long sleeves make me sweat like crazy. I tell myself it has that “roll up your sleeves and get to work” effect, and it also keeps ink and pencil off my sleeves. The only time I don’t cuff is under a suit jacket, and once the jacket comes off, the sleeves get cuffed.

    • R.S.

      I second the rolled cuffs on shirt sleeves – I work in a law office and do it frequently on casual days. It totally depends upon the shirt and how you have its styled, but it can still look neat and professional. I also agree that it keeps ink and pencil off my sleeves, and allows me to type more easily.

  7. Carolyn

    My only tip is that if you have a piece that’s too small that you want to wear, spend a few days wearing it around the house when you aren’t doing anything strenuous and no one will judge you for the potential muffin top. Depending on the fabric, it should stretch a little to your body and make it more wearable (and hopefully still relatively clean) later in the week.

  8. Julie

    M only tip is to find a good tailor. A tailor can do wonders for an ill-fitting garment and usually the cost is far less than you imagine.

  9. ParisGrrl

    I wish I could thank my mom again for teaching me how to sew, because learning even the basics like hand-hemming can tweak many an outfit into shape at a fraction of the cost of professional tailoring. And these days I fearlessly nip, tuck and refashion any garment that isn’t looking exactly the way I want it to. It’s fun!

  10. Katharine

    I wear things that “don’t fit” (mostly because I’m a big fan of oversize; I like large shirts and pants/skirts that ride my hips rather than fitting tightly at the waist, and will generally size up if there’s any doubt) but almost all of the issues above I would fix with alterations. I have darted and/or pintucked shirts and dresses that were too big; altered MANY a skirt waistband; hemmed things. I have a “tunic” that I made out of a nice wool sheath dress that was too tight in the hips; I opened up the side seams to the waist, trimmed the raw edges in grosgrain, and now wear it over other dresses. I’ve tacked down collars with a couple of stitches (if they persistently roll, incidentally, it’s because they’ve either been cut wrong, or sewn wrong), inserted little snap-on ribbon bra-strap holders for falling shoulders, tucked or eased gaping necklines, sewn in snaps between persistently gapping front shirt buttons.

    All of these are relatively easy fixes (except maybe darting in dresses). I admit, I will usually pay a tailor for the more PITA alterations, for anything with a lining, say, or waistbands in trousers/jeans, just because I hate doing those. But if I like something enough to buy it in the first place, I should like it enough to make it actually fit me. If that’s not possible (as in the case with items that are just. too. small.) then I’ve learned to leave it. But I don’t really feel comfortable leaving the house for the day in something that’s only working thanks to tape or safety pins.

    • Katharine

      A little further thought on alterations… I thought I hit this link from you, Sal, but after a quick check back through your linkspost and a memory search it I think I didn’t… (if I did, I apologise) — from my compatriot Lindsay. This is awesome.

      • Sal

        No, I hadn’t seen that and am here to tell you that I had NO IDEA. Wow. I’ll link to that Friday for sure.

      • Shaye

        How strange. I was just having this conversation with a couple of friends the other day. (Not about celebrities, just in general.) They asked me (knowing that I sew quite a lot) if I had to alter a lot of my clothes, because they couldn’t ever seem to find stuff that fit right. I always, ALWAYS have a pile of clothes waiting to be altered. Sometimes I’ll sit down for an evening and bang out 2-4 projects, but mostly they just languish unworn, whimpering at me to fix them. My personal rule is that if something doesn’t fit right (and sometimes they do, but it’s the luck of the draw), I better really really REALLY love it if I’m going to pay full price and then have to alter it. Sale and thrifted items I’m more willing to work with, but then I have to balance my time against desire for the garment, which is a lot more precious than the $6 I’m going to pay for that skirt. And some stuff just has to fit right when I buy it or it’s a goner. I’ve never, for instance, tried to tailor a pair of jeans.

        But of course, the celebrity thing makes sense. Most of the time if something is very close I’m willing to settle for “good enough,” but if I had money and were going to be under constant scrutiny, I sure as shootin’ would pay someone to zip through my alterations pile for me. 🙂

  11. RuthieK

    I have to second the ‘learn to sew’ suggestions. Local fabric stores or local education places often offer basic sewing lessons which would be a good starting point. You can then do small alterations yourself or even learn to sew complete garments from scratch.

  12. Cynthia

    I’m starting to get where I simply won’t tolerate anything ill-fitting, at least on the too-small side. I can work with slightly too big. If I liked an item, and then I gained weight and it doesn’t fit anymore, it should be in a storage box and not in my closet, because if I wear it I’ll be twitchy and uncomfortable the whole time. I’ll wear a layer over a dress that’s feeling a bit too body conscious temporarily, or a layer over a slightly sheer top, but part of my strategy as a person who shops retail is, now, to return anything over which there’s a shadow of a doubt on fit.

  13. angie

    When you have gorilla arms and wear a small size like I do, long sleeves are often too short – especially the sleeves of American clothes. Scrunch them up and no one will know 🙂

  14. LinB

    ” … avoid anything that cuts off circulation.” HAHAHAHAHA! Sad, though, that you have to warn some people about that. Nice range of solutions for a whole bunch of fitting issues. Thanks.

  15. Emory

    I haven’t tried it yet myself, but I have been told that wig tape is even better than fashion tape, as it holds longer and stronger. When I use fashion tape, there are too many times when it is just not holding up well enough, and I end up fidgeting and adjusting my clothes constantly. Got to get me some wig tape pronto!

    Oh, and another pitfall of the too tight clothes under layers… if you start getting hot, you can’t strip off your top layer! I’ve definitely been in that situation before… I’m super hot and sweating but can’t shed my top layer because the bottom one is just inappropriate… so don’t do that if there’s a chance you need to get rid of your top layer.

  16. Mel

    Did I ever mention how much I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your new hairstyle??!!!!!

    I always liked your old style, but now that I see the two of them together…..wowser! That new one makes you look so much younger! And hip, and edgy!

    It makes you “look” like the fab person we know from your writings. Good job matching your outer style with your inner style!

  17. Velma

    When I hit 40 a couple of years ago, I decided that I am DONE with ill-fitting clothes. I am a dedicated thrifter, but I no longer even consider items that are too big in the shoulders or with sleeves that are too short (narrow shoulders, long arms!). My particular issue–probably a result of spending some of my formative fashion years in the 1980s and ’90s–is buying clothes a size too big because I think I like the slouchy look. No more–that worked when I was 20, but the “waif” look doesn’t fly after 40.

    I know how to sew and will sometimes adjust a waistband or hem a skirt, but there is no longer any place in my wardrobe for clothes that fundamentally don’t fit or that are cut wrong for my body.

  18. joie

    man, i love how you wear blazers. i don’t know if it’s my giant boobs, but they never look good on me. you need to come to chicago and style me sometime. 🙂

    • Kathryn Fenner

      Don’t know if this will help you, but if you are large enough to try women’s sizes, they have a lot larger bust-to-shoulders ratio–if not, misses fit better than juniors and misses lines that cater to older customers are better than those that are for younger ones. Also a high stance –the jacket buttons right under your bust–is flattering to larger busts–what Stacey and Clinton call lock-and-load for the “girls”[ick]. Make sure the shoulders are the right size for your shoulders–the shoulder-to-sleeve seam should hit at your shoulder edge or very slightly outside it. If the shoulders fit and you can button under your bust, a tailor can fit it around your middle, if need be.

  19. Carolyn

    Let’s just have a moment for belts– I’m a classic hourglass shape, and a lot of tops and dresses seem to be cut for someone who is straighter up and down than I am. But if I just slap a belt on there, I’ve got an outfit that looks like it was tailored to my body exactly.

  20. Alterations Needed

    This shortie LOVES to roll sleeves! Jackets, button-downs, you name it. And here-here to fashion tape. It has saved me from flashing so many poor unsuspecting strangers and family members (think a wrap dress on a blustery day…I shudder to think of what might have happened).

  21. The Waves

    Since I’m tall, I pretty much live in rolled up cuffs – I have a hard time finding tops with long enough sleeves. I also roll up trousers sometimes; I guess that would be the opposite of French cuffing. 🙂 If my trousers are an awkward length (too short, that is), making them even shorter sort of helps.

  22. Tracy

    As a short curvy girl, I always roll my sleeves. I find that having the cuffs end at my elbow draws the eye to my skinniest part (waist) rather than my widest part (hips). I haven’t tried fashion tape, but a well-placed safetly pin on the inside placket of my button-down shirts does wonders for preventing pulling and gapping.

  23. Lindsey

    The 2nd to last look is my absolute favorite!! I’m really digging the brown blazers this year. I just did a post on them too.. well kind of.. more like fall must haves! Anyway, you look gorgeous in this pictures and have great style! I’m not to your blog, but I’m definitely coming back : )

    By the way, I’m giving away a piece of jewelry of your choice from Towne&Reese! Just stop by to enter!

  24. Robin Denning

    oh my goodness, I just loved that tumblr post:

    So true!! I am obsessed with sewing, which was triggered by bad shopping experiences. Off-the-rack clothes just do not fit. I am 5’9″ and my shoulders are very small in proportion to the rest of my frame, and I carry most of my height in my upper body.
    Every now & then I get lucky at J.Jill, but most of my clothes are home-sewn.
    I need to read the fashion & style blogs to figure out what to make and how to style it!

  25. Erin

    Aw, c’mon Sal. I know you’re my age, and there’s no way you can pretend to have just found out about French cuffs. You know you learned to do this in the 80s, just like I did, with your acid washed jeans. 🙂

      • Erin

        Aha. We apparently did what is really “pegging” and called it “French rolling.” To our navy blue uniform pants in 5th grade. Oh, the dorkness.

  26. Little doctor

    Amen Ms. M!
    The extra $ is well worth it when I can go to my closet and quickly pick out something that looks great and I feel great in.