Reader Request: Dress Shapes for Bodies in Flux


Reader S. emailed me this question:

I love wearing dresses because they are easy and usually comfortable. I have chronic Lyme disease, which means that some days by belly starts at one point and inflates or deflates to another. It also means that during relapses, I’m in incredible pain. So, I have adopted a style wardrobe that is comprised of J.Jill (because Eileen Fisher is out the the budget), eclectic “world” tunics, drapey tops, and some pieces from Free People. I want to wear more dresses because sometimes flowy pants just bore me. Jeans are way out of the question right now, too. What types of dress shapes and materials should I look for? I am working on the insides, any thoughts for dresses on the outside?

A former colleague of mine had chronic Lyme disease, and I know she struggled with body fluctuations and pain. I told S. how sorry I was to hear of her illness, though it sounds like she’s made some peace with it. Many bodies fluctuate in shape and size, but if your body is constantly changing shape AND you’re dealing with pain and illness it can create feelings of betrayal and disconnection. For some, putting energy toward dressing feels wasteful, and it certainly can be. But for those like S. who feel the urge to adjust personal style to trying body conditions, there are definitely work-arounds.

In terms of dresses, the first style that comes to mind is swing, which is basically an A-line shape that starts at the shoulders. (I own a Karen Kane one, outfit post here.) This will give the midsection lots of room, and if the style feels too loose you can bring in the volume a bit with a blazer or jacket. Some might point you to empire waist dresses which would also give you room and midsection comfort, but many of us look little-girly or pregnant in that style. You can also try for dresses that are stretchy but have some ruching or detailing in the front – this one looks fab – though depending on the style those can add volume, too. Twist fronts and cascades are in the same family, and can give some shape to the dress without being super clingy and revealing.

dress shapes for weight change

one | two | three

Princess seams combined with a lack of hard waistband are another option. A dress that is shaped gently with this style of side-seaming can be a good fit for a fluctuating body and is less voluminous than the other two styles. It is the least forgiving of hour-to-hour changes, though, and depending on the cut may show off your shape. But if you add jacket or blazer that may draw attention away from your midsection.

I’m reluctant to make strong recommendations for materials since I know that pain is a spectrum and sometimes comes with fiber sensitivities. I imagine that super-thin jersey knits are far too clingy, but heavy cotton knits, ponte, heavier rayon or poly fabrics could potentially work. Stiff twills and wools aren’t the greatest options, but most of these dress styles are made from more fluid fabrics anyway.

Poking around a bit, I found great options for all three categories at:

Top image courtesy ASOS

**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 2015-03-05 10:55:20.

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10 Responses to “Reader Request: Dress Shapes for Bodies in Flux”

  1. Alecia Ramsay

    I would add maybe trying JAG jeans – a lot of their styles have a stretchy waistband (like a maternity jean, but not THAT stretchy) – if you really want to add denim back into your wardrobe.

    • Dust. Wind. Bun.

      The Lee “natural fit” pull-on jeans are great for this too. I tried to find them on the website and didn’t see them so I hope they’re not going away…

  2. JB

    I also have a chronic pain condition that limits my clothing choices (I wore nothing but sweats for months before I finally found ways to manage my symptoms) so I understand! I think Sally’s recommendations are good ones, but one other style I found helpful is the convertible skirt/dress like the ones JCrew Factory sells ( I guess they’ve stopped calling them convertible, but the idea is that it can be worn as a dress or skirt, and made longer or shorter by folding the top part. Because versatility is the whole point of this style, you can adjust how you wear it depending on how your body is feeling on a given day. I have several of these and wear them all the time. Might be worth a try. Good luck!

  3. what not

    Warning: long post! I have Lyme and it primarily affects my abdomen, so this question is all about one of the biggest factors in my style priorities over the last few years.

    I don’t know how S’s proportions or tastes would influence her wardrobe without the Lyme. Personally, I’m petite overall (aside from the belly) and my taste currently leans toward edgy/arty/neutrals. I’ve made it work pretty well, though without the illness I’d love to have more waist-defining outfits.

    Instead, I focus on what’s above and below the abdomen, and I live in a cool climate so I do a lot of layering.

    On top, I usually have a base layer tank top with looser cover-ups: longline T-shirts, slouchy sweaters, anything that flows well and has an open neck to reveal my collarbone area and the straps of the tank. It adds interest in a way I like, which also happens to pull all the attention upward and away from my belly. Asymmetry and other twists work similarly well, too, because they draw the eye away toward design elements. Throw in some long or funky earrings for good measure.

    I define my legs with tights and leggings, paying major attention to comfortable waistbands. My tops are often tunic-length, but if not, I wear short A-line skirts that reveal lots of leg and either are nice and stretchy or, if tailored, sit on my hips and under the belly. Or I wear fitted jersey skirts that feel a bit like loose shapewear over my abdomen (like a pregnant woman’s Bella Band) and cover my butt.

    In warmer months and on vacation, I still wear those tanks, and the longer of my skirts. (The really short ones would reveal too much without tights underneath.) I also thrifted a pair what are essentially maternity shorts with the whole stretchy waistband thing, but they were originally from Nordstrom’s teen section and still had tags saying “lounge shorts”. Anyhow, they’re as fashionable as any other shorts designed for teens, and under my tank no one needs to know that the top is a nice stretchy waistband instead of a button fly. You can often find maternity shorts and jeans at thrift stores, because women don’t keep them after they’re done having kids.

    Speaking of thrifting, in my city the nicer consignment shops carry a lot of Eileen Fisher. It’s not cheap cheap, but certainly no more than buying new J.Jill.

    So what about dresses? I don’t have many because it’s hard to find ones that work for my belly, my taste, and my petite-ness, but I do wear a few. So:

    I’ve steered away from empire waists because, given that I sometimes appear just on the threshold of “is she pregnant?”, I don’t want to play that up.

    Swing dresses do work (I’ve bought them from ASOS, as linked in your post), and shorter ones can be treated as a tunic over tights/leggings. It can be hard to figure out what to wear over them for warmth, because it just adds more and more bulk on top; I’ve been semi-successful in designing outfits around them for the non-warm months, like layering fitted long-sleeved Ts underneath.

    Finally, fitted jersey dresses are better than you think, or at least better than I used to think. They adjust to your belly changes, you can find soft materials that don’t squeeze any part of you that you really don’t want squeezed, they layer well over other fitted layers and under looser ones, and they’re one big piece so (assuming there’s no big graphic there or whatever) they don’t draw particular attention to the belly. Avoid anything structured or tailored because that obviously won’t work with your shape changes, and also watch for seaming that looks too empire-waisted or otherwise geared toward pregnancy.

    One final plug: I’ve worn the heck out of several of the mesh dolman sweaters from Express (warning: some shrink, depending on color/fabric). They’re soft and slouchy, they’re a little warm but light enough for warmer climates, they’re lightly fitted at the bottom band so they re-define my shape at my hips, and the particular mesh they use both somewhat reveals my shape and conceals whatever’s going on underneath with my belly. The black ones especially have been some of my best purchases ever, and they bring them back every fall or so. (Some sizes and colors are still on their website now, and on sale.)

    Whew. Good luck, S! I know your pain well–including trying to dress this body!

  4. Cynthia

    A couple of years ago I went full-on “lagenlook” because I can’t wear waistbands any more without aggravating my back. I am tall with wide square shoulders, and my absolute favorite thing is long sleeveless dresses with structured hems (balloon hems, weighty ruffles, whatever, the hem structure elevates the dress and gives it an interesting flow without needing to be tight or binding anywhere). I have gotten great dresses from Navabi, from designers such as Barbara Speer and Prisa. I pretty much only wear dresses now and I layer with a lot of longish drapey cardigans and jackets.

  5. Secret Squirrel

    *Everything* what not said, particularly fitted jersey dresses and layering a tank under a flowy top. I also found empire line made me look pregnant.

    I worked out I had a dairy and egg allergy, and the daily stomach swelling and pain has thankfully now stopped with cutting those out. But whilst it was bad, I mainly wore jersey dresses or leggings /skinny trousers (with bigger and stretchy waistbands, I’d loosen a belt if I needed one on the trousers – with many holes as I expanded in out). With a voluminous top over that, no one would see loosened waistlines. With leggings, I wore ones from AllSaints that had a fitted skirt-typeover the top that kept my stomach warm, it was comforting.

  6. ara

    I’m not sure what you mean by princess seam dresses. Princess seams are just an alternative to darts and can be used on lots of different styles of dresses. In fact, I associate them with fitted clothing because that’s really the whole point–they’re a way of shaping bodices to fit around women’s curves.

  7. Victoria Young

    Ex-Lyme-ie here, and current IBS sufferer. On flare-up days I can go from a 27″ waist to 32″ in about 45 minutes, so I definitely know your pain. And, at 5’0″, being petite causes problems, as well.

    Leggings and a tunic top or long button-down (tunic length), left unbuttoned over either a tank top or tshirt are go-tos when I’m flaring and have to go out in public, but I’ve also fallen in love with infinity scarves for colder weather. If you’re petite enough, they act as camouflage for an expanded belly section, depending on how they’re draped. At home I have a trusty pair of wide waistband yoga pants that I slip into as soon as I get home – work trousers are tough if I flare mid-day, so sometimes (depending on my shirt choice) those waistband expending button-things are needed for comfort at work. The yoga pants are a size up from what I normally wear, but the spandex content means that they still fit comfortably, and the wider waistband means less targeted pressure on my belly.

    I have fibre sensitivities, so most of my clothes are cotton/rayon/linen, but the drape in them makes it easier to be less constricted, and most of my non-work summer wardrobe is sundresses that are either empire waisted or princess seamed or just classic maxi dresses with no real waist at all – no waist means no binding or constriction. Even though I prefer things to sit at my natural waist, at lot of times i have to just play with proportions and have them sit lower on my hips so that it doesn’t hurt. Wrap skirts are a beautiful invention, if S likes a fuller skirt – they’ve saved the day for me many a time…

    LLBean tends to have some selection for summer-y stuff, and for 4 season locations I’ve had occasional success there as well. I’m a huge fan of consignment/thrifting – found an Eileen Fisher open front tunic-y sweater for $70, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve thrown it on.