Reader Request: Shopping for Figure-challenging Garments

how to shop for hard to fit clothes

Jess popped this question into the suggestion box:

I don’t know quite how to phrase this, but I’d love a post on how to shop for those items that make you feel insecure. For example, I’m mostly a wearer of skirts and dresses, but I want to incorporate more trousers into my wardrobe. However, while I’m familiar and comfortable enough with my body in skirts and dresses to make shopping for those items straightforward and pain-free, shopping for trousers fills me with angst because it highlights those parts of my body I haven’t quite got to grips with (my thighs, mostly, which are the reason why I find it hard to get trousers to fit), and also because I find the sizing (with waist measurements and hip measurements and leg measurements and all of that) confusing. As a result, I tend to either get upset or give up very easily. But I want to overcome this, not least because my Dream Jeans are on their way out and I can’t find any more of the same brand and I want to be able to find some replacements!

Ahhh, I know the feeling. The mere idea of shopping for pants used to make me break out in hives. Shopping is fun and invigorating when it involves a relatively speedy and undeniably successful outing. Shopping is disheartening and frustrating when you spend five hours trying on dresses and leave tired, frazzled, and empty-handed. Shopping is an absolute CHORE when you are shopping for an item that you know is tricky to fit and have no idea how to approach your search.

I’ll level with ya: Shopping for garments that challenge your figure and/or style will always involve some trial and error. I’ve got tips – oh, do I – but they won’t be foolproof. Sometimes you’ll do all of these things, set out to buy yourself some goll-darned blazers, and STILL fail to find a single style that works on your frame. But hopefully these practices will help minimize the number of shopping excursions that end in fruitless frustration.

Consider what works for your figure and why

Even if you’re shopping for a garment or style that appears to work against your natural shape, it helps to understand the elements of clothing that work with your natural shape. So let’s use Jess as an example. She does well with skirts and dresses, but cannot seem to find a pair of trousers that fit. She is self-conscious about her thighs. It’s likely that skirts and dresses have become her go-tos because they skim her thighs. How can she re-create thigh-skimming with a pair of pants? Widelegs, perhaps? Or maybe doing skinnies in a long-over-lean combo. Perhaps she also likes skirts and dresses because they emphasize her waist. How about something retro and high-waisted with a belt? Knowing what you want to accentuate and what you want to downplay can help you hone in on the versions of challenging garments that are likely to work best on your bod.

Research online

I know that online shopping has its pitfalls, especially when it comes to cuts that don’t generally work for you. But doing some reading, searching, and research – even if you don’t end up clicking “buy” – can help broaden your fit knowledge. Most major online vendors include user reviews for their products, and while some can be succinct to the point of uselessness, many are detailed and helpful. Boden, Anthropologie, and Old Navy tend to have incredibly specific customer reviews. Anthro even requests height, figure type, and personal style input from customers. In addition to learning about the options available to you by perusing online shops, poring over user feedback can help you learn about what works for people with figures similar to your own.

Ask for help from store employees

Most frustrated shoppers don’t ask for help. From anyone. And sure, requesting the assistance of a paid employee may make you feel beholden, but it may also lead to a successful shopping experience. Sales associates know about specialty sizes, how certain garments and styles run, and hopefully possess some basic knowledge of style and figure-flattery than can come in handy. If you’re shopping for something that’s always challenging, ask for help. Really.

Remember that the world contains tailors

I know, always with the tailoring. But friends, off-the-rack clothing just plain doesn’t WORK for many bodies. If you’ve thought long and hard about what clothes flatter you and why, done online research, asked for help from a friendly SA, and still can’t find a pencil skirt that fits properly, find one that fits mostly and have it tailored into perfection. (Or consider learning to make alterations yourself!)

Remember: It’s not you, it’s the clothes

This is probably the most important wisdom that I can impart.  And I’ve imparted it before. There is nothing wrong with your body just because it won’t fit perfectly into off-the-rack everything. You should not attempt to change how you’re shaped, how you look, or how you feel about yourself just because nothing at Zara or Forever 21 fits you. Clothes should fit you, you needn’t fit them. The styles, shapes, and specific garments that slide onto your gorgeous form and make you grin at your radiant reflection? Those are the ones that deserve the honor of bedecking your bod. Don’t let ill-fitting clothing convince you that you’re wrong or strange. You are not wrong. The clothes are wrong, and if they don’t love your every nook and cranny they don’t deserve to hang in your closet or adorn your frame.

Again, doing these things will help. They will not make your decades-long search for properly fitting cardigans end in angel song and beams of sunlight. But they might lower the number of times you return from the mall all sweary-mouthed.

Image courtesy mon.ami.

**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 2012-08-14 06:19:51.

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18 Responses to “Reader Request: Shopping for Figure-challenging Garments”

  1. Kathaleen

    I am one of those people who “hates” shopping but what I really mean is I hate the part where I have to try on something in an under-lit or over-lit or badly lit and usually too-small change room. (I am a plus-sized hourglass shape and there’s really nothing worse than struggling to get my generous breasts and hips into something and overhearing another shopper saying “the size zero is too big… do you carry double zero?”) I started not shopping. Seriously. I was getting into a rut of opting to wear comfy clothing at work (jeans, jeans, jeans).

    I decided to face my fears and take a day and go to a good mall with lots of stores so I’d have lots of options. Then, once I found the right stores that had clothing that flattered me I tried on everything I possibly could and noted the sizes that fit me best. Then, I found the stores’ on-line shopping option and now I order on-line. The best part? I can usually filter my size and sale items only so I don’t overspend. And if I order something that just doesn’t work out, I just return it to the brick-and-mortar store. No muss, no fuss, and no self-hating because I try the clothes on when I am feeling good and have a closet full of matching items and accessories to make the item look finished.

  2. malevolent andrea

    Besides the “it’s not you, it’s the clothes” which I agree is crucial to keep in mind, it’s always wise to remember that dressing room lighting is almost uniformly made to make you look like absolute crap (why??) and that usually what you see in those changing room mirrors is a worst case scenario. I guess my tip for trying on challenging things is to try to have the right underwear for whatever it is you are buying on. For example, if you’re looking for a formal dress that’s gonna probably need spanx, you’d be well advised to wear the spanx to the mall–as horrifying as that prospect is.

  3. Julie

    Due to have a body that was every changing – pregnancies and breastfeeding, I was so uncomfortable not knowing what was going to work at any given month and then done with all that, I became fixated on the number on the tag, the size! didn’t help that most of my friends had the same fixation, and gradually and slowly, I read that the clothes should fit me, I shouldn’t have to fit the clothes, and realize that as a petite plus, who is pear like but with a generous bust, that I had to know looked good on me, the image I want to project and how different textiles work, I also am a human furnace, so fabrics that trap heat are disastrous on me. I just shop like a diva now, making sure that I feel that I am rejecting the clothes, they are not rejecting me. Treat your thighs like a queen, and say no to work doesn’t work for them. I am trying to pass this message on to my daughters and nieces, one day my young niece was lamenting on Facebook, “When will I be able to fit into these fabulous jeans?” and I said, “why those jeans fit the fabulous fiona?”
    There are days that still get to me, a certain trend that really doesn’t work on me, but most days, I get complimented on my clothes and how I wear them. Happy Shopping!

    • VaMarcy

      Love it! Shopping like a diva is perfect! “Does this fit my fabulous body? No? Away with them!’

  4. Trudy Blue

    I sympathize with Jess. And your advice is great, Sally. The only thing I can add is that I try to bring my best game to the challenging shopping expedition. I make sure I’ve had a snack, I give my hair and makeup a little extra primp, I wear my favorite undergarments and an outfit that I love and that will coordinate with whatever I’m looking for. This way I’m starting from a position of strength and self-love, so I can evaluate the clothing for whether it is worthy of me and my wardrobe, rather than slide into the “my body looks bad” abyss when stuff doesn’t flatter.

  5. Mel

    Agree with fitting room lighting! Why in the world do they give us lighting that makes us look incredibly bad no matter what we’re wearing?!

    I used to NEVER ask the SA for help, thinking I don’t want to bother them, I’m probably not going to buy anything here anyway, they’ll just try to sell me on something that isn’t right for me, yada, yada.

    Well….was I wrong! What turned the table for me was taking my adult daughter shopping recently (CJ Banks in Burnsville). Her husband had just lost his job, and she was going back to work after many years as a STAHM. She’s petite plus, which makes everything so much harder. That shopping trip was fraught with many emotions, as you might imagine. I was with because I was paying for the clothes.

    I thought in order to side-step some of the issues that I would explain the situation to the SA. OMG!!!!! Could not have been nicer! I was stunned. She immediately went into the mode of it’s not you, it’s the clothes. She had the best eye for what would work for my daughter, and didn’t even bring in things that might have made my daughter feel bad about herself. I ended up purchasing far more than I’d intended, just because everything looked so nice on my daughter, and she surely needed the ego boost.

    Needless to say, I’ve been back to that store a bunch of times for myself. I’m always amazed at what the SA suggests I try on. Stuff that on the hanger I wouldn’t have looked twice at. They get a feel for what’s going to look good on each body shape I think….we as customers don’t get all that exposure.

    Granted the SA in some stores are pretty worthless (especially department stores), but once you find a good one, she’s worth her weight in gold!

  6. birdmommy

    I’d add one thing to the tailoring suggestion. Jess says she has a pair of jeans that are not long for this world. I’d suggest finding a tailor or seamstress that can use her existing jeans as a template to make her a new pair. Then she could have as many pairs as she wants – in whatever fabric she wants!

  7. Ericka

    Great post. I too am a skirt/dress girl who loathes trousers. They just never work for me—too big in the waist if the thighs and bottom fit, if the waist fits, my bottom looks tortured and tight and my thighs like sausages. I hate them. I do have leggings that I toss tunics over no problem but that’s not really a work appropriate look for me. The other issue admittedly is that my weight has been seesawing (sadly mostly up of late) and honestly dresses and skirts are forgiving and flattering still with that extra 10 pounds. With trousers, not so much. When I get myself healthy with a consistent weight I should try again and remember that tailoring is my gift to myself, not a punishment. I also need to stop buying cheap almost right pieces and splurge on a good piece that looks great that will be worth tailoring and last for years.

  8. Mary Beth

    I so intensely dislike malls and dressing rooms that I do almost all my clothes shopping on line. You mentioned Boden’s reviews as being helpful and I certainly agree. Another fantastic feature of the Boden website is that they include garment measurements for everything they sell. You can measure yourself, or even better, a clothing item you own that you love the fit, and use their measurements to purchase a clothing item that will almost certainly fit well. I also find Garnet Hill’s website to be very helpful – good reviewers and an option to ask questions about each piece of clothing they sell.

  9. H.

    I too have trouble finding off-the-rack pants that fit my thighs, hips AND proportionally-smaller waist. I have adopted the philosophy of buying pants that that fit the widest part of me (thighs and hips) and having a tailor take-in the waist. I also have to have pants hemmed quite often (I’m just in-between a “petite” height and regular height). It’s an added expenses and chore, but my pants fit like a dream (when I’m not pregnant, that is).

  10. GingerR

    Finding the right retailer is key!

    Do an honest assessment of your measurements. If you hate Spandx don’t measure over Spandx. Then go through online retailers sizing charts. It will help you eliminate shops/brands that aren’t going to work.

    The Gap includes the thigh measurement in their pant sizing charts. That’s a huge clue that they’re going to cut their pants for gals with curvy thighs. It doesn’t mean everything will fit but at least I know I’ll be able to get my leg into their styles.

  11. Marsha

    I love your reminder, “It’s not you, it’s the clothes.” I think we often feel judged by the clothes (or manufacturer or designer), but it’s really us who should be judging them.

    One of the best skills you can learn that will save you loads of money, time, and frustration, is to know how to do simple alterations yourself. Because of my larger-than-average biceps, I can never find blouses that are loose enough in the arm without being huge everywhere else. So I shop for blouses that fit my arms and take them up through the body. If you’re hesitant because you don’t want to ruin an expensive purchase, get a couple of similar garments at a thrift store to practice on.

  12. Olga

    Yes, do ask a shopping assistant, but also bring a friend who is honest with you as well. The shopping assistant will provide tips and the right sizes, and the friend will balance out the “It is supposed to be that tight, it will stretch” and the “No, you wear skirts this short now, it’s on trend” – talk.

  13. Emily

    I am a jeans and pants woman to the fullest extent. Some may disagree but I find that the best thing to do is to take your measurements and buy accordingly. In my experience, pants should fit too tight when you buy them because after you wear them a few times they will stretch out to your shape. People say that drying shrinks jeans but in my experience its a temporary shrinking whereas they stretch out gradually and permanently. I used to buy pants/jeanas that felt comfortable in the fitting room even though the waist measurement was larger than my own. I also have a much larger hip measurement than waist measuremnt, but I still find that shopping by waist measurement is key.

  14. Lydia

    I also share Jess’ frustration when (trying) to purchase pants, and I think you offer excellent suggestions. I own many dresses and skirts because they are simply more flattering, easier to find, and less work to ‘purchase’ out of the fitting room. I agree that sometimes we just want shopping to be easier and more fun, rather than taking the time to work hard trying things on and leaving with nothing except the investment of time!

    This is a timely post for me because tonight I plan to try on ALL my pants, and revitalize them, as for the last few years I have been relying on online purchases of my favorite bootcuts from New Look, or simply wearing a jegging in the winter with a tunic. All my pants are mostly bootcut jeans, or wider leg trousers that skim my body. These are the easiest pants to find, but I really want to purchase an ankle length pair of coloured jeans or maybe dressier pants. I have been reading reviews like crazy, and went to the Gap, and some other stores, but it is tough and demoralizing work. I realize I don’t need to look like everyone else downtown, or even need this type of pant, but I will not give up, and maybe tailor a pair. Thank you for the reminder to stay persistant and not give up — these comments and suggestions will keep me focused on my search, and not leave me tearing out my hair in the fitting room.

  15. sarah

    In the vein of “it’s not you, it’s the clothes,” remember that each brand is going to be cut differently – and that each style within that brand is going to be cut slightly differently. It may be frustrating, but I find the best thing to do is to KEEP TRYING. If you *need pants now*, take a girlfriend or two for moral support and launch an all-out assault on your mall. You could tackle one store at a time, or ask girlfriends with similar body types which brands they like and start with those. I’m curvy on the bottom, and my thighs were always big from so much dance. I like Adriano Goldschmidt a lot, and 7 For All Mankind and J Brand. I have to size up in Current Eliot jeans. Elevenses rarely makes jeans, but when they do, I like them. My mother, who has the same body type, has a super cute pair of Jag Jeans.

    Buy a measuring tape at the drugstore and check your measurements first. You’ll want your natural waist (which is higher than you’d think!), drop waist, and hip (over the widest part of the bum).

    Armed with this information, tell the salesgirls that you want to try EVERY PANT in your size (give them your measurements), that you are trying to find your perfect pair. Do not feel obligated to buy; they will understand that this is a research mission.

    I think it’s better to try in person until you find something that works because, honestly, it’s the most maddening thing – many pants are actually not cut to the measurements they are supposed to have. The only way to learn this is to try them on in person (or pay tons in shipping costs, which might be practical for you but it never has been for me). Generally speaking,trendier and higher-end designers tend to run smaller, cheaper lines (Gap, Old Navy) run larger for the same “size.”

    Good luck to you! Once you figure out what brands and styles you like, this will all be easier.

  16. Jess

    Also a possibility? Style blogs/Pinterest. Look for someone with a body shape close to yours and see what brands/styles of pants they’re wearing. We’ll call it very gentle stalking 🙂