Reader Request: When to Make Shopping Compromises

When to make (and when to avoid) shopping compromises. (Think hemming, tailoring, and alterations.)

Reader Monica e-mailed me this question:

You’ve mentioned before that you’re lucky enough to generally be able to wear most clothes off the rack in a standard size. I have my share of fit challenges, being that I’m tall with long arms and legs. My shoulders are proportionally wide compared to my torso, I’m short waisted… you get the idea. Off the rack, very very few clothes fit me just perfectly. Because of this, I’m constantly trying to determine what constitutes “good enough.” Are these pants long enough? Do I love this jacket enough to cope with the sleeves being slightly too short? Is this shirt nice enough that it’s worth altering? Is it better to buy this tee shirt in a smaller size that’s not quite wide enough for my shoulders, or the bigger size that’s too baggy on my torso? I’d be very interested on your take about these questions if you have any thoughts. I am still working on developing my judgement about these issues, and it seems to be a frequent source of confusion for me.

As I told Monica, this is incredibly personal. Each person will have her own criteria for determining which items are worth compromise, and which should be left on the racks. But here are some suggestions that might help, especially if you face lots of fit issues and can seldom wear anything without first getting it tailored.

Make a use rule

Lots of style experts say that you shouldn’t buy something unless you can envision it incorporated into three outfits that utilize items from your closet at home. Three may seem like too few or too many, but landing on a personal use rule is a great practice for any shopper. If you’re looking at an imperfect item that will likely need altering, you want to make sure it will actually get worn. So start trying to envision each potential purchase in three, four, seven, or however many outfits you’d prefer to make it feel like a sound purchase.

Teach yourself a bit about tailoring

If you’ve dealt with lots of fit issues for ages, you may already know these things … but having a general understanding of which alterations are more expensive and complex can help you gauge which garments are worth buying. Anything lined will cost nearly twice as much to tailor, anything that requires taking a garment apart (taking in at the shoulders for example) will be costly, and alterations that require removal and replacement (making changes then replacing original hems or cuffs for example) will be expensive. This does NOT mean you should avoid these alterations! It just means you need to determine if that extra cost is something you want to sink into this specific item.

Know your favorite work-arounds

Short sleeves can be cuffed or scrunched. Tight shirts can be underlayers and baggy ones can be worn with slim-fitting bottoms. When you’re looking at an item and can clearly see where it WON’T fit you, think about how you’d have to dress around that fit issue. Do you want to bother?

Identify your fit hang-ups

Do misaligned shoulder seams drive you batty? Short sleeves make you feel like you’ve outgrown your clothes? Items that don’t fit in the bodice cause you to feel unstylish or less than pulled-together? If all of them irritate you, that could be problematic but most folks have fit issues that chafe and others that can slide. In my case, I’m more likely to be a stickler for shoulder fit and waive sleeve fit. One just bugs me more than the other, which is likely because I know an easy work-around for sleeves and can’t think of a one for shoulder fit.

Buy quality

If you’re in a situation in which many of your garments need altering, buying cheap stuff that’s been badly made won’t serve you. OK, buying cheap stuff that’s been badly made won’t serve ANYONE. But having to sink money into tailoring fast fashion items will feel futile because those items won’t last. You don’t have to buy designer and you don’t have to buy quality for everything, but for durable staples like blazers, dress pants, work-appropriate dresses, and skirts, aim high. (In quality, not price. Those things can be thrifted and tailored, too – just make sure they’re built to last. This post on shopping for quality and longevity will help.)

Image courtesy Christian Guthier

Originally posted 2013-10-30 06:41:51.

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20 Responses to “Reader Request: When to Make Shopping Compromises”

  1. Tenshi

    My advise would be to get a sewing machine, take a few classes and learn to alter your own clothes – or just make them from scratch, it’s more fun. At least it is for me, because I hate doing alterations.
    I know that I’m usually unhappy with almost all compromises. Jeans that are too wide in back are something of an exemption: I have a slight swayback and there simply are none (at least not in my price range) that do not exhibit this issue. It’s easily fixed with a belt, though, so doesn’t bother me too much. Furthermore, I seldom wear jeans anyways.
    Apart from that, however, I don’t really compromise beyond what is really easily fixed like darts or side seams that have to be taken in a bit or a hem that is a bit too long.
    But I am lucky in that things usually fit me pretty well. I don’t need much in the way of alterations, and if something doesn’t fit at all, I’ll simply search until I find something that does.

    • LinB

      Agreed! RTW needs to fit in the shoulders, if that’s where your sticking point is — it’s EASY to take in the sides to make a tee shirt fit better, somewhat trickier to re-set sleeves to make a too-big shoulder fit better. Short-waisted people and long-waisted people can make a waist-less shirt-dress work by belting it — but this clothing option is not always available in stores. Sewing your own garments gives you more options that relying completely on rtw AND it gives you the knowledge and power to make your own alterations … and it gives you insight into when it is worth all the money in the world to pay someone else to do the alterations for you, lol.

  2. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    I don’t compromise much, because there is so much clothing out there, I think I’ll do better if I keep looking! Fit is the key for me, for skirts and trousers. I will buy a top slightly over-sized, with an eye to layering it. I totally agree with buying quality, whether at the thrift or retail – it always pays off.

  3. ModernSauce

    Good tips, Sally! I’m a problematic fit too and shopping can get exhausting because of it. I had to really LEARN my style and ask myself a lot of questions about what I really wanted in comfort and look. I’m still learning. It was easier sometimes for me to start with the negative things – like, I learned that I never like the way X looks or I always feel self-conscious with Y. Then that makes other decisions a bit easier.

    Also, I always start with my hardest to fit place (for me – pants). I know what looks best on me and why and then find it. Period. I’ll splurge! (or get it tailored if she wants!) Then it’s easier to start building an outfit around that.

    Unconventional fit people, unite! ; )

  4. Dana

    Another frustrated long-limbed person here! I became less willing to compromise once I obtained a few pieces of clothing that fit me really well (I discovered tall sizes at Banana Republic/Gap and found a few brands that are generous with sleeve length in regular sizes). Now that I know what it feels like to wear a jacket all day that doesn’t look like I out-grew it, my standards are more firmly in my mind when I go shopping. If you have a couple pieces that fit you really well right now, maybe ask yourself how you feel in them and whether they set a standard for you. Gradually, my desire to “just get something” was overcome by my desire to get something that really fit me well.

  5. Ignorant Awareness

    And belting! Let’s not forget belting- it’s helped me to save many a too-big-in-the-torso dress/ tunic/ shirt from looking frumpy to chic!

    The same goes for trousers (pants) too- I usually wear long tunics over the top of them, so if I’m looking for a quick fix, I’ll just belt a pair of trousers that fit fine otherwise but gape a little at the waist.

    (PS- Adding extra belt holes to your belts is a great way to make them work both as waist & hip belts!)

  6. A.B.

    Thank you for this!

    I learned at a very early age how to hem pants, because they’re always too long.

  7. Susan In Boston

    One other suggestion. If you have a few things that you really like that fit you well, get a tailor or pattern maker to reverse-engineer a pattern from those pieces. You need to do this long before they have completely worn out, which often happens to such garments. Then, get someone to make a new one new from that pattern. You can play with the finishing details, but get fit for your legs or shoulders will be built in.

    This isn’t cheap, but it’s not unreasonable. If the proportions of your body fall outside the standards used by any designer/manufacturer, you are likely to spend a disproportionate amount of your time looking for needles in haystacks. One way to view the cost of any item is to assign your free time an hourly rate and consider how many hours it took you to find it. The odds of winning a game of retail roulette may be better than those for Megabucks, but in my experience, not much better.

  8. Eliza

    For in-the-moment decision making, I find it helps to compare the clothing I’m trying on with the clothing I came in wearing. I don’t dress up to go shopping, but I do try to make sure that whatever I wear that day fits and is flattering. This gives me a baseline. I don’t buy unless whatever I’m trying on looks as good (or only needs simple alterations to compete.) It’s also a bit of an emotional pick-me-up to slide back into my own flattering clothes after a frustrating shopping session.

    I will also spend an inordinate amount of time “playing” with a potential purpose before I make up my mind. If a shirt is too large in the torso, I’ll belt it, tuck it in, tie it up, etc. to see if I can style the problem away, and if so, how versatile is that styling?

  9. Galena

    I have a similar-but-opposite problem. I am usually too short for shirt and pant hems and I can’t find everything I need in the petites section (most stores have a VERY small in-store petites section and I am loathe to buy online without knowing the fit first). My shirt fit work-around is to buy a shirt that fits the shoulders/chest and is baggy in the torso, and then belt the shirt (both skinny and wide elastic belts work for this). It nips in and gives you waist definition and adds an accessory that’s a “completer” piece, and my favorite part is that this doesn’t require tailoring.

  10. Lisa

    Great advice, Sal! Especially the tips about knowing your way around tailoring and knowing your go-to workarounds.

    I have wide shoulders, a broad rib cage, and a narrow chest, and my arms are kind of short because I’m petite. I’ll always buy things that fit at the shoulders and chest and are baggy through the torso because taking something in is a relatively inexpensive and easy alteration, but there’s almost always no fix for something that’s too small in the shoulders and chest.

    Sleeves on jackets and outerwear can be a challenge to shorten if they have intricate details (like a row of small buttons and finished buttonholes) on the sleeve cuff. I learned this the hard way when I brought a blazer in to a very skilled tailor, and he spent ages trying to align the sleeve so it was the right length without revealing a buttonhole where the sleeve ends. So if I want an outerwear or blazer style with that sort of sleeve detailing, I have to buy the petite version (with the appropriate sleeve length) off the rack. For blouses, sweaters and shirts though, I usually end up scrunching or cuffing sleeves.

  11. Gracey the Giant

    Buying clothes of the rack? What’s that? Just kidding. Having a similar body to Monica, I depend a lot on online retailers for their Tall sizes now that they’re finally available. When I’m thrifting though, I’m a lot more willing to compromise because I don’t think I’ve ever found “tall” items in a thrift store. So, if a love the print and buttonability (totally a word) of a blouse, I buy it, even though it’s too short in the sleeves & I just wear it rolled. Always. The same is true for thrifted blazers; I just cuff them and no one is the wiser that they’re too short in the sleeves. As for pants, I honestly don’t thrift a lot, but if I do, they’re usually printed skinnies that I just plan to wear with boots to hide the fact that they’re too short. For other fit issues, I have been known to bust out the sewing machine to alter everything from sleeves to waistlines to hemlines. And, as another commenter mentioned, belting can do wonders.

  12. Annabeth

    One tip I’ve learned re: buying quality on a thrifter’s budget: Look for thrift stores that support the symphony or opera, or any others run by an organization of – let’s be clear – rich old ladies. The clothes you find inside will rarely be trendy, but if you want to get a great pair of navv slacks/black blazer/khaki skirt/white shirt or any other classic, basic item, you are likely to find it there, from a good manufacturer, for a fraction of what it cost new. On a thrift budget, you can afford a little more in the way of alterations, if needed!

  13. LaChina

    I agree with Eliza about my purchase looking as good as what I’m wearing. So I always try to look nice when shopping. My only rule for tailoring is if you love it, it’s worth getting tailored. I like longer tshirts but then they’re too full on top so I get them tapered.

    Since you’re tall maybe go to skirts instead of pants, then it’s just a matter of hemming or I hemming. Not too expensive. And maybe pay for a couple of custom jeans, one for flats, one for heels.

  14. Jen

    I’m in that weird in-between place between petite and regular length (5’3″ tall). Not to mention plus, so double whammy. Pants are a nightmare for me–I may try on 8 pairs and none will be close enough to even buy. I always hem my pants, but because of a big old belly, the pants I buy will usually fit in the belly but be laughably big in the legs. Anyone know how much tapering legs would cost at a tailor? I have about 5 pairs I’d like done, but I’m on a tight budget.

    Skirts and dresses are much easier, and I’ve learned just not to bother with non-stretch shirts (I have one button-down for interviewing). Unfortunately, I work at a stay-at-home-daycare, so dresses and skirts are not often worn during the week.

    Like Annabeth, I try to frequent the thrifts in better neighborhoods, but my favorite is the Goodwill that gets lots of Target new stock that didn’t sell.

  15. Chris

    I highly recommend reading Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline. Fast Fashion is more damaging than even I imagined and I’m good at imagining horrible.

    Even my old favorites, LL Bean and Lands End have let me down. I have a few of their things that I purchased in the 90s, when a lot of their items were still made in the the USA. Although these items have been washed many dozens of times, the quality of the old garments is much better than the new ones. Sad.

  16. Erika

    The ones that really bug me are too short. Too short in the torso, legs or arms. To which I can also add – too thin in the arm or leg. I’ve got muscles and soft round bits, a long torso, my kidneys get cold and I hate tugging tops down. And most women’s short sleeve tshirts are too short in the sleeve – so I buy long sleeves and cut them to my preferred length.

    Basically, go for the bigger size and tailor it down. And get the best you can afford. I get most of mine thrifted/ebay, but there’s the odd one or two pieces I buy new. And yes, I want to feel and look good before I go into a physical store – if it’s coming home, it has to make me feel at least as good as what I’ve worn in.

    In common with so many others – two of the key things are to learn your current style and shop for your current life. LOTS of great advice from the readers here!

  17. K

    Like Monica, I hope that more companies will realize that there is a huge market hole for affordable clothes for those of us with long limbs– that includes those who are above-average height, those who are moderately tall, and those who are very tall. Many companies now have their regular sizes built for a 5’5 woman, and with very few stores offering taller sizes, it’s frustrating finding items that could work if only they had longer arm, torso, and leg lengths.
    Sometimes I’ve tried adding on more fabric that looks semi-coordinating to where the extra length should be, but’s it’s never turned looking well, just like I patched on extra length.

  18. Thursday

    I think it’s hard to go past investing in a sewing machine (good quality second hand is not hard to come by) and learning to do your own basic alterations. If you think of the initial investment of money and time spent learning, versus a lifetime of paying for alterations, it’s very much worth it. Then you can branch out and start making your own designed-for-perfect-fit items from scratch:)

    My problem fit area is the hips, so I buy to accommodate them and take in seams above. I usually tuck in or belt though, so it’s not always a worry. Now, making skirt and dress hems longer is a much bigger problem…

  19. Cassie

    Great advice. As a curvy petite gal, virtually everything I own has to be altered in some way. I try to shop at stores that offer free pants hemming to save a little money there. I love blazers and wear them virtually everyday. They never fit properly, even petites. While I generally buy quality, I try to buy blazers as cheaply as possible because I often spend as much on alterations (sometimes more) than I do on the blazer.