What IS Flattering?

what makes flattering clothes

As I’ve said before, there is no one right way to look great. You do NOT have to buy into the tall, thin, hourglass thing if you don’t want to. It’s your body, and it’s your decision what to put on it. Wear what makes you feel like a luminous creature of incomparable beauty. Even if that happens to be a skirt that shortens your legs or a tunic that masks your waistline.

But you should still know what looks good on your figure, what highlights your favorite features, what works with your body. When the word “flattering” slides out of the mouths of style experts, it tends to do so on the tall, thin, hourglass side of things. So it becomes tempting to make “flattering” the new f-word. But instead, let’s do some reclamation and redefinition, shall we?

Flattering clothing lies flat against your body: If you’ve got a bubble of dress material perched atop your butt, a shoulder seam that creeps toward your neck throughout the day, or a side-entry pant pocket that wings out, you’re wearing something that neither fits nor flatters your specific shape. Seek styles and sizes that sit flat and quiet against you, even when you are in motion. (Or most of the time when you are in motion. Cloth does migrate.)

Flattering clothing doesn’t pull, pinch, or subdivide: If there are five giant wrinkles that extend from the fly of your slacks to your hipbones, they’re too tight. If your cap sleeves dig into your upper arms, seek a different sleeve style. If your skirt’s waistband causes your midsection to spill out over its top, go up a size. Your clothing should caress your body, not squeeze it.

Flattering clothing works with your eyes, hair, and skin tone: Forget the complicated stuff and pages-long guides to finding “your colors.” Look in a mirror in a well-lit room and ask yourself these questions: Does this shade brighten or dull your eye color? How does it play off your hair color? Do you look healthy and robust, or wan and sickly?

Flattering clothing creates a silhouette that pleases your eye: Please note that I did NOT say “flattering clothing makes you look tall and skinny.” If those are your priorities, then by all means go for ’em. But feel free to chose a different set of figure flattery priorities. You know your best silhouette, so seek garments that present that silhouette to the observing world.

Originally posted 2010-07-08 05:36:00.

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41 Responses to “What IS Flattering?”

  1. Barry Wright, III


    I like these thoughts. When I talk to people about fashion/style, they often ask if something "looks good" or "is right," and those questions are ill posed.

    There is no fashion moral imperative from on high that says a particular style, figure, or color scheme is best or most flattering.

    Instead, I try to frame things in terms of a style goal (just as you discuss a figure flattery goal here).


    You want to look rugged, but friendly? Then no, that tight red polo shirt doesn't work for you. An outdoorsman wouldn't wear something that tight, and the image is too clean for that style.

    That polo shirt doesn't work. It's not in style right now.

    Great post!

  2. Rabbit White

    Thank you for this! These are totally rules to live by. I also think that it should be said that money *can* sometimes buy fit, but not always! Just because it is Marc Jacobs and not from Target Boutique doesn't mean it is going to necessarily look better. Fit goes a long way, which is why I've also invested in a good tailor.

  3. Kaija

    I really like your descriptions of "flattering clothing", especially how your points focus more on how it FEELS (on you, to you) than on how it looks to others 🙂

    This resonates with my tendency to wear different versions of a couple of stock outfits that just make me feel comfortable and confident. I unconsciously fall back on those things for a reason. My challenge to myself is to consciously mix it up a bit and try new things/find new outfits that also make me feel that way!

  4. Modesty is Pretty

    Hi Sal,
    I just read something similar to this on Tom Gunn's book (haha what literature!) I think the most important thing is FIT and quality, by fit it encompasses all that you mentioned above, no extra bumps, etc. Quality – most people say they don't buy into brands, but I do,since most of the times the better the brand, the better the quality (I'm not saying all of the times though). Say for example, you have 2 cotton shirts and one is cheaply made and the fabric is not so good,and then you have the other who is made out of woven 100% natural fiber cotton, which do you think is going to fall better on your body? It's kind of hard finding something that fits you like a glove at stores, but if you know how to sew and can tailor your clothes than you have the battle won. Love your dress!

  5. Aury

    When I saw the title I was unsure of how you would give a universal definition for flattering but I really believe you've pulled it off amazingly. Great post!

  6. Anonymous

    Obviously, muffin tops and things of that nature are *not* flattering, so when I dress…I try very hard to make sure I do not suffer from the muffin top. otherwise, I wear what I like, and whatever I feel gives me the best shape. I am short, so I always am in heels…if I am not in heels I feel like a schlumpy gnome (is there such a thing) or something. hehe.

  7. elle

    If it makes you look good….wear it! 😉

    Love the outfit you're wearing in this post.

  8. budget chic

    OMG! Love this, its perfect for your body type. I have something similar and I tell you these shirt dresses whether they are sheath cuts or full skirts always flatter with the right belt and accessories.

  9. AbraCat

    These are all excellent points, particularly the part about clothing lying flat against your body. Well-fitted clothes make a huge difference in how your body looks. When I was heavier, I would wear sloppy, oversized shirts to try to "hide" my body. When I finally started wearing more fitted clothing, people started asking me if I'd lost weight, because it made such a difference in my appearance.

  10. Stacy

    That dress is very flattering on you!

    I think you can walk around town on any given day and ask yourself, "Tsk, tsk…why on EARTH is that person wearing such and such??". Some people just dress for comfort, and give it no further thought.

    When I went through a phase of gaining weight and then losing it, my coworkers only noticed because I started wearing more fitted clothing. If I had extra bulk I certainly wasn't wearing clothing that would emphasize it! Knowing what looks good on you at all times is important for you to feel good and put together when you walk out the door in the morning.

    There's plenty of clothing that is in style that I know I don't even need to try on. It will make me look awful. Anything that gathers at the waist will add at least 10lbs to my ruler-like waistline. I've had plenty of fashion disasters in the past to kind of know what looks good on me now, though.

  11. Sheila

    Awesomeness, Sal! These are some great points. I really like your advice against your "colours" – I think anyone can wear any colour they love, because if you love it, you're going to look good in it!

  12. GingerR

    Very good points.

    Flattering clothing fits and is comfortable to wear.

    It highlights the features you want it to highlight.

    I would also add that flattering clothing does not detract from your life's purpose.

    A porn star may have flattering clothing that highlights her porn-star attributes, a trial lawyer would have flattering clothing that keeps the jury focused on her client's case.

    If the lawyer goes clubbing and wants to look like a porn star then she could redefine flattering for that activity.

  13. bubu

    Great post! You hit the nail on many heads. I am always struck, as my body shape has shifted over the years, that clothes that are too big are just as uncomfortable, unflattering and unhappy-making as clothes that are too tight. Which is not to say a soft comfy hoodie is not just the thing sometimes, its fit may naturally be a little looser, but it still should FIT.

  14. tinyjunco

    it's all very personal…..those rules don't work out for me. i LOVE clothing that creates volume, clothing that drapes and whips around in the wind or when i move, even clothing that makes noises when it moves – aack!! quiet clothing!! not for me. and so on. but then, we'll all very different people, so i don't know if there IS one set of rules that will suit us all.

    but as Sal said, knowing what looks flattering to and on you is so very important. i've found it comes down to educating your eye – look at yourself, look at other people, look at art and architecture and nature and etc.

    a great book to help you look is The Triumph of Individual Style by Carla Mason Mathis. it's illustrated with great classic art (Degas, Manet, Velasquez) showing how each very different beauty highlights her individual body using color, pattern, shape, line, volume, contrast, etc. it's a crash course in art appreciation and how that applies to flattering the human form.

    this book doesn't get into wardrobe planning or your personality – it's pretty strictly aesthetics. But it will give you an aesthetic education re: clothes and accessories like nothing else out there. have fun!!! steph

  15. Anonymous

    I am a frequent lurker but rarely do I post. I discovered your site through Corporette. Just wanted to say that I LOVE that black dress on you and ordered the same one. It's coming today and I hope it looks good on me!

  16. RubyAlison

    I totally love the outfit/accessories you are wearing here!! I just had to say that.

    And meanwhile I very much appreciate your thoughtful reflections on style and how it makes us feel as well as look.

    (For me, I really want my look to be dark, feminine, polished (but still casual), comfortable and of course appropriate).
    (The hardest thing for me right now is trying to look stylish in clothes on a very limited budget while my size is changing a lot from dieting/exercising.)

  17. FashionTheorist

    I often use the word 'flattering' for something that just looks good on a person in many ways – well fit, colors that work with the person's complexion, and doing a good job of expressing their personality (of a facet thereof) to the world. Yes, I could break it down further: "Wow, that dress is tailored really well for you! And the black makes your skin look creamy! And the polka-dot belt and swingy skirt express your fun-loving, whimsical nature!" That, however, can sound a little over the top. So 'flattering' it is. I think you hit the nail on the head in that in order to flatter, an outfit or item has to hit on multiple levels – fit well and be a good color and express personal style.

    Oh, and tinyjunco – 'fit' (of a comfortable size and shape for the body) doesn't always mean 'fitted' (closely tailored to the contours of the body). As I'm sure you know, there's clothing that's volumetric and full of movement and flowy and drapey and wonderful, and then there's stuff that's just… baggy and oversized and, well, not flattering. Unfortunately, because fashion uses the term 'fit' to mean a couple of different things, there's a huge amount of confusion around the term.

  18. angie

    Love this outfit on you, Sally! That muted turquoise is just beautiful against your skin tone! Perfect with the black.

    Figure flattery is subjective as are most elements of fashion and style. I'm going to very bold though, and say that our figure flattering priorities are a lot more similar than we might think. As much as I'd love to romanticize the philosophy, after so many years of dressing so many people I really can't help but see it this way. As much as we strive to be unique, different, special and different, we are also all so very much the same. 🙂

  19. tinyjunco

    hi Fashion Theorist~! you said '…As I'm sure you know, there's clothing that's volumetric and full of movement and flowy and drapey and wonderful, and then there's stuff that's just… baggy and oversized and, well, not flattering.' i agree. i'm just saying which is which is a personal decision which varies between people and over time.

    for example, i made an issey miyake for vogue jacket about 10 years ago
    it's the red one at top rite. it's big all through the shoulders, back, sleeves, fitted at the waist, then has a flared peplum which forms a 'bustle' when viewed from the side. it's my favorite garment EVER, and very flattering to my eye.

    but i know a number of ladies in the sewing community who've seen that same jacket made up by a number of different people of different shapes, in varying fabrics, who think it's a big overgrown, sloppy mess. no one is 'right', it's just a judgment call.

  20. Solo Lisa

    This is so much more articulate and detailed than my idea of flattering. Flattering to me means that the clothing makes me feel good and look good, but because the notion of "good" is so vague there's a lot of room for experimentation. 🙂

  21. Rose @ Rose & Violette

    One of the best outfits I've seen today! Lovely belt. I love how the necklace's shape matches the belt's pattern.


  22. Anonymous

    Already Pretty you crack me up. You are so fun to read.
    Thank you!

  23. Gracey

    Yes, yes, yes. I wore a tunic and pant combination the other day that I just loved. It was comfortable, the tunic is a fabulous yellow with turquoise embroidery and the pants looked good with it. But…the tunic is too long. It cut my body in half when I *know* that I'm supposed to go for 1/3 and 2/3 in terms of proportion.

    However, the outfit made me happy and I got tons of compliments on it. And I really believe I got the compliments because I felt so good and felt happy in it.

    I think if you're happy in what you wear, then it flatters you. Because nothing flatters like a smile.

  24. kjlangford

    AH! Thank you so much for writing this. It's all things we intuitively know when we look in the mirror and think "hm, that doesn't look quite right" but can't put our finger on exactly why.

    I've always loved that you've been a champion of alternatives to the predominant "look as thin and tall as possible!' But in the back of my mind I've always wondered "well then, why is it that sometimes we just know that something doesn't work, no matter what the wearer was shooting for?" And now you've succinctly and concretely answered that question. Bravo.

  25. Emma at Daily Clothes Fix

    Great post, Sal. I would agree with it all, although I would question the comment about something lying flat against your body. I have a bubble/tulip skirt that fits really well on the waist but is huge elsewhere (deliberately so). On me, that works to hide my hips and make me look more in proportion.

    So maybe it should be that it lies flat unless you pick something with volume as a definite choice.

    And a great outfit to illustrate the post – looking good.

  26. Marie

    What is flattering, you ask? That dress is!

    For me, the overall silhouette of my outfit needs to be right. It's all about balance, for instance wide legged pants with a more fitted top vs. skinnier pants with a looser top. The right length shirt so I'm not all torso or all legs. Regardless of whether someone else thinks it's "flattering," if it doesn't feel right to me, it's not right.

  27. WendyB

    I was thinking about this issue the other day because I do get things that aren't necessarily "flattering" in the eyes of style experts (but I never like how they look anyway). If something (especially vintage) has a good enough story, I'll wear a dress with lots of fabric, or a color that's not exactly right for me, and I certainly love chopping up a leg line with cropped pants and ankle strap. That "lengthening the leg" thing seems so trite. I'm sometimes more interested in a beautiful/fascinating piece than in dressing for my figure/height/coloring/whatever.

  28. All Women Stalker

    Great points. In my case, flattering is something that makes me appear longer (I'm short) and my thighs less chunky (I have big-ish hips).

  29. Bekaloves

    Girl, when are you going to write a style book?!

    🙂 I'm serious!

  30. The Waves

    Great post! I almost think that the whole concept of "flattering" too often moves from outside in only, meaning that it is the eyes of others that we aim to please when finding something that is flattering on us. Too rarely do we pause and question our own ability to like what we see, ie. find things that are flattering TO us. Yet it is the latter that is way more important.

  31. Heidi/The Closet Coach

    Yes yes yes!

    To me, flattering is about balancing your silhouette–no matter what shape you happen to be. The reason an hourglass is considered an ideal shape is because the shoulders and hips/thighs are in proportion with a waist width about halfway in between. It’s visually balanced.

    You’re right: looking balanced does not have to be synonymous with “tall” or “thin.” There are plenty of petite curvy silhouettes that are perfectly in proportion–and there are clothes that flatter that shape, and clothes that don’t.

    I’ll second Modesty Is Pretty’s recommendation of Tim Gunn’s Guide to Quality, Taste & Style, too. Fab book, love him!

    Another book I love is very similar to the one tinyjunco described. It’s by Margaux Tartarotti and it’s called “The Fine Art of Dressing: Make Yourself a Masterpiece by Dressing for Your Body Type.” It also uses art theory to talk about how to use shapes and patterns to create appealing visual lines on your body.