Simplify Your Wardrobe By Dressing For Your Shape

After I purged all my "off palette colors" from my wardrobe, my next step was to evaluate the shapes and silhouettes of my outfits. My goal is a capsule wardrobe of all-star pieces, so I want hone in on pieces that flatter my shape, and get rid of anything that accentuates my less attractive features.

The idea is not to feel bad about my body, but to be aware of what types of clothes are best for it. If clothes look bad on me, it's not because there's anything wrong with my body, but because different clothes are designed for different body types, and you only get optimal results from optimal combinations. It was easier to see this after my color revolution, because colors are so much more emotionally neutral than body shape, but it's really the same idea.

Most books and articles classify people into "pear" or "apple" or other fruit shapes, but I've never found this particularly helpful. I can never categorize myself properly, and the resulting lists of what to wear and not wear never seem to apply particularly. Besides, I hate memorizing lists. Luckily, it's not too hard to figure specific clothing features to seek out/avoid once you understand a few general principles.

NOTE: below the jump, some cartoony drawings of women in their underwear to make a point about dressing for your body shape. Non-racey but maybe not the BEST for your boss to see over your shoulder?

General Principles for Dressing For Your Shape

Accentuate your best assets

Drawing the eye to a particular location is easier than drawing the eye away. When I think about styles in terms of negatives--"how to hide my round belly"--I come up with pretty terrible style ideas, like muumuu or Spanx. When I think about what I want to show off (legs), I come up with much more fashionable and fun options, like short skirts and skinny jeans. The truth is I don't have to worry too much about disguising my less-than-perfect features if I do a good job of drawing attention where I want it.

Know where you're placing your focus

Every visual design has a focal point, and that includes your outfit. If you have too many competing focal points, your outfit can look cluttered or fussy. Hence the advice to take off one accessory before heading out the door. If you have no focal point, your outfit can look plain.

Here's a quick list of visual statement makers that you can use to draw the eye and create interest:
    • Bright or light colors
    • Patterns
    • Texture
    • Embellishments (e.g. designs, embroidery, shiny buttons, etc.)
    • Jewelry
    • Showing skin (e.g. plunging neckline)
    • Layers (e.g. cardigan, jacket, fun scarf)
    • Very on-trend, or unusually off-trend ("vintage") pieces
The opposite elements draw attention away, for the non-focal parts of your outfit:
  • Dark colors
  • Solids
  • Classic, basic, timeless, trendless pieces (e.g. plain T-shirt)

Combine the two tips by using statement-makers to draw visual attention to the areas of your silhouette you most want to accentuate.

Know where you're placing the widest part of your outfit

Some outfits are physically wider in some parts than others--like a peplum top or A-line skirt--where others appear wider in certain positions because of the color, pattern, or hemline. Anywhere there's a visual break or apparent horizontal line (like the place where your shirt and pants meet) is going to look a little wider.

Place the widest area where you want it (and not where you don't want it). For example, if you have broad shoulders (and you don't want to show them off), avoid a boat-neck top which creates a strong horizontal line right at the shoulder. Instead, interrupt that line with a wide-strap tank, or soften with a drapey top.

Here are some examples I drew. "Angel" on the left has a pear-shaped figure with relatively wide hips compared to her waist. "Cat" on the right has a more apple-shaped figure, with a thicker waist and narrow hips. I drew them in their underwear as a basis for tracing them in different outfits...
Compare them in the same outfit: a top which falls at the hip and patterned pants. (Three-quarter length sleeves which also break at hip level make the hip area look even wider when their arms swing down.) Angel looks rather frumpy in this outfit, but the major horizontal line at the hip works a lot better for Cat, who could use extra hip width.

Next, I traced them in a second outfit: a tucked-in, patterned shirt and plain dark skirt. With the major horizontal at the waist and slimming black across the hips, Angel appears to have the idealized hourglass figure, while Cat looks curveless.

Two nice-looking ladies, but the placement of the waistline and location of the patterns makes a big difference in how their clothes work for or against their figures.

This principle also works for creating, or interrupting, vertical space. If you want to look tall, create long, unbroken lines: sheath dresses, or tights that lead seamlessly into pumps of the same color. Breaking up the space into distinct blocks--say, a skirt, capri leggings, and ankle booties--would make your legs look shorter.

Turning Generals Into Specifics

Some of these general principles can be turned into specific shopping and dressing rules of thumb, depending on your body type. Since I like to draw attention to my legs, I made it a rule that I'm only to buy patterned bottoms, not patterned tops. Pinstripe trousers and windowpane skirts are in; floral tops are out. Knowing that I never want to place the widest part of my outfit at my midsection, I try not to buy shirts that need to be tucked in. Since I'm not tucking in my shirts, I don't need to buy belts. And so on.

I've identified other rules of thumb by trial and error. I know that I look best in structured, tailored tops and dresses, not drapey knits. When it comes to sweater sleeves, inset is better than raglan. And so on. Your list will be completely different, because it's your body.

Finally, sometimes you want to "break the rules" to create a specific effect. I have a very high waist so the conventional wisdom is to avoid high-waisted bottoms as they'll make you look unnaturally tiny on top and long on bottom, but one of my favorite outfits years ago created that exact effect, and I liked how odd and spindly it made me look. The idea isn't to make everyone look the same, but to empower you to make informed choices and create the effect you desire.

Other Resources

Not strictly shape-related, but for more tips on shopping for wardrobe all-stars (not benchwarmers), I loved everything in this recent blog post by Bridgette Raes: Four Easy Ways to Shop for Clothing You'll Actually Wear. It's a top-four list of the greatest wardrobe rules that actually help me shop smarter, when I manage to do them: embracing limitations (which is the point of the color palette and shape rules of thumb); shopping for things only after I have experienced a need; paying attention to my lifestyle and the clothes I need for my actual activities; and trusting my gut. If I could only give four pieces of advice about style, it would be those four.


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