Not Buying It: Styles for Body Shapes

If you’re like me, you’ve read “style for body shape” articles in style books and ladies’ publications to help you figure out how to dress in a pleasing fashion.   They’re…nice, but I don’t buy it and haven’t for as long as I’ve been sewing clothes for myself.  Limiting style choices by body shapes is irrelevant for anyone who can sew.

My skepticism is based on three things: observation, the nature of RTW/Sewing, and the fact that “flattering/pretty/pleasing” is in the eye of the beholder.

I’m drawing on my experience with the “hourglass” shape and the common wisdom associated with it because it’s simplest for me.  I’ve read plenty of contradictory, confusing, or silly advice for other body shapes, too.

Observation

I have the dimensions of a so-called “hourglass” figure type.  I first started to doubt the common wisdom for dressing my own shape after reading things like “You have the best/easiest figure to dress!” “An hourglass figure looks great in everything!” and “Wear a Wide Belt”.

I should be able to mother my daughter in public without risking exposure.

I should be able to mother my daughter in public without risking exposure.  Red Stripe Tiramisu.

Let me tell you, it is not easy to dress an hourglass figure well.  It’s a delicate balancing act between “sexy” and “frumpy.”  In my book, “dressing well” means I dress in a way that prevents me from accidental indecent exposure but is also feminine and comfortable.  I have my own sense of style I express through colors and textures and cuts, which is a personal preference.

Picture 16

When almost every article I read patted me on my curvy backside and assured me I’d look great in anything despite my own experience struggling to dress myself, I smelled a rat.  (Also, the last half of the second paragraph above directly contradicts the “no ruffles or bows or bulk on your bust” rule found elsewhere. )

The Nature of Shopping vs. Sewing

Picture 13

This is pretty typical style advice for an hourglass shape, and I remember struggling to find button down shirts and blouses to fit me properly when I only wore RTW (Ready to Wear) clothing.  Everything gaped open over the bust from the time I was 13 or so.  Sometimes a well-placed safety pin came to the rescue, but over time I learned to simply avoid these styles.

click for great article on history of bras...

click for great article on history of bras…

And a minimizer bra?  Of course!  Why didn’t I just bind down my breasts so I could slip into a button-down shirt?  It makes so much sense to alter my body shape so it’s more suited to the garment.  I’m shocked it never occurred to me.

What is this, 1923?

I get it though, I do.  In the interests of mass-producing thousands of shirts at one time, the multitude of shirts are cut from standardized patterns.   The patterns are usually based on skewed sizing data compiled in the late 1940’s.   Most RTW brands still tend to draft for a B cup size, too, regardless of the overall size of the garment.

this is from two years ago, my first self-drafted button down top

this is from two years ago, my first self-drafted button down top

When I understood that, it made sense to me that I didn’t fit in those off the rack shirts.  Then one day when I was sharpening my sewing skills, I discovered the Full Bust Alteration for bodices and shirts.  I could wear button down shirts again!

This is just one simple example, based on my own experience but I suspect other sewists out there have had similar “Ah-ha” moments while sewing.  What’s yours?

“Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.”

Pink Tulle and Linen Jersey Pavlova

Don’t get me wrong, I like to dress prettily.  I regularly slosh on my makeup and twirl around to take photos for your amusement.  But “pretty” can be a cage, a small place to lock yourself inside every day.  “Pretty” is also harmful when it’s the sole measuring stick used to judge another human being.   Erin, the wise and witty writer of Dress A Day has a huge impact on the way I think about the way I dress, including this piece titled You Don’t Have to Be Pretty:

But what does you-don’t-have-to-be-pretty mean in practical, everyday terms? It means that you don’t have to apologize for wearing things that are held to be “unflattering” or “unfashionable” — especially if, in fact, they make you happy on some level deeper than just being pretty does. So what if your favorite color isn’t a “good” color on you? So what if you are “too fat” (by some arbitrary measure) for a sleeveless top? If you are clean, are covered enough to avoid a citation for public indecency, and have bandaged any open wounds, you can wear any color or style you please, if it makes you happy.

Agreed.  I think a great deal of the often arbitrary and contradictory style advice we’re given comes down to the subjective perception of what’s “flattering” or pretty, and what isn’t.

Picture 14

To return to my hourglass example: I’m not supposed to wear “boxy” tops.  This one says jackets, but it’s a common thread.   I’ve broken every rule on this list, anyway.

OH no!  I don't have a waist!  Gasp!  No darts! And my triceps are less than toned! It's ok.

OH no! I don’t have a waist! Gasp! No darts! And my triceps are less than toned! It’s ok.

But boxy tops are comfortable, practical, they’re simple to make, a great way to show off pretty fabric and I like them.  Sure, maybe some people who see me think I’m fat, but who are they?  Why do I care if someone thinks I’m heavier than I am?  Why does that matter?  People will think what they think and they’re entitled to their opinion.  But why would it matter to me?  Fat or thin or indifferent, I am a woman with my own personality, thoughts, achievements and flaws.  My waistline is hardly my defining characteristic, and I’m secure in that knowledge. (Let me tell you, it took me years to find that security.)

IMG_3521

And by the way, I know I look rad in turtlenecks.

I Don’t Buy The “Styles” for Body Shapes Wisdom

I believe in good fit, nice fabric, pretty colors and solid stitching.

Exhibit 1: The Tiramisu Dress

Picture 19

I’m not supposed to wear this dress, I always knew to avoid surplice fronts and underbust seams when shopping because the surplice would gape and the underbust seam would barely cover half my boob.  The Tiramisu Dress suits a variety of figure types, just check out my Pinboard of Tiramisu Dresses from blogs and the internets to see for yourself.

Exhibit 2: The Pavlova Wrap Top

Finished Pavlova Wrap Tops are cropping up on the Pavlova Community Gallery page and in the Flickr stream as Sewalong-ers finish up their entries for our friendly House Prize Race.  They’re cute!  On curvy bodies, on willowy frames, and on body shapes in between.  The common thread here is good sewing and good fit.  (By the way, entries close by midnight on the 26th, so do hurry to upload before the deadline!)

It Doesn’t Really Apply to Us

I’m not saying that the “rules” for body types and styles is completely irrelevant.  I just think we sewing people should take them with a hefty pinch of salt, because this advice doesn’t really apply to us.   These style guides are produced by ladies’ magazines and various publications in relation to “off the rack” clothing.  Those clothes are mostly created with little or no allowances made for the simple fact that two women can have the same exact measurements but entirely different body topography.

If we can sew, then we can sew the clothes we like to suit our bodies.

What do you think?

Have you found yourself less than impressed with this type of style advice?  What advice would you give a fellow stitcher in pursuit of personal style?  What are your standards of being well-dressed?

(no post tomorrow, I need to tally up the Sewalong house winners and get ready for the Hummingbird Presale!)


90 comments

  1. I used to religiously follow all of that advice (although I’ve always had a tough time figuring out which body type I am exactly). And then I started hanging out more in second hand stores and trying on anything that caught my fancy, and I learned that a lot of those rules aren’t really right. I mean sure, a lot of those garments would look better if tailored to my body more, but I got enough of an idea that prooved that yes, I can in fact wear a lot of those garments “they” told me I shouldn’t. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it at least once! :) Which is also why I’m willing to try out the Pavlova top, even though I don’t wear such short tops normally. It’s got some great features in it, and I love wrap v-necks, so we’ll just have to see how the top works on me before I judge whether it suits me or not.

    • Yes, precisely. :) “They.” Nuts to them. The one that really annoys me are the stylist on makeover shows who strip down their client’s sense of self and point out all the things that have to be “fixed”. Once it was because the goal was to take 10 years off? Why? I never understood the preoccupation with looking young. Young people are morons, by and large…. And so they should be, wisdom is often a byproduct of things like experience and introspection that comes with age…

      You can lengthen the Pavlova, you know. Like Melba: http://www.flickr.com/photos/melbaweatherspoon/8587369384/in/pool-2212099@N22

      • I feel bound to add I haven’t watched one of those shows or picked up a style book in aaaaages. So maybe they’ve improved. But I doubt it.

      • I thought about lengthening it, but I decided to make this straight from the package first. If I really don’t like it as a top, I’ll chop off the muffin cover and use it as a cardigan or over-layer top (I’ll judge the ties when I get there). I like cropped cardis, mostly because I love the look of the short layer on top of a longer one. We’ll see! I’m not afraid to change it if I have to. :) Although I’m plugging away at this very slowly; I hope I can get it finished by tonight for the sew along. (no big deal if I don’t though. :D)

  2. Yes! I love that sewing has liberated me from thinking of my body shape as an atypical (not RTW standard sized) inconvenience. And I love reading sewing blogs where the author has clearly embraced their own unique style that makes them feel beautiful, because usually they aren’t focusing on the “rules” – they’re playing with the fun prints or bold colors or wild embellishments or floaty shapes or whatever it is that makes them happy.

    • Yes! I find that kind of creativity so inspiring, and I love seeing other people sew and wear things I might never try myself… Or, you know, sometimes there’s an idea that’s so crazy it works. :)

  3. Agreed! I’m *technically* an hourglass by most measurements (sort of go between straight and hourglass depending on the calculator) but considering I had a 28JJ bust pregnancy and needed to always buy curvy ID or special jeans to get my butt into them, I always had the typical struggles of an hourglass. I can’t sew much (beyond basic fixes) but I do buy almost exclusively clothes that come in both waist and bust measurements (like BiuBiu, Urkye, and Pepperberry) and pants that are specifically made with curves in mind (like PZI jeans or Levi’s Curve ID jeans). Even then I find I also need to get things taken in at the seamstress.

    What I find so ironic about all the advice is often times some of the “no no” ‘s can look amazing on me if they get the proper alterations or are tailored for a curvier body. You were talking about jackets and I know one great example that shows how amazing they can work when made to fit a large bust. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Urkye? She started her own bust friend clothing shop in Poland not that long ago and she still has a blog where she posts designs that she’s working on. She recently posted black, tailored jacket which is simply amazing and you can see how well it works on an hourglass shape here: http://szycie.blox.pl/2013/03/Zakiet-moich-marzen.html (it’s in Polish but she speaks English amazingly well). A lot of it comes down to a clever design and thinking outside of the box for a certain body shape. I’m jealous of your sewing skills because I’d love to experiment myself but would need to first buy a sewing machine and find a lot more time! ;)

    • That jacket is fantastic. I would love one like that. Certainly designed with the curvier woman in mind but still so stylish. Wow!

        • Really cool cut, definitely suited to an hourglass figure. I think it’d work for most figures, to be honest, if it were a sewing pattern that could be altered for busts… I like tailored looks on curvy figures. :)

  4. I feel like one of my comments in the Pavlova sewalong spurred on this post. I have not been sewing my own clothes long enough to have completely let go of the idea that some styles look bad on some figures, but I’m learning. I took one look at the Pavlova top and my first thought was “that is super cute, but it will never look good on me.” Then I remembered that I was making it and I could alter it to fit my body, so maybe it WOULD look good on me. So, I took a gamble and made the top, and lo and behold, it’s ADORABLE, FLATTERING, and SUPER-COMFY! Uhm, yeah, lemme go make a few more. Every garment I make for myself I throw away a little more preconceived (i.e., someone else’s opinion of how I should dress hammered into my brain) ideas about what I CAN and CANNOT wear. I am hopeful that someday soon my only thought will be “Does it fit me? Because if it does it should be flattering and I’m gonna wear it!”

    • Well- when I was writing this, you were on my mind a bit, and I did think you’d think that! There were two others with similar mentions of bodyshape/stypes, and it’s one of those really common things I hear when people are making their own clothes. Sometimes I just let that conversation happen, but usually I say “Oh, well, you know, I think that whole thing is a crock…” ;)

      I’m so pleased you like her. I was so proud of you when you didn’t give up and tweaked her a bit for fit and she came out looking great! : )

  5. What I hate about those calculators is that they they don’t always give you the right shape to start with. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told I’m a pear shape. My hips may be big compared to my bust but my bust is huge compared to my waist. Styles for small busted gals with big hips will not have enough space up top for me!

    I tried on a pair of skinny jeans last summer even though skinnies are a huge no no for anyone with hips and I was dumbfounded when they looked good. Just goes to show you that you have to try it on! I didn’t end up buy those jeans because I decided that skinnies are not my style but I did buy a pair of of super tapered capris for this summer.

    Mostly, I’ve accepted that I don’t fit in a size box and that’s ok. I’ve got a narrow shoulder, large bust, small waist and huger hips. When I sew, I start with a 32″ or 34″ bust and an FBA, go up a size or two for my waist, then another 3 or 4 sizes for my hips if it’s a fitted size. It fits and that’s about all I care about.

    • Exactly! It fits and that’s all I care about…. For a long, long time as I was getting used to be a style advice rebel but still wanting to dress nicely, I focused on finishes and fabric, too. I mean… If something fits, if it’s good fabric and made well, then who can say anything about it, right?

      I’m so pleased you have learned to fit your shape. It’s nice, isn’t it?

    • Stephanie, ME TOO! Narrow shoulders and a large bust is really fun to try to fit in RTW, so I recently learned how to do a FBA. I feel like a whole new world has opened up for me. :)

  6. I agree with you. When you know how to sew, you can make any style work. And even if a very full, gathered or pleated skirt makes me look hippy, it’s a style I like so I make and wear it anyway.
    I totally feel you on the button down. I have been avoiding button down shirts due to gaping for 20 years! I sewed one for myself as part of a class, and was giddy to be able to wear it in public without being indecent.

    • Absolutely.. I think a lot of this advice also creates problems or issues, new things for us to worry about. Like hippiness. Good for you for making full skirts anyway!

      Oh! Did you almost cry when you made your shirt? The first time I made a gape-free shirt I teared up when I put it on. Really. We get so many unspoken messages from our clothes, and when you can’t do something as simple as wear a button down shirt it does tend to make a lady feel inadequate. Or over-adequate? ;) :D

        • I get that. :) Once I sorted the fit, I made myself scads of button down blouses and shirts. It was a definite person trend for a while.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly. I wish I had written this! The problem with “dress for your shape” is it begins with whatever shape you are has problems. How about liking ourselves? I wear boxy jackets and I’m not supposed to – and I wear sleeveless shirts in the summer when it it is too damn hot to wear anything but. And I am always amazed that so many women fall this “dress for your shape” nonsense. I think of it as filler for magazines.

    • Yes! I like the way you think about this. Why the negativity? If we’re going to have inadequate, contradictory style advice floating around out there, then why does it have to be negative? Why can’t it be positive?

      Yes, magazine filler, to be sure. Luckily print media is dying. Let’s just wait it out, shall we? ;)

  8. I’ve never really taken much stock in what the fashion industry says I should or shouldn’t wear. There are sooo many other factors other than the typical assessment of hourlass / pear / apple / etc. Do you have a short or a long torso? Legs? Narrow back? Broad shoulders? There is just so much more going into each body.

    I do think it can be hard listening to your body and what looks good or doesn’t look good on you. It’s taken me years to figure that out. You would think that with a short torso and an hourglass that a wide belt with a fuller skirt would help separate my large bust from my waist and hips and give me a nice line, but nope. It also has taken me awhile to figure out that sometimes I’m going to wear something even if it may not be the best choice for me, because I like it. I just learned above as an hourglass I’m not supposed to wear high waisted things. And I suppose at 5’2″ with a short torso maybe it’s not the best look for me, but that’s the style I love so that what I’m going to wear. Nyah. LOL

    I’m still learning and making mental notes along the way! ;)

    • Yes! There’s so much more variation and nuance than the fruit-labels allow… (Oh don’t get me started on those… I know they’re useful shorthand, but I get tired of perfectly lovely women telling me things like “I’m a banana! I’m a pear! I’m an apple!” No you aren’t, you’re a woman. Also, what does that make me? A pair of melons? Hehhhehe..)

      It’s definitely a process of discovery, figuring out what to wear. But it’s fun! And at the very worst, you look back at old photos and groan and say “Why did I wear THAT?”

      Oh! I can’t really wear the whole full skirt/wide belt thing either. Every now and then I pull it off with a leather obi belt I have, but I have to mind the length of the skirt, yadda yadda.

      Wait!! Hourglasses aren’t supposed to wear high-waisted stuff anymore? You know why? Because in RTW we’d need to take in the waist to get a decent fit. That’s what it is. That’s why it’s irrelevant to us. Even with my “sexy little pot” of a tummy, I’m pretty sure high-waisted stuff suits me better than lower rises… In fact, it may be *because* of my little tummy that high-waisted looks better on me than low… Hmm!

      What I really, really, really wish we had was a style guide for sewists….

  9. really interesting (and i have thought about this since i read your reply in the flickr sewalong page). i have always thought of myself as a pear as i have a large bum and b cup boobs. however based on measuremeants, i’m probably closer to an hourglass shape – there’s 1″ between by full bust and hips. however if we stood next to each other, i’m willing to bet no one would think we were the same body shape (let alone the same type of fruit!). i’m 5’9″ and my biggest fitting issue is for my height (and i’m not that tall!), especially in the body, which i find very hard to fit. meaning gaps at the bottom of tops, riding up to the waist, and no RTW dresses. trousers come with different length lengths but with no consideration for the crotch length being different for tall people!

    i have come to the conclusion that i know what i like and what makes me look good and feel happy – i like waisted things (empire line makes me look pregnant! much as i like to get a seat on the train, it’s not a look i go for). but if i decide i want to wear a loose top, i wear slim trousers to balance it out. if i wear skinny jeans, i either wear chunky boots or a loose fitting top (or both) to balance it out. slim top and skinny jeans makes me feel a bit tarty, so with a slim top i wear wide legs or bootcut trousers. so my mantra is – balance. and bollocks to pears, apples or bananas.

    • Yes… This post is definitely an extension of that reply, I realized I haven’t really written about this particular topic before so thought I’d go for it…

      How interesting about the shaping! I tend to carry my curves toward the front and the back, an S-shape… And rather straight up and down the sides… My bust and hips are the same, and 10″ larger than my waist. It stays that way even when my weight fluctuates…

      Tall can be really, really hard to shop for but luckily it’s pretty simple to lengthen things. If I get a chance, I might make a post on that- lengthening/shortening without a line..

      And you’re funny! Seats on the train… hehe. Slim tops and skinny jeans make me feel tarty, too, not the least because I get extra attention if I leave the house that way… It’s not nice when 15 year old boys catcall you when you’re picking up your kid from school. (which is what happened when I wore my Clovers out the first and last time…)

      Balance- that’s an excellent mantra. For dressing, for tightrope walking, for everything, really. :)

      • Yes, please ! I’d love a post about lengthening/shortening without a line. I’m almost 6 feet tall, so I always need to make alterations. Also, are there any guidelines to the amount of length you can add in any one spot? I routinely need to add 4 or more inches of length and am concerned that sticking it all in one spot won’t work well, but I don’t really know what else to do. Thanks!

    • You sound just like me- I’m 5 ft 9″ with big boobs and butt , a long bodyand ” average” ( what a term but its the most adequate description) legs. I can’t wear empire lines for the same reason ( actually had someone offer me a seat on the bus in uni :( and always struggling with rtw crotches lol. I think the first time I actually ” got it” that I wasn’t the pattern industry standard was when I printed off the short pattern from the pattern making software from the book “Make your own clothes” – I looked at the crotch seam line after I had taped all the pages together and had an ” ah-ha!” moment . Now I knew why I struggled to get rtw pant waistlines to sit level! And the shorts waistline was beautifully level when I made them up ;)
      I can already tell my daughter has inherited my long torso as I have to add length to her top patterns – at age 3!
      I think I’ve just found another new sewing blog to follow ( never hurts to see what others in your predicament are doing) ;)

      • P.S I am in no way affiliated with/ trying to flog the above mentioned book ( borrowed it from my public library- libraries ROCK!!!) . I just found it very useful at the time :)

      • The thing I’ve found, personally, is that I can wear empire lines as long as the seamline hits directly under my bust and there’s not heaps of gathering in the torso section. It can be a pretty “flattering” cut for those who are shaped like us, if done with consideration of that vital underbust seam…

        That’s so interesting! And how lovely! I remember being extremely pleased with myself the first time I drafted up a pair of pants that fit properly….

        Daughters! My daughter has been such an inspiration for me to figure out this whole modern mess of media/diet/body image/fitting so she doesn’t have to struggle with it… I hope as she grows up it’s not something that’s a major consideration for her, so she can instead focus on developing characteristics that matter, things that will last… Like learning to be kind, finding the humor in tough situations, being well-informed about the world, empathy, developing her drawing skills, etc. These are the things that I hope take up space in her brain, rather than all this stuff about clothes and beauty…

      • Sounds like we are the same person as trousers are my thing to conquer this year and I’d love to hear how you got them to fit (muslin 1 was a big fat fail!). Going to see if you have a blog too!

        • I do but it’s under blogger so not sure if its linked to my WP account ( I write for Perth Burdastyle group occasionally) and a FB page- both under Kate Sews. Please get in touch I think we need to swap noted hehe ;)

  10. I’ve long ignored fashion and just worn what I like (I prefer dark tops and bright bottoms but technically I should be wearing bright tops and boring bottoms I once read). But I still read them for a laugh.
    What I find particularly maddening is that those guides never really talk about how important it is to have the underpinnings comfortable and right. All of those guides to “dressing an hourglass” never mention how having a supportive bra flatters your waist and balances out those hips. All those pear shape guides fail to mention how to choose a panty style that won’t show pantylines on those RTW trousers that are probably going to be too tight anyway. You get told to pad your bra and wear thongs but never that simply making sure your underwire meets in the middle can make your A cups look bigger without making any changes to your physiognomy and indeed, probably makes that bra a bit more comfortable. That’s a different blog’s audience apparently. I’ve never really understood the shyness about dictating our underwear/our fashion foundations when they feel free to dictate everything else

    • They are funny! I hear you… When I was digging up style advice for this post I had to laugh…

      I agree with you- there are cuts and seam treatments etc that circumvent “issues” like vpl or “hippiness” or “bustiness” or whatever. There’s so many more options than just the cut and dried “Wear this, don’t wear that, you piece of fruit” advice.

      That’s really interesting about the A cup, and that makes total sense. I think the peeps here are a mixed bag, at least, I know many of my ladies in the sewalongs aren’t clones, pretty diverse group…

      Well, one of the articles I mentioned above did suggest I wear a bra minimizer… ;) And some of them do mention underwear, but there again all I can think of when I read that stuff is 1) Why are we all supposed to be padded up/bound down so we look the same? and 2) This is for RTW, not for me…

  11. Great comments and observations Steph. The Tirimasu realy suited me and so does the full circle skirt. I have really only ever bought clothes that look nice as I am not sure of my figure type. Straight skirts don’t suit me. I am not sure why but a friend said it is because I am straight up and down, not much of a waist line I am afraid.
    I have thoroughly enjoyed both sew alongs it has got me sewing again and I have had fun, plus my garments have been successful – big bonus. I had better do a bit of gardening soon

    • Thanks, Lyn. :) I’m pleased you like Tira, she does need a little adjustment for fit but once that’s sorted she’s so eager to please. And YES to circle skirts…! Yes. I think right now I like them best when they’re in a super drapey fabric like the knit one or the drapey tulle one I made..

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the sewalongs, I love them too. I will definitely keep doing them.

      Gardening! It’s spring time, isn’t it?

      • No it’s autumn now I am In WA but I love gardening and it is forever evolving. Gardening, sewing and reading are my favourite pastimes and it is so liberating to be retired and do as I wish – to a point.

  12. Great post – lots to think about now! And I guess that means maybe I SHOULD tackle some of those patterns not “meant” for my “body type” ;)

  13. I don’t buy it either! In fact, just the other day I had a problematic student come and talk to me about how she only sews certain types of clothing because she’s a certain shape and she had her colors done several years ago. Add to that she put a huge emphasis on the fact that she paid a small fortune to have her colors done! I love the quote from Dress A Day and how she put it in such plain terms – “So WHAT if your favorite color doesn’t look good on you?” I say the same about certain shapes of clothing. Just make yourself some great fitting clothing, in colors that you love and if you feel great in them that is the only thing that matters!

    • Oh… Did you sigh a little inwardly and gauge whether or not to gently change her mind? Sometimes I get that kind of comment and I realize that the person is so heavily invested in these rules that they simply won’t hear anything to the contrary. And that’s ok, too, but so limiting.

      Erin is a superhero. A legend. A third-wave feminist to point the way for the rest of us. That post of hers is so short and she gets right to the point, and *what* a point. :)

  14. I totally agree. I have always found those dress-for-your-figure rules to be largely wrong or misguided. I don’t fit into a clear category, other than ‘top heavy.’ (How awful does that sound?). Significant FBA required at all times. The oft suggested minimizer bra is the worst suggestion–if I want to look as frumpy and shapeless as possible upstairs, that’s the thing to wear. The classic full-coverage bras are almost as bad for me. (Thank the lingerie gods for d+++ balconettes). Except for one miraculously fitting oxford shirt (sheep with ribbon logo brand), I don’t think I’ve ever found an rtw placket shirt that didn’t gap. At least not since I was about 12.

    As for those rules, I tend to think that they are written by persons who do not have the figure they are advising. (A mirror view of a minimizer bra should be enough direct evidence). Plus, the rules are often about covering up “flaws” rather than real practical guidance. Why womanish upper arms are bad, I’ve never understood. I guess my first revelation about the arbitrariness of “pretty” came with the Japanese fashions in the 1980s. Sort of split apart my notions of femininity and attractiveness (not that I consciously understood that at the time).

    Thanks for bringing up these issues!
    ~Jen

    • Well…. Following on the fruit metaphor, I think we can call you a pair of melons. How’s that? Do you feel objectified? I do wish you could see the wicked sparkle in my eye as I type that… ;)

      Bra minimizer- I know! Yuck! Why? Yuck! Isn’t it uncomfortable? Ugh. I hate that feeling at the end of the day when you take off your bra and have to… bring the circulation back or something. You know? Though I have been wearing better bras lately so that’s less an issue. But I would imagine with a minimizer that effect would be exacerbated. Yuck. I remember binding down the breasts of a very busty girl in highschool theatre so she could play a kid’s role. She hurt every night when we unwrapped her.

      I agree with you about the probable source of such style advice…. Soooo much eye rolling on my part when I read that stuff, always wondering “does this person actually follow their own advice? Why are they writing this?” The answer, of course, is to sell sell sell to keep us feeling like we’re one pair of jeans away from looking “perfect.”

  15. Really interesting discussion! There is no denying that sometimes clothes just don’t work, but often it seems to have a lot more to do with the fabric choice, details and proportions (like sleeve and hem lengths) rather than the basic shape of the garment. Imagine how different the Pavlova ensemble would look in the hands of Armani or Jil Sander versus Versace or Betsey Johnson. For me, that’s what so great about sewing…I can take a shape and challenge myself to work it in a way that suits me. Earlier on Flickr I raised a similar issue having to do with age appropriateness. I struggle less with body shape issues than with what works for someone like me who is more (ahem) mature. I still love style and playing around with fashion, but am past the age when I can pull off a babydoll mini-dress. So many Indie patterns have strappy, short, Junior shapes that just don’t feel right. What I really appreciate about Cake patterns is that they are timeless. They work for both my 24 yer old daughter and me, and look stylish on both of us. Thanks, Steph!

    • Oh! Thank you. :) To be honest, when I’m working up a pattern I think about dressing a woman rather than dressing a girl. There’s nothing wrong with being a girl, to be sure, but I think that women who want to look like grown women and also be attractive are a rather under-served demographic.. My mom is one of my “tests” for a new style. If I wear a muslin when we Skype and she expresses a desire to also wear it, then I know I hit a good “woman” design..

      When I got married I was 21, and became a mother not too long afterwards. It was like a switch flipped in my head and I wanted to dress like a grown lady. Not frumpy, but also not like I was a minxy single girl… But just try shopping for that! It’s what drove me to sewing my own clothes, I just couldn’t find anything that was attractive and feminine and… not girly. It’s also what drew me to vintage fashions, because IMO the 50’s were the last time fashion as a whole celebrated Woman over Girl. If that makes sense… Then Twiggy turned up, bless her heart, and everything changed.

  16. Ignore them. Some “authorities” recommend a whole list of “dos and don’ts” for their particular definition of body types, that are directly contradicted by other authorities’ lists. Even within categories there will be discrepancies that contradict the guidelines (f’rinstance, do you have a very long or very short neck? long torso? short legs? etc. etc.) Best advice is to try on different styles, colors, patterns, sizes to find what works best for you. In front of a mirror. With some way to take notes. And then remember where you filed them, for future reference, if not too far in the future because things change.

    • Yes, maybe if we ignore them they’ll go away.. If only, right? :) You are exactly right…

      I think I’ve put myself through that process publicly over the years of blogging what I make. My style has changed and solidified, too, and I think a big part of that is just the sheer volume of photos I have taken. (It’s also had a really good effect on my self-perception, I used to avoid photos and hated looking at pictures of myself because everything looked “wrong”..)

  17. I’ve always found the “dress for your figure” advice pointless, because (in RTW) the trends aren’t configured so there is one for every figure. “Don’t add volume at the bust!” they say (I, too, am hourglass-y, but with linebacker shoulders…) in a fashion magazine that is otherwise slap full of tops with ruffles and goo and chiffon flowers all over. Or “Make the most of your shape with a fitted skirt!” when the stores are all A-lines as far as the eye can see. And none of this advice seems to apply in the current climate of ever-cheaper knitwear, where it doesn’t seem to matter what the original design looked like, the fabric has no body and metamorphoses into a bin bag when you’ve got it on. So props to sewing and sewists, for at least creating choice, and staving off the inevitable future when we are all running around in identical double-knit leisure suits like the cast of the “Prisoner.”

    • That is an excellent point, Tina! You’re so right, that’s exactly the kind of silliness that goes on in those magazines… Heheh ruffles and goo and chiffon, love it.

      Hahahaha! Bin bags! Double knit leisure suits! Heavens, no! :) I read something a year or so ago about the future of retail clothing that has stuck in my head ever since… In the future, clothes will be made to measure and will be created for the person as they order it. Retail shops will be more like showrooms, you try on a few samples, your dimensions are logged, and your order put through. I think it’s possible to streamline and “tighten up” standard sizing, in fact that’s more or less what I’m doing with Cake… Anyway, a system like that would cut down on a LOT of waste that happens in the fashion industry and should help us avoid a leisure suit apocalypse.. Probably…

  18. I used to get very frustrated with the various fashion advice until I read “The Triumph of Individual Style” and a couple of other books since that all concentrate on individual body differences and how to either camouflage or highlight those differences.
    My overriding rule is fit, if it fits then I’m happy. I know that certain style are just not going to work on my body and I know that some style can be altered to fit me better. Like collar stands can be shortened, darts can be moved, etc. Most of what I have learned has been trial and error and what I feel is acceptable.
    I also don’t worry about other peoples style ideals.

    • I haven’t read that title, but I’ll keep an eye out. I do try to read a variety of sources on style and etc, it’s just that usually I find myself wondering if they’re written by people who actually wear clothes… :)

      You are exactly, exactly right about alterations for proportion and etc. Precisely.

  19. Great discussion. I’m supposed to be a pear shape and never wear pencil skirts. It was profoundly liberating when I realised that I can rock a pencil skirt plus many other ‘hourglass’ looks that I previously thought I couldn’t wear due to having a teeny bust. Many of what I thought were style issues were actually just fitting issues so once I started sewing for myself clothes that actually fitted properly a whole new wardrobe opened up.

    A very very interesting post and I do love how your brain works Steph.

    • Meanwhile, I have seen many “hourglass” articles that suggest we should avoid pencil/straight skirts like the plague. Hilarious. So hilarious. What a racket. :)

      Thank you.

  20. I have really enjoyed reading all of your comments. It was a great discussion point. It is one that we as sewers can have as we have probably chosen to sew or own clothes due to any of the reasons mentioned above. As well as for the pure love of it!

    I get quite disheartened when reading even sewing magazines and they use colour charts to show what you should and shouldn’t wear. So I’m brunette with brown eyes and olive skin so this and this colour looks bad on me. Huh? As if I didn’t already have enough dramas trying to find pants and straight skirts to fit because of my larger thighs. So if I follow their rules and my own problem areas (large bust, long waisted, wide waist, flabby upper arms and large thighs) what am I left with?

    I say wear what you are comfortable in and that you feel good in. Choose what ever underwear you like. And please let us see many more patterns like these where we can match the size dots to individualise our patterns. Yay!

    • I’ve been enjoying the discussion, too, it’s great over morning coffee… :)

      Some sewing magazines are not much better than ladies’ mags. I get it, I do, and I know that the “rules” are intended to help rather than hurt but they’re so… One dimensional, usually. And the other thing I hate about “rule” lists is its another way to feed into our human need to compare ourselves to each other to establish a pecking order. Yawn. How very primal, aren’t we past that as a species? (maybe not, I think that’s debateable…)

      I have such a special treat for you if you like what I do with sizing, then… Over the past 6 weeks or so I’ve been drafting, and checking, and agonizing, and digging around in my data, and thinking, and drafting and drafting some more to get the H-bird ready. I’m really proud of her, though, and I think you’ll like what she’s about… :) The pattern itself wasn’t so hard, just sorting out the sizing in a way that seemed useful. Ach! Later this week… I’ll show you…

      • Excellent. I do love the sizing. Works so well. Talking patterns, did you ever release the Sisters of Edwardian pattern in the larger size? I think I would be on the borderline of the other size and unlike you, too lazy too draft :)

        • Thanks. :)

          No, I haven’t done that. The problem has been the production process. It’s always been the production process. You have no idea- it’s unbelievably frustrating to draft something in a few hours and then spend months getting it produced into something I can put in your hands. We had quite a few breakthroughs this time around, though, not the least of which is partnering with a printer who is much more in line with Cake’s goals… I also put together an interactive digital workspace for creating the art, and TaranM is a talented and sharp-witted digitizer. That’s all to say that the production process is finally happening in an efficient and smooth way, working on this latest release was a revelation.

          So… Once I send H-bird to the printer, I’m going to just hunker down for a couple of weeks and draft out the Riff patterns that are driving me crazy… There’s the striped top with a waitlist as long as my arm, there’s the nautilus ruffle dress I adore and works in both wovens and jerseys, there’s a few shrugs and camis and a few cute/fun tops… And now that I know I can rely on the printer and the process, it won’t take long to produce those. Once the first few RIffs are out, I’ll look at revamping/reworking old patterns of mine if peeps want it. :) (Riffs are a bit like Cake does Burda. Minimalist instructions, no illustrations, stripped bare to just the pattern and construction notes… All an experienced sewist needs, really..)

          • Well you do have your hands full then, lol. But isn’t life great when you have such inspiration and drive for your work. I have so many drafting patterns from the 30s and 50s but I just have to do it. I just love seeing the magic the placement of darts and cutting lines do. I will be looking forward to purchasing your new patterns and watching your business grow. And maybe I should stop being lazy and just draft my own Edwardian pattern. You have definitely given me the inspiration :)

  21. Considering that my shape and my shortness are always seen as two different body types… I’ve always had contradicting info. Also, while my measurements say pear, on good body (as in, good mindset) days I feel very hour-glass-y. I wish I had records of all the different dressing advice (particularly for the same garment: jeans) as it read over the years; seeing a timeline of contradictory advice would be quite interesting.

    Good fit makes such a difference, but finding it can be tricky. Also when we use the term “figure flattery” it is often with the assumption that the flattering we want to do leans towards current societal norms (Sal of Already Pretty talks about this sometimes).

    • That would be amusing, an advice timeline. hehehe.

      You’re right about how finding fit can be tricky, but- once you get an idea of what your pattern pieces generally look like, it gets easier and more intuitive and reflexive, to be sure…

      There’s a fat acceptance meme/t-shirt/campaign called “F*ck Flattering.” I think it ties in with precisely what Erin was writing about prettiness/social acceptability. In fact, the idea that I’d purposefully dress in such a way to be perceived by the outside world as the most attractive version of myself is kind of insulting. As if I owe that. As if I can control the thoughts, assumptions and perceptions of people around me. I can’t. If for no other reason, because I’m an immigrant and my mind does not work like the minds of those around me. It just doesn’t.

      But then there’s the other side. I know for a fact if I’m neatly dressed in something that fits well and is clean, and I carry myself with shoulders squared and chin up, I’ll be treated differently than I am on those days I shuffle around wearing my “dont look at me” glasses and an untidy ponytail and whatever I threw on that was the least dirty… So… I confess a bit of ambivalence, to be honest.

  22. My goodness this topic has definitely hit some nails on the head! I’ve been following the comments for the last 24hrs (and sorry if I come across as a comment hog – this topic has really just “clicked” for me). For me the most useful “advice” ive read has come down more to fitting advice and body proportions. There are things that I try on RTW that I think “if only this was 10-15cm longer it would look good /great on me” or “I wish this came in different cup sizes!” (mostly anything fitted in a woven), so I’m glad that I can sew and fiddle with things to try and make things “work” for me. My most common alterations are adding length and playing around with ease (some of the big 4 patterns houses have waaaay more than I would ever wear built in). Yet another reason to support home sewing, sewing bloggers and indie pattern makers :D
    P.S Yep wish I had thought of this as a post too- genius!!

    • Yeah, I’m glad. I’ve mentioned this topic to people IRL from time to time and sometimes the response is… Not… Warm… So I’m glad y’all get me… :)

      Comment away! It’s fun! I love it.

      I do tend to build in a bit of ease, or rather, I don’t use as little ease as some may prefer? Heh.. There’s a raft of double negatives. But it’s always explained, and I figure if I keep doing what I’m doing and continue to improve and refine the process, then it’s fine. But ease… That’s a very personal preference there, and another whole post on its own…

      Thanks! You’re so kind! :)

  23. Sewing has definitely given me a different perspective on style. Freed from the constraints of RTW sizing, I find myself making different styles than I would buy. I think sewing blogs have really helped in this too. I can see a pattern made up on a blogger or on someone’s Flickr who has a similar body type and realize it would work for me too (I never see a model or mannequin that’s my size). One thing that upsets me is that these style prescriptions can be so constricting that they cause people to give up altogether. I have a good friend at work who has just resorted to buying clothes a size or two too large to essentially hide in them. She says it’s just not worth it to figure what she looks good in. I’m working on her to start sewing (no luck so far). Thanks for this post Steph. It’s been such an interesting read!

  24. What an excellent post. I think since we sew we are already ignoring the fashion rules and doing our own thing. :-)

  25. Pingback: expedient gladification | moonthirty

  26. I actually didn’t think about figure types much until I started sewing, because in the shops I could just try things on and if I liked them I bought them.

    However, since I started sewing I feel like I have to spend some time thinking about what would suit me or what I think would look good on me, because it can be disheartening spending hours trying to sew and fit something perhaps doesn’t suit at all. When I look at patterns or styles now I try to impose my figure type on top, but it is a long process. In addition people whose style I like and whose sewing is inspiring, they are often a different body type to me and what looks great on them, doesn’t necessarily suit me (or my lifestyle) at all :-)

  27. My self-perception changed wildly once I began sewing. After unending frustrated shopping trips, it was a revelation to recognize that the clothes didn’t fit me, NOT that I didn’t fit the clothes. The dimensions of the RTW clothing were the problem, not my body. Now that I have mostly figured out how to fit clothing to my body, I can barely stand the thought of purchasing anything RTW. It is so much easier to have a healthy body image when it isn’t getting skewed by what clothing companies market as “normal.”

  28. I I think there is a certain amount of wisdom to some of the suggestions made by those guides and for some people who are not adventurous it can be helpful to try something they know should work. BUT there are so many variations within body types (is there such a thing really) that it is impossible to provide a thorough reference. I too, am technically an hourglass – shoulders and hips even, a proportionally much smaller waist, but the fast that I am on the short side provides a whole other set of challenges that make dressing carefully a necessity. A boxy shape on me can add 10kg and at least a decade, and I’m not going there. Your pavlova skirt – which I have made twice is weirdly better at a longer length in a weightier fabric on me – at the standard length I looked much shorter and heavier. And that’s where the beauty of sewing lies – being able to tailor a shape that appeals to fit your unique frame. I honestly think not everyone can wear everything though. Some people DO need to be saved from themselves.

  29. What I love about sewing is that I can the big ol’ finger to the fashion industry. I’ve never really paid that much attention to what’s “supposed” to look good on me, because at a lot of stores for women my age (young 20-somethings) my body doesn’t even exist there. My bust is too big for their clothes and my butt is too big for anything fitted that goes on my lower body. And I’m sick and tired of getting the mixed messages of how the ideal is to have a large bust and butt and then none of the places that sell clothes back that claim up.

    Pardon my language, but fuck ’em all. I sew. I do want I want.

  30. One piece of advice for my shape which I found pretty funny was: “Avoid wearing 3/4 length sleeves because they make you look like an ape.” What? What’s wrong with apes?

  31. I do use the style and color suggestions… but when I’ve strayed, things have been disappointing. I don’t insist that others stick to the rules, but I find them most useful. Perhaps because my shape is so exagerratedly the shape that it is? The large bust goes with the square shoulders and the wide back and the waist almost under the ribs and… all the advice tends to blend together, but perhaps if only one or two bits of that advice pertained and there was contrary advice, I could use the contrary advice and instead flatter my hipbones outrageously.

    Generally speaking, when I break the rules, I’m sad. So I try not to.

  32. This was a very interesting read. I too have read and listened to so many of those tips on appropriate styles for my body shape. However, even those tips don’t work out for me, because nothing ever fits right in RTW. I recently had an epiphany that I don’t really fit into any of the standard body shapes. I’m somewhere between a pear and an hourglass, and I’m short. I don’t have a small bust, but my hip measurement is bigger than my bust measurement, mostly due to an extremely ample bottom. Anything RTW that fits in the waist pulls open at the bust and/or squeezes my bum to a pancake. Hence, the reason I have given up RTW almost completely.

    I have made some clothing in styles that I would never have bought in a store. But I think the idea that there are certain styles that I should avoid is ingrained in my mind so heavily that I still find myself dismissing styles that I think are “cute, but not cute on me.” Some of this is probably due to the fact that it was so emotionally draining and disheartening when I tried on styles in my younger years and was disappointed to see that I was apparently an oddity. Almost nothing fit me correctly. I would think to myself that if they don’t make clothes for me, there must be something wrong with me. So, I really think there is some underlying emotional aspect to my style choices, even if it’s just subconscious. I definitely embrace my curves now, and I realize that my body was never the problem, but I think a lot of women probably have struggled with this.

    Thanks for posting this and making me think. You really make me want to go out there and make one of every article of clothing that I used to avoid. I just love your attitude! Why should we care what other people think? I just wish I could say that I’ve completely conquered my insecurities. I take this line away with me: “My waistline is hardly my defining characteristic, and I’m secure in that knowledge.” Boy, do I wish I could say that I was 100% there too, but I’m a work in progress. :)

    P.S. Sorry for writing a novel-length comment.

  33. This was a very interesting read. I too have read and listened to so many of those tips on appropriate styles for my body shape. However, even those tips don’t work out for me, because nothing ever fits right in RTW. I recently had an epiphany that I don’t really fit into any of the standard body shapes. I’m somewhere between a pear and an hourglass, and I’m short. I don’t have a small bust, but my hip measurement is bigger than my bust measurement, mostly due to an extremely ample bottom. Anything RTW that fits in the waist pulls open at the bust and/or squeezes my bum to a pancake. Hence, the reason I have given up RTW almost completely.

    I have made some clothing in styles that I would never have bought in a store. But I think the idea that there are certain styles that I should avoid is ingrained in my mind so heavily that I still find myself dismissing styles that I think are “cute, but not cute on me.” Some of this is probably due to the fact that it was so emotionally draining and disheartening when I tried on styles in my younger years and was disappointed to see that I was apparently an oddity. Almost nothing fit me correctly. I would think to myself that if they don’t make clothes for me, there must be something wrong with me. So, I really think there is some underlying emotional aspect to my style choices, even if it’s just subconscious. I definitely embrace my curves now, and I realize that my body was never the problem, but I think a lot of women probably have struggled with this.

    Thanks for posting this and making me think. You really make me want to go out there and make one of every article of clothing that I used to avoid. I just love your attitude! Why should we care what other people think? I just wish I could say that I’ve completely conquered my insecurities. I take this line away with me: “My waistline is hardly my defining characteristic, and I’m secure in that knowledge.” Boy, do I wish I could say that I was 100% there too, but I’m a work in progress. :)

  34. The problem I used to have was that there were too few ‘official’ body shapes. I found the Trinny & Susannah guide much more helpful because it listed twelve body types instead of the usual three or four. Even then, there were differences between me and the model demonstrating my body type (my body’s a skittle shape, apparently), so I altered accordingly.

    So, why do any of that at all? It’s not something to force on anyone, because if you want to go out in baggy sweatpants and horse mask, you rock those baggy sweatpants and horse mask. But I like the shape certain clothes give me. I like my waist well-defined, my boobs lifted, and my stumpy legs concealed under something floaty. I feel more elegant like that, and I don’t have to sacrifice comfort. (It’s not a one-sex-only thing, either; I love men’s clothing that shows off the waist). Now and then, I’ll wear something just because I love the design, but if I do want to flatter my body shape, I know which clothes to use.

  35. Another great post. When a person really thinks about the possibilities for variation in body types, I think it becomes apparent that we all need to stop looking for advice and spend a little more time just observing how we feel in clothes.

  36. I agree completely. My frustration is that my sewing skills (and sewing time!) do not match up with this head knowledge! I know that if I made my own button-down shirts they would fit in the waist and over my chest – without the hidden safety pins. I know that empire waist dresses and shirts would look good on me, but I can’t buy them RTW because the seam is always across my boobs! And don’t get me started on pants… too short in the legs, waist in the wrong place, not right proportions between waist/ hips/ thighs. Right now I am 8 months pregnant, so I definitely don’t fit into any body shape chart – ha! But after baby, I am determined to figure out how to alter patterns and improve my technical skills! I wish our local community colleges still offered sewing classes.

  37. The problem I see with these is that they usually only work with horizontal proportions, not vertical. As a girl with short legs and long torso, I have come to know that vertical proportions are just as important as the horizontal ones… The only guide I’ve ever seen that also takes into account vertical proportions is in an 80s book I have which I believe was really a textbook; it gives short advice for 8 body types (that can be combined) for both women and men, and points out that there are so many different body types et cetera et cetera.

  38. You are just awesome and your clothes are awesome :). Your style is inspiring and I love that red bag!
    Lalie

  39. Hooray! Freedom! Thank you SO MUCH for this post! I have begun a “finding your style” series on my blog, and my post on shape and color just went up a few days ago. After looking through the links that I provided on that post (If I wrote it all myself, it would probably fill a whole blog of posts) I wasn’t happy with the information provided for my figure type (a straight), since it meant, like you, I shouldn’t wear boxy tops, which I love to wear; and that I should wear more voluminous gathered tops, which I actually feel uncomfortable in.
    If you don’t mind, I am going to provide a link to this post and your posts on color in my next blog post in my series.

    Thanks so much!
    Brigid

  40. Pingback: Finding Your Style: Color, Shape & Resources Pt. 2


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