A Guide to Shirt Length

When we shop for clothing, we seek out pieces that will both fit and flatter our figures. I mean OBVIOUSLY. We look for skirts that optimize our gorgeous gams, sleeves that flatter our arms, dresses that skim our hips without pulling. We examine drape and construction and detailing and color. And, of course, we consider matters of length: Are these pants long enough? Does this skirt hit my legs in a funny spot? Will this tee cover my belly if I reach for a jar of pickles on a high shelf?

But one lengthy matter that is often overlooked is how top length will relate to bottom length. I used to buy tops that were cute and flattering without giving much thought to how they’d work with my bottoms. I learned relatively recently that there is an optimum length for tops worn with skirts, and an optimum length for tops worn with pants … and that these lengths are quite different. And this one key piece of information has transformed how I shop and dress forever. Not exaggerating, I SWEAR!

Here’s a little photo tutorial on shirt length that will illustrate what I mean and give you tips on how to make your torso appear disconcertingly short or alarmingly long, should you ever need to create such an illusion.

See this shirt? It’s SHORT. Mad short. I bought it about eight years ago and just can’t seem to give it up, despite its undeniable shortness. Worn here with pants, it looks positively weird since the hem of the shirt sits right where the waist of the pants ends. One wrong move and we’ve entered Exposed Abdomen City. Not only that, but it makes me look as if I have a teensy torso and disproportionately long legs.

When I layer a tee underneath my shirt du shortness, it almost works. See how adding that longer layer up top instantly snaps me back into proper Sal proportions?

Shorty McShortersons also almost works worn with a skirt. As you’ll see throughout this tutorial, shorter tops generally work best when worn with skirts … but this shirt is still just a tad too short for skirt wearage. I mean, it’s passable, but not great. And who’s got time for passable?

Now let’s visit the opposite end of the spectrum. This shirt is MAD LONG. (You might’ve gleaned that on your own. Maybe.) It’s really stretchy and I’ve yanked it waaaaaay down to illustrate my point. And my point is that a superlong shirt worn with pants has the opposite effect as a supershort shirt worn with pants: My torso looks freakishly long, and my legs are instantly stumpified.

Since I’ve already hinted that shorter shirts work best with skirts, you may have guessed that this ultralong shirt would look odd here. However, since my legs are clearly visible in this outfit, the overall effect is less discombobulating than the long-shirt-with-pants option. However, if you yearn to pair a tunic-length shirt with a skirt, why not try …

… this? Stolen directly from the pages of Lucky, this ensemble is more about style than figure flattery and can be tough to pull off. I definitely don’t look my best in it, but it’s an interesting enough pairing that I don’t much care.

If you want to give the long-shirt-long-skirt look a try, I recommend utilizing similar elements to the ones shown here: Drapey floor-length jersey skirt, figure-skimming tunic, and waist-defining belt. If you opt for a loose, voluminous tunic you might lose yourself in a flowy mass of fabric and never find yourself again.

This tee is just about the ideal length for pairing with pants. It divides my rear end in half, sits about two inches above the crotchpoint, and elongates my figure without giving the impression of mile-long-torso.

The same tee worn with my skirt, on the other hand, looks considerably less flattering. Mile-Long-Torso Woman returns! It’s a mild illusion created by the visible-shirt-to-visible-skirt proportion. Mild, but annoying. Try this instead:

Now THIS is the ideal length of shirt for skirt wearage. It sits about four fingers below my belly button, skims my hip bone, and creates a far more flattering outfit when paired with the skirt.

The same shirt paired with pants looks innocuous enough, but a few more inches of length would make this combination flattering instead of inoffensive. If I had a yen to wear this top with these pants, I’d likely layer a slightly longer shirt or tank beneath the purple top to give me that extra length.

There! I have PROVEN that longer shirts work best with pants, and slightly shorter ones work best with skirts. However, there are no hard-and-fast rules in the world of style, and this one is meant to be bent and broken. Additionally the guidelines I’ve outlined here may not work for your figure AT ALL, and you should adjust or discard accordingly. Use your eye, call on your personal taste, and utilize only what flatters you.

Hope this was helpful! For more photo-heavy how-to’s, take a peek at:
Avoiding Artificial Cankles
Know Your Necklines
Skirt to Leg to Shoe Ratio part 1, part 2, and part 3
How to Look Awesome in a Photo part 1, part 2, and part 3
Universally* Flattering Styles part 1 and part 2
Easy Throw-on Outfits

And a coupla how-to vids:
DIY Statement Necklace
All in Knots (scarf tying)

Big ups to Husband Mike for another fab photo shoot. He’s such a rock star.

  • Christina Lee

    great great post!! You explain things so well!And all of it is so true-but the pictures helped prove it!

  • Arlynn

    I love this – too smart!!! I'm pretty picky about the lengths of my tops because my torso is so short & I hate having to put an adorable top back on the rack all because it's not the right length on me…

    Thanks for the great info!

  • Make Do Style

    You are lucky to have the photographer to hand!
    The guidance is great but as ever it depends on ones body and leg length – we are all different – but at least you’ll give people a baseline!

  • Couture Allure Vintage Fashion

    I wish I still had my Properties of Design textbook. I have longed for that book so many times over the years since I got rid of it, and have never been able to find it again. Anyway, I seem to recall that our eye tends to divide the body into thirds – shoulder to hip, hip to knee, and knee to ankle. Any time your clothing accents those natural thirds, you look visibly proportioned. You can see it most clearly in the second to last photo with blue top and black skirt. 1/3 blue, 1/3 black, 1/3 skin tone. I also like the blue top with the black pants. 1/3 blue, 2/3 black. It works!

  • Sal

    Make Do Style: So true! I’m fairly average in height and weight, so I think I am a decent example. But as I said, these are mere guidelines, to be applied or ignored as needed.

  • bekster

    Great post!

    Any tips on what to do with an excessively long shirt? (I’m talking tight and stretchy, not drapey.) I already bought it because I love the color and the neckline, but I am having the hardest time pairing it with anything. Because of dealing with that shirt, I have also had shirt length thoughts rolling around in my brain recently. I wouldn’t buy that length again, but I do want to utilize what I already own.

  • dapper kid

    Wow, fantastic post! Proportions are an art of their own, it does take some time to really learn what works on your body and what doesn’t…well what doesn’t without a little creativity anyway. I really like the layered shortshort shirt look :)

  • Winnie

    Definitely a great post! I think it’s easy to work out what looks good on yourself but styling other people is much harder, but with this post, it’s easy to see what normally does and doesn’t work!

  • Gladys

    Can’t you break up the too long shirt with a belt and add to the too short shirt with a wide belt also? Or is that a total fashhion faux paus?

  • lisa

    Great post! I’ve been buying all of my shirts a tad on the long side and just tucking them into my skirts when I need to. Most of my skirts are high-waisted or have some sort of detailing on the top so it’s easy to do for the most part.

  • Laura

    I love your royal blue long shirt. You can also wear it with leggings and boots or add a belt to show off your waist. I pair it with a necklace in San Francisco and then I can wear it to work :)

  • Sal

    bekster: I use my excessively long shirts as underlayers, but if you love the color and neckline, you might want to have the shirt hemmed. Or hem it yourself, if you’ve got the skillz. You can likely use the excess fabric as a scarf!

    Gladys: Breaking up a too-long shirt with a belt, I’ll condone … but not as sure about adding length to a short shirt with a belt. Maybe if it’s tucked in? Kind of a high-waist dealy?

  • Barry Wright, III

    As said, a wonderful post. I really appreciate the analysis that must have gone into this, and you did a wonderful job in giving examples. Great work!

  • kittyscreations

    I love it. This post is helping me realize why certain tops that I have look awful with skirts but great with pants and vice versa.

  • GreatCanadianBealge

    Ah, proportions! So frusterating when a top and bottom would theorietically look so good together, but their relative length gets in the way! I’m kind of loving your short top layered over longer one look. I like tanks with a bit of lacy goodness on teh bottom for doing that. I also just like that top :)

    So many awesome tops are made long. It also probably doesn’t help that I’m not particularily tall. But as a skirt wearing gal, these long tops can be a bit of a problem. I have experiemnted both with the tucked in look (I like this when the skirt has a place for an awesome belt). The high wasited thing really does it for me. I also have been known to put the hem of a too long top where I want it to go and then “artfully” arrange the top so it looks like the ruching effect is intentional. Hit and miss I suppose, but its better than the story of the neverending torso. Unless of course I’m in the mood for some neverending torso goodness and then I just rock the long top with a little bit of skirt out the bottom (kinda like Picture #5). I know according to proportion conventions it’s wrong, but sometimes it’s just oh so right!

  • Kelly

    I always love when you dress up to show your point – MUCH more helpful than just saying things at me, which is what a lot of blogs, mags, and especially books do!

  • fashion herald

    very helpful shirt tutorial!
    and I am so checking out all in knots, i’m a helpless scarf tier. or is it “tyer?”

  • La Belette Rouge

    I just put on a tunic sweater the other day that was just too long and I felt drippy and a bit “mom” like in it( not that moms are drippy. It just wasn’t looking smart and stylish) I felt like the length really pulled me down. Great post. I got a lot out of it.

  • Rose

    I think the only thing one can do with super long tops is pair them with a very similar color so that they don’t break the body up 2/3 to 1/3. Your long blue shirt might work with dark blue jeans in a straight or skinny cut. It’s hard to think what else might work.

    Because you have such a nice figure, I think the too-short pink top looks nice on you, particularly with the knee-length skirt. It would be hard for someone more bottom-heavy or with a tummy to pull off.

    Great tutorial.

  • AsianCajuns

    What a fantastic post! Shirt length is definitely underrated. Once I wore a super long tank with pants and it looked ridiculous. I tried to bunch it up a bit, but then it just emphasized my love handles – horrible! You, however, look lovely in all the photos!

  • fleur_delicious

    can I ask where you found such a great maxi skirt? I’ve been looking for a silhouette like this one (jersey or otherwise), but to no avail. =(


    This post was MAD COOL. :) I always gravitate towards tops that hit my hips because I wear tight shorts/pants and it creates a nicer line from my waist down.

  • DawnB

    Thanks for all the extra effort to give us the visual tutorial and also to your dh who had the patience and skills for this grand job. The visual is very helpful.

  • Margaret

    I love a tunic over a long skirt, and for modesty reasons, that’s normally what I wear. A lot depends on the cut. I find that the skirt shouldn’t be merely ankle length, but should hang just above the floor. The top should come 7-9″ below the belly button. I find that because my shirts all have long sleeves and high necklines, that the combination tends to create a good line and also draw attention to my face.

  • Margaret

    @fleur_delicious That type of long skirt in a stretchy knit fabric is very popular in Orthodox Jewish communities these days. These retailers all carry similar styles. They're called slinky skirts.






  • Down Comforter

    Some great tips! I, too, have shirts from several years ago that are too short & camis are a great solution without having to replace tons of items :)

  • enc

    You always get it right, Sal. You have some really nice clothes, too! I see why you didn’t want to let the pink swirly top go. It’s a great color and print for you.

  • Imogen Lamport

    It’s all to do with the golden mean proportion – a ratio developed by Leonardo da Vinici (also known as the fibonacci number) that is a ratio that goes:

    1:2 2:3 3:5 5:13 etc.

    What we care about when dressing is that we use the 2:3 and 3:5 proportions – that is when we look our slimmest and best (and many studies have actually proved this).

    So a top that is 2 head lengths looks best with a skirt that is 3 head lengths, or a pair of trousers that is 5 head lengths looks best with a top that is 3 head lengths.

    Makes sense?

  • Rooi_Skoene

    I’m so proud of myself for chucking out all my too tiny shirts and tops.

    I’ll need to get a few new tops this weekend: I’ve been wearing the same ‘uniform’ for the last couple of weeks 😉

  • The Seeker

    Great post my dear, with such great information.