Figure Flattery as a Limiting Factor


Jennine left a fantastically thought-provoking comment on this post:

i really like the sentiment of this, however i don’t know if i agree whole heartedly. just because i hear so many women who use the word ‘flattering’ as an excuse to not try new things with clothing which is a shame because there are so many great designers who make garments beyond our conception of ‘flattering’ which are a lot more expressive, and pushes fashion into an art form rather than a function.

i’ve always felt that clothes are the bodies we can choose, though as i get older, i’m finding that our choices form our bodies as much as they determine our wardrobes.

And I hear that. We often get stuck on what we believe to be the most flattering styles for our figures, and never branch out. We want to look our best, flatter our bods, highlight our assets. And learning to do that is no mean feat, so once we’ve landed on a few key items or cuts that just WORK, we are loathe to abandon them.

But exploring new styles, trying new items, experimenting with clothing that falls outside our comfort zone is an invaluable way to learn more about our bodies, styles, and selves. And that includes clothes that aren’t traditionally “flattering” but may appeal to our aesthetic sense on another level.


But my thought is that, before you can explore garments that hide your figure, you need to learn to show it off. Understanding your highly personal proportions and how to capitalize upon them helps you both to understand which non-flattering items will still work for you, and to feel comfortable wearing them. Without that working knowledge, more adventurous items that play with proportion and volume and suchlike can make you FEEL weird about how you look. You lose your sense of where you end and the garment begins, and can end up feeling disproportionate or uncomfortable.

I think a very solid sense of what flatters your form is necessary before you can start manipulating it.

But what do YOU think? Are you still struggling to flatter your figure, but feeling ready to explore non-traditional pieces already? Got your signature style nailed and have no interest in trying pieces that won’t maximize your assets? Interested in garments for garments sake, without much interest in figure flattery at all?

Images are of Rad by Rad Hourani‘s FW09 collection, via The Supermelon.

  • Becky

    I can certainly relate to this. Even though I have a great hour glass figure, I'm a size 14, and therefore "categorized" as "plus-size". Because of this, there are certain things that work wonderfully, and certain things that I believe absolutely do not. That whole flowy boho look? I feel that I look shapeless and bigger than what I actually am. This hasn't stopped me from trying to do a few pieces from that sort of look, but they're not my favorites. Sometimes, though, there are pieces that I take into a fitting room that I LOVE, but have a feeling they won't work, but then they do…or they work enough for me to take a chance on them. I actually wore a dress a couple weeks ago that fits into this category http://prissypoodle.blogspot.com/2009/08/daily-duds-8609-barbie-girl.html
    That dress didn't fit my usual criteria, but I loved the print and just how different it was that I went for it…and it's probably one of my favorite dresses, even though probably not the most flattering.
    I think it can sometimes just come down to attitude!

  • Work With What You’ve Got

    Denim Leggings. It’s been established by both me and my readers that they are not the most flattering thing I wear. They make my thighs look kind of chunky if we are being honest. But I FEEL great in them. I feel fun and young and sexy. And the reality of the way I feel in them far outweighs whatever the pictures say. So I wear them. Flattering or not!~

  • Anna Jane

    Indeed it becomes boring when a woman sticks to a certain uniform of garments which she believes to be the most flattering for her figure. However, one should also remember that there are so few women out there who can literally wear whatever the hell they feel like and still look good. There is such a thing as being too adventurous, and I believe then it's time for the fashion police to come in!

    I guess like anything, there's a happy medium with fashion. Stick to what you know looks good on you, but don't be afraid to branch out a bit with the arrival of new trends. Just don't go overboard!

  • ambika

    Do I get bored with the v-necks and scoop necks that most flatter my chest? Do I get tired of the same, very few styles of pants that work with my legs? Oh. My. God. Yes.

    So of course I experiment. For me, that's half the fun of shopping–trying on sack dresses, pleated pants, high waisted pants, and any number of things that I think won't look anywhere near as good as my stalwarts.

    & sometimes, I like those things–either because I find they do look good or because I'm having so much fun in messing with proportion and expectation that I just go with it.

    I get that not everyone is there but it does seem a little confining to always go for flattering & never experiment.

  • The Budget Babe

    I think "flattery" mean something different to each of us. For example, I think MK Olsen wears "flattering" clothing because it's unique, individual and edgy, however most critics of her style question why she always chooses such UNflattering clothing. i think many women associate "flattering" with that which helps you attain a thin yet curvy hourglass shape; not so for me because my figure is more boyish. Maybe i'm stuck on semantics!

  • Cupcakes and Cashmere

    i think my biggest issue is that i see clothes that work on girls half my size (and i'm not big by any means), but what looks good on those girls with no hips or boobs does not on me. i constantly have to remind myself that drapy tops, teeny skirts and no bra is not my best look, but it's tough because i see that everywhere in L.A.

  • kristophine

    To me, that's sort of what trends are for–I have a decent repertoire of styles that call attention to my waist and bust, of which I am fond, and then periodically I see something new and try it on. Generally the results are horrifying, like my experiment in skinny jeans, which ended in me hopping around the fitting room trying desperately to unroll a leg so tight I couldn't fit it over my ankle without Herculean effort. But sometimes I discover something new that I love–not leggings, that's for sure, but, say, those blouses with ties at the neck. I love those and it turned out they looked great on me, which I discovered while trying stuff on at my favorite trendy thrift store.

  • Kelly

    I definitely feel this. I see a lot of things I love on other women but I just can't pull them off. My biggest offender is my boobs – I love a lot of tops I see with ruffles, and draping, decorations, etc. but I really don't feel like I can wear them, and it pains me to pass up something I love on the hanger because I know it won't love me when I put it on. I feel like everything I choose has to be sleek and fitted, because if it's not, it will just tent out over my chest and make me look 20 pounds heavier. I get so tired of passing up pretty things.

  • lisa

    Perhaps the women who are fixated on figure flattery and terrified to try new looks are taking fashion too seriously. Lighten up, people! Style is supposed to be fun. If something is unflattering or makes you feel uncomfortable, you can always take it off and put something else on.

  • The Magic Doll

    I think that flattery should come with basic pieces like vest and tees and underwear, but then your accsesoires and the colours and fabrics and how your wear your hair can make every difference.
    H
    xxxxxx

  • WendyB

    I agree — first you need to know how to look good, and once you've got that down, it's time to experiment! I've been wearing more pieces lately that aren't necessarily "my" look, but I've just enjoyed shaking things up and being less predictable.

  • Tina Z.

    I can relate. I only recently learned what is truly "flattering" on me and let me tell you, it makes a world of difference in how I feel, and as a result, how I look. I agree that it takes getting to this "level" of appreciation (figuring out what is flattering, what your assets are) in order to push the boundaries. Nothing feels better than to play up your assets and I feel like it's a necessity to own (and wear) clothes that do this at least 4 days of any given week.

  • Katie

    It all comes back to what makes you FEEL good. I have often purchased things that were supposed to "work" with my figure, only to see a picture of myself looking awful and uncomfortable because it wasn't really my style. Relying on the clothes to make you look good can end up making you look less than good. It has to come from within, which Sal is so good at reminding us :)

  • Courtney

    I think the flattery issue has a LOT to do with how comfortable we are with our bodies. When I was a size 4, I was willing to try anything because I didn't feel like I needed any help from my clothes to look good. Now, at a size 14, I NEED that help to convince myself that I am a good looking woman (mostly because the size 4 is so sharp in my memory!). And so flattery has become a must have in any outfit, not because I'm overly serious about fashion, but because I'm overly embarrassed of my body. I like to experiment with new styles and silhouettes, but anything that doesn't flatter amazingly always gets rejected. I know that I'll take it home and two or three weeks later catch a glance at myself in the mirror and spazz into self loathing. The "uniform" of flattering garments is restricting and I look forward to the possibility of shedding it one day, but for now my self esteem and mental health are worth it!

  • Meli22

    thank you for your comment on my blog ;)

    As for being 'ready' to experiment- i'm still learning what DOES flatter me, and since this is an experiment in itself I have a ways to go. But I will try on different things- I tried a maxi dress this summer. Didn't work. Spaggetti straps, the triange cups- not good for a somewhat bustier figure, since I am a 34C. I try to cover them up a bit- not overexpose, and I need the lift from a bra. Plus the skirt didn't work- made me look preggo, a look i am def not going for.

  • Make Do Style

    I just think you always have to keep adjusting, experimenting – it's fun and keeps you moving forward.

    Today I wore sequin leggings, a hoodie and biker boots – it was different and I had a great time.

  • fleur_delicious

    Personally, I'd like to be more avant-garde. I bought this HUGE sweater vest this winter, long with massive braid trims and ruffles, really crazy. Super deal, too – $50 down from $500. I ended up returning it, unworn, only because I could NOT fit my backpack over it and, well, I'm in grad school: a big, full backpack is kind of my way of life for another 4 years.

    But still, this was a big move for me. I'm 5'11" with strong shoulders. I never put bulk on my shoulders, but all of a sudden, I thought, "you know, this is FIERCE." And it was. It wasn't about creating something "pretty" (and let's face it, "pretty" or "sexually attractive" varies from decade to decade, person to person, anyway) or "attractive" even; it was about something that was a bold exuberance of sweaterknit. And I loved that.

    I would really, really like to start branching into clothes that are more about art and expression and less about creating a sexually appealing bod. But I understand that that is an utter rejection of many people's and institutions' ideas of fashion. I just think it's time, for me.

    Witness: I bought my first kimono. Vintage, naturally. I've been shopping since November last year, and finally found a gorgeous breathtaking print in colours that I love. I'm going to use it as a robe. And this is no slinky little charmeuse thing. This is a glorious, heavy swath of silk, with long furisode sleeves. And when I pad around in it, I think I look cocooned rather than sexy. But cocooned in a veritable work of art – and that's the direction I want to move in. Even though this glorious piece is all about the print, when I wear it, I wear the robe – it doesn't wear me. It's the same kind of body confidence, just channelled in a different direction.

    I think figure-flattery is great, and I think you need to walk before you can run. But if clothing always and only is about appealing (essentially sexually) to a potential mate … well, it's probably my prudish Catholic-school upbringing, but that does feel like a limitation to me, and a bit of a cheap one. There is a world of flamboyance and fun beyond fitting one's body to a commonly accepted standard of beauty, that's all I'm saying – and I, for one, intend to go journeying in it.

  • Darrah

    To be honest, people should dress to flatter their figure. If they don't, they'll regret it. I've spent the majority of my life buying "trendy" things, and just realized that nothing lasts. I've done a complete revamp on my wardrobe this summer. However, I understand there are extremes. If you have the basics in the proper size/shape/color that flatter your figure, then by all means buy the things that seem fun to you, and play with proportions.

  • Imogen Lamport

    If wearing the more creative end of the clothing spectrum is part of your style – then flattery has nothing to do with it in many ways, as it's an outer expression of your inner self. If you're a classic, conservative person, then it's unlikely you'll be breaking the rules (my post tomorrow is on this subject!)

  • K.Line

    What an awesome post! I just received a crazy dress (bought via Laws of General Economy, online) that is well beyond the convention of flattering – it's downright awkward. And yet, it's high necked (like elizabethan), sack-style, wacky patterned weirdness compelled me. I'm going to try to make it work. If it doesn't, I can always pass it on!

  • Autumn

    Heh, new commenter here, and liking this blog already!

    100% in agreement with fleur_delicious. Personally, I'm trying to abolish the idea of dressing in a "flattering" manner from my mind. I have a new dress that is my favorite in the world, but it makes me look wide and pregnant. Do I care? Not as much as I thought I would! My love of the dress overshadowed any concerns I had about my appearance, and that's the way I feel it should be. Looking good should be far less important than wearing what you love.

  • Patty Ann

    What I like to do is try on each of the newest trends, and see if it works. If it's flattering and I like the way it falls on my body, I'll be very open to it when I see it at the stores. If it doesn't work too well, I'll just stay clear. But I think the best part of being experimental with all designers is that there are always things you never imagined to be perfect for your body. For example, I thought harem pants would look really poor on me, but I actually loved the result, and I'm readily embracing that trend. But ther are always situations where I want to feel super confident and sexy so I'll still fall back on the items I know work best, like maybe that perfect LBD or super thin black shirt. I think it has to do with what makes you feel the most confident! If tryng something new doesn't make you feel a little self-conscious, I think that's a valid reason for not experimenting, and sticking to the old. You want to feel amazing, clothes should be the last thing that makes anyone feel self-conscious because you have complete control over what you wear.

  • Cecilia

    I find that I usually stick to my tried and true shapes because I know they work and it makes my shopping easier. With a little one at home, long are the days when I would take the time to try on the whole store and come away with the pieces that truly look awesome, whether or not they are part of my regular "uniform". I mourn those days :( I should take the time to do it at least once a season again.

  • -h

    I prefer to say I try to wear things that "suit me." I don't dress to "Show Off My Figure." Because I could look good in a herve leger dress, but the attention that comes along with wearing a herve leger dress wouldnt suit me.

    Also, I think understand proportion is good. Say you could wear a "flattering" piece with a more "experimental" piece, that you can still be branching out without feeling lost.

  • enc

    I think Jennine makes a good point about trying new things. I'm stuck in a rut, and new is the direction I'm going now.

    On the other hand, you also make a good point about knowing how to flatter yourself.

    I wonder what all of us would do with a session from a personal stylist who didn't know us, and had never seen our wardrobes, and just chose things they saw as "flattering" for us?

  • Queen Michelle

    I know the bits I want to hide, but I have such a vague idea of what's considered flattering that much of what I wear will probably be considered by many as unflattering for my shape and size.
    Figure flattering is rarely something I think about when I buy clothes. I like to try EVERYTHING!

  • Jennifer Nicole

    "But my thought is that, before you can explore garments that hide your figure, you need to learn to show it off."

    I agree with this. I had to know what fit ME – my body, my basic style, and my comfort levels – before I could experiment with more architectural pieces. Now I wear things that seem like "no nos" with more confidence, but I never would have developed that confidence without first learning what looked and felt good on my body naturally – what flattered me and GAVE me that confidence.

  • Anonymous

    I am confused. I am easily confused when it comes to abstract thinking. I guess I am a "why" person. Why does knowing what works for you make it OK to wear what doesn't flatter?
    I don't get the relation from knowing the rules to breaking the rules.

  • MarchMusings

    For years I thought I couldn't wear dresses/skirts 'coz I have the world's skinniest legs(I'd win the top prize if there was one). Then I started blogging/reading oher blogs and it opened up so many options that I'm a major fan of dresses and skirts now. So I may not look great in them but I love them!

  • Kate

    I was shopping with a friend and she tried on a dress. It looked fantastic. But she rushed to take it off right away because, she said, it wasn't 'flattering'. What she meant was, it wasn't 'slimming'. It accentuated her curves and unapologetically showed that she had BOSOMS! I thought she looked glorious and sexy, but she didn't agree, which made me very sad.

    I think 'flattering' should be more about how you look, overall, in an outfit – even if it 'makes you look fat', if you rock it, and are confident, and it's an amazing and interesting outfit, I'd consider that flattering! And if you are skinny and wear an outfit that BRINGS it, I don't care if you look 'too skinny'. It's still flattering.

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  • Mamavalveeta03

    I’m 5’10” tall, and a size 14. According to magazines, there is NO way on God’s green earth that I should wear horizontal stripes, and certainly not with red jeans! (What IS she thinking???) But I do. I love stripes- they’re my signature item in my wardrobe, and I will wear them, love them, and revel in how great they make me feel. Who says I have to dress in what’s “flattering” to my figure? I dress in what’s flattering to my MIND!