Imperfect Forms and Formless Masses Re-examined

oversized frumpy flattery
It’s taken me a long time to learn about my body. Both in terms of appreciating its lovely form as-is, and in terms of helping it look amazing as often as possible by wearing clothes that work WITH it instead of AGAINST it. And before I learned these things, I hid inside my clothes. Husband Mike and I even called a certain segment of my wardrobe my “hide-inside” clothes. They were oversized, bulky, thick, formless, and dark. They masked every lump and bump and I felt secure knowing that no one could see my supposed “flaws” through all that billowing cloth.

But a turning point came when Husband Mike pointed out that I didn’t actually look better, prettier, slimmer, or cooler in these clothes. They masked everything about my figure, including the aspects that I liked and wanted to show off. They might’ve looked amazing on others, but they made me look and feel big and formless, messy and careless. They were hindering, not helping.

And so I coined a personal mantra: It is better to show the world an “imperfect” form than a formless mass.* I started looking for clothes that showed off my assets, even if it meant exposing some of my non-assets. And the more I saw my body, the more aware of it I became. The more engaged I felt, and the more inclined to care for myself, the more able to nurture my body and cultivate my style. Yes, it’s a giant cliché, but I felt like I was emerging from a cocoon and stretching my wings for the very first time.

And, for me, that mantra still holds true. I feel and look better in clothes that show my body’s form – lumps, bumps, and all. So I gravitate toward fitted items, leggings, tailored jackets, slim pants. Sure I play around with proportion and dabble in the oversized sometimes, but I’ve learned to balance those garments with closely fitted ones. And I feel that a style based on clothes that SHOW me works better than a style based on clothes that HIDE me.

But I don’t think this mantra can be applied across the board. The underlying sentiment is that – if you want to – you can and should show your body’s form, no matter how short, tall, bumpy, smooth, big, or small that form may be. Proudly, happily, and without shame or fear. The basic theory is that wearing nothing but oversized tops and voluminous pants will create the optical illusion of more body, larger body, out-of-proportion body. And although I stand by both sentiment and theory, that look good/feel good connection swings both ways: Some women will never be comfortable in fitted clothing. Ever. No matter how many compliments roll in. And that could be because of abuse, or anxiety, or plain old personal preference. No woman will ever look good if she doesn’t feel good, and part of feeling good is feeling comfortable as well as confident, beautiful, and powerful. So, in the end, I can only say this:

Do not let anyone make you feel like your body is not “good enough” to show off. Showing your figure is a right, not a privilege. If you are timid about or unhappy with your figure, bear in mind that hiding inside oversized clothes may cause the observing eye to fill in what it cannot discern with “body” that isn’t really there. Although going fitted may feel scary, it may flatter your figure in more traditional ways. But, as always, the choice is yours. Wear what makes you look as you want to look, feel confident, tap into your unique aesthetic self.

Dress to feel good, whatever that means to you as an individual. The rest will fall into place.

*Imperfect, in this context, means “contrary to the dominant beauty paradigm.” I don’t believe body shapes that fall outside the norm are flawed, hence the quote marks. There is no such thing as a perfect human form and all features deemed “flaws” are no more than simple physical traits.

Images courtesy J.Jill.

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  • I love this post because I feel as though you wrote it just for me, Sal. In the last couple of years I have kind of woken up, after years of sleep-walking through life. Part of the waking up was realising that I actually had a great body – kinda lumpy and cellulitey and saggy and imperfect – but also really functional and shapely and fun to dress up!

    Not every day is a good day – but most are – and the more I experiment with colours, shapes, texture, pattern, proportion, drape, movement, drama, expression and the fun-ness of dressing (and dressing up) the more I love my body, and the less I care about what anyone else thinks of it.

    I especially love the final two paragraphs. Thank you, Sal. You rock.

    Sarah xxx

  • Dianne

    Are the oversize assymetrical sweaters in the photos meant to be an example of a “formless mass”? I sure hope not. I happen to love the look of a sweater like those shown when paired with legging jeans or if long enough plain old black leggings. Of course not all oversized sweaters work, but I try to adapt current trends to my body type whenver possible.

    Basically if I’m happy with what I see in the mirror, I go for it. Sometimes my hubby will say he hates something because it makes me look too old or too “frumpy” sometimes I agree with him, other times I tell him to f*ck off.

    Big over slim can work for me.
    Slim over big can work, but not for me.

    All big, and I feel like the Michelin Tire Man.

    • Sal

      I wear sweaters like the ones shown above, too … but they are pretty loose, oversized, and formless. Even if elegantly so! And such garments can end up being “hide inside” clothes.

  • The post resonates with me so much, Sal – thank you for it!

    I wore shapeless and oversized clothes for so long, and when I started to shift away from that look, I had no concept of fit. I knew the fit of my things were off, but I had grown so accustomed to no fit at all that it took awhile to understand what looked best on me and to go with it. I get a little sad when I think about that me, not knowing what size I should wear, not knowing enough about myself.

    So after I figured that out (and it took time, of course), I began to fear shapelessness – everything must have shape and structure, my brain insisted, or else I’d slide back down the slippery slope. I gave it a bad rap for awhile, but the thing is – and this is just my thinking for me – I have grown, again, to love shapelessness.

    But I only love a shapeless thing when it is meant to be shapeless, when it still fits and has interest to it, when I’m not wearing it because I want to hide. Like a sheath dress or a voluminous shirt or a draped sweater or a cocoon cape that fits in the shoulders and hits at a flattering length and nips in at the right places on me. These days, set against my mostly structured closet items, I like those few pieces I own that have mystery, that trick the eye.

    Not for everyday, of course, but I appreciate and feel confident wearing that silhouette now that I understand the difference between shapeless because I just don’t understand sizing and want to hide myself and shapeless because I want it to be that way.

  • I love the sweaters too! I know that they were to illustrate unstructured clothing and I agree that not everyone can rock an entire unstructured outfit. But as a home-sewer my first thought was, “Ooohh, do I have a pattern that will do that neat hemline and look so carefree comfortable?” The model in the photos has a certain elan in those sweaters.

    Now if you want to show some REALLY unflattering pics of someone hiding behind her clothes, I could dig out some photos of the time right after I had my daughter. Overweight and post-C-section, I look at those photos and just want to give that woman a hug, and a department store gift certificate. 🙂

  • I think I look terrible in loose clothes. They tend to cling to my least favorite parts while failing to show off my better parts.

  • Colleen

    I know some people are sad that you showed pictures of those J.Jill sweaters as an example of formless clothing – but I saw them and thought “Yes, exactly, I look terrible in those!” I think if you have legs you want to show off and wear a sweater like that with skinny jeans or leggings, then it can look cute. However for me, that getup hides my small waist and hourglass curves and instead gives an eyeful of my rather abundant thighs, which do a great job getting me up flights of stairs, but aren’t what I want to be the visual centerpiece of an outfit. I would feel ridiculous in that outfit. It doesn’t let me show off what I like about myself. And so in that regard I totally got your point.

  • Hear hear Sal! So very true. I love your posts, wonderful food for thought for anyone’s wardrobe!

    As for those sweaters you posted, they are pretty fantastic if you don’t have any curves underneath. Add some D-cup breasts or curvy hips and the modern silhouette is completely destroyed. Amazing how clothing that properly fits and flatters will take years and pounds off a woman!

  • Leah

    I like to play with silhouette and I’m not married to looking slim so I love voluminous clothing. I’m also not ashamed to wear something form fitting either, lumps and bumps notwithstanding. That being said…Hooray for this article!

    I remember my mother was always ashamed of her tummy and would never wear any tops that were short and fitted, even when I got older and told her that she looked better in them. I love seeing bodies dressed well. All bodies! I hope that more people read what you write Sal, cause you speak truth. Nobody should be shackled into their clothing choices by shame.

  • I love reading your article & I cant help but agree with your point there. People should not be afraid to wear what they want as long as they are comfortable with it then go..

  • Dress to feel good, whatever that means to you as an individual. The rest will fall into place. < best advice ever.

  • CathyCh

    I agree with everything in this post. Thumbs up!

  • YES. I don’t have cable so I can’t watch What Not To Wear very often, but when I do catch it I cringe sometimes because Stacy & Clinton basically force a lot of women into form-fitting clothing. Clothing that fits and technically looks good, but you can tell some of the “subjects” don’t really like to have clothes skim their body that way. So they’re not comfortable in what they’re wearing. And it’s not always body insecurity, either – I don’t often wear “formless mass” clothing but sort of related, I don’t like to show off a ton of cleavage all the time. It’s not that I’m insecure with my chest or unhappy with it – I just don’t feel like wearing things that low cut. If someone tried to force me to wear something that was, I might look “good” to everyone else, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable in my own skin. So it’s not worth it.

  • c.

    OK. but. I wear formless clothes because my body doesn’t fit regular clothes. I’m petite, I have this tiny natural waist but I’m short torso (very) and while my torso and breasts fit a size 6/8 I end up buying a size 12 shirt more often than not because my shoulders are over 16″ across in back. I literally cannot LIFT my arms otherwise. I wear formless because I want to be able to move my body and cannot function otherwise. Belts being in style seem to be my current saving grace.

    I am taking sewing classes soon to learn to alter clothes but the reality is that most form fitting clothes seem to equal a straightjacket if I get them in my “proper” size.

    _very sad_

    • Sal

      Gah, how FRUSTRATING. Does this apply to knits and sweaters, too?

      Also, C, it’s certainly no magic solution, but the underbust harness that I bought from Audra Jean’s Etsy shop does wonders for making loose-in-the-bodice garments appear more fitted. Might not be your style, but if it is … something to consider.

  • Glad you have written this post what you say is so very true!

  • Love this! When I first realized I had to make the transition to “plus-sized” clothes, I fought it tooth and nail. I bought the cheapest, oversized clothes I could find because I didn’t think I’d deserve (or would long need) nicer clothes in bigger sizes. Once I woke up to the fact that this is my body, I started buying things that, oh, I don’t know, don’t fall apart after two wearings. Crazy! And I started feeling much better about myself because I was looking my best–not someone else’s best.

  • You’re such an inspiration to me!

    You write very well and intelligently about interesting topics. Body image has been on my mind lately and as I put together thoughts for my blog I will be certain to link and encourage my readers to these posts.

    Thank you!

  • c.

    knits are a problem too, sometimes. Anything with set-in sleeves versus the angle or “athletic cut” will make me double check. That’s one reason thrift stores are so awesome – way more variety in ONE store and if the cost isn’t too high then trying to “fix” the piece of clothing is less painful if I fail.

  • callie

    I *lurve* the J.Jill, Eileen Fisher look you posted. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.

    I’m short, petite, and curvy… I can -carefully- work a… little of that, but it’s a look much more suited to the tall and thin.It’s a conundrum – what’s the answer when you know the more suitable answer is to dress “fitted”, yet you really identify with tunics and monochromatic color schemes?

    I’m right in the middle of “Women On The Edge Of a Nervous Breakdown” stilettos and pencil skirts – because they flatter – and really LOVING that loose, artsy vibe… I’ve got the half inch long hair that’s recently back in vogue, I wear “statement” indie jewelry… just torn about giving up the “sexy”…even at my age, LOL…

  • Linda

    I have to laugh at your J. Jill photos. They ply me with catalogues because I have bought a FEW, NON-FORMLESS items there over the years, and I swear I have looked at a picture and very sincerely thought “Oh, look, how cool that they’re using plus-size models in the regular catalogue,” only to look again and realize it’s the same tiny model who merely looks eight sizes larger in the giant shapeless clothes. NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT. I guess.

    I can’t wait until the big flowing open cardigan thing goes away. They just hang off my boobs and make me look like a mountain.

  • Jenny

    I have a question, Sal. When I think of “hide-inside” clothes, I think of comfort and coziness. Do you find that your fitted clothes can be equally comfortable and cozy?

    • Sal

      Good question, Jenny. Some of my fitted clothes are less comfy and cozy than looser, oversized ones. Comfy and cozy aren’t always my personal priority, although I certainly do my best to make sure that my work week clothing is as comfy as possible. Also I’ve made a point of tracking down CASUAL styles and garments that are just as comfy and cozy as loose, oversized ones yet more fitted and figure-revealing. Leggings, jersey dresses, sweater dresses, and long cardigans – many of which end up in workweek rotation, too – are my comfy staples.

  • “Showing your figure is a right, not a privilege.” Thank you for this succinct reminder, Sal. Way to get to the point, as you have a great talent for doing.

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  • There are days (like today) that I need formless. But I’m learning that needs to be the exception, not the rule, and my “Mom Pants” (think Tina Fey) have largely been shown the door. I’m lucky to have reinforcement in a super-skinny, 6′-0″ officemate who compliments me every time I wear something that shows my figure.

  • I love this post! I’ve been watching TLC’s What Not to Wear and they say the same thing especially to larger plus size women. I’ve started trying to buy more fitted clothing as well. I really like that you state not all women will be comfortable in more fitted clothing and that is okay too. It has taken me out of my comfort zone however I do encourage women to give it a try, you might like the results.

    Note – fitted does not mean TOO TIGHT! There is a difference.

  • Thank you. I LOVE this post! Love it, love it, love it!!!

    Love the idea that all size and shape bodies deserve clothes that fit them.

    It can be hard to fit our bodies into the “slim” pickings found in most stores and feel good about ourselves. This post was a reminder to me that it’s worth the time and energy to try on those 20 things until I find the one thing that fits. My body is worth it! Thanks.

  • Una

    I have only recently discovered (through photographing my daily outfits) that I look BETTER in tops like the ones you’ve posted, with skinny jeans or leggings and boots. I am petite and an inverted triangle body shape, but I have no waist, and no ability or desire to create one. I don’t feel I am hiding behind this look – on the contrary, I am enbracing it after a lifetime of battling fitted clothes that I don’t really enjoy wearing. It’s all in the head, ultimately…

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