Counter-intuitive Figure Flattery Advice

Dressing to flatter your figure can be a tricky business. And I don’t just mean for those of you who define your own figure flattery priorities and chuck the traditional ones because they don’t suit your tastes and needs. Even if you choose to dress in a way that aligns with the current set of stylistic mandates – even if you dress to create a tall, balanced, slim-looking figure – your task can feel confusing and challenging because certain bits of stock style advice may not work for your unique figure. And even more confusingly, other bits may go against your fashion-y instincts.

Here are three of my favorite pearls of counter-intuitive style wisdom:

Sleeveless garments are more flattering than short sleeves

If you are self-conscious about your upper arms – and many of us are – your best bet is generally a three-quarter sleeve since it will both flatter and conceal. But if it’s summer, or you live in Hawaii, or both, then THAT isn’t gonna fly, am I right?

Most gals who aim to keep cool while keeping covered go for short or cap sleeves. But since short and cap sleeves often bisect the arm where it’s widest, they can actually make arms appear larger. (Not a problem for those concerned about thin upper arms, but definitely an issue for those concerned about large upper arms.) Any garment with an opening or hem that falls across a limb will draw the eye to its own ending spot, emphasizing whatever is happening at that spot.

A sleeveless garment has the advantage of the unbroken line: The observing eye sees your arm from shoulder to wrist, with no sleeve to highlight one portion of your arm over another. Even if your upper arms aren’t tan and toned, they will generally look longer and leaner in a sleeveless top. And even if you’d like your arms to appear fuller, a sleeveless look may create a more graceful line.

Depending on your proportions, a floor-length skirt can actually make you look TALLER

Maxi skirts are constantly cited as Nefarious Tools of Stumpification, and they certainly can be! But more so on some gals than others. If you have long legs – especially if your long legs happen to be attached to a short torso – a skirt that disguises most of your lower half may make you look shorter overall. But if you have fairly balanced proportions or a long torso and short legs, a floor-length skirt may give the impression of height. Even if you’re a short gal overall.

That’s a big “may” right there, though, especially since bust size and shape, the cut of the skirt, shoe choice, and where the skirt’s waistline falls on your bod can all affect how a maxi will impact your figure. But the point is that the big, sweeping, intimidating rule about long skirts making women look short can sometimes be so wrong that its opposite becomes true.

Fitted garments make you look slimmer than loose ones

If you are self-conscious about your weight, shape, or size, your instincts will probably tell you to do everything in your power to cover and distract from your weight, shape, and size. And that is totally fine, especially if the very idea of revealing your figure makes your eye start to twitch. But if you’re looking to dress in a way that makes your body look slender and shapely, no matter how big or small it may be, fight your instincts and go for tailored, fitted garments.

I know I’m not the first to say this, and I certainly won’t be the last: When you wear loose, formless garments that mask all aspects of your body’s form, including where it curves and dips, you give the impression of more bulk. It may feel strange to think of tighter clothing as flattering to a larger body, but showing the world a defined form will create a more pleasing silhouette than showing the world a formless mass.

As is the case with all style guidelines and figure-flattery advice, these bits should be considered from your own personal style perspective. If you feel exposed in sleeveless garments, forget ‘em. If you’d rather find easier ways to make yourself appear taller than tinkering with the maxi-skirt-torso-length formula until you hit on the magic combo, try a mini and heels instead. If you will never be comfortable in tailored garments, embrace the loose.

But always remember that style guidelines and figure-flattery advice can be wrong. Our instincts about what will flatter us can be wrong, too. Never be afraid to tinker, bend, and experiment because you may find that your style world is on the other side of the looking glass from the rest of the world.

Care to share any other pieces of counter-intuitive figure-flattery advice? I’d love to hear ‘em!
Image courtesy Gap

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  • http://www.befabulousdaily.us Cynthia

    I defintely started to like getting dressed better after I stopped wearing giant bags.

    With sleeves it really depends on your build, I think, how you run with this general advice. For instance I have wide shoulders and a large ribcage. Sleeveless with narrow straps or spaghetti straps looks horrible on me, makes me look like a defensive lineman in drag. Sleeveless with wide straps edging toward a proto-cap sleeve, like the above is OK. Cap sleeves are OK because they generally create an angle from the tip of my shoulder inward. The worst possible sleeve on me is a short sleeve that hits in the middle of my upper arm.

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Cynthia, I need to hire you to do Sleeve Analysis for me. WOW.

  • Katharine

    I’ve seen the sleeveless advice many times and it doesn’t work for me, even though I have very not-toned arms. I MUCH prefer the way I look in cap sleeves. I think I’ve finally figured it out: for me, it’s not about the arms but about the shoulders. I have very narrow sloping shoulders, and I look more balanced if there is something to extend the shoulder line. So probably the sleeveless advice is true, but my desire to balance my shoulders more trumps the long arm line thing.

  • http://www.onechicmama.com Michele Little

    You nailed it! Especially the tip on fit – I always tell my clients that when they hide behind baggy clothes they visually add pounds.

  • http://amberpagewrites.com amber

    I am very, very afraid of the maxiskirt – but then I haven’t tried any on, because I’ve been told soooo many times that I should be afraid of the maxiskirt. Thanks for giving the courage to try!

    • Rose

      If you’re nervous about doing a maxi skirt, try a maxi dress. I find that because the line is longer, it is actually quite flattering. I have two – one of them has a solid, gray skirt which is great for layering a top over the bodice so that it actually looks like a maxi skirt, yet isn’t! It’s multi-functual, so I got double the worth out of my money. Maxi skirts/dresses are really great for days when you don’t feel like putting in a ton of effort but still want to look nice.

      • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

        Good point, Rose!

  • http://www.gamereviewwiki.com/bikinibirthday Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday

    Great post!
    Personally, I usually like to wear short sleeves that cut below my tricep if I want to cover my tricep and above my elbow to cover my upper arms but I also find that shorter sleeves that cut just past the shoulder muscle actually make my arms look more defined than sleeveless tops.

  • http://modernmrsdarcy.com Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy

    Yay for the unbroken line! It took me a while to catch on to this one, but after seeing a few photos I realized that cap sleeves make me look like a football player! Sleeveless or elbow-length are the way to go for me.

    Love those Gap shorts!

  • http://lazysubculturalgirl.wordpress.com Andi

    I’m always told that I should wear knee-length skirts to hide my muscular legs. This often doesn’t work. I find a good rule of thumb is: fuller skirts need to be longer on me (from just above the knee to just below) but straight or A-line skirts often look better if they are short. In the case of straight skirts, very short — it all depends on the type of hem and where it hits on my legs. I have large knees so I need extra fabric there to make them look slim.

  • Fernanda

    it may not work for everybody, but I’ve noticed that drop-crotch pants make my hips and butt look SMALLER, and not wider, as many would have you believe. I think it’s because they sag at the bottom, thus making that line longer and more elongating.

    but then again: I know it works for me, but I don’t know if it would work for others.

  • http://www.closet-coach.com Heidi/The Closet Coach

    +1 for “Nefarious Tools of Stumpification”! LOL.

    Totally true about fitted clothes instead of baggy ones. The trick is to make sure they fit *well*–too often people seem to mistake “fitted” for “tight.”

  • Emory

    I don’t know if I have any tips to add, just agreeing with the ones you’ve given! Most cap sleeves do make my arms look heavier (but I will wear them anyway if the rest of the top is cute enough). I do find that for sleeveless, I need to find the right cut. Like Cynthia above I have wide shoulders and ribcage and a spaghetti strap tank top, or anything with a squarish shape makes me “look like a defensive lineman in drag” too! LOL. I need v-necks, halters, and straps with a curved instead of square shape.

    I also totally agree with your point on maxi skirts. I am relatively tall (5’8″) and not at risk of looking short, but I have a long torso and short legs that can look stumpy and make me look heavier if not shorter. But my torso is long below my waist, which is at a nice spot on my body (not too high or low), so a long maxi skirt (or dress with a waist detail) gives me a really nice balance.

  • http://www.stylinstacy.com Stacy

    You are totally right about sleeveless and cap sleeves with the line. I didn’t think about it that way before, but it totally makes sense! I tend to go towards more fitted clothes these days, too. I did a lot of baggy tops when I was 20 lbs heavier. I was trying to “hide” my weight gain, but I’m sure I didn’t fool anyone. Once I lost the weight I was having so much more fun dressing in fitted clothes, because they really do look better and less sloppy.

  • Katharine

    Drop-crotch TAILORED pants make me look less curvy (an outline I personally prefer, because it reads as smaller to me). (This is not, however, true of the gathered harem-style ones.)

    Maxi skirts extend the line — IF they are sweeping. I think this is where the “maxis = stumpifying” idea comes from — little people, or better yet, little chunky people like me, think, “sure, I can work the maxi!” and pick up one of the Sienna Miller-style tiered hippie skirts or dresses, or one with gathers. No. Sleek A-line or straight, no tiers, and if you are not teeny, no waistline gathers or Indian import drawstrings with bells.

    Horizontal stripes can be slimming. I have a couple of fitted sweaters and t-shirts that are very flattering; the stripes emphasize my bust, and minimize my waist, magically. (I also have a couple of boxy, drapy striped items that do the exact opposite, but which I love anyway. YMMV.)

    If you are going for sleeveless, I personally find that construction matters, a lot, for the Larger of Arm. I have many unflattering sleeveless tops. The armholes simultaneously bag and pull; they often flash bra when I move; and they make my arms look chunky(er). (I should have thought of that when I started lifting very heavy weights — “what happens when you stop?” Arms like hams.) And I have one expensive dress, and one originally-expensive top, and one cheapish top, where the curve of the armhole is PERFECT. It fits right round my shoulder joint without binding, and magically conceals the little icky pillow of underarm fat. The skinny can wear any old sleeveless thing, and if it drapes a bit, it still looks okay. For those who are not so shaped, this is another instance where Fit Matters, and unfortunately another case where in most brands the fit tends to get worse and worse the higher on the size curve you go.

    I personally prefer the short sleeve that comes to just above the elbow, but they can be hard to find, especially in t-shirts. I don’t know why the cap sleeve is so popular. It’s really not that good for the majority of people.

  • Tabithia

    Jackets do not always make you look curvier. I watched WNTW yesterday and they were talking about how she had an hour glass shape in the two jackets she tried on, but she didn’t! They made her look straight up and down (which there’s nothing wrong with that, she was lovely). Yes some jackets will give you an hour glass but it has to be the right one.

    I am very curvy and I don’t try to hide it but most jackets look dowdy on me.

  • http://hearth-tobelovely.blogspot.com/ Hearthrose

    I am 5’2″ and I look best in an ankle-or-longer skirt. Unless I want to hike my skirts to midthigh, that’s just the best length on me. It has a lot to do with shoulder width I think – I have wide shoulders and a large bust, so I put a wide hem down towards the floor and I have a gentle X going on, but you have to look so far down, it slims/lengthens. (And yes, I definitely have a long torso/short legs).

    I think they want us short girls to remember that we do have to nip in somewhere to be lengthened. Just a baggy maxi dress is pretty scary, makes me look like I raided an Amazon’s closet.

    Fitted, with a large bust, is a MUST. If I don’t belt (and this is even with a very large tummy) or bring my clothes in at the waist, I add twenty pounds at a minimum.

  • Katrina

    My waist sits higher than most and, combined with a large ribcage, doesn’t have much definition. The usual fashion rule is to wear pants and skirts lower on the hips to elongate my torso but, unless the outfit is very loose and unstructured, this usually makes me look like a lumpy rectangle. If I am going for a more polished look, I turn to pants and skirts that sit on my natural waist (most “high waisted” garments today actually sits just below my waist) and tuck in my top. Add some accessories and a small heel and I actually look better due to the definition of my body shape. Yes, my torso looks about 6 inches tall, but my boobs look bigger, my waist looks smaller, and my legs go on for miles.

  • http://awayfromthekeyboard.wordpress.com Away from the Keyboard

    Sal, I have been lurking for a while (having come to you both by a Stacyverb rec and through IPF, Be Fabulous Daily, etc.) I just wanted to mention that I love the way that you give your advice. I like the advice itself, but I particularly appreciate the delivery–you sound so flexible and sensible. Very easy to absorb. Thanks!

  • http://www.sweetlittlechickadee.com Juli @ Sweet Little Chickadee

    I just came across your blog from Gertie’s Blog for Better Sewing. You have some great fashion and personal style tips and I am enjoying reading through your posts. :-)

  • http://cheapandchicinchicago.blogspot.com/ Piper Alexander

    Agree w/the maxi skirt thinking. I’m 5′ 2″ and some maxis work on me. I’ve also heard that short torsos shouldn’t wear high-waisted. I’ve always considered myself to have a short torso and I think high-waisted looks very nice on me. Re: fitted – I think it depends on your body type and wear the item is fitted. I have a tummy, so fitted on the belly is all kinds of bad on me. I need tops that pull away from that area. Also with jackets – sometimes I buy jackets that don’t close – I think it’s slimming and gives an hourglass appearance. Some jackets that fit closed, worn open, look big and bulky. Everyone is different, so you’re right, there are some general guidelines, but everyone has to come up with what works for them individually.

  • rb

    Here’s mine.

    Women with chunky legs should wear chunky shoes.

    Some style advice gurus recommend the slim, stiletto shoe for a slim silhouette, but on women with wider calves and thighs, those shoes just look out-of-proportion small and emphasize the width of the legs. It also often appears that the wearer is in danger of toppling over.

    On the other hand, if the shoes have a wider heel, particularly a fairly high one, or a wedge, the shoes will appear balanced with the legs and the legs will look thinner as a result.

    • Katharine

      Oh, yes, good one! And not just women with chunky legs, but women with top heavy tops. I’ve always felt that dainty little shoes make me look like a cocktail meatball perched on a couple of toothpicks, what with my mighty shoulders tapering down to curvy, but slightly narrower than the shoulders, hips, and then to relatively tiny ankles. Putting some weight down at the feet makes me look more grounded.

      • Eleanorjane

        Another seconder on this one. As someone with chunky legs, a wider heel helps a lot. Also, I avoid ankle straps, mary janes and t straps like the plague. Anything that cuts across the foot emphasises my ankles (not a good thing) and makes my legs look shorter (also NAGT).

    • http://Www.alotofbunck.blogspot.com Carmen

      I agree on this point! A friend of mine with very muscular legs and a pearish shape says the same thing. When she wears very tiny heels with tiny straps her shoes almost disappear.

  • http://www.femininebravery.com/ Charlie, Feminine Bravery

    I agree that fitted and well fitting clothes make people look smaller or give them a shape that makes them look smaller and more toned! I usually try to wear something that highlights my waist and keeps eyes on that part :) high-waisted things makes legs look longer, and I wear those alot ;) xxx Have a lovely weekend!

  • Kookoo

    It is often hard to keep fitted from sexy. Sometimes I catch a glimpse and realize it is better to cover than flatter. Volume but not bulk, and sleeve and skirt length flatters and disguises so exactly that only a good honest look in the mirror can judge. It is so great to see all of these opinions of various confidently shaped women. We are our best critics and fans.

    • Eleanorjane

      Why keep from sexy? Nothing wrong with a little sexy in an outfit, as long as passers by don’t start offering you money for your favours! :)

      • Reader

        I prefer attractive or pretty to sexy. I want sexy to be implicit.

        As someone else said, “fitted,” does not necessary mean tight, it means following the contours of the body in some places and gliding over others. The body and drape of the fabric play a big role too.

  • LQ

    dudes, super short torso and long legs and I rock a maxi like nobody’s business. I’m also very very hourglassy and I do think a large bust keeps it balanced, but honestly I just love having legs that start high, end low, basically go on for eons.

  • http://starfirenz.livejournal.com/ Starfire

    Yes! Thank you for the comments on the maxi skirt! Despite being a shortie, and most of my shortness being in my legs, I’ve always loved wearing long, flowing skirts – partly because they cover my ankles (which I’m very slowly teaching myself to be less self-conscious about), but partly because they make me feel so wonderfully feminine, which is not something I often get from my usual dress styles.

    I definitely agree about wearing fitted clothing as well – even when I was at my highest weight, I had a definite hourglassy thing going on from shoulders to waist to hips, and if I didn’t wear something that came in at the waist – either because it was structured and tailored, or because it was stretchy – I tended to look very, *very* apple-shaped, which I didn’t like because it made me feel even bigger. Now that my weight is a little lower, the “apple-i-ness” has reduced a bit, but even so, I still like the lines of my body that I see in the mirror more when I wear things that follow the natural curves of my body, rather than things that just hang straight down in a line.

  • Eleanorjane

    Also, I’m a connoisseur of sleeves as I’m an hourglass shape with a good waist and heavier arms and legs. I don’t really wear sleeveless tops any more. There are lots of other useful designs that provide a bit of flattery.

    The key I’ve found is to keep it loose and asymmetric. A tight puff sleeve or cap sleeve cutting across the upper arm isn’t good, but I’ve got several tops with loose fluted sleeves, draped ruffley sleeve details etc. and one genius one that gives the impression of being sleeveless but drapes a bit to cover the sides of the tops of my arms. (tricky to describe, but it’s awesome.)

    I also make sure my tops are of a reasonably heavy material as flimsy materials tend to cling to everything and be see-through in an unflattering way.

    And I have some very light cardigan/ drapey top things that help provide some coverage without being too hot in summer.

  • SarahN

    Short sleeves are the devil. Like with Cynthia, they only emphasize my linebacker proportions. I almost always opt for elbow or three-quarter sleeves, except during the dog days of summer when it’s too hot to care how flabby my arms look.

    Speaking of counterintuitive, I think STRAPLESS tops can be more flattering than sleeveless. I work a strapless dress to work recently, with a jacket over it, of course! But I took the jacket off to go out to lunch, and two complete strangers stopped to complement me on my outfit. Even though my shoulders are broad, the unbroken line seemed to balance out my figure. Needless to say, I’ll be investing in one or two more strapless items for the summer.

    • SarahN

      Actually, Sally, could I request a round-up of work-appropriate strapless dresses and tops? It’s hard to find items in shapes and fabrics that will work for the office. Things are either too beachy or too cocktail-y.

  • JustVikki

    See, I’m kinda built like a linebacker: Broad shoulders, virtually no bust, wide hips, large arms, long torso and large thighs. I always felt wierd-looking and unattractive until I discovered the dual miracles of the Good Tailor and properly fitted bra. I still have a lot of trouble coming up with professional clothes that give me that “I look like a million bucks” feeling, but we keep trying.

    I love halters with empire waists and knee length A line skirts. Usually with embellished flats or sandals. Cute and charming, but edging toward no longer age appropriate.

    • http://www.closet-coach.com Heidi/The Closet Coach

      All of those things sound age appropriate to me!

  • http://the-new-professional.blogspot.com Angeline

    I absolutely love and agree with your pearls! Great post. :)

  • MelD

    Hear, hear, great post, Sal!
    And I agree with a lot of the comments, too – it’s really hard being a 5’2″ plus size, as none of the “rules” seem to work for me most of the time!
    Broad shoulders – I like a puff sleeve as long as the puff starts further in and doesn’t make me twice as wide as my husband! Boxy is baaaad…
    Upper arms – I will wear sleeveless or I might just melt in summer, but it is true it is hard to find armholes that aren’t big and gapey when it’s a bigger size, they need to cover those fatty bits! Look for a happy medium.
    A floaty cap or short sleeve is ok but mid-upper-arm sleeves look terrible on me, so either sleeveless, really short or else below the elbow – as an over-40, the elbows just start to sag so anything above emphasises it.
    Short arms – they say wear 3/4 sleeves or bracelet length but they can make my arms look stubby if I’m not careful (I’m not lucky enough to have dainty little hands!). Flowing can work if they’re not too fussy…
    Big bust – I actually found soft ruffles down the neckline work fine for me, though they’re not supposed to. And I make sure I have a neckline to show off; in cooler weather I’ll add a scarf if I need warmth so I can loosen or remove it indoors. Square or scoop necklines look nice, as well as Vs and sweethearts. Nothing too high or too fussy. My face is up HERE…!!
    Empire can work or not, specific to individual garments.
    “Classic clothes” – I cannot wear button-down shirts, straight skirts (the shortness I need means I look square), sheath dresses, blazers (make me look totally butch or frumpy)… the list goes on. These are styles that “everyone” is supposed to be able to wear. Yeah right.
    Another recommendation that isn’t for me is hipsters to minimise my behind – with very wide hips and most of my weight on them, cutting my backside in half horizontally is probably the worst thing I could do, and having a tummy, too, the pants would also cut into that and make it look awful!! Never found a pair that remotely fit, never mind flattered. Glad real waists are back ;)
    Short legs… I wear shorts a few inches above the knee to show as much leg as possible without getting into gross area. Bermudas do NOT work for me at all. Capris work if they end just below the knee and close fitting. Anything wider loses leg shape and therefore = tent, like other garments that “skim”! I have very heavy calves but decent ankles so by showing the curve, it looks fine, even better with a bit of heel.
    Shoes – ah yes. Kitten heels are silly on me, as are heeled slides or anything too dainty. Wedges are really good (yay!) and I am ok with T-straps, too, as long as the strap doesn’t come too high on the foot. Too chunky is too clunky, so finding balance is always difficult. Too high also looks ridiculous when you’re short. Adore boots but almost impossible to find because if any ever fit my calves, they stick out round my knees and look like waders. Very sad about that. Flat shoes are very hard – ballerinas only work if the toe is blunt, rounded ones make my short, broad feet look round and as if I were walking on little rollers. Sandals are never wide enough and hard to find any that don’t have my feet bulging out between the straps somewhere. Hm.
    So yes, no hard and fast rules for anyone and lots and lots of analysing and trying on…

  • MelD

    Oh yes, and this year I bought a Breton stripe T for the first time – never had so many compliments or comments that I’d “lost weight”…! Dispels that one, too, then…

  • SandesignsUSA

    I just cut off the short fitted sleeves of my purple high school reunion t-shirt and it looks sooooo much better on my 5’2″ body with my white cropped pants and flip flops. It is so much more flattering to NOT have a sleeve cutting off my arm length and making me look wider instead of taller.

  • http://www.thinandcurvy.com Brittany

    Ooh, I love this! It always annoys me when petite women think they can’t wear a long skirt. Long skirts are so pretty, you should be able to wear one if you want!

    Here’s one for the busty ladies:
    Minimizer bras are not slimming, and they don’t make your breasts look smaller. They do smoosh them down so that you might be able to squeeze into a button down shirt with less gaping, but they do that by spreading your breasts out wider, which obscures your waist, gives them a funny shape, makes them look bigger from straight on, and often causes ‘armpit fat.’ Not flattering by most people’s definition! :-)

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