Reader Request: Adjusting to Formfitting Clothing

how to wear tight clothes

Emily e-mailed this request:

I wonder if you’d be interested in doing a post about the discomfort, early discomfort anyway, involved in making the right choices for your body type. When you wear flattering clothes, clothes that fit to the body, well, they show the body shape. And as many many guests on What Not to Wear show with their reactions to belts and waisted dresses, it’s uncomfortable, at first, to wear things on your waist when you’ve been hiding your waist under baggier clothes, or bloused clothes, or what have you.

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 made me look 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, dresses that nip in at the waist, tailored blazers, 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 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, the 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 do your body more favors in the end. 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.

All that said – and I know it’s a lot – Emily wanted some advice specific to the mental and emotional adjustments that come with wearing fitted garments. In addition to remembering that your body is absolutely worthy of showing off, here are a couple of things to bear in mind:

  • It’s a truth about humanity that hurts a bit to repeat, but here it is: Most people are far too busy worrying about themselves to notice you. Especially details about you like occasional torso bulge. Think about it: You’re self-conscious about those fitted garments and concerned about how people around you may perceive you. In all likelihood, they’re mired in their own set of worries about how they look and seem to others. What seems glaringly obvious to you is likely lost in the shuffle to most observers.
  • If you’re concerned about a reaction from a peer or coworker group after you’ve made the change from loose to fitted clothing, remember that the average shelf life for interest in a sartorial change is two weeks. This nugget comes from the ever-wise Husband Mike. Several years ago, he decided to wear suits to his SUPER casual office. Every day. He wanted to make it his personal uniform. And, as you might expect, he got a stream of “job interview” jokes and curious comments. But they lasted for two weeks, then tapered, then stopped completely. When I cut my hair off, my coworkers and friends took about two weeks to get their surprise/shock comments out of their systems. It may feel awkward for a while, but just remember that it’ll end. (Tips on dealing with clothing commentary here.)
  • And, finally, try to wear fitted clothing almost every day. If you force yourself to do curve-hugging garments during the week and revert to formless ones on the weekend, you’ll associate those fitted clothes with work/duty/chores/unpleasantness. Try to make them a part of your style every day. Doing so will help you gradually acclimate to their presence in your life and wardrobe.

*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.

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  • LK

    Maybe a good midpoint would be stylish but covered clothing? Like a tunic and wide pants or something. That way you can ease into more fitted clothes, if need be.

  • joanna

    “Your body should be seen.”
    “you can and should show your body’s form”

    I’ll have to disagree with you in this regard. I agree we all have the right and privilege to show our bodies as we’d like, but I disagree that we SHOULD do so. There are many reasons aside from low self esteem/poor body image that might make someone want to feel inclined to cover up their body. Medical reasons, personal modesty, religious adherence just to name a few. In fact, I was going to ask you to do a post regarding just that. How to dress modestly and covered up while still looking stylish.

    • Sal

      Indeed. Which I why I also mentioned this point:

      “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.”

      And that extends to any reason at all, including the ones you’ve mentioned.

    • Sal

      Oh! Also, Joanna, if you want to shoot me an e-mail about your request, please do as dressing modestly and covered up are very relative terms. In the meantime, Clothed Much is an extremely popular blog that focuses on modest fashion: http://www.clothedmuch.com/p/about.html

    • AwwRITE

      I would LOVE to see a post about how to dress in a stylish and modest way!!!

  • Sonja

    Maybe this helps a little bit: What some people might perceive as “pressure” or “squeezing” in the waist, I think of as “hugging”. When I wear something form-fitting (which is practically always), I feel hugged and protected, as in a safe, caressing shell.

    • Sara

      See, and this is why I feel most comfortable in snug (not skin-tight) jeans. No one ever gets that!

  • I also find it uncomfortable to wear things on my waist — and it never goes away. In fact, under some conditions it seems to give me migraines!

    I might say, if it’s uncomfortable for you and goes against the grain of how you like to be dressed, what is pressuring you to change? Flowing clothes can be flattering and correctly fit — you could invest in styles like that in better quality and go where your dressing instincts and needs lead you.

    “Showing your figure is a right, not a privilege.”

    I always run aground on statements like this. It’s like the smaller scale version of that political cartoon that’s been going around, you know, the one with the American girl in the bikini and the Muslim girl in the burqa, making a statement about how neither of those things are really a free choice (to what degree that is true of each culture can of course be debated, but…on to the point).

    I like to cover, and that should be my right too. If it weren’t weird in American society, I’d go to work in salwar-kameez and other tropical clothes because I love the way that they flow past your body without binding anywhere, and keep you covered while allowing air to circulate.

    It seems like we put an inordinate value on being figure-revealing. The fashion world always seems to be encouraging us towards more revealing, tighter fitting styles — I’m lookin’ at you, jeggings). It’s almost assumed that there’s something wrong with you (prudery? body shame? figure flaws?) if you want to be more covered. But maybe that’s just you, ya know?

    • Well said. If it’s uncomfortable, why conform? As much as I love the show “What Not to Wear”, the overarching ideology is that women must conform in the way they dress as to not appear drab or messy, either by cinching their waist or raising the hemlines. While this might be necessary if you go to work, women should be given the freedom to wear whatever they want (within legal means) outside of work, even if that means a very long, loose dress or whatever.

      And yes, the value put on figure flattery is very high. I personally like to flatter my figure, but some women don’t, and I think those are some of the most fashionable.

  • Sarah

    I’ve found a happy middle ground between form-fitting and uncomfortably tight by looking for tops and dresses that cinch at my waist (right under my boobs) and then flare out a bit or are looser over my belly. Generally these are empire-waist styles although I have such a short torso that empire waists fit at my real waist. I would also recommend that you never, ever buy tight pants – make sure there is room at the waist and that the pants don’t create bulges that aren’t there by squeezing you in. I find that a lot of my discomfort when I am wearing form-fitted clothing comes when my pants are a little tight at the waist, which makes a form-fitting shirt feel like it’s glued to the fat that’s bulging over my pants. But pants that fit properly plus a form-fitted shirt equals comfort all day long.

    Also, dresses are a great alternative when you want to show your figure but you don’t want things too tight. A great dress that will skim over your curves (obviously I don’t mean bandage dresses) can show off your body while still feeling loose and comfortable. You can skip a belt and just layer a cardigan over it, then maybe button a few buttons under your bust to give the dress a little more shape but still keep it comfortable. Maxi dresses are good for this too.

    Finally, I just want to say that if you are truly uncomfortable in your clothes – don’t wear them! I bought jeggings back in 2009 and they didn’t look awful, but I felt so uncomfortable all day long. It’s just not worth it. I would suggest giving any outfit or item of clothing at least a one day trial one before you give up on it, but if you’re miserable, take it off! I love the look of arm candy but I feel so stupid when I have a stack of bracelets on my arm, I don’t know why but it’s just not me. So I arrange them all to look pretty on my dresser and never, ever wear them,

  • Emily also asked about the physical discomfort at starting to wear something around one’s waist instead of loose, billowing clothing. One commenter suggested reframing one’s reaction to the difference and another reaffirmed that she doesn’t like wearing anything around her waist.

    My personal practice is a middle ground: you can wear form-fitting clothing without wearing a belt. I’m 5’3″ and a size 16/18 with an hourglass shape. If I wear baggy clothing, I look at least 50 lbs heavier than I am. I’ve been embracing clothing that hugs my curves without squeezing for a few years now, and I really made a difference in how I feel about myself. However, I work in a jail and have to go through security once or twice a day (depending on whether or not I go out for lunch.) I hate having to take apart and reassemble an outfit as part of the security process, so I avoid belts.

    Most days, I achieve a fitted look for work through wearing untucked blouses with a bit of stretch over slacks or jeans that fit me properly without a belt. That is a good place to start for someone who wants the benefits of fitted clothing without putting something on their waist. Skirts and dresses are a bad idea in my workplace, but the skirt + fitted top formula or a dress that skims the figure without a belt would work too.

    Due to the other limits on what I can wear (for security purposes), my outfits are pretty basic. I tend to choose embellished blouses or blouses with busy patterns to make up for the lack of accessories. I also play with color combinations to add interest.

  • bubu

    For me it was realizing that “fitted” does not mean “tight” or “uncomfortable.” Quite the opposite — if it fits well, it should be neither tight nor uncomfortable. I am very hourglassy, and for that reason anything that skews very tight or fitted either makes me feel I look heavy or a bit sexpot. I love the look of certain fitted dresses on straighter frames but for me they kind of over-accentuate my curves. By aiming for a good fit but never tight, I feel I get to a good balance. After a while, I felt more uncomfortable in big or baggy fabrics because it felt like there was just too much stuff in the way. I also agree with the commenters above that fitted up top with a full or a-line skirt strikes a good balance..

  • i made a move to more form-fitting (and btw, form-fitting can mean tailored rather than squeezing the living daylights out of your flesh, in fact it’s more flattering if the tailoring skims rather than grabs hold of your curves) clothes after documenting ‘a week of skirt’ requested by my 4y old son (who said that when I wore a skirt i looked like a princess!).
    the whole process made me re-evaluate how much my body shape had changed, and what areas needed dressing in a more complimentary manner.
    in summary, wearing clothes which were more shaped made me look and feel more shapely, instead of hide inside clothes which just made me look like a column of frump.
    i’m still struggling with accentuating my waist though (my natural waistline and where the belt falls seem out of sync) – Sal, can we have a post on belts; the ins and outs, long, short and tall of these fashion staples, pretty please?

  • Rachel

    Thanks for this post. I’m trying to learn to wear form fitting clothing. Every time I go to a store and have a salesperson really assist me, it turns out I am wearing too large of clothes. It’s really scary to wear these form fitting clothes…some of it is the perceived uncomfortableness, and some is just the ‘bulge’ factor. A couple weeks ago I bought outfits that actually had high waisted belts..I’ve yet to wear them. I keep thinking about them and will wear them soon!!

    3 weeks ago I wore a sleeveless shirt for the first time in YEARS. No one stared or said anything. I texted a friend-a guy- and told him how amazed I was. His reply. “Um..why? Your arms are not that fat!” So it’s true…no one notices our flaws as much as we do.

  • kt

    What if working in a male-dominated field makes you feel that there is no positive benefit (or negative effects) when you dress well or in form-fitting clothing? It does, after all, sometimes remind your colleagues that you’re female (not a good thing).

    Sigh.

    • Sal

      Definitely a challenge for many women. I think it’s hard to generalize since each working situation is so different. Sometimes a balance can be struck between dressing how you wish to dress and dressing in a way that makes your working environment more comfortable. Sometimes it feels good to wear what you want and reactions be damned. Sometimes the attention and distraction are just too much.

      Anyone have personal experiences or advice to share on this topic?

      • Jeanne

        kt, it sounds like that describes your workplace. I really am sympathetic. It goes without saying that that’s not the way it should be.

        In my experience, clothing is part of the armor I put on to cope with a work environment. Sometimes I am also happy with how I look in my armor. Sometimes I am extremely bored with it. But the primary goal is for me to feel comfortable and safe.

        This may not be a popular sentiment. I am passionately feminist, and I truly feel that women (and men) should get to wear whatever they want. But unfortunately, this world does not conform to my ideals. In the workplace, I think it makes sense to do whatever gives you the most personal power and confidence.

    • Female engineer here, in one of the disciplines known for even fewer females than average. (Yay?). And I feel you. I LOVE dresses and skirts. Adore them, feel fabulous in them, look fabulous in them. And I do NOT wear them to work. I tell others it’s because it’s not practical, but the truth is I rarely crawl around on the floor and I could keep a pair on pants on hand. The truth is that I think it’s too sexy and too strong of a reminder that I am female and not like my clients/coworkers.

      So I pick other, feminine, items that make me feel great. I wear heels. I take flack for it, but damn it, I like my shoes, it means I don’t have to hem my pants and they look cute! I just make sure to pick comfortable ones I can stand in for long periods on concrete if need be. I have a reputation for having unique jewelry because I love and buy handmade pieces. I wear fitted shirts and well fitting pants.

      It’s a balance and one that I am still perfecting. Unfortunately, I am also relatively young so styles I will be able to pull off in 20 years (I’m looking at your fancy shirts with cardigans) make me look like an admin.

  • Diana

    Hmm, this is interesting as lately I’ve been moving AWAY from super form-fitting clothing and embracing slouchy looks. (Now keep in mind that they still have to well-fitting, and drapey is better than boxy….) These days, I like to pair a loose item with a fitted item for a nice, happy medium.

    Part of this is that although I am very happy with my body and its shape, I am not comfortable with the bombshell connotations that fitted clothing automatically brings up on my pear/hourglass body. For example, sheath dresses, when they fit properly, really enhance the fact that I have a tiny waist and big butt, and it’s just too sexy for me. Anyway, so if I choose to accentuate my waist with a belt, for example, I’ll choose a full skirt or a blousy top to balance out the bombshell.

  • This is a wonderful post. I think I needed to hear this…especially the bit about how people are too caught up in their own lives to notice you every moment of every day. I’m one of those people who constantly worries about the slightest bulge around my back, or if my butt looks too big in my jeans, etc. And, honestly, I just have to learn to give up those worries. I LIKE my body. It’s been an uphill battle to get to that point, to reach a place where I don’t constantly compare myself to other, thinner, taller girls my age. I LOVE my clothes, too, even the ones that aren’t always 100% flattering to every part of my body. If I want to wear something, I should just wear it. Plain and simple. And stop with all the damn worrying. I mean, I’m only a teenager. It kills me.

    – Samantha

  • Jennifer

    I’ve never been able to pull off the boho oversized look, but it is possible to be stylish in oversized clothing. I’m digging this chica right now.

    http://www.refinery29.com/style-bloggers/slideshow#slide-1

    and more on her own blog

    http://stopitrightnow.blogspot.com/

    • Sal

      Absolutely! There’s no one right way to look fabulous.

  • Aziraphale

    This is a good post. What you say about big, boxy clothing is true: it doesn’t hide the figure, but rather makes it look bigger all over. I figured this out in the 90s. Even back then I had a moderately full bust for my frame — not huge, but they were there. When I wore the loose, boxy, grungy tops that were popular back then, I ended up with a “boob shelf” that did my figure no favours. After seeing the boob shelf in a few pictures, and how it made me look chunky all over, I cut back on the loose tops and switched over to form-fitting tees!

  • sigourney

    I think when you have a stronger frame too-wide shoulders are unflattering and give that boxy unfeminine look. Even a very wide and flowing bodice looks good when the shoulders are fitted to proportion.

  • Well said! Well fitting clothes are always better than hiding!

  • Colleen

    One tip for easing into more fitted clothing is to go for very forgiving, “easy” fabrics like jersey knit and cuts that have stretch to them, rather than very structured pieces without a lot of give. I really like dresses from Max Studio for being easy “throw on” dresses to wear, and I had one that got me through a 30 lb. weight fluctuation because it was so stretchy and well cut.

  • Sally I love how you write things in your blog that I sometimes cannot put in to words. I thought I’d disagree with you on a point until you said this,

    “And although I stand by both sentiment and theory, the look good/feel good connection swings both ways: Some women will never be comfortable in fitted clothing. Ever.”

    I’m glad you acknowledged this, because I don’t always agree with the sentiment that a great sense of style is synonymous with form-fitting clothes. If some women are more modest and prefer to present their style through beautiful jewelry or headscarves, all the power to them.

  • Nomi

    Interesting post. I’m coming at this from the other side, in a way. In my pre-mommy days (I’m in my 50s now), I had quite the bombshell figure and didn’t mind wearing form-fitting stuff, although it was relatively modest in terms of necklines & hemlines. I particularly liked 1940s- & ’50s-style retro clothes, with those nipped waists. Then I had kids, spread out horribly, and now have a severe menopause-belly on a roughly figure-8 frame. In the mommy years I was sort of transparent — all role and no character: the kids thought I was beautiful no matter what, and no adults seemed to care what I looked like, so I threw on whatever seemed a nice color at the thrift store. Now that I’ve regained a bit of my self-image through divorce & career, I find I have no idea how to dress! My beloved retro, fitted styles are dreadfully inappropriate, particularly with my wrinkley face on top, but I don’t want to retreat into hidey-sacks either. So I just flounder around, making awkward choices, constantly afraid I either look like “mutton dressed as lamb” or “trailer granny.” Nothing feels right, everything looks costumey and undignified. Argh!

  • paisleyapron

    As I sit here sweating in 104 degree heat…I can’t help but laugh. The last thing I want to wear or think about is form-fitting clothing. Maybe in a couple of months when the weather cools I can revisit this conversation. 😉

    • Sal

      Hah! Point taken. Maybe I should’ve saved this post for fall …

  • Great topic, as always! 🙂

    This past spring, I’ve lost 14 lbs. on a 5’4″ frame, so my weight loss was noticeable to me, but when others started to notice it (on days that I ditched my baggy clothing for more form-fitting styles) I was, well, kind of uncomfortable with the attention I received (some of it made me feel creeped out!) so I have switched back to my baggy clothes in order to “hide” again, although I must confess that the baggy stuff *does* make me feel a bit frumpy.

    I enjoy wearing more fitted tops, and dresses that nip in at the waist sometimes, but I also have to deal with bloating and water retention (I’m on Lyrica) that isn’t present in the morning when I get dressed, but it gets worse as the day wears on, and I end up having to change clothes later on in the afternoon – gah!

    I think women look great in both fitted and unstructured clothing – it just depends on what one feels most comfortable in, to be sure! I don’t really care for the bodycon bandage look, but then again, I don’t have that perfect 36-24-36 thing goin’ on anymore, ha ha!

  • I’m completely on board with women choosing different levels of “fittedness” they want for themselves, but I’d like to point out that even those who prefer a looser, drapey look still have to pay attention to fit, or else it looks frumpy and not intentional or stylish. Throwing on a loose fitting well cut tee in a soft fabric is worlds apart from throwing on a men’s large cotton t-shirt and the “boyfriend” look doesn’t really mean you grab your boyfriend’s jeans and put them on. Also, I do think that even though people don’t scrutinize each other very closely (no one is making mental measurements of your waist or arms for example), they do take in an overall impression very rapidly (frumpy vs well dressed) and make assumptions based on that. As many of the previous comments have pointed out though, it’s possible to have clothes be well-fitting without being glued on. I care a LOT about fit and it’s a pleasure to see people wearing different kinds of fit beautifully, regardless of actual body form/size.

  • For me, part of making the move was realizing that form fitting didn’t mean immodest. It was so scary to show my body that the last thing I needed was plunging necklines and backless dresses and strapless shirts and mini skirts. And still, a decade after starting to shop in the women’s department and half a decade of conscious figure flattering shopping, I STILL feel most comfortable and at home in modest clothing. So I wear a high waisted skirt with a tucked in shirt and a belt (to emphasize my waist) but it’s a knee length skirt and a shirt with no cleavage.

  • Sonja

    It’s been very interesting to read all the comments and points of view, as alway. But I think it’s really important to emphasize (as some commenters have already said), that “form-fitting” does not have to mean “skin-tight and sexy” and that it does not have to go against modesty. A pair of trousers that fit well and a long-sleeved blouse with a nipped waist, a maxi dress, a pair of nice jeans and a well-cut high-quality tee, all those can be modest AND form-fitting. In What not to wear they sometimes say that they do not necessarily want people to wear different kinds of clothes (althoug they do mostly…), primarily they want them to wear the right size, and I think that is an important part of this topic, as well.

    • I agree. I also think another way to think of “form-fitting” is “body-skimming,” rather than skin tight. After all, clothes that are too tight can be just as unflattering as those that are too loose.

  • Pranita

    “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.”

    A little bulb in me just went off! A lot of times I do wear looser clothes, but after reading this, I realised that when I wear sleeveless, I like the way my arm looks, even though it’s not ‘perfect’, but it also makes think, I have improved my arms so much by working out and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t keep doing so and get better. It’s kind of a (good) catch-22, right? I want to work out so that I can wear better fitting clothes, and I want to wear better-fitting clothes to motivate myself to keep working out!

    With separates, a combination of loose and tight can help with the transition. For example, if I wear straight-fit jeans and a tight top, then I’d throw on a drapey cardigan or jacket to feel more comfortable.
    Also, when it comes to tight tops, make sure you check that the length works for you. (Beware of cute prints, huh?) I think why I have such tight-top-from-the-90s-and-early-2000-related-stress is because my tight tops ALWAYS ride up my belly. Bloomin-Frustratin.
    Although not quite able to part ways with some of those tops, I’m far wiser (and paunchier) about wearing those these days! 😀

    Best to just experiment, Emily! We’re all learning and have made mistakes (especially me), but we’ll get ‘there’ someday! Sal will be proud! 😀