Reader Request: How to Eyeball Fit and Understand Your Figure

how to guess clothing fit

Hannah2 popped this request into the suggestion box:

I was hoping you could do a post on how to come to understand and appreciate what looks and makes us feel good—without having to buy the clothing and hang it all first. I feel like I’m starting to make progress in understanding myself but because of small weight gain (just enough to make lots of stuff fit wrong) and because of deeper appreciation for my body, even things I bought with concern and attention after purging my wardrobe fit funny, feel funny.

Obviously, the weight gain was unexpected and even potentially reversible … but is there a shortcut to learning what fits me as ME without spending lots of money on clothes to be dumped a few months later or without spending hours trying on every piece of clothing in the mall just to see?

Hannah’s got several questions floating around in there, I believe. So let’s tease this out a bit.

The body transitional

If you are actively working to build a new style and making progress toward self-love, then your body shifts and few of your clothes fit properly, it can feel unspeakably frustrating. In my experience, loving your body is much easier if you feel like you know and understand your body. When your body does unexpected things – gets injured or ill, changes shape or size – you can feel disconnected, confused, angry, and frustrated. I honestly don’t have a recommended course of action for this, since body shifts are intensely personal and can spring from infinite sources. I can point anyone who can relate to Hannah’s feelings to this post about dressing the body in flux, and this one about non-body transitions that can impact personal style.

Sussing out your figure

Understanding your figure is a lifelong project. I know that’s not what anyone wants to hear, but it’s true. Just this winter I learned that several of my pairs of boots hit so high on my leg line that they throw my lower body proportions out of whack. NEVER noticed that before. Now I realize that certain boot heights will work better than others, have sold a few too-tall pairs, and will be more careful about any future boot purchases. Not only do bodies shift, but our understanding of them shifts, too. Again, I’m sad to report that I don’t have a magic formula for figure analysis and comprehension. I don’t believe that women fit neatly into body type categories (I am not a pear, I am SALLY, dammit) and I don’t think that reading fit or flattery theory can substitute for experimentation and experience. It’s a long, slow process and will be different for every woman.

How to eyeball clothing fit

Now that I’ve served up two bits of disappointing news, allow me to give you something concrete. Eyeballing fit I can teach ya. Trying stuff on is ALWAYS the best way because you’ll never bat 1000 based on visual assessment alone and because some garments will be unexpectedly amazing on you even if they look lackluster on the hanger. However, a little practice can help hone your visual judgement.

Start in your own closet. Pick out three to five perfectly-fitting tops that you already own. Try to select from several categories of top, such as blouse, sweater, tee, cardigan, and/or jacket. Then pick out a top that is either very fitted or actually too small. Pick out a top that is either very boxy or actually too large. Set perfectly-fitting top number one on your bed, and place the too-small top next to it. Swap in perfectly-fitting top number two, three, etc. Then do the same thing with the perfectly-fitting tops and the too-large top. By the end of this drill, you should have a vague idea what a top that would fit you looks like. Repeat with dresses, skirts, and pants. There may be loads of yet-to-be-tried styles and cuts that will look fantastic on you, but this exercise will still begin to give you an idea of what might look good on you based on what you know looks good on you. And just to reiterate: This ain’t foolproof, but it should help.

Know your stats

Eyeballing fit can help when you’re shopping in person, and if it generates ideas about which styles and cuts work best, it may also help when you’re shopping online. But knowing your actual measurements will be invaluable if you’re looking to purchase new clothes online.

Measure your shoulder width, actual boobs, below boobs, narrowest part of waist, widest part of hips, and inseam. (This page has some fairly standard advice for how to get accurate measurements, though nothing ever seems to be universal.) You can also measure garments that fit you perfectly – which is especially helpful if you prefer that your skirts and dresses hit your leg at a specific spot. Write your stats on a cheat sheet, and keep it next to your computer. You can also bring your handy dandy tape measure shopping with you, and measure garments in the corresponding spots. If measuring flat, be sure to multiply by two. Now this method may seem like it should be foolproof, but it’s not. You are unlikely to get completely accurate measurements with your tape, and many manufacturers post brand-wide measurements that don’t reflect garment-t0-garment accuracy. Truly, the only foolproof method is to actually try the dang thing ON. But checking the numbers will get you in the ballpark, and is somewhat more accurate than eyeballing.

Again, none of this work is going to be easy, especially if your body is still shifting and you’re not sure when it will stop. Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can impart is this: Try to be patient with and kind to yourself. You’ll feel irritated and confused at times, but if you can try to temper those feelings with a little tenderness, you’re less likely to emerge feeling disconnected from and angry at your physical form.

Image via MSNlivng.

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  • I’ve saved myself a lot of time by whipping out my tape measure in the thrifts to check a waistline. It’s an area that doesn’t usually have any give, so if it doesn’t pass the test, I don’t have to try it on.

    Figure shifts, that’s a tough one. Lots of emotional stuff can come up, esp at mid-life. I try to talk pleasantly to myself!

    • @ Patti, that’s a great idea, but how do you measure the waist of a piece? do you measure it all the way around and then have a number that you apply to the unworn piece that you know is your max? Or do you measure, say, across the width of the waist and double it? I’m technically challenged this way, but want to try it…

      • Litenarata

        The best way to do it is to measure the waistline of clothes you already own that fit you well, and items where the waistline falls where you want it to. (I hate pants and skirts with waistlines high up my stomach so even though my actual waist is say, 28 inches, I never buy things with less than 30 inch waistlines)

        You can measure all the way around the item, but it’s probably easier to just measure one side and double that number. I also measured items with different fits so I know if I see a skirt with a 32 inch waist, it will sit low on my hips for example.

        Of course, my problem is that most clothing with a waist that fits me will have hips that are too small…

  • Laura

    Great post! I’m realizing that my measuring tape needs to be my new best friend. Sally, I’m also fascinated by the too-tall boots example you give in this post. If you’ve already written about boot height and proportions, would you point me toward that piece, and if not, would you do a post all about boot height? I suspect I may have the same problem with some tall boots in my closet… This would be great information to have before fall! Thanks!

  • Great advice! I’ve gone through some major body changes (pregnancy and losing 80lbs+) and it’s really taken awhile to figure out fit. Then once you add in colors and accessories, well, it can be mind-boggling all at once!

    For me the best first start was getting a well-fittings bra because weight fluctuations can change my cup size or band size quickly and clothes won’t hang right if a bra isn’t supportive enough. After that I tried to get a better idea of the way I was distributed. A bust measurement can only give so much information since there’s a big difference between a larger underbust/back and small breasts vs. small underbust and larger breasts. Ditto for hips when it comes to carrying more weight in your butt vs. hips itself.

    Then, the hard part came of just trying on a million different types of clothes, thinking about what body parts I wanted to emphasize etc. I’ve actually become more and more a fan of made-to-measurements clothes or clothes that have more than one size (shirts that have different waist and bust sizes and pants with different waist and hips sizes) because I can get clothes off the rack that give me a much better fit.

  • Kate K

    This reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld’s bit on women not trying on clothes. ” Women don’t try on the clothes, they get behind the clothes, you see? They take a dress off the rack, and they hold it up against themself. They can tell something from this. They stick one leg way out ’cause they nedd to know, if some day I’m one-legged, and at a fourty-five degree angle, what am I gonna wear?”

    Last summer, I tried on approximately 75 dresses (I kid you not) for a friends wedding and looked AWFUL in all of them. It was embarrassing and frustrating and wrecked my self esteem. The problem was, I had no idea what to look for. I was so completely disconnected from my body and its shape (and couldn’t look at it without judging) that it was keeping me from being able to find any clothes. So, when I got home from the disastrous shopping trip, I pulled out all of my favorite dresses (even the ones that no longer fit) and I analyzed them. I figured out what the common denominator was: fuller skirt (or at least a-line) with a band around the waist. And then I observed my body (and tried to do without judgment) and tried to figure out why those worked. The full skirt covered up my tummy area and the waist band highlighted my small waist.

    I ended up finding a dress and now when I shop, I have a much better idea of what to try on. For instance, this spring, I went bridesmaid dress shopping with my friends for our friends wedding. They were all size 4s so they could fit easily into the samples which was helpful to see what the dresses looked like. At a size 16, I didn’t fit into almost any of the samples but I could look at nearly all of the dresses and figure out if it would work for me. I was able to give my vote for which dress I liked the best and surprise, surprise, it was one with a wide waistband and a full skirt 😀

  • Nicole

    A seamstress can really help a lot with figure shifts and understanding one’s body. Clothing that fits a body well always looks better, but rarely do we buy something off the rack that is built perfectly for our body. That’s where the seamstress comes in. It is truly worth the additional cost to make our clothes appear that they were made for us. When a garment fits great, the person in it feels great and looks great! I also think this extends the life of the garment and the financial investment in it because ill fitting clothes don’t get worn and are often given or thrown away. Something that fits great, feels great and looks great will become a ” go to ” piece in a person’s wardrobe.

    • Dee

      Great idea, now to just FIND a good seamstress!!

  • Anonymous

    The figure shift thing is a doozy. I’m always telling myself “in a few months I’ll be more regular with my exercise and my shape will be more consistent…then I’ll get fitted for a new bra” But something is always shifting; shape, endurance, flexibility, etc.

  • Natalie

    Thanks for this, Sal. I’ve just spent a frustrating year of slight weight gain – not much, but enough to make previously perfect clothes fit oddly. I’ve learned during this time a magic secret: Figure out where you tend to gain/lose most of your weight, and then choose clothes that are flexible in that region. For example, all my weight goes immediately to my bust and waist. It takes a large weight gain or loss to change the size of my butt, thighs, and arms, but my waist? An extra piece of chocolate seems to be all it needs to no longer squeeze into my jeans’ waistband. So I’ve fallen in love with dresses that are gathered slightly above the waist, so changes in waist size don’t really affect how they fit. Stretchy material (like many Athleta dresses, for example) has become my great friend. Skirts with elastic waistbands or drawstrings, rather than structured, un-giving waists are what I now gravitate towards. I know I can buy shirts without much give in the arms or shoulders, and pants that fit my thighs perfectly, without worrying about how body shape changes will affect how they fit.

    Figure out which part of you changes shape/size regularly, and then find clothing styles that accommodate those changes. Find ways to accessorize clothing to make it work better – if you’ve lost just enough weight in the waist for your dresses to look a little shapeless but otherwise fit well enough, belt the dress with an interesting belt or fancy scarf.

    • Sal

      That’s a fabulous tip, Natalie! Many bodies do tend to gain/lose or change shape in the same body-zones over and over again, so this is a great work-around.

    • Molly

      Ah, I just said something similar! I know I gain weight in my belly, so I favor clothes that stretch in that area, and I’ve saved now-too-big pieces that worked when my belly was bigger in case it happens again. Next time I’ll handle those changes with grace instead of stubbornly sticking to my old clothes or having to buy a whole new wardrobe, and feeling bad about my body either way.

    • Roxane

      This has been key for me too. My weight fluctuates with my cycle and the seasons, but I reliably gain weight in the same places and same order all the time. This really helps me decide that, “these pants look great right now, but at least half the time I’ll find them too tight for comfort” and overall helps me make fewer misses in my purchases. This is also why I wear skirts most of the time.

  • This was very helpful thanks for sharing.

  • Over the last couple of years (in which I’ve finally given myself time to relearn to dress!) I have been through several stages. After my initial purge of everything black, I discovered another great trick.

    I designated a place outside of my closet that I stack items that just never make it out of the house; as in, I kept it through the purge cycle, I like it, I see a place for it with my other clothes, I want to wear it – but I end up changing out and putting it back in my closet every time. Before I discovered this trick, I was repeating the same cycle over and over and not realizing it. So for instance, part of me knew I already had a navy blazer so I never shopped for one. Yet, I never had the use of one, because there was a problem.

    With the designated spot trick, I would leave the piece laying there quite while (weeks) picking it up and looking it over each time I thought about it. I decided that I wouldn’t donate any of this stuff until I could put words to the problem. So eventually, I knew that I didn’t wear that blouse because it had an empire waistline. The pants were good in slim cut but the pockets on the back made me uncomfortable. The skirt fabric made it too clingy to be trusted.

    This began to really change my shopping. Now, I knew I wanted a blouse just like the one in the stack, only with a more natural cut waistline. I knew I needed a blazer that was shorter with some shaping at the waist and to check for back pockets on pants before considering their color, cut or fabric.

    • Lydia

      What an excellent idea! I am going to try this today as I just re-organized my closet this morning and purged a few items.

      Now I know why I gave away my silky pink shell top — it looked like lingere on me, and every time I tried to wear it to work, it felt rather… exposed! Now, I will try and find a pale pink top that does not read as lingere on me. Thank you for the great suggestion.

    • alice

      Super smart idea! I’ve done this a bunch too where I would hold onto pieces that seem like basics and are great in theory, but every time I put them on with an outfit I would inevitably exchange with another piece because something was off. Eventually I end up donating, but you’re absolutely right – without figuring out the problem, you can’t avoid making the same mistake.

  • If you’re in transition (as I have been), the first thing is to start to get a handle on what your body LOOKS LIKE and what you like on figures like yours. When I gained 30 lbs within a year of getting married, yes, it was totally traumatic. And my mornings were horrid as I went through skirt after skirt and couldn’t get them on. I found that life got better when I purged my closet of all too-small clothes, to end the morning sessions of frustration and self hate. I forced myself to try on EVERYTHING. Then it was time to find a few pinch-hitters while I figured this thing out: I have a thrift shop that is regularly restocked with really nice items. So I went looking for basics: an a-line skirt will flatter almost any figure; knit tops and cardigans are easy to swap in and out with jeans, skirts, etc. I went through the racks and grabbed anything that caught my eye in the sections that were 1-4 sizes larger. Since the thrift carries vintage, you know there’s a possibility that that size 14 skirt will fit your size 8 body. So, I went through and grabbed things that struck me, that I *WANTED* to fit – things I could be happy about. And I tried them all on, found one or two that worked, and bought them.

    Already better. (again, because we have so much negativity in our culture about weight gain, I think emotional damage control and gentleness is a big part of this).

    I already knew what I liked about my new body: I’d never had breasts before and now I had fantastic breasts. (again, keep it positive – don’t focus on the weight; instead, find what you love about your new body and then start thinking about how to feature/flatter it) I got fitted and bought new bras (making them look even more fantastic; I’d gone down a band size even though I’d gained weight – weird!!).Then I started a game I used to play with my husband in California, when I was first establishing my size. Whenever we were out in public, I would ask if I saw a woman with a body that I thought was similar to mine, “what about her?” And he would tell me, “your hips are smaller” or “you’re a bit taller, but the proportions are similar,” etc. Men are very visual; they’re good at this. Whenever I start to feel like I don’t know what my body looks like, my husband and I go for a walk in a public place. It’s always revelatory, and it has always been positive for me (because I always think I’m bigger than I am). It also helps to see women with bodies like yours moving about, or dressed stylishly – either way, it allows the opportunity to think, “what would I put on her body?” or “okay, so I love what she’s wearing and we have a similar shape, so I know that would work on me – now, what are the components of her outfit?”

    Call it research. The “Which Body is Mine?” game has proved VERY enlightening to me.

    The other thing is, when your body shifts, all the old assumptions go out the window. You can no longer assume that certain looks WILL flatter and that certain looks WON’T – so in this way, your past closet can hold you back, I think, especially if your shape changes when your weight changes. I was slim, but more pear-shaped before my weight gain. Now I’m more of an hourglass; when that happens, I do think it’s important to start over in terms of sussing out, “what flatters me now?”

    • Wow, that’s right! I forgot that my husband and I do this sometimes…when I am feeling very unsure. It’s amazing the feedback, after I watch for someone I think looks like me and he disagrees and then tells me the exact differences.

      “You mean I don’t look like that?” And he’ll say, “No, more like that.” and point out a woman that I never realized I do kind of resemble in shape and size. And she looks fine, even great. I can see it. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Molly

    On figuring out one’s body: I pay attention to the most common issues in clothes that don’t fit. My clearest example is that for me, shirts often feel wide, with slumpy, slouchy shoulders and, under the arms, wrinkles when my arms are down and batwings when I hold my arms out. I realized long ago that it’s because I have narrow shoulders, so there’s just too much fabric over and under the arm to flatter rather than frump. Now the first thing I do with any shirt/dress/jacket is hold it up to my shoulders; even tank tops with too-far-apart straps just won’t do. It saves me a lot of frustration in the fitting room.

    On transitions: A few years ago I gained some unwelcome weight (result of illness) and my old clothes didn’t fit. I saw where they pulled and pinched most–my abdomen–and noted what sorts of clothes felt better and flattered more. I bought some empire waist shirts that tied in the back and floated over my belly, slim jeans that had proportionally larger waistbands, and soft, stretchy skirts (still shortish, to show some leg, or fitted, so I don’t look like a box). Now that I’m losing the weight I still like close-fitting, stretchy pieces (I wear a lot of layering tanks) but can handle a less forgiving silhouette. Lessons learned? I now know how to handle weight in the area of my body where I tend to gain it, and I’ve kept a few favorite pieces in case it happens again. I’m actually disappointed those items don’t fit now, but it also means I’ll have some clothes I genuinely like if I gain weight again, and that’ll take some of the sting away.

    I guess the take-home message is to pay attention to the specific ways in which your clothes don’t fit, dress your current body without judgment, and save any favorite items not as a reminder of previous body shapes but so you can feel good immediately if you’re there again.

  • My style has changed a lot to reflect a constantly influx body. I can gain or lose up to 10 lbs over the course of a year. As someone who prefers very structured pieces, trousers, and belts. I’ve learned to embrace stretchy dresses, full skirts, jersey material – and a healthy love of comfy shoes.

    I’ve learned sometimes it can be so much more beneficial not to rush and actually try things on means a happier me and a better fitting wardrobe. I know not every one has that leisure, but I highly recommend at least trying on the ‘iffy’ things like pants, jeans or structured pieces.

  • Deb’s

    Wow, some really great ideas here! I have gained about 30 lbs in the last 8 years. I finally found out it was because my hormones were out of wack because I have Hashimotos disease (hope I spelled that right) So I’m being treated for it, but I don’t know if I will ever be where I was before. So I bought some things in colors that I love, and styles that help me feel good about myself.

    However, I have some things that I don’t want to get rid of and stubbornly hold on to. Even though I may never wear them again. I still see the skinny me in the mirror, and am shocked when I see the heavy me in pictures, or when clothes don’t fit. I find it just shocking that I don’t realize I can’t wear the pants with the nice pockets on the butt anymore, or that slinky dress that I wore a few years ago just looks awful on my with all the bumps and bulges that didn’t used to be there!

    So I’m really enjoying everyone’s comments, and hope I can incorporate some of them.