Reader Request: Dressing the Slender Frame

style advice for skinny

Reader Nicole wrote an e-mail asking for some posts that discuss style for very thin women. Specifically:

Advice for dressing thinner frames, both petite and lanky – like what flatters the parts to flaunt and enhances any curves. (It took me about three unfortunate years to realize clothes that “drape” are better than skin-tight fabrics that show everything you’ve got.)

Slender frames come in as many shapes and sizes and configurations as curvy ones, so this is a tough question to tackle! Also, as you may have noticed, I’m on the curvier end of the spectrum myself, and therefore have no personal experience with flattering a very thin body. So I will outline a few suggestions that have worked for my slender clients, and send you to the comments section for more input.

Focus on what you love

This is probably the central tenet of figure-flattery for ANY frame. Ask yourself which aspects of your figure make you feel strong, proud, and gorgeous. Do you love your legs? Arms? Collarbone? Waist? Shoulders? What can you do to draw attention to that part of your frame? Remember that some of the simplest ways to play up your assets include contrast, embellishment, and exposure.

Consider creating curves

Naturally, attempting to “fake” curves on a curve-free body can backfire, and many women would rather just embrace their natural curvelessness. Totally optional, but since Nicole specifically mentioned curve enhancement I wanted to throw this into the mix. While there are certainly padded bras and even padded panties to consider, there are also some tried-and-true ways to visually create curves using clothing.

  • Princess seams on blouses, jackets, and dresses will create the illusion of a waist.
  • Full skirts can make a set of hips appear fuller.
  • Belted styles and cinched waists can lend a little hourglassy-ness to a naturally curve-free figure.
  • Pencil skirts – especially styles with seaming along the back panel – will boost butt curves.
  • Tops with draping or embellishment at the bustline can make breasts appear a bit fuller.

Ponder hems and breaks

If you’re interested in making any particular body part appear fuller, pay close attention to your hems and breaks. If a hem or break falls across a body part, it will make that body part appear wider. This applies to skirt and pant hems, sleeves, boot and shoe openings. Hems and breaks attract attention, so place them where you want attention focused! But also consider their widening properties.

Balance loose and tight garments

Nicole points out that draped clothing works better on her figure than skin-tight clothing. That’s true of most body types, in my experience. So I’ll take the idea down a slightly different path and suggest creating balance between loose and tight garments. Feel free to wear skinny jeans, fitted tops, and slinky dresses. They’re fun and fabulous and may look amazing on your figure! Then ask yourself if balancing something tight with a draped, flowy, or loose garment would work. Do a batwing top with the skinny jeans, a pleated midi skirt with that fitted top, a diaphanous wrap with your slinky dress. Tight all over can be tough to do, but tight and loose within the same outfit often create sophisticated chic.

Try not to hide

If you’re a skinny woman, no amount of clothing trickery will mask that fact, and I hope you slim gals have made peace (or are making peace) with your natural shapes. Thin women can get a fair amount of flak for their body sizes and shapes, which may create a desire to hide inside loose, formless clothing to avoid scrutiny and critique. But doing so prevents you from embracing your body and celebrating what you love about your physical form. Never feel like you must wear formfitting clothing, especially exclusively. Your body, your choices. But also remember that overly big, ill-fitting clothing will likely fail to make its wearer seem either less-skinny or less-visible. Find styles that work for you and do your utmost to wear them proudly.

Image courtesy Extra Skinny, whose blog is absolutely gorgeous and a longtime fave of mine.

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  • Keilexandra

    Although they’re not easy to find right now in a non-nautical style, I like boatneck tops to draw attention to my collarbone and shoulder line–correspondingly, I hope, away from my flat chest. The same goes for V-necks (deep but not plunging, since we don’t need the cleavage-covering modesty of a shallov V): these styles might look BEST on curvier women, but that doesn’t mean that the small-busted can’t wear them too.

  • sigourney

    Funny, I just passed our Francois & Marithe Girbaud store during my noon break and thought that that is the one style that looks daft on my European size 42. Asymmetrical, loose, linen, cheesecloth, boyish trousers, big pockets. But for a thin person just the ticket.

    Further I’d think wide-leg pants and cargos, ballerina wear like big shirts and pullovers, not hiding but playing with volume. I think the right kind of ruffles can look lovely on a thinner frame. Also a couple of transparent layers.

  • Amy

    I second boatneck and v-neck tops as they accentuate one of the parts of my body that feels most feminine and graceful, and have found defining my waist to be helpful in creating a shape different from the rectangular shape my torso has naturally. Slim cropped pants (sometimes called cigarette style) also work well when paired with something tailored or billowy on top.

    I like looking at Audrey Hepburn’s style (who doesn’t?) as well as that of Olivia Palermo for ideas about how to work with my proportions. Both women skew towards classic, tailored looks which is right up my alley at this point in life. Lastly, it has been easier for me to find things for my body type at places like J. Crew, H&M, and Banana Republic, but there are likely many other places that cater to those of us slighter in frame.

  • I’m neither particularly tall or thin, but I could see a lot of E. from Academichic’s styles looking great on a lankier body. Shoot, she’s an inspiration whatever your shape!

  • Aziraphale

    In some ways, it’s easier to dress a slender figure than a curvy one, perhaps because it’s easier to add volume than to remove it, but as you say no two slender figures are alike. My dressing challenges are going to be different than those of another slender woman.

    I’m short and slim but not particularly small-busted, with straight hips and limbs and bony shoulders. I’ve found that I have more options than my curvy friends when it comes to bottoms. My legs were made for jeans of all shapes, but I can carry off many skirt styles equally well — pencil, A-line, circle, pretty much anything except trapeze styles, which tend to look shapeless on me. So not too much trouble in that department.

    The bigger challenge for me is my top half. I’m not exactly what you’d call busty, but my boobs are big enough (especially given the straightness of the rest of me) that I need to dress them carefully. One trick involves adding a bit of volume to my hips, to minimize the appearance of my waist and balance my bust. Any ruffling around the bust is disastrous on me (but could look fabulous on a taller, smaller-busted woman!) but fullness in a skirt is often very flattering. Fitted tops work well. I often layer a tight-fitting tank or camisole under my tops, so it peeks out the bottom and essentially creates a band of a different colour around my hips, drawing attention to them and adding visual width. (A hip-slung belt worn over a fitted top does the same trick). Sadly I can’t really tuck things in without making my naturally high waist look like it’s up by my ears, so I rely on tops (or jackets) being fitted through the waist (princess seams are great!) and curving outward at the hips to suggest an hourglass shape.

    The other silhouette that works well is tight bottoms (skinny jeans or leggings) under a loose, straight button-front shirt that masks my waist entirely. I’m essentially going with my curvelessness there, and focusing on my nice athletic legs. The trick here is to make sure the top has enough drape, and is unbuttoned to create a vee neck, so my boobs don’t look like one big block. I’ve seen slender, small busted women with long necks do this look too, but they can button the shirt right up to the top and look fantastic.

  • I am also thin and small-boned and in my own experience, relatively fitted (not tight) clothes look best because it’s easy for me to look overwhelmed and sloppy with too-baggy items. And skin tight clothes look even worse if possible because my lack of curves is even more obvious. Pants are a nightmare because they never completely fit so I live my life in skinny jeans and I honestly don’t know what I will do in my future life as my career advances. I love blazers but have come to realize that you really need to analyze every single aspect of tailored items to make sure the effect is right. I had one jacket that languished in my closet for years until finally I identified that it fit well at the shoulders, well at the torso, was a good length, but the arms were too big so every time I put it on it looked awkward. So now I know what to look for in future purchases. I highly recommend doing this for all your “off” clothes. Note though, baggy armed items can sometimes be saved by rolling up sleeves enough so your actual arms show.

    My general formula is to make sure things fit well at the shoulders and chest area, and then it should glide at the waist area and end at the hip. By being a bit loose at the waist but fitted everywhere else, it kind of creates an illusion of curves. And skinny jeans help a ton with that.

    Anyway, there are many nice things about having a skinny figure! Button down collared shirts look great and aren’t too hard to fit and I never wear heels because elongating the figure is not a priority (I look elongated enough thanks). My lack of curves bothered me for a long time and I never felt feminine (I didn’t feel masculine either, mostly just sort of boyish or immature), but now I call myself ‘gamine’ and look to body doubles like Audrey Hepburn and Charlotte Gainsbourg for inspiration.

    And one last thing, depending on how thin you are, brick and mortar stores might not carry your real size. I was making do with size 0 for ages until I realized you could get size 00 online from all of the big brands. And it’s very easy to return those items to the actual stores so you avoid return shipping (I usually order extra things to meet the free shipping minimum).

  • Echoing Aziraphale, Princess seams are great for creating shape. Seaming is great on my frame. I’m slim, but I can easily loose my shape in garments if they don’t have the right cut. Speaking of – darts! Darts are your friend. If something is too big, consider a tailor. It’s cheaper than you might think and a simple seam or two can improve fit.

    It really just depends on what you style goals are. I personally hate my thin ankles, but it turns out that ankle boots and ankle straps are best to ‘mask’ the thinness by adding bulk and balancing my leg line. Some people may not want that, preferring to give themselves as long as leg line as possible, but it’s okay to not to follow the standard “rules” of body goals if you don’t want.

  • Nina

    This is a timely post for me. Just this morning someone emailed some snapshots of a recent trip, and it made me cry to see how scrawny I looked in them. I’ve always been naturally quite thin, but cancer has taken away a critical few additional pounds. Fortunately, being very thin often means you feel cold easily, so, indoors, even in the summer I can pile on the clothes and gain some useful bulk. Most of the time, I think I manage to look merely slender, even good. But if it is extremely hot and I’m outdoors (as in the photos I saw today), then it’s hard to not expose toothpick arms, etc.

    In general, I find that shopping online (especially J. Crew) gives me access to sizes 0 and 00 that I rarely find in stores. And I have learned to never wait for sales because they don’t stock many items in the small sizes and they disappear so fast. Finally, my tailor is wonderful. I wish I’d found him years ago. I’ve spent so much of my life swimming in clothes that were way too big. (Insanely, my mother’s childhood advice to always buy clothes with “grow room” stuck in my mind for many years even though I had clearly stopped growing!) I now take all new skirts and dresses to him, and he makes them fit very well, which is the best strategy of all. No more wonky safety pins to nip in the waist!

  • Molly

    If classic/preppy is your style, you might want to check out the blog extrapetite.com. The blogger is short but also very slim, and writes often about finding appropriate brands or looking put together and adult instead of childlike.

  • Sonja

    I’m curvy, but my mom is really petite and slender. Although she likes to shop and certainly has a kind of style, which is quite mom-sey, but also sporty and outdoorsy, she does not wear clothes that flatter her. My sister and I have always urged her to buy tops in her size – which would be a European 36, maybe even 34 – but she sticks to her boxy, unflattering size 40. After shopping with her last year I finally realized the reason: in comparison to her tiny body, her shoulders are quite broad, so she buys what fits well in the shoulders, but hangs unflattering on the rest of her torso. She is one of those people who believes that clothes should fit of the rack and it would never occur to her to bring these things to the tailor to make it more fitted in the waist. Well. But I think this shows that there really are many different types of bodys and clothing preferences even among the thin and slender. And that we curvy gals aren’t the only ones in need of a good taylor.
    By the way, all you slim women out there, I’m so jealous of how good skinny jeans and leggins look on many of you!

  • Sara

    I’m fairly thin (although not size 0 thin) and don’t have many curves. I’ve learned the hard to never buy clothes that depend on the body underneath to give them shape. This is especially true with certain types of dresses – if it looks straight on the rack, it will look straight on me too. If a dress is made to go on over the head without zippers or buttons, that’s a big clue that it’s going to look like a sack on me. Belts can help sometimes, but not always.

  • Holly

    I’ve found (and been told by a friend) that knit fabrics work well with my thin build. They drape nicely and demonstrate that I have a shape, muscles, and curves despite being skinny. I tend to be lost in crisper fabrics. I don’t like my clothing to be overly tight but finding pants that are fitted rather than looser work better on me. I went through a period of wearing clothes that were too loose and people were always commenting that I looked unhealthily thin. When I started wearing pants that fit, it cut down on the number of negative comments and I felt more confident in my appearance.

    Another piece of advice is to be careful with scoopnecks. If they are cut right they can be very flattering but if the scoop is meant for a woman with a larger chest they can hang oddly and make your collarbones appear very prominent.

    Also, halter necklines and tops with tank or spaghetti straps can flatter thin arms and make them look toned and powerful.

    Finally, a well-fitting bra will do wonders for even the most slender and small-chested woman!