Reader Request: Perfectionist Shopping Standards

shopping perfectionist

Reader Jenni sent me this question via e-mail:

is there such a thing as a perfect garment off the rack? and if not, what aspects are more or less important to not compromise about?

for example, when i shop maybe i’ll see a great print that expresses my personal style, but the neckline makes me look dumpy. or i’ll find a dress in a great cut for my figure, but the color is not right for my skin tone or a match for my wardrobe. or there’s a shirt with a super flattering neckline, but has details at the shoulder or waist that don’t look good, or pockets on the boobs (not good for me!). it can definitely be frustrating!

i’ve been educating myself a lot about what to look for in clothes that will work for my figure and coloring. now instead of going to a store and feeling overwhelmed by choices, now i find that there is nothing exactly right because of having so many criteria. is there a way to effectively prioritize those criteria? or is it going to be different for each person?

First things first: For some people, there are loads of perfect off-the-rack garments. If your body is in the sweet spot where mass-marketed clothing brands want and expect it to be, you can waltz into any mall store and buy anything. My experience leads me to believe that the people who fall into that sweet spot are a very small subset of women aged 17 to 23. I don’t mean to say that anyone over the age of 24 will never find a perfectly fitting, pre-made garment. I’m 40 and curvy, and I’ve hit the jackpot plenty of times. It’s possible. But it’s not the norm.

There’s a lot of style rhetoric out there decrying the purchase of imperfect garments. And I get that. Why the heck should you spend your hard-earned money on something that doesn’t quite fit or flatter or work?* This becomes especially important if you’re on a tight budget or if you have a very defined personal style, but it’s a shopping maxim that most people take to heart. Almost-right just isn’t good enough.

So how do we reconcile a desire to spend on ideal items only, with the decidedly not-ideal available inventory? What if our bodies are tricky to fit? Long where manufacturers expect short? Round where clothing designers prefer flat? And what about Jenni’s example of a gorgeous printed garment with an unflattering neckline? If there seem to be approximately zero perfect-for-us garments for sale on planet earth, where do we compromise?

Jenni has guessed correctly: It’s going to be different for each person. If you know how to hem, you’ll be more likely to compromise on pant, skirt, and dress length than those who must take long duds to the tailor. If you have a body part that you adore and want shown off at all times, you’ll likely buy garments that highlight that part and work around the rest. If you are a stickler for how colors work with your complexion, you’ll focus on color and create some fit-related work-arounds. And if you’ve got a large clothing budget and a great tailor, you can pick your battles.

One way to deal with this potentially overwhelming conundrum is to consider your dressing priorities. What is most important to you in a garment?

  • Does it need to be comfortable? Comfortable in a certain area of your body?
  • Washable? Easy to care for?
  • Is color a biggie? What are your best shades?
  • How about fiber or construction?
  • What do you have plenty of in your closet right now? What’s lacking?

Then consider how you want to present your body through clothing. What are your figure flattery priorities? List out your top five and rank them in order of personal importance.

If you find shopping to be frustrating due to lack of perfect options, tuck these two lists into your wallet. Then, when you come across a garment that just about works, you can remind yourself how it fits into your dressing priorities.

*Quick reminder: Should you slip into a dressing room, try on a heap of goodies, and find that every single option makes you feel awkward or frumpy or wrong, remember: It’s not you, it’s the clothes. Always.

Image courtesy PlayfulLibrarian.

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  • Hi Sally! My granny was a super stylish woman. When she passed, I got many of her clothes. I was a poor college grad just starting a new job, so I was happy to get some nice new clothes even though they were petite and I’m anything but! I made it work by mixing and matching. For example, on the suit jackets, the sleeves were a tad too short, so I just rolled them once or twice. I let my blouses hang out the bottom for a more casual business look. It worked until I was able to purchase jackets that fit me properly. I think if you just adore something, you can usually make it work if you get creative with the rest of your outfit! 😀

  • This is a really good question! I have to say – and I completely relate to the challenge of shopping on the high street – that perfection in fit, colour, style and that ineffable “feels terrific” is still the benchmark for me. I won’t buy if it doesn’t look fantastic. Cuz I won’t be happy wearing it.

    How do I get around this? Well, I try on a lot of things, and then leave most of them behind. I’ve been a serious shopper for 30 years. That’s given me a lot of experience and quite a bit of skill. I also know my body dimensions (by measuring tape) very intimately. It disinclines me to try and convince myself that something which doesn’t fit, maybe does. I also wear very well-fitted undergarments, to give the best shape possible under any new item. I shop a lot online – to expose myself to more purchase options. I also seek out vintage and consignment. And I make my own things too. Nothing gives you a sense of fit like constructing a garment to fit you exactly. Note: I do recognize that the hard-won development of this skill is not appealing to most people.

    My point is, I do just about everything possible to facilitate great looking outfits and I still have to work hard to find the things that work.

    What I will say is, if you find a manufacturer that makes a staple garment that works well on you, buy volume of that garment and pay attention to its production status. If it goes out of production, what garment replaces it? Then you’ll always have some good basics (sweaters, jeans, Ts) in your wardrobe at all times.

  • I’m on the smaller side but very curvy (large breasts and big butt but small hips and a small ribcage). For me I’ve found brands that cater specifically to my body type and come with two different measurements for tops: bust and waist. BiuBiu, Urkye, AJ Rumina, and Pepperberry are a few that I’ve tried so far and they’ve been great! For pants I LOVE PZI jeans because they are really cut to my curves. I also have boughten some Levi’s Curve ID jeans but PZI are still my favorite.

    When I do buy off the rack clothes I look for ones that can be easily altered (thankfully alterations aren’t that expensive here in Brazil!). For me fit is the most important because I just look sloppy if the waist is too baggy or my bust is popping out of a top. That means I’ve had to compromise on color a lot. Thankfully, the brands that cater to a larger bust have lots of necklines that work well for me, so that’s another plus.

  • Courtney

    Awesome timing. Just this summer, I decided to stop compromising on colors and to limit myself to a strict palette that I love (autumn colors that pair well with amber, I’m a redhead and it’s my favorite feature so I try to play that up). BEST DECISION EVER I am so happy with that decision. I didn’t throw out all the old items that didn’t fit the criteria, but as they gradually age out I’m replacing them with a few carefully selected items in the new scheme, and the difference is astounding. It’s so much easier to turn down a funny colored item having seen how much easier it is to dress and how much better I feel when I’m sticking to my guns on what makes me look good.

  • Dee

    I thnk the only time I am torn about whether to buy an item of clothing is either when its a great price, and/or its a new trend and I want to partake. I have learned that its no bargain if you get it home and don’t wear it becasue its not really what you wanted, or doesnt flatter you, etc. As far as being excited to wear a new trend, such as printed jeans, I have gotten better about taking my time and really trying on a number of styles, brands etc. Usually eventually I will find “the perfect” one. Sometimes however I decide its just not a style/trend for me, my body or lifestyle. I will admit that it took me YEARS to learn this. In general, while I have far from the ideal shaped body, I can usually find clothes that fit me well overall and in colors I like, with some work.

  • All of those things are important to me! Which is why, having started sewing for myself, I’m finding it an increasingly slippery slope.

    I trot into the mall, hoping to find something basic to go with my wardrobe… and I find things that are just a little off, or really poorly made for the money they’re asking, and I pout and say, “I could do this better!”

    Sometimes true, sometimes not – but as someone with very particular coloring, who is short and curvy and not thin (and not hippy, which most clothing for heavier women is geared for*), my homesewn things are almost always far more flattering.

    Where do I compromise? I’m most likely to compromise if what I sew for myself doesn’t come out like the vision in my head, but is still wearable. I’ll wear it. Always have, I was the girl in junior high wearing her misshappen sweatshirt from home ec.

    After years of work, I finally feel like I’m producing more-or-less pleasing garments for myself, but doing it all myself is SO timeconsuming. I wish I could just walk into the mall and find something nice…. :/

    * I’m not going to whine about lack of fit in RTW, since it’s taken me years to get my own things fit properly. It matters, but it’s not like it’s easy – and I am very far away from the norm that they make the clothing slopers from.

  • I am really tall and have the problem that many garments don’t fit due to being too short. This obviously can’t be rectified that easily! I learned to sew when I was younger and now make anything which I think will be problematic to buy. Until a year ago I was not only tall but also plus sized, which makes for an impossible combination in the UK! I really ramped up making my own clothes then, because it was the only choice I had!
    I then lost a load of weight and buying stuff in high street stores is now much easier, but still can be tricky, especially jeans, because most places will add length but don’t reproportion the leg so that the extra length is added all over, not just at the bottom, meaning that the narrowest point of the leg hits at the wider parts of mine!
    I am incredibly picky about what I buy, if one thing isn’t quite right, I won’t buy it! This does make shopping a little tricky….

  • Bekka

    I’m 5’1″ and curvy, so I have to have a good relationship with my tailor. One of the ways I deal with it on a limited budget is by buying most of my clothes from thrift stores or ebay (at thrift store pricing). Since I’ll have to have it tailored anyway, I get a really good fit and keep the cost down. I have found that if I buy something that’s not really what I want, I will just keep buying until I find the perfect thing. So I try very hard not to buy things that are almost what I want, because every time I see them, they’ll remind me of what I’m missing. This is how I end up with 8 not-quite-perfect black skirts.

    As for compromise, I’m more likely to compromise on style details than on fabric. Again, even if I love the look, if the fabric feels ooky to me, I’ll pass it up in the closet every time.

  • Kaybug

    I find that every shop that I LOVE has a season, or even two, where the color palette and / or the shapes just aren’t working for me. So, I look for just the basics in simple cuts that I am fairly sure will fit me, and work with those.

    For example, the puffy sleeve does NOTHING for me. I already have strong shoulders and the upper arms to match; puffy short sleeves do nothing but make those look larger. I spent a couple of summers avoiding most tops for that reason. But I did find lots of very cute sleeveless tops in simple cuts that de-emphasized that region.

    I still don’t have as many summer tops as I would like, but at least I’ve got ones that fit and flatter. Let’s see what next season brings!

  • I find trying to find ‘flattering’ colours isn’t so important on bottoms, since those are away from your face anyway. And with tops/ dresses, if you REALLY love a colour but it doesn’t flatter you then I’d suggest buying it anyway- you can easily layer a flatteringly-coloured scarf/ vest/ coat/ sweater on top of it! If worse comes to worse, you can also just dye the garment. Necklines can also be altered by layering things on top 🙂 I also find that dress/ top hems can be temporarily shortened by tucking a little bit of the fabric into a waist belt- nobody will know! 😉 So most things can be ‘fixed’, but it’s just a matter of how much time you’re willing to spend on them 🙂

  • Cat

    I want that green dress in the photo!
    🙂

  • Angela

    For me colour is most important. And when I find a cut that is almost perfect, especially pants, I buy multiples. Especially as an earlier person pointed out, the colour is not by your face so it is not a loss if not perfect shade for you.

    I shop more with a purpose and know the basic cost of alterations. And i chant Sally’s expression, it’s not you, it’s the clothes. It is not quick and easy to puchase clothes for a curvy petite but it is possible, I look at it as an adventure 🙂

  • I’ve tried compromising in the past but it doesn’t work because I won’t wear it or will feel self conscious. However, I am very small boned and have basically no curves, which is actually a challenge to fit. At this point, I’ve identified a few stores that I have had some success in and now what I do is not even bother with going into physical stores (which is an exercise in frustration and too time consuming), but regularly visit their websites. This way, I can easily eliminate styles that I know won’t work on me and have the full set of color and size options (my size is almost never available in physical stores). I order everything I think might work, try them on in the comfort of home and take everything back to the store that doesn’t work (to avoid shipping). This is great too because I can try the clothes on with what I actually have in my closet. I’ve accepted now that every season, the sizes will change subtly and a shirt that was perfect last season will now be too big, or weird or whatever. It takes me just a couple of minutes these days to scan websites and then I’m aware of new things when they come in and can coordinate possible buys with sales. I probably keep 1/10 of what I order, if that, because even at these stores, the sizing or cut will turn out not to be consistent or flattering. Or the fabric won’t be right. Or the color looks different in person.

    As for color, I have a fairly limited color palette that is based around black, grays, navy, blue. Pretty much every store will have clothes in these colors so that’s something I don’t have to worry about and then I add color through my nail color, shoes or scarves. Super easy!

    Being very strict (anal?) about what I keep has really streamlined my wardrobe and saved me money. I love everything I have and feel like I have a consistent look that works with all aspects of my life.

  • Marla

    I used to buy (or be given, because I hated shopping) TONS of clothes that just weren’t very flattering on me (tall, busty, little heavier). And I was terribly unhappy. Now if it isn’t awesome it goes right to donation, and I refuse to buy anything that doesn’t fit and flatter. Shopping at thrift stores gives you a great range.

  • Donya Powers

    At 5’2″ and plus sized, almost everything goes to the tailor before I wear it – other than a couple of manufacturers, plus petite is a challenge to find. I have discovered I am most likely to make a buying “mistake” when I love the color, but the cut isn’t flattering. Sometimes I will compromise to fill a “hole” in my wardrobe, with the intent of “upgrading” when I find something perfect.

  • cca

    Love this post, because I have recently adopted this perfectionist attitude towards my wardrobe. For me it is about fit, I have broad shoulders and large breast, color is 2nd. I don’t want to spend tons on tailoring so I stick to certain brands if shopping in the mall. There are always lots of new brands popping up in department stores, I suggest you try on different brands of clothes you never know what will work for you. Recently I discovered my 100% perfect blazer from Ted Baker London in Nordstrom. I am so happy with that blazer. I just don’t want to settle anymore. Sally’s priority list described above should be helpful. Thank you

  • Sarah

    I am 5’4 and a size 16/18, so finding pants is my biggest challenge. Petite/short lengths are too short, and medium/regular pants are too long. Luckily my mom hems most of my pants for me (she’s much better at it than I am!). I don’t compromise on fit but I thrift a lot and usually luck out with a random brand I’ve never heard of. I can’t stand things that are too tight on my belly or too loose on my hips – but thanks to my squarish figure, it’s hard to find pants that fit my waist and don’t drown my legs. I just keep searching until I hit the jackpot. I also find that the selection of brands and styles at stores like Marshall’s usually guarantee some success with pants….there are so many options, one is bound to fit. Though that means I spend about 4 hours in the dressing room!

    Another issue I have is tops being too long. I recently thrifted a lovely top that someone had already hemmed, and the new length was perfect on me! The other tops I bought were at least 4 inches longer, which means they hit me at an awkward place on my hips. I just try to find things that I can play with in terms of belting and draping so that I can make the tops fit. I’ve also given up on button front tops. I will never find one that fits me off the rack, but since I hate to iron, I just gave them up. I rely on cardigans a lot too, since I can wear them open if the buttons gape.

    The one thing I rarely compromise on, ever, is crappy polyester fabric. I wish I loved it because I always see a ton of cute polyester tops, but they make me so. freaking. hot. Polyester in the summertime is a recipe for B.O. for me. Even in the winter, I just hate the way it feels and looks. I can rarely afford silk unless it’s thrifted, so it can be frustrating. I just force myself to keep looking.

    • Anne

      I hear ya on the poly, unless it’s work out gear. My real nemesis is acrylic especially in sweaters.

  • Anne

    Boy Jenni, you really asked the $64,000 question! My friends and I are always looking for the holy grail of fashion. I think Sally’s check list is a great starting point. My two major rules about fashion ( and pretty much everything else in life) can be boiled down like so: educate yourself; know thyself. It is really hard to find the time and motivation, but at the beginning of the fall and spring seasons I try everything on. Does it look good, why or why not? Start really paying attention to the items to which you gravitate ; the ones that make you feel great. Mentally deconstruct them. What flatters you. My husband jokes that if I put the same kind of focus I put on refining my wardrobe into other arenas, I could cure cancer. I make a very focused list every season and like you and everyone else, I have limited success.

    So now, I am learning to wait… and wait. I find that if I can hold out, something great usually comes around. I cannot tell you how many times I settled for something that was not quite right. I never felt good in it and then it seemed something perfect would come around only now, I’d already spent the money.

    I am in pretty decent shape but almost every single pair of pants, jeans and shorts I own have been taken in. It is super frustrating but I am making peace with it because even though I hate paying extra $$, I hate a droopy crotch and saggy butt even more. I have been known to keep the tags on items and check them over with a tailor before I fully commit. If the alteration is fairly simple and affordable I keep it otherwise I return it. I took a tailoring class in college and though my sewing skills still remain horrible, it gave me a good sense of what can and can’t be done to an item.

    I guess the bottom line is buy things that make you feel great, or can be made to make you feel great, and abandon the idea that you’re going to find wardrobe perfection… at least off the rack!

  • Aziraphale

    I’ll compromise on fit issues that can be easily altered. I make a lot of trips to the tailor, because I really like items that fit perfectly, and although I don’t sew myself, I’ve learned which alterations are relatively simple (and cheap) and which are more complicated.

    I tend not to compromise on colour, because if I don’t like the colour, I won’t wear it, no matter how flattering the cut. Fabric tends to be hit-or-miss, but if an item is at all scratchy or uncomfortable, I’ll pass. Otherwise I have a pretty open mind, because all fabrics are not created equal. For example, you’d think silk is always a luxury fabric, but some silk is good quality and some is crappy. You don’t always know. Sometimes garments with polyester hold up well, even though polyester is much less glamorous than silk.

  • LP

    I’m trying to get better about only buying what fits or getting it made to fit, but I feel like such a non-adult when I realize I don’t know where to start on finding a good tailor/knowing if the tailor is priced well! One good thing is that I have a Banana Republic card (with a grace period, so I don’t pay interest) and if I happen to have a year that involves a lot of clothes buying, that ends up providing me with free tailoring from Banana itself. So I think I might start there; I’ve never taken advantage, but it’d be helpful.

    Another thing that stands out to me about this post is that we sort of all feel like we have “weird” proportions: I have a small ribcage and a short waist and long legs and an almost silly long neck. The wrong outfit can make me look giraffe-like! But the thing is, since we’re all so different, it only makes sense that off-the-rack will just be elusive; maybe if I think of it as “goddamn, I’m so freakin’ unique!” I’ll feel more excited about shopping and being super picky. Gotta wait for the right thing for my super unique shape and size (or force it to bend to my will with tailoring!).

  • I’m a perfectionist, because I want to be responsible about my spending. However, when my shape changed at 30, I didn’t really know how to dress my body anymore. I’m still figuring a few things out, honestly. My solution? Thrift. Ebay. And buy separates at first, because it’s easier to find something that fits only your upper *or* your lower half, rather than both together. Also, I think if you are still figuring out which brands, which sizes, which styles fit and flatter your body,having separates that you can mix and match is nice because they provide more outfit variation. (So you don’t have to get bored, wearing the same dress every other day while you continue the hunt for perfection)

  • Sonja

    Okay, so here are my thoughts about this:
    First of all I would like to second what some people already said indirectly: If you want to find perfect clothes, you’ll always have to invest some energy. Be it money for custom-made or tailored pieces, skill for sewing and altering, time for looking at and trying on as much as you can or brains for learning everything about your body, your preferences and what’s in the stores right now.
    When it comes to me, I have to say that I find fabric the most important thing. I’ll compromise with outerwear and sports gear, but want everything that touches my skin to be made of at least 90 % natural fibers.
    I’d say next is fit, and then comes the rest like colour, comfort, etc.
    I alter most of the clothes I buy, but it’s usually very small changes, mostly “cutting things off”. I’m not tall, so I shorten most pants and skirts/dresses, and I’m curvy and not girly at all, so I can’t stand anything sewn on, be it feminine embellishments (ruffles, bows etc.) or even sewn-on pockets that add volume. Off they go!
    I also dye a lot of things (which is easy with natural fibers!) because I like strong, saturated colours and find many pastel shades in the shops.
    I understand the search for perfection, but right now I do not spend tons of money on single pieces, so my thoughts usually are: I’ll buy and wear this near-perfect piece now and replace it by the perfect one once I find it.

  • I’ve discovered that fit must be my #1 priority, followed by how well it will fit in with my current wardrobe. I have to be mindful of what actually will be worn and used. I’ve also learned NOT to buy multiples of items- my sense of fit is still evolving. Things I loved two years ago or last year didn’t pass close inspection when it comes to fit or sometimes even quality. It’s so easy to love something on the hanger by itself (OMG it’s SOOO pretty!) and another for it to look good on your BODY shape- you have to really step aside and look at it from another perspective, and not just be excited about finding it. I have to remind myself- there ALWAYS will be more pretty clothes out there, so just sit tight and wait for one to come along with either the perfect fit or near-perfect (hemming is something I will do) before spending my $ on it.