What Flattering Means to Me

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I talk a lot about traditional figure flattery. In no small part because that’s what you folks tell me interests you, and because the questions you have are typically very specific and include topics not covered by style books and magazines. I find it fascinating to learn about the challenges you face in dressing your personal best, and love to explore options with you.

I’m also fascinated by the F*ck Flattering movement which was more or less sparked by a tee shirt designed by Gisela Ramirez, and have read with interest the responses to this conscious rebellion against fashion rules and dressing norms. In common use, “flattering” means something that “makes your body appear tall, thin, balanced, and hourglass-shaped.” It also implies limiting jiggle, covering cellulite, wrinkles, and scars, keeping a large bust in check, and lots of control-related mandates. Traditional ideas of figure flattery are rooted in a very narrow beauty ideal, tied to the male gaze and heteronormativity, and extremely exclusionary. Looking past the obvious sizeism, consider that some petite women will never appear tall and some thin women will never appear hourglassy. “Flattering,” in common use, tries to force a marvelously diverse population of women into a very specific idealized shape.

As I’ve said before, there is no one right way to look great. You do NOT have to buy into the tall, thin, hourglass thing if you don’t want to. It’s your body, and it’s your decision what to put on it. Wear what makes you feel like a luminous creature of incomparable beauty, even if that happens to be a skirt that shortens your legs or a tunic that masks your waistline. If you don’t feel good in your clothes, you won’t look good in them. So focus on how you feel.

That said, I do think there is room in this world for ideas about how clothing interacts with bodies that aren’t contingent upon the socially sanctioned beauty ideal. When I think about clothing being flattering, I can honestly say that I don’t automatically default to the common use. In my world:

Flattering clothing lies flat against my body: If I’ve got a bubble of dress material perched atop my butt, a shoulder seam that creeps toward my neck throughout the day, or a side-entry pant pocket that wings out, I’m wearing something that neither fits nor flatters my specific shape. There isn’t a person alive who can wear every style of garment without fit issues, and this has more to do with proportions and build than size. Personally, I do my best to seek styles and sizes that sit flat and quiet against me, even when I am in motion. (And they are not always easy to find!)

Flattering clothing doesn’t pull, pinch, or subdivide: If there’s a deep, digging line along the edge of my butt-shelf, my pants are too tight. If bound short sleeves dig into my upper arms, I seek a different sleeve style. If my skirt’s waistband causes my midsection to spill out over its top, I go up a size. I want my clothing to caress my body, not squeeze it. Often key to achieving this goal? Ignoring size tags and focusing on how clothing feels against my body. (Finding clothing that doesn’t pull, pinch, or subdivide can be much tougher for some body shapes and sizes than others, though, and isn’t universally possible.)

Flattering clothing works with my eyes, hair, and skin tone: And honestly? I bend and break this one myself quite a bit as I know that color is one of the most emotional elements of dressing. But for the most part, I reach for colors that work with MY colors. I’ve never had my colors done, but instead use this shortcut: I look in a mirror in a well-lit room and ask myself these questions: Does this shade brighten or dull my eye color? How does it play off my hair color? Do I look healthy and robust, or wan and sickly?

Flattering clothing creates a silhouette that pleases my eye: Please note that I did NOT say “all flattering clothing makes me look tall and skinny.” If those are your priorities, then by all means go for ‘em. But feel free to chose a different set of figure flattery priorities. I gravitate towards 50s-era silhouettes, but play around with loose tops, baggy pants, and alternate silhouettes as the spirit moves me. While I agree that following traditional flattery rules without fail is limiting, I also know that living your life in rebellion against something means that thing is still controlling you. So if you want to dress in ways that make you appear tall and skinny, do so. Just do so with the understanding that those desires may have multiple roots. You know your favorite silhouette, so seek garments that present that silhouette to the observing world.

I understand that even these guidelines could be construed as overly specific and exclusionary, but I feel like their focus on personal preference, comfort, and working with the natural body make them less so than the set we often default to. Do these requirements for flattering clothing ring true to you? If not, how do you define “flattering” for yourself? Or do you feel like ALL concepts of figure flattery are oppressive? What is important to you in how a piece of clothing looks, feels, and fits?

Image via Pocket Rocket Fashion, who has a fantastic post on the F*ck Flattering movement.

  • AnnR

    I’m big on going where I want to go. For me a flattering items supports the activity I need to engage in. High heels are not flattering for me because they impede my ability to walk. If you can stride at 3.5 mph in 3″ heels then they’re good, I can’t. A skirt is not flattering to me when I want to climb rocks.

  • Brigitte

    As a full-figured woman, my ideas of what is flattering has greatly changed from when I was a teenager to now, in my early 30s. As a teenager, shopping with my skinny sister, my mother would send me to the dressing room with A-line, tent-shaped tops, the better to his my chubby body, the one that was slowly transforming into hers, the one she hated. It wasn’t lost on me that my mom felt my body was too shameful to be shown, in part or in shape. I am pretty sure it was subconscious on her part, but subconsciously, I took that message to heart nonetheless.

    It took me years, (oh! so many years!) and meeting nice people who loved me, not in spite or because of my body, who didn’t need to make excuses for loving my big body or didn’t fetishizes it either, for me to learn to love myself, to learn that while I might prefer to be smaller in the waist area, I was still pretty and rather fabulous, and it was about time my clothes reflected that.

    Now, when I go shopping with my mom, I have to ignore her advice, and just get the shorter skirt that shows off my legs, get the more form-fitting sweater that shows my curves, get the skinny jeans that hug my ample behind.

    Would it be more “flattering” if I only wore heels with wrap dresses over Spanx Every. Single. Day? Yes, I would certainly then be elongating and accentuating the hour glass figure… But how boring!! I want to wear flats and skinny jeans, and tops that are not v-neck! I want to wear full-skirts that swing, even if it creates more volume where I don’t need it (and also, who says I don’t need more volume? Exactly.)

    I would say that the last five years, I’ve really developed my style and it includes a lot of full skirts, and flats, and skinny jeans. It certainly includes wrap dresses and more structured pieces, and while neutrals might look more elegant, I also love bright colours and sometimes I just wear something that makes me happy!

    I think nothing is more flattering than a genuine smile, so finding a balance between what clothes help me look more traditionally attractive and clothes that just make me happy is my version of flattering.

  • Susan in Boston

    I would also define “figure flattery” as “fit.” I’m in the process of learning how to make clothing patterns, and I regularly make adjustments to seams and darts and length. I am astounded by the difference these small changes make in how good the various folks who are wearing my lovely Sharpie-and-pencil-marked muslin drafts look. I may not be able to speak once we get to the fabric for the garment ;-)

    Clothes hang from your shoulders and your hips, and getting those areas squared away can make anyone achieve their personal sartorial best, regardless of the style.

  • LinB

    I am most comfortable in a blouse and slacks, anymore. Sometimes I wear a skirt. When I can find or make one that fits well, I wear a dress. As I age and as my shape shifts, some favorite silhouettes no longer do me any favors. I’ve learned to let go ever tucking in a shirt again. I’ve learned to embrace silhouettes that never used to flatter my figure — now those long, columnar dresses, and those floaty tunics, are my best friends. I always try to wear blouses with interesting cuts and colors, and I try to remember to poke some interesting earbobs into my ear holes. The best image I can present to the world is to be well covered (no one needs to see my veiny old legs, ever), clean and tidy, and up-to-date for what Women of a Certain Age wear in my time and in my geographical region.

  • http://www.befabulousdaily.us Cynthia

    I get the most spontaneous street compliments when I wear unconventional silhouettes. Saturday I went up to Asheville wearing an asymmetric white linen tunic with a lace panel down the front and got chatted up about it constantly. A couple of weeks ago I was wearing a loose drapey black tunic over wide skirt-pants and got an excited “love your outfit” shout-out from a girl at the health food store.

    It’s enough to make a girl never want to put on a fitted pencil skirt and tucked-and-belted-top ever again. Now I just have to figure out how to get the essence of that look to translate to the work environment.

  • alice

    I would add that it’s not quite enough to be thin+hourglassy, but that the ideal also dictates boobs and butt so you can be “sexy” and “feminine”. It’s interesting to me that even thin is not enough (as a thin, flat, rectangle), because the ideal is to be somehow thin and curvy at the same time. But the right kind of curves of course. I was watching old Ally Mcbeal episodes on Netflix this weekend, and the character’s behavior aside, I was really pleased to see that Calista Flockhart appeared unabashedly flatchested and didn’t resort to padded bras and the like. The only other actress I can think of like that is Keira Knightley. I think when people give them grief for being ‘too thin’, what they really mean is they’re flat-chested.

  • Molly

    For me, flattering clothing allows me to live comfortably. There are all sorts of clothing issues that prove distracting and uncomfortable: a skirt that rides up while I walk, blisters from shoes that look nice but feel awful, slippery shoes that I can barely walk in without falling over, a coat that doesn’t keep me warm enough, tight undergarments that leave me sweaty and squeezed. If my clothing choices make me uncomfortable, then I’m not going to be the best version of myself. I’m going to be distracted and grumpy. I like to look pretty too, but it is essential that my clothing allow me to feel like myself and not distract me all day.

  • DC

    This is an interesting topic. I hadn’t heard of the F*ck Flattering movement before, but for the past few weeks, my new motto has been “Fashion rules be damned!” There is no one set of rules that works for everyone, and even if there were, so what? Fashion, to me, is an extension of our creativity, and of who we are and what we want to present about ourselves. If I want to wear white after Labor Day, or put a maxi dress on my petite frame, I’m going to do it. Besides, if we all adhered to the same set of rules, it would get so limiting and boring! To me, flattery has to do with confidence, finding garments that fit properly (no matter the size on the label) and presenting myself the way that *I* want to be perceived. Flattering silhouettes that properly enhance my curves while not overwhelming my frame is part of that, but that’s not the case for everyone.

  • Jean

    This is a great question. For me, ‘flattering’ includes comfortable, functional for whatever I am engaged in (from preaching to swimming), non-bunchy, and non-fussy, and colors that do not make me look like a dead fish.

    • LinB

      Oh, definitely! “Dead fish” is always a faux pas.

  • Molly

    I love this list! I know what silhouettes I like on my petite body, and my thought process never includes “makes my boobs look bigger” or “makes me look taller.”

    It’s all about assuming my build is just right for me as is, and fitting my proportions in ways that highlight that. And choosing colors that please my eye anyway (“flattering” doesn’t make it a favorite) _and_ don’t wash out my just-right skin tone (even if I like them on the shelf). I’m fine with the notion of “flattering,” but only I get to define what it means to me.

  • Osprey

    I love your tags for this post, especially “heteronormativity.”

  • http://www.eyelashhelper.org Rose

    Comfortable clothes that will allow me to move as I want. If I feel comfortable, I feel confident, and that’s flattering. I sure won’t look flattering if I’m constantly pulling on my skirt or my sleeves.

    • http://ingoodshape.com Ula

      Or if you’re conscious about pretty much anything in your outfit all the time: bra that doesn’t fit, that maybe the top of your tights is showing, shoes that rub your feet, that you feel too cold or too warm etc. It’s so distracting from whatever you do and essentially makes you unhappy. That’s why I prefer for example flat shoes instead of heels (can’t stand them for too long, only thinking about how my feet are hurting after a while and can’t focus on other stuff).