My clients teach me so much, friends. They show me how little I really know about style and body image, and reinforce my belief that having conversations about where those two topics overlap can be a truly healing process. Before I work with a client, I ask her to do some thinking and writing, answering a handful of questions and prompts that I provide. Recently, a client sent me a 10-page response to my questions. Which I loved, because the more info and background I have, the better. And because it was abundantly clear to me that this client was smarter, more articulate, and considerably more knowledgable about garment construction than I was.
And although this document gave me loads of insight into my client’s goals and challenges, it also reminded me that ignorance can be bliss. My client was an accomplished sewist with a background in costume design. Not only could she spot a shoddy seam at 50 paces, but she had painstakingly cataloged everything about her body – literally from chin to toes – that caused her fit woes. She knew her body inch by inch AND she knew exactly how properly fitting clothing should look. Shake those two pools of knowledge together, and you’ve got a cocktail for dressing dissatisfaction.
I would never go so far as to say that this client hated her body. In fact, I think that her detailed knowledge of tailoring and construction paired with her decades-long examination of her own figure created a kind of scientific – if slightly weary – acceptance. She knew what the issues were and she had some good ideas about how to address them. What she wanted from me was help in feeling better about it all. Which I did my best to help with.
I was fascinated to discover that someone who leveled laser-like scrutiny at her own body and wardrobe was far more forgiving when it came to others. She told me she could look at another woman, see that her blazer wasn’t fitting in the shoulders, and think, “But it still works just fine on her.” That same fit issue on her own figure did not receive such clemency. So one of the ideas that I nudged at several times was to forgive herself in the same ways she was consistently forgiving others. It’s certainly true that impeccable fit makes for a stylish look, but it’s also true that impeccable fit isn’t always possible. And that many, many garments that fit imperfectly still look amazing on their owners and wearers.
As we worked through the consult, we also worked through her list of fit and figure concerns. Some of them were things I knew exactly how to address: Short-waistedness, a large bust, thin legs. Some of them were things that I, frankly, did not see or agree were issues that needed addressing. Which caused an interesting tension. There are things about my own body that I dress to downplay that others do not perceive to be prominent or noticeable. We all have our hang-ups, and I respect that. Just because something about your body doesn’t bother ME has no bearing whatsoever on how much it bothers YOU. That said, it can be eye-opening and liberating to have someone – doesn’t have to be a stylist, but it helps if the person is an objective semi-stranger – tell you that, no, you don’t actually have thick ankles and actually your arms look fantastic. It might not change your thinking on the spot, but it could start your wheels turning. Weeks later, my client let me know that she saw herself differently after getting my input, and that figure hang-ups that had stuck around for decades were gradually dissolving.
I learned a great deal about construction and fit from my client, but also registered the importance of flexibility. I am a big-picture person, and often skim over details. If an outfit hangs together overall, I’m unlikely to hone in on a slightly snug sleeve or loose pant-seat. So although I can recognize impeccable tailoring when I see it, I seldom stress it. Working with this client made me realize that I’ve got a lot to learn, but also made me grateful for my ability to see the best in every outfit.
Understanding your body is essential to dressing it well. But for some of us, knowing everything about how our bodies relate to off-the-rack clothing can become a bit of a stumbling block. Although I would never encourage anyone to purposely avoid learning about fit and figure, I would encourage everyone to practice a little fit forgiveness. If an outfit looks great overall and feels amazing to wear, you’ve already hit the two most important goals of stylish dressing.
Image courtesy Chris Cofer.