Reader Monica e-mailed me this question:
You’ve mentioned before that you’re lucky enough to generally be able to wear most clothes off the rack in a standard size. I have my share of fit challenges, being that I’m tall with long arms and legs. My shoulders are proportionally wide compared to my torso, I’m short waisted… you get the idea. Off the rack, very very few clothes fit me just perfectly. Because of this, I’m constantly trying to determine what constitutes “good enough.” Are these pants long enough? Do I love this jacket enough to cope with the sleeves being slightly too short? Is this shirt nice enough that it’s worth altering? Is it better to buy this tee shirt in a smaller size that’s not quite wide enough for my shoulders, or the bigger size that’s too baggy on my torso? I’d be very interested on your take about these questions if you have any thoughts. I am still working on developing my judgement about these issues, and it seems to be a frequent source of confusion for me.
As I told Monica, this is incredibly personal. Each person will have her own criteria for determining which items are worth compromise, and which should be left on the racks. But here are some suggestions that might help, especially if you face lots of fit issues and can seldom wear anything without first getting it tailored.
Make a use rule
Lots of style experts say that you shouldn’t buy something unless you can envision it incorporated into three outfits that utilize items from your closet at home. Three may seem like too few or too many, but landing on a personal use rule is a great practice for any shopper. If you’re looking at an imperfect item that will likely need altering, you want to make sure it will actually get worn. So start trying to envision each potential purchase in three, four, seven, or however many outfits you’d prefer to make it feel like a sound purchase.
Teach yourself a bit about tailoring
If you’ve dealt with lots of fit issues for ages, you may already know these things … but having a general understanding of which alterations are more expensive and complex can help you gauge which garments are worth buying. Anything lined will cost nearly twice as much to tailor, anything that requires taking a garment apart (taking in at the shoulders for example) will be costly, and alterations that require removal and replacement (making changes then replacing original hems or cuffs for example) will be expensive. This does NOT mean you should avoid these alterations! It just means you need to determine if that extra cost is something you want to sink into this specific item.
Know your favorite work-arounds
Short sleeves can be cuffed or scrunched. Tight shirts can be underlayers and baggy ones can be worn with slim-fitting bottoms. When you’re looking at an item and can clearly see where it WON’T fit you, think about how you’d have to dress around that fit issue. Do you want to bother?
Identify your fit hang-ups
Do misaligned shoulder seams drive you batty? Short sleeves make you feel like you’ve outgrown your clothes? Items that don’t fit in the bodice cause you to feel unstylish or less than pulled-together? If all of them irritate you, that could be problematic but most folks have fit issues that chafe and others that can slide. In my case, I’m more likely to be a stickler for shoulder fit and waive sleeve fit. One just bugs me more than the other, which is likely because I know an easy work-around for sleeves and can’t think of a one for shoulder fit.
If you’re in a situation in which many of your garments need altering, buying cheap stuff that’s been badly made won’t serve you. OK, buying cheap stuff that’s been badly made won’t serve ANYONE. But having to sink money into tailoring fast fashion items will feel futile because those items won’t last. You don’t have to buy designer and you don’t have to buy quality for everything, but for durable staples like blazers, dress pants, work-appropriate dresses, and skirts, aim high. (In quality, not price. Those things can be thrifted and tailored, too – just make sure they’re built to last. This post on shopping for quality and longevity will help.)
Image courtesy Christian Guthier