Wednesday miscellany: dressing for your body shape & more

A few of you have recently asked about dressing for your body shape and which styles might work best for your particular physique. It’s a topic I haven’t addressed much, but I thought I’d dive in with some thoughts.

Apples & hourglasses & pears, oh my!

For most of my adult life, I’ve had a rather fraught relationship with style. I’ve always found it challenging finding clothing that fits me (I’m 5’1″, full-busted, broad-shouldered). And when I did, I often couldn’t figure out why it looked so much better on my friends than on me. So I pored over any women’s magazine article or style book I could find that promised to help me optimally dress for my body shape.

Except that…I often found the guidelines overly simplistic and contradictory. If you’re petite, wear X! But if you’re full-busted or curvy, wear Y (often the opposite of X)! If you have no defined waistline, create one with a belt! Or wait, if you have no defined waist, wear tunics and never tuck anything in!

About the only silhouette that seemed to be consistent across all of the recommendations for all of my body shapes (plural) was a v-neck fit-and-flare dress. If my only goal in getting dressed was to “flatter my figure,” then problem solved. But I’ve almost never felt like myself in a dress. And style can be about SO much more than trying to look like the cultural ideal.

Susan B. wears a cream corduroy jacket, red striped tee, off-white jeans, metallic Birkenstocks, carries a straw tote.
Prioritizing what makes me feel authentic, comfortable & confident.
JACKET | NECKLACE | TEE | JEANS | TOTE | SANDALS

Many of us don’t land cleanly in one particular body shape definition, whether it’s fruit-, geometric- or musical-instrument-based. And even two people who are clearly “pear shaped” may have completely different proportions and contours. (Which is why I’m reluctant to offer specific recommendations based on body shape alone.)

A more nuanced and individualized approach

During my own Style Analysis, and later when I was trained by Red Leopard, I learned some new ways to assess and apply body shape information to create a more comprehensive and individualized style profile. If you’ve had trouble identifying your body shape, or found the usual categories don’t seem to help, here are a few tips and processes we use as part of a Style Analysis.

Analyzing your body shape & contours

  • To get an overall sense of your body shape, have a friend snap a photo *from the back* ideally in your underwear or something fitted. Forget apples and pears, and look at your overall architecture. Is it mostly angular or rounded or some of both? (If more angular, then more structured clothing styles will generally look more harmonious. If more rounded, then softer styles may work better for you.)
  • Are your shoulders broader than your hips or visa versa? Does your torso angle in toward your waist, or is it a vertical line? Are hips rounded or relatively straight? It can help to draw an imaginary line at your waist, and look at what shapes you would draw above and below the waist. Look for clothing styles with (relatively) the same shapes as your body. (For example, I’m relatively straight on my top half & curved on my bottom half. If I’m going to wear something curved, it will be on the bottom half.)
  • Get a measuring tape and have a friend help you measure vertical lengths a) from the top of the head to the armpit, b) from armpit to natural waist, c) from natural waist to your leg break (the crease where the top of the leg and body meet), d) from leg break to knee break, and e) from knee to floor. What this will tell you is your proportions…where you are longer or shorter. You can use clothing to help balance proportions…for example a full-length high waisted trouser to balance a long torso and short legs.
  • Look at your face and jaw shape and neck length to determine your best necklines. If your face & jaw are more rounded, then rounded necklines will look more harmonious than a sharp V-neck. With a pointed chin or more angular features, go for a pointed collars and v-necks.

But these are just starting points in creating your own unique Style Personality Profile. Your preferences, personality, skin and hair texture will all come into play.

What if…

we were to change how we think about what’s “flattering?” We’ve had it drilled into us for decades that the goal of style is to look thinner, taller, younger, prettier. But that’s not a requirement; we can prioritize what makes us feel confident and like our most authentic selves. I’m not saying to ignore your body shape, but don’t let it keep you from wearing something you love and feel amazing in.

Like so many other style guidelines, I apply my “tools, not rules” mantra to dressing for your body shape. Use what you find helpful, & ignore what you don’t.

Have you struggled with trying to determine your body shape? Have you found certain silhouettes that consistently work for you?

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23 Comments

  1. thank you for your article about dressing for your shape. I need a lot of help there. but I have also found, that once I pick an outfit I think we’ll look good, I need to try it on and see how it looks and how it feels. then if I’m lucky enough to have someone to give me a comment, I will think about their opinion too. next thing is, just wear it. you’d be surprised how many times you will receive a comment for something you are basically unsure about wearing.

  2. Excellent information about body shape. Several times I’ve put together an outfit in my head to discover when I go to wear it it’s a disappointment because something about the clothes don’t work together. I’ll try the photo from behind. Great information. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  3. This is a great post and thankfully I have friends that would help me (or my husband) to measure and snap photos. I am an hourglass shape – my hips and shoulders are about the same width and my waist is 11″ smaller. I am a very “low key” dresser ☺️ I wear jeans, skirts with t-shirts or sweatshirts and sometimes dresses (that fit and flare). I recently purged my closet quite a bit, the less I have the easier it is for me to get dressed. I am on the search for some great summer linen trousers. I’ve placed an order with EILEEN FISHER and hopefully they work for my shape and it’s not too overwhelming for my body.

  4. Yes I have struggled determining my body shape.

    Being short at 5ft 2, a bust of 34GG, short arms and waistline. I am the equivalent of a US 12. I have large hips and a smaller waist. So I believe I am probably an hourglass or as my husband says jokingly, a two hourglass.

    This is what I figured, so far.

    Bootlegs, or slim flare jeans are my friend, whether they are in or out of the current fashion. As long as they are in a dark colour. Skinny jeans are the devils work to me.

    V-neck, scoop neck, square neck tops look best, but not as easily available as round necks. Although I’m a sucker for a round neck cashmere jumper, which I try to balance with either a scarf or long necklace.

    I love a dress, one and done. A tea dress looks good, as does a wrap dress and I’m currently awaiting the new stock arrival from Bombshell, to buy a new dress for a special occasion this year.

    Would it be my bust measurement or my shoulder width that would differentiate me between a pear shape and a hourglass shape?

  5. This is so powerful. My appointment with Red Leopard was transformational when my body shape was identified (by the measurements you described) as angular rather than pear-shaped. It made so much sense! Everything fell into place as my lifestyle and personality were integrated into my style. I’m so glad you’re bringing this to the US and know you’re going to bring a breath of fresh air into the conversation.

  6. Susan,

    This is the most comprehensive and easy to understand explanation of body shape I’ve seen anywhere. Many thanks.

    On a “personal” note, I am sorry to hear your husband is experiencing health issues. I wish for you both, a manageable path forward as you work your way through this new reality.

    Sandy J

  7. Susan this is incredibly helpful! Interestingly, your suggestions for measuring are what artists use when drawing figures—height usually being increased in the legs ( most people are around 8 heads in length but models are 9 or more!). I’m wondering if it would be possible to do a style analysis via zoom and photos etc?

  8. The thing that always seems to “get me” is that the outfit looks good in my head and is fine when I put it on. But then I see a photo of me in the outfit and am so disappointed by how wide and dumpy I look. My solution? Avoid photos! But that isn’t so great either as I end up being invisible in memories/photos collages. Such a weird body dysmorphism effect–what’s the “real” me? The one in the mirror or the one in the photo? Hard to say…

    1. Spacegeek, I’m with you on this. Last year, trying on what seemed like an unending stream of unflattering MOB dresses, I was taking photos of myself to send to my daughter for approval. I realized I saw myself more clearly in the photos than in the mirror. I use that lesson frequently now — plus, also being sure to use a handheld mirror to look at the back and side views of myself in every outfit. Eye opening!

  9. My sisters-in-law all love Chico’s. When I buy something there, I feel like I’m wearing 2D clothes on a 3D body, never are the clothes comfortable. I used to LOVE JJill so much and something happened. To them or to me?
    My shape changed after menopause. I lost the waist and this fat pad jumped onto my lower abdomen. Well, I should go see The Red Leopard now.

  10. It is indeed very complicated and individual. For example, a pear body shape often becomes an apple-pear with aging and weight gain: the “nashi” body shape! Some clothing features, like the empire waist, suit more than one body shape. It is possible for a person to have a square jaw but look terrible in v-necks, because they wear short hair, have a long neck and a long torso.

    You’ve explained why I need full-length pants.

  11. Body proportions are important to what looks good on you. I have a longer torso and very short legs–I favor the long over lean look because it emphasizes the longer part of me. I have moved away from Susan’s preferred look (waist length or hip length tops and jeans) for that reason. However, I think that look suits Susan’s proportions just right.

  12. I’m a seamstress and art major, we are taught to see the body, or take measurements and alter to fit a body. My teachers said we needed to learn the basics ( line proportions, etc) before we could be “ creative “.
    Our culture may want to wear certain items, but that doesn’t preclude knowing what flatters a body shape, it’s information, to be used if wanted.
    Interesting topic.

  13. Criteria for choosing clothes: I still look for clothes that flatter my body shape. I also choose clothes that will be comfortable and easy to move in. I want clothes to reflect my personality. I’m limited by cost. I want to look ‘off the time’ (contemporary) but also timeless. Now I’m looking for clothes that are in my ‘palette’. As I learn more about my body shape, shape of my face, hair and personality I’m realizing that I have to be much more discerning in my choices.

  14. Susan, I was so sad to hear of Le Monsieur’s health issues. I was a caregiver for my husband for all of 2022 and he passed on New Year’s Eve. Caregiving is a really hard road and I wish you both an easy time and much peace.

  15. My own description of my body shape is “upside down pear” which is not one of the basic body types that is usually mentioned.:narrow shoulders,full bust,not much of a waist line, narrow hips and very slim legs. I am 5’2″, with a short torso and longer legs, and over the last two years, I have lost 60 pounds so this summer I am buying an entirely new wardrobe in a size I am not familiar with (which makes online shopping pretty much a waste of time) in stores that I have not shopped in before. Its not as exciting as some might think as I used to wear my clothes for a long time, adding only a few new things each seasson and the quantity of what I need makes cost a larger factor as well. I am finding that with many of the chain stores, all of their clothes tend to be geared to a specific body type, so sorting that out has been helpful (most things at Chicos fit me, nothing at Talbots does, etc.).

  16. Can you please indicate what brand the jacket you are wearing in the latest email, the light salmon colored jacket? It was not referenced in the body of your email. Thanks!

  17. I feel like this topic – dressing for your body- is one that’s tricky to recoincile with the body positive movement. If you term something flattering a value judgement is being made, and values are laden with judgemental tones. Good for you to even go there !!

    I think another way to think about this question is to consider fit. Most of us don’t have bespoke wardrobes so we’re at the mercy of manufactures. We’re willing to do a little tailoring, but not the pay to have something completely reworked.

    I’m of the opinion that if you are happy with how your clothing fits, and that contains some judgements about how styling that I can’t avoid, it’s flattering.

  18. Really like your post today. I’ve always been petite at 5’1 and right now I weigh anywhere from 98 to 102 lbs. All my life I’ve struggled to find petite clothing. plus sizes are everywhere but petites seem to be going away. I really love everything you wear, especially the stripes, love that.

  19. Hi Susan,

    I really love your blog and it is changing how I look at color. I have a copule questions for you –do you tend to shop for outfits, or do you shop for pieces? Also, what details do you like, that tend to work for you? I have always leaned towards the more boring practical pieces, and felt that too many details look cheap or gaudy — but, according to the 7 points of interest (was it 7? I think more articles on that topic would be great) pieces should have some detail.

    I almost bought an inexpensive pair of metallic sandals today but will sleep on the idea — cheap footwear can be a mistake. But they were certainly fun looking! I might go back for them. This is a “piece” I have no idea what I would wear them with — but something…

    1. Hi Karen, thanks so much! I tend to shop for pieces rather than outfits, as I look for items that can be easily combined to create different outfits. You have some interesting questions that I’ll answer in a future blog post.