encore: what’s flattering got to do with it?

In my next life, I will have her hair...and those shoes.

In my next life, I will have her hair…and those shoes. Image source.

The topic of “flattering” clothing has been making the rounds again, most recently at 40+ Style and Suzanne Carillo Style Files. I thought it might be fun to dust off another favorite from the archives to continue the discussion. This was originally posted in April 2013.

Flattering. It’s a word we toss around quite a bit. The cut of the jacket is flattering. That color is flattering. Hem length X or Y is most flattering. In general usage, “flattering” could, without stretching too hard, be translated to mean “that which makes the wearer appear closer to the cultural ideal.” In our particular time and culture, this often breaks down to: tall, thin, young, pretty. (Just an observation, not an endorsement!)

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look our “best,” when we serve “flattering” above all else, it can squelch our expressive style. Think of many of the women who are considered style icons; at one time or another they broke the rules of what’s considered flattering in order to honor their personal style.

I think that the reason some women can look great in clothing that’s not conventionally flattering isn’t because they’re a size 0 or were born with some recessive Style Gene. I think it’s because they choose items that are an organic expression of themselves. When we dress in a way that’s aligned and integrated with who we are, we create a kind of harmony that comes through even if we’re not following the rules of flattery. Looking at the photo above, would you call this outfit “flattering”? The proportions shorten and widen, yet there’s a gorgeous mix of color and texture, and unexpected shape. I find it pleasing to look at, even though it doesn’t conform to accepted notions of what’s flattering. (We’ll leave aside the practicality consideration for now, as that’s a whole ‘nother discussion!) Some could argue that you see the clothing rather than the woman, and yes there is some of that. But if style is expression, we’re seeing a version of her as she’s chosen to express through her clothes.

We should also consider how a particular style or color or piece of clothing makes us feel when we wear it. While black is probably objectively not my “best” color, I love how I feel in it. I love how I feel in clothing that moves, even though it may sometimes have more volume than is considered optimal for my short stature. I love how I feel in boots, even if they can shorten the look of my legs. Confidence and joy are flattering too in a way that transcends pure physical appearance.

For some of us, personal style does align with what’s most conventionally flattering, or we prioritize flattery in our style choice hierarchy. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if the notion that “it’s not flattering” is keeping you from wearing something you love, perhaps it’s good to let “flattering” take a back seat from time to time. Or perhaps we broaden our definition of “flattering” to include harmonious, aligned, balanced, powerful, a true expression of who we are.

How do you define “flattering?” Are your style choices based primarily on what’s conventionally flattering? Do you ever let go of that, and if so, what motivates you to do so?

Stay in touch.

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40 Comments

  1. August 29, 2014 / 3:55 am

    Confidence is the most flattering! And I will have to fight you next life for this model’s perfect hair : >

  2. gk
    August 29, 2014 / 4:15 am

    There isn’t a universal “flattering” because there is not an agreed upon universal standard of the idea female body. Different cultures like different thing (though the variety seems to be diminishing).
    It’s something to keep in mind when we are defining flattering for our selves.
    Large bums, small busts, large busts, petite, tall, plump, thin…it all is considered beautiful somewhere.

  3. August 29, 2014 / 4:34 am

    A great article! I love how you express what I feel as well in this sentence: “When we dress in a way that’s aligned and integrated with who we are, we create a kind of harmony that comes through even if we’re not following the rules of flattery.” Thank you so much for linking to my article as well!

  4. August 29, 2014 / 4:38 am

    The woman in the picture is Jasmin Sewell a high end fashion consultant. I would be willing to bet that those pieces are expensive which does help as the fabrics will be good quality. It is her job to promote the latest fashions. I am not sure I can imagine going to the supermarket in that outfit. Having said that I do think we can challenge ourselves and try something different. I remember when I went to a personal shopper when I was working in the corporate market. She introduced me to styles that I might not have tried but which I came to love.

  5. August 29, 2014 / 4:42 am

    Sorry got spelling wrong it is Yasmin Sewell

  6. August 29, 2014 / 6:15 am

    “Flattering” always seems to imply some deficiency which must be compensated for or disguised. When we are accepting of ourselves, we are free to make clothing choices that make us feel good. This woman is beautiful and the blue/ green are lovely with her dark hair.

  7. Judy McLane
    August 29, 2014 / 6:19 am

    Love this. I agree with you 100% I, too, love black, although I’m sure it’s not the most “flattering” color for me at this point in my life. But when I wear something in black that I consider chic, current, a little edgy – I feel most like myself. One more comment about conforming to standards of what is or isn’t “flattering.” At this point in our lives (I just turned 60), shouldn’t we be the best judge of that for ourselves? Isn’t this the time when we need to embrace fully self-expression in ways that bring us the most joy? Since I turned 60, my mantra is “if not now, when.” So I ask us all, if not now, when?

    • Linda
      August 29, 2014 / 10:51 am

      I would have said exactly what you already have, Judy. This is just how I feel.

  8. Kris
    August 29, 2014 / 6:22 am

    Defining flattering is often illusive for me. It is a feeling that I get with an article of clothing that something is not quite right and I am uncomfortable. Finding items out of my comfort zone takes patience and, sometimes, a professional’s help. In choosing something that is different from my usual selections, I still rely on the mirror and my innate feeling that something is wrong- even if I can’t quite identify why.

  9. August 29, 2014 / 6:51 am

    Loved this the first time ’round and love it all over again this one. Interestingly, I made an offhand reference to the comment in my last post (saying that while I knew my choice of shoe for an outfit to be elongating, I reserved the right to look stumpy and wear another favourite pair in a different iteration) — as you suggest, the notion must be in the zeitgeist.
    “Flattering” too often, I think, relies on an underlying absorption of the ideal, a taller, slimmer ideal than I will ever be. Often in working towards it, I’m uncomfortably conscious that I’m affirming that ideal, even as I squelch so much of myself to strive for it.

  10. lasallepal
    August 29, 2014 / 6:54 am

    Moi?? I love the E.F. harem and style it to suit my shape (petite and slim-ish). Some people have strong opinions on these pieces and are not afraid to express them. Most fall under the topic of “unflattering”. Now that was an interesting conversation.

  11. August 29, 2014 / 7:22 am

    I find flattering is mostly about how you feel as well as look. As a teen, I was tall and thin. According to my mother, who always fought her weight, I could “wear anything” even if it was cheaply made. She and I loved to shop at Judy’s, the fabulous SoCal chain for teens-young women. How I loved that store! I also sewed and made a great many clothes. Funny thing is, I haven’t touched a sewing machine in years now.

    Clothes, shoes, bags and accessories were my passion through my mid-thirties. I could afford to indulge and I had a high profile job in broadcast sales to justify the expense. After my children were born, however, my priorities shifted. Upon reflection, I think I transferred my discretionary spending to their needs. I also changed towards my body. it isn’t that I gained alot of weight or couldn’t get my figure back. I did. But I changed. Tennis and bike riding kept me a size 6 until my late 40s when I was diagnosed with degenerative osteoarthritis and had the first of four joint replacements over 13 years. Joint pain, loss of range of motion, recuperation from 4 operations in 13 years resulted in a slow but steady weight gain of 30 lbs. I could no longer play tennis, I drank excessively, I stopped watching my diet and I started hating myself. Combine this with an 11 year perimenopause and loss of looks, I really started to hate myself.

    I am now 62 years old. I am losing weight for the first time in years, I’ve cut way back on drinking (I know I have to stop), i’m juicing daily to get the proper quantity of fruit and vegetables in my diet. My exercise routine is ramping up and I’m taking an antidepressant that works. I am starting to like myself in clothes again. I think about style again and accessories and all the rest.

    I will never again be the willowy 117lb twenty something I once was. I have to accept and embrace who I now am. It ain’t easy but I’m not giving up.

    Thanks for your ongoing introspective posts and style tips and commentary.

    From one Cali girl to another.

    • Judy McLane
      August 29, 2014 / 7:38 am

      Another Cali girl here . . . and I admire your resolve and determination. Hang in there. The best part of all this is discovering who you are NOW — that wonderful, experienced, and savvy woman.

      • September 3, 2014 / 10:35 am

        Thank you very much. I appreciate your kind comment.

    • Amy
      August 29, 2014 / 10:03 am

      Thanks for sharing your inspiring story. I know what it’s like to go through long recuperations–and it’s not for the faint of heart. It is hard to accept how my body has aged over the years. I appreciate your talking about this issue in such a straightforward way.

      • September 3, 2014 / 10:37 am

        Oh, thank you. I have spent so many years wondering why I obsess over these things and I guess it’s just learning acceptance. Acceptance is so much easier than self-criticism but one has to practice daily.

  12. August 29, 2014 / 7:25 am

    I remember seeing this shot in Vogue…and loving it…and not being sure why. The mix of colour and texture, I guess. The stiff fabric of the skirt with those stumpy shoes …just…well, goes together. I’d never have to guts to wear that combo, though.
    Jettison “is this flattering on me” and stick with “would I wear this in Paris?”

  13. suzannecarillo
    August 29, 2014 / 8:25 am

    This is such an interesting discussion and one I struggle with personally. It is rare that I choose an item of clothing that doesn’t flatter my body in some way. I find that when I have bought a piece that makes my body look larger than it is or my legs look shorter than they are I lose some of my self confidence. I feel like I’m not putting the best version of myself forward, even if it might be an artistic expression.

    I’ve also always felt that women that are more likely to wear pieces that add volume or aren’t flattering are much more likely to be thin in the first place.

    Thanks for linking to my article.

    When I was with Sylvia in Amsterdam we had this discussion often.

    Personal style is a fluid and unique as our bodies. It is great reading other people’s opinions on this.

    I’m glad you republished this. Your writing is wonderful here.

    bisous
    Suzanne

    • September 1, 2014 / 7:11 am

      I’m with you in this topic, Suzanne. Conventional? No. Sexy? Sometimes. Expressing your personality on the outside? Yes, please. Deliberately chosing for something that does not flatter me in order to make a statement? Why? I think the definition of ‘flattering’ is key here, by the way.

  14. nell
    August 29, 2014 / 11:28 am

    Good for you, California Girl! You inspire.

    Disagreeing with most people here, I tend to think that our coloring, level of contrast, and general outlines are best fulfilled when we choose congruent colors and lines. I’ve been influenced by David Zyla in this and some of the color “gurus”. It just makes the most sense to me, I suppose.

    The model looks stunning BECA– USE she has chosen colors that suit her, and the slightly exotic shapes and texture combos fit entirely with how she presents– with the high contrast coloring, make-up and lovely wavy retro hair.

    I have very recessive coloring, transparent ultra fair skin, soft, muddy grey eyes, etc. My version of her look would be a bit more “watery” as to color, and the texture of the top would be much smoother and thinner. Then it would be at one with the “aura” (ha) that my coloring and shape inevitably project…

    I guess Zyla and the other color people believe that as much as we may want to present something other than what our coloring and lines present, there is a certain “truth” about them that must be honored. Within reason, of course– who doesn’t want to break free sartorially every once in awhile?

    Those shoes are wonderful.

  15. August 29, 2014 / 12:41 pm

    Do I think the clothing in the photo is “flattering?” No, not even on that beautiful woman. Would I wear it? No, because it would not make me feel beautiful or confident. Does it matter what I think? No, because if the woman in the photo feels beautiful and confident in that clothing, then it most definitely is flattering to her, and that is what matters.

  16. August 29, 2014 / 1:04 pm

    I so often dress in an “unflattering” way (pants “wrong” length, patterns & colors that “don’t match, haircut not “for my age”…). Yet I DO feel comfortable with my style and so it does become “flattering” after all. I like the way you described this concept. And I love that photo above!

  17. pink azalea
    August 29, 2014 / 4:42 pm

    Today I tried on the JCrew Regent jacket and thought, “flattering, love it.” Last week I tried on a Hugo Boss jacket and a Theory jacket. Uh no, not flattering. I would rather have what looks flattering to my eye than something that doesn’t. But I also believe that the personality of the wearer is sometimes what makes an outfit “work” that might not if judged only with a critical eye. I notice how others dress, but I try not to spend too much time critiquing.

    • une femme
      August 29, 2014 / 5:15 pm

      pink azalea, exactly. I’m not saying to ignore altogether what is flattering. (And isn’t that Regent jacket an absolute gem??) My contention is that there are many levels of what makes something flattering or not, and it’s OK to wear something that might not be considered flattering if you love it. I think it’s a continuum, and we all have to figure out where our style resides between the extreme ends.

  18. August 29, 2014 / 7:25 pm

    I love your 4th paragraph and the way you describe our organic style. I’m very pear shaped so I am pretty focused on balancing out my shape and feel there are definite things I won’t wear.

  19. August 30, 2014 / 12:39 am

    For me flattering is a harmonious expression with your personality. For some this means following “the rules” and working with body shape. For others flattering is about breaking the rules to express a more creative, rebellious or dramatic personality.

  20. August 30, 2014 / 2:04 am

    I’ve started trying clothes on with my eyes closed to first get the “feel” of them after I’ve decided that the garment’s shape and or color appeals to me on the hanger. Do I like the texture? How do they feel on my body? Any uncomfortable pulling or tightness? Does something feel too loose? Can I bend over without causing a major fashion catastrophe. If whatever I’m trying on feels good, then I open my eyes. Surprise! If the clothes feel good they usually look good too.

  21. Duchesse
    August 30, 2014 / 7:11 am

    “Flattering” is the deliberate choice of a piece (or colour) that makes the most of your good features, and, as others have pointed out, depends on your acculturation, which includes the times. (Just check photos of yourself twenty or thirty years ago and that’s evident. There was a purple crochet shawl I thought I looked fabulous in and I now think I looked like a deranged eggplant.)

    Some persons eschew “flattering” for “expressive” or other qualities (being trendy, showing status, looking sexy, or modest, or powerful), but everyone is vain about some physical feature, even if he or she hides it, and most of us try to display those aspects of which we are fond to best advantage.

    • une femme
      August 30, 2014 / 9:21 am

      Duchesse, what was it about purple and the 80’s? That color along with teal are always inextricably tied in my mind’s eye to that decade.

      • Duchesse
        September 2, 2014 / 6:55 am

        Uh, maybe because we inhaled 😉

  22. August 30, 2014 / 3:26 pm

    Imogen’s response resonates with me quite a bit. I have pretty much decided not to try to define what is flattering, because what flatters one may not flatter another:). It is all so subjective and personal. I wear harem leggings. Are they conventionally flattering? Not really. Do I have the body and height of a model? No. Do I love them? Yes. So I wear them. My husband doesn’t understand them and my sister good naturedly calls them my diaper pants;). For me it is simply about when I look in the mirror, do I like what I see? It distresses me when women think that conventionally flattering is the only road. I love seeing woman working out for themselves, what they like and what works for them and feeling to express who they are in the process.

  23. August 30, 2014 / 3:33 pm

    Flattering means a compliment to one’s own self. An outfit that accentuates your self defined qualities. Now this can certainly vary from person to person, but confidence is also in the mix. What I may believe flatters me someone else may not think so. However, what another thinks may be totally irrelevant, since I must feel good about what ever I am wearing. Flattery depends on whether you are dressing for your self or for another. I believe we feel and look most flattering when we dress for our own satisfaction and level of confidence.

    • Duchesse
      September 2, 2014 / 7:00 am

      I agree with your graceful definition “a compliment to one’s own self” and also think a skilled observer can see our bodies in a way we can’t, or don’t. I’m thinking of skilled salespeople who have pulled things from a rack I had not thought would look good on me, but they have. Also, I see so many women in clothes that obscure their good features, I wonder where they were looking when they looked in the mirror. Dressing for our own satisfaction may result in a flattering choice or not, depending on the attunement of the person getting dressed.

      • Cynthia
        September 2, 2014 / 11:26 am

        Hmm….interesting. I have yet to have a salesperson suggest an item that I actually chose over my own selection. I am extremely particular about what I wear. In the past I have attemptef to be flexible and go with the suggestions of salespeople yet they have never pinpointed my style or what I’m comfortable with. My body is deceiving and to the untrained eye my proportions are not what they appear to be. Yet I mastered a long time ago what is best reflected on my body frame, only one person gets it right and that is my husband. Even my mom cannot select clothing for me. I am the best at determining what looks most flattering for me. However understandably that May not be the case for everyone.

  24. April 29, 2016 / 5:22 am

    Well, all I can say is I wear what looks good on my body type. At my age, 66, I know by now what looks good and what does not. I do like a lot of looks (I love peasant shirts) but they look horrible on me. Once in awhile, I will relent and buy one and then it sits in my closet! Or I donate it.

    • Kristien
      April 29, 2016 / 5:42 am

      I have the same problem with color. I look best in warm or neutral colors. But every once in a while, a color like raspberry catches my eye and I purchase a garment. It doesn’t get worn half as often as the colors which actually flatter my skin tone.

  25. Marybeth
    August 24, 2018 / 9:03 am

    This is so good! I love when you explore fashion in some way… it’s good food for thought & makes me think about what I do… thank you!

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