Is Biology (Style) Destiny?

Jil Sander Fall 2013, minimalist fashion
Jil Sander’s architectural minimalism. Via

Volumes have been written by experts on how to dress for our individual body type. We curvy or busty women are often advised to embrace our curves, and dress in a very feminine way that enhances them. Periodically over the years I’ve tried following that advice, and often received compliments when I wore more fitted, hourglass silhouettes. But I didn’t feel like myself in va-voom or girly clothes. Yes, certain styles are better designed for some bodies than others, but what if our bodies and style personalities seem to be in conflict?

It’s taken me a while to reconcile a short and womanly shape with my attraction to a more minimalist, architectural and sometimes androgynous style in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m in a constant battle with my physical self. Finding the balance between dressing for our shape (or coloring) and dressing to express our personalities and aesthetics is challenging for many of us.

For some (lucky) women, this comes easily. Their personal style works almost seamlessly with their body type, OR they’ve prioritized figure flattery as the most important aspect of their style, OR they’ve scoffed at those guidelines most of their lives and just worn what pleases them. Any of these are valid choices.

For most of us, there’s a continuum with what works (i.e. is most conventionally flattering) for our bodies on one end, and the styles that best express our sense of self on the other. Finding the place where our inner and outer selves feel aligned is the the goal and the further the distance between those ends of the continuum, the more compromise is required. Hitting that sweet spot takes some considerable trial and error, and sometimes knowing when to sigh and move on.

simple basics like this v-neck sweater and black jeans, can be the basis for different looks with a change of accessories.

So what does work? My own version of the minimalist look has evolved with pieces that I call “softly structured,” knits mostly with some inherent shaping, but without a lot of extra volume or distracting details. Open or v-necks help keep my bust from dominating the scene. A long-over-lean silhouette balances my proportions, skims the curves and provides a clean foundation on which I can build and express style personality with accessories. If I’m going for a more polished, classic look it might be pearls and pumps. For something more edgy, boots and a moto jacket. I can get architectural with bold jewelry, or add scarves to soften.

If you’ve been struggling to find a style that works with both your aesthetic and physical form, or if you find that you vacillate between style personalities, having a wardrobe of basic, simple pieces and using accessories to direct and focus the look is a strategy that works well for those of us who don’t have unlimited funds or space, or a professional stylist on speed dial.

I’ve also learned to adjust my thinking, and have come to understand that the same item will look different on different body sizes and shapes. Different doesn’t mean wrong. The same sweater that looks good on a 5’11” model may also look good on me, but it will fit differently. I’m learning to evaluate each piece I try by how it looks on my own body, rather than by comparison to how it looks in the magazine or ad.

How do your own style preferences work with your body type? What are the strategies you’ve found that successfully reconcile the two? Or do you seem to be most attracted to styles and silhouettes that are also flattering to your shape?


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  1. What a fabulous article. This is a question that I myself have not yet been able to find the words to articulate the concept of, but how simply you put it. Of course. I wonder if any of us actually look the way we like or if our very best attempt (even given the skills and services of a ‘personal stylist’, of which I happen to be one) comes close to giving us the satisfaction of looking at a photograph of ourselves from an event and think “yes, don’t I look great in that” or “wow, I look EXACTLY how I feel” I think the answer is No. Very few. And those who do are able to do so through a serious development in acceptance and commitment therapy to them selves. In other words, they’ve realised that ” I’m probably never going to look the way I want to really look and present to the world, but hey, this is what I have to work with and I’m damn well gonna like it and be grateful for it” or something along those lines. Which is kind of where I find myself at. I am never going to be willowy. I will always have short legs, a large chest and ribcage no matter how much weight I lose. And really, who cares? It is a mindset I can learn to live without. I am me. I want to look fresh, comfortable in my own skin, interesting and well put together. As long as my reflection says those things, I can settle for a compromise. At least, that’s what I’m working on. And really, do those women who have the figure for which I envy after have a better life than me anyway? Are they happier, more settled, saner and experience more love in their lives than short waisted-barrel-chested me? I doubt it. And that’s something I try to remind myself of in this Journey. It’s not all about looks. Just 99% (joking). Thanks for the thought provoking insights.
    C’est La Vie xxxxx

  2. I can usually find a way to style a look I’m interested in wearing. I’m 5″5 so short dresses on models are knee length for me which is a good thing. Anything long or oversized looks like a dress on me, so I look for cropped jackets and fitted coats. Blogging has helped to see what works because it’s there in the picture.

    blue hue wonderland

  3. I’m with you and often struggle with this myself! I don’t like being told what I “should” wear for my body type. Do I have to give up hope of wearing wide leg jeans (a favorite 70s look) because I have muscular legs? Do I HAVE to accentuate my waist every time just because I have full hips? You’re right about there being a balance! For me, I’m finding more and more that I am valuing how I FEEL in my clothes over how I LOOK in them. If I feel great, it’ll translate. But if it looks great but I can’t own it, it’ll never work! At the end of the day, my biggest sartorial fear is that I’ll look like I came out of a catalog. I like classic style with an unexpected twist! This was such a great read!! Serene

  4. An excellent post and topic! It really shows how much you enjoy your looks. Before kids, I craved a curvy womanly figure when I was pretty much straight up and down (or so I thought!) – fitted and bodycon clothes helped to make me look curvier than I was but it certainly was not my personality! So I wandered in the wilderness of inbetween types of clothing, neither loose and architectural nor fitted and tailored. It’s only in the last few years that I realised I was never that flat figured in the first place and discovered the sort of styles to suit my curvier (thanks kids!) shape and aesthetic that’s evolved over time. Key themes for me are soft structure/tailoring, good quality knits and colour in my clothes and architectural accessories.

  5. Excellent post. As a petite curvy, I tend to favour “girly”. You have steered “influenced” me to try Eileen Fisher which still feels a bit foreign to me. I have too much print right now and too many V-necks for “elongating”.

  6. Great article. Too early in the morning for me to put into words what the above commenters have done so eloquently. It sounds like we are the same shape and size and rather than doing a Jennifer Tilley I prefer short skirts with tights and tunics. Took me a long time to figure out how to minimize my large bust (I always need a vertical line or some sort of distraction). It also took me a long time to figure out I’d gained weight and it wasn’t leaving. I kind of have a magic slimming mirror in my bathroom so I’m always startled when I see myself in a shop window. I like some femininity and lots of colour so I find the above pictures just kind of icky.At 51 I feel young and dress young. My favourite flattering store is Boden.

  7. I think you have done a beautiful job of finding the photos lately have been stunning. My battle is different, because my body type is constantly going up and down and up and down. But, I really believe I am on a path now with weight training to have it where I want it in the next year. Then I think I will have my “style” where I have desired it to be for a long time. Which is a more neutral, minimal style. Until then, the trendy, youthful, affordable options at Lane Bryant have helped me to get through a time when my body is larger. If I dress the body I have and am content with how I am in the mirror just today, then I am more confident and joyful. There is also a fine balance we have to achieve between a healthy approach to accepting ourselves every day and a desire to look and feel better. This has been my battle for the last three years. Good post!!

  8. Everything about my natural physical appearance is thisclose to being cartoonish so most of my sartorial energy is spent insuring I don’t accidentally stumble into caricature territory.

    I have a physically “loud” presence, all overblown curves, high-contrast coloring and dramatic features. It’s particularly noticeable here in Mexico where I’m often twice as wide and an entire foot taller than the rest of the women (and some of the men) around me.

    Luckily my preferred mode of dress is also the one that suits me the best: classic high glamor but low fuss, usually taking the form of solid, gently draping dresses with nipped-in waists, 3/4 sleeves and deep, open necklines with no additional ruffles or gewgaws to make me look overripe. Think the structure of post-war Dior with the fluidity of 54-era Halston.

    My real stumbling block hasn’t been cut, but color.

    Intense, super-saturated colors suit my Snow White doppelganger coloring but often they’re too much, both for my personal taste and for where I live. Traipsing around in glamorous cobalt or fuchsia dresses in my native city of Washington D.C. where men still wear suits to work is one thing. Doing the same in a seaside town in a nation where most people’s monthly wages wouldn’t cover the cost of one of my shoes is unseemly in more ways than one.

    Since I’ve lived down here I’ve relied mostly on white cotton dresses reminiscent of the one Elizabeth Taylor wore as Maggie the Cat, and in the cooler months I happily deploy my jewel toned floor-length dresses with maybe a piece or two of interesting jewelry.

  9. Such a great post, well articulated. You’ve given me some specific things to ponder as I’ve struggled to meld my ‘fantasy’ style with my ‘real life’ style 🙂 Thanks!

  10. This is one of your best posts on dressing!
    Like you I need to be mindful of the extra details of a garment and use caution when adding bulk. Thank you for always blazing the trail for those of us who are short and curvy.

  11. I have your type of hourglass figure, but much taller. I have a couple of dresses which accentuate my curves, and, when I wear them, I feel conspicuous. So–my standard style of dress is understated. In the summer, it has been a series of long, oval jersey EF dresses with a scarf or belt. For fall and winter, it will be mostly a long column of color–black, gray, olive, etc. with a sweater, soft jacket, and/or scarf added. I’ve been trying to simplify things for a couple of years now. All that you and others have written has helped immensely.

  12. Obviously a topic that most of us relate to! At 5’2, and curvy, I’ve decided I cannot wear all the more form-fitting clothes that fit me so well a decade ago (even 5 years ago). I used to enjoy the tights with turtleneck (or blouse) and short skirt and now that is not so flattering. Thankfully ’tis the season for tunics so I think I can get back to the look with a more forgiving top. I’ve noticed that because of my short arms, dolman sleeves are out of the question, which make me look even shorter. However, if I have a fitted top underneath, I can wear a wider top, open and layered over it so as to not diminish my height any further. I have a long(ish) neck, so I can play that up with wider neck-tops to give a more balanced look (or at least detract from any shortcomings). 😉 As for color, I love color and prints, and I am a “spring”, looking best in jewel tones. This is the first season that I am toning them down, embracing shades of gray and brown that suit my fair complexion, both for a change and to move toward more classic dressing. Another plus this season? Ruching! Wonderful post, Susan.

  13. Great topic. It took me a very long time to realize that the reason dresses from the local department store never looked good on me was that they weren’t for my body style. Dressing for my body style brought me a great deal of pleasure because I felt good about how I looked. I feel free to disregard the skinny jeans trend since it doesn’t suit me. A good friend told me years ago that if I didn’t feel beautiful in a piece, then don’t buy it. I’ve tried to follow that advise and have been able to avoid the coastly mistake hanging in the back of the closet!

  14. My preferred personal style is very close to yours, and it basically works with my physical characteristics; it works even better as I lose weight. I am more of a minimalist than you, but absolutely love bold jewelry and the most stylish shoes I can find to fit my size 8 1//2 EE feet. Convenience is a huge factor for me. I don’t want to keep track of a lot of separate accessories, and I want to be able to freely move in space.

  15. My figure and my stratagems are very much like yours. I’ve always liked longer tops over slim skirts (shortish) and pants/jeans. But not skinny jeans, just straight cut slim jeans. I am a natural/classic type in everything, apparently! I prefer symmetry and I’m not edgy. I keep my colors subdued and pattern to a minimum. I use my scarves for accents and I wear bold antique jewelry that’s kind of out of scale for me, my trademarks for years and years. I have to be careful about being too “safe.” though. Great and helpful post.

  16. I love your picks for yourself. As one who is also short and busty (and oh, how I truly live fashion!), the reality of my body type has always been a challenge. Classics. Occasionally downplaying the curves (context), at other times embracing them. And I still struggle with anything that cuts me horizontally – even a white blouse, unless covered by a jacket.

  17. Luckily for me, I think my body type and style preferences are pretty well aligned; at least now that I’ve returned to my “normal” weight after 10+ years in the post-childbirth/pre-menopausal fat wilderness. I’m fairly tall (5’7″) and pretty well proportioned, although pretty busty. Why, I wonder, do so many women buy themselves large fake boobs when so many of us naturally busty types would LOVE to have a B-cup?

    Anyway, if you are old enough to remember Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in The Avengers, that’s my earliest style influence. Add some Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, and there I am! I like clothes with zippers, dislike ruffles, and love a pencil skirt, cashmere sweaters, slim pants, and v-necks. I should probably add a splash of Lilly Pulitzer in there too; while I like neutrals, I find all-neutral wardrobes depressing. Especially in summer (which lasts 6 months where I live), I’m happy to wear bright colors &/or tropical prints. And a jewel-tone or ice blue cashmere sweater with black pants makes me happy in cooler weather.

    By the way, if you DON’T know Emma Peel, find yourself some episodes of The Avengers immediately!

  18. Dressing against one’s body type nearly always results in wrong choices and wasted money. That said, there are many variations and moods, as you have described. I’ve deeply entered into the “Simple Isn’t Easy” approach of the uniform, with variants. Besides, too much fuss results in a feeling of mild disgust at my self-absorption.

    1. Duchesse, I finally got my hands on a copy of “Simple Isn’t Easy” and read it last week. I think it’s going to be a big influence on how I dress and shop going forward. I’ve been leaning toward a uniform for a while, and this book has helped that inclination to “set.”

  19. This post is beyond helpful and also reassuring. I also find it difficult to always “dress for my body type”, due to the fact that I’m quite petite. I look at these fun blogs as well as magazines and recent catalogs which are full of women much taller than myself. I have found, like Ann. to dimly adjust certain items for my body type instead of forgoing them all together. Thank you for this wonderful information.

  20. Your thoughtful and beautifully written post has me thinking about what I wear and why. I dress intuitively, and love to experiment, so I find it hard to define my process and my preferences. However, I do know that I look for basic backgrounds that fit well and then embellish. Maybe that’s it!

  21. Good questions. The quandary. You always look pulled together and sassy, if I may say so. I am fortunate that I have the freedom to experiment with my clothes without getting fired, which I think hugely influences the risks I take in what I wear. Oddly, sometimes I like to wear something that is particularly UNflattering just because I want to feel like a sour pickle, if you get what I mean, harmony can rankle. Then sometimes I think how great it would be to be like those Famous Women of Grand Personality who ONLY wear, for example, a man’s white shirt, a Hermes scarf, and tailored something-or-other every single day.

    1. Yes! Deliberately “unflattering” (at least in the conventional sense) can be so liberating. Contrariness is a good thing for society.

  22. A great post and many thoughtful comments (which your posts so often generate thanks to the community you’ve built here). Running too much right now to have much to add, but so much that resonates . . . thanks!

  23. So much of what you wrote in this post resonates with me. Like you, I am a (very) curvy woman who “knows” what she “should” wear but am drawn to completely different lines and styles. When I wear the “correct” clothes, yes, I tend to get more compliments but I don’t feel like me while wearing them. And I wonder if a part of that feeling also comes from not wanting to bring attention to my “shape”? I prefer flying under the radar when it comes to my dressing (and other things : ) ). Maybe some of this issue has a lot to do with whether someone is extroverted or introverted as well?

    I completely agree with the concept of keeping my core pieces simple and using accessories to jazz things up–provide the color, the trend, the je ne sais quoi, if you will. : )

  24. Excellent post. I have the same approach to dressing, despite also being curvy, as you do. I keep my core pieces simple and let my style come through with accessories. I have never liked drawing attention to my curves or shape so I have always been drawn to simple, minimalist lines. But the trick has been trying find this “look” without looking like a box. Wearing knits with drape has been key.

    I wonder, too, if this quandary on whether to dress for shape or not, may also have to do with whether someone is extroverted or introverted at heart. I am very introverted–which is why I do not want to draw attention to my person. If I were extroverted, would I feel more comfortable showing off my figure 8? Just a thought…

  25. Luckily, my body type (flat chested, no curves, medium height) matches my plain style of dressing. How I remember the misery of having to wear shirts tucked in.

    However, I must say it’s “difficult” (really, a lot of fun) shopping with my daughter–same style, but 37 years younger. She also is extremely tall. We always want the same stuff at thrift stores! And she always correctly points out that it looks better on her.

  26. It seems like we work our way from the conventionally flattering end of the continuum towards the self expression end as we grow older. The need to fit in, please society at large and attract men seems to weigh heavily on the young while as we grow older and, more confident, we are finally able to express ourselves. Very nice post and you look terrific.

  27. On a bit of a tangent, I’d love to see you write a post on feelings about flattering/unflattering colors. I am a “winter” with pale, pink-toned skin. I have medium brown hair and hazel eyes, so I have my repertoire of flattering colors: jewel tones, grey, and navy. Any shade of pink looks great on me, and any shade of orange or yellow looks ghastly. But I so wanted a change after years of buying only my safe range of colors. I bought a canary-yellow cardigan and a bright orange T-shirt. They’re layering pieces so I’ll wear them over or under my flattering colors, but wearing a new color lifts my mood even if I look a bit sallow in the process.

  28. I was literally glued to your post today, excellent post and advice. I missed your Genie pants, and just picked up on previous posts. It’s quite sensational, and the pants fit you very well, I love the cut, Genie pants with the gusset above the knees are not quite as flattering.

  29. I’m short and curvy (not plus-sized) and for most of my adult life, I’ve dressed “against” my body type, usually in either billowy or boxy styles which gave me more of a rectangular shape.

    But recently I’ve experienced a change in attitude about my body. I want to be healthy but I’m no longer striving to be thin. So I’m now more conscious about dressing to flatter my curves. I’ve also experienced some emotional changes which have prompted me to want to soften the image I present in my clothing style.

    I do feel like it’s easier to dress now that my personality feels in harmony with my body type. But I still think it’s important to dress how you “feel”. Feeling like yourself should never be sacrificed in order to follow some prescribed body-type “rules”.

    Although, I must say: Something that did push me more in this direction was that I discovered some styles that were particularly figure-flattering on me, and the difference in the way I looked in those, vs. my other clothing, was so dramatic, I couldn’t ignore it.

  30. this is a wonderful post! I somehow thought I was the only one struggling along with this…..I seem to choose things that are really not suitable for my shape (curvy/busty/short waisted) but that appeal to me. For each item like this, I try to determine why I am drawn to it and take that idea or “mood/feeling” with me as I look for it in a better item for my body shape. (I have read”lots” about what to look for for “my shape” and I am getting better at that…but using that criteria alone feels so sterile.) I LOVE the idea of softly structured basics (esp in a nice quality fabric) that you can wear in so many different ways….and really personalize. Truly the basis of a wonderful chic wardrobe (and I too am becoming a great fan of Eileen Fisher!).
    I’ve been enjoying the comments as much as the post, and always learn something from the wonderful comments.
    PS am now on the hunt for a copy of “Simple isn’t Easy.

  31. My one regret is that I’ve never had the legs for mini-skirts – honestly, even as a teenager, my knees just didn’t go in – straight up and down. It does mean that lots of skirts and dresses are ‘no go’ for me, but hey… I have a reasonably flat tummy, an hourglass shape and good boobs, so all is not lost.

  32. Alas, this is so, so true. I think on the whole I feel better when dressed for my psycho-style than for my body style.. I think I have an easier time of it than the average though, as I sew, so I can fit those minimalist things to my curvy body much better than you could ever buy them.