How to Look Better In Your Clothes

Have you ever seen a closet actually this neat? We can all dream, I suppose. CC-BY-SA Rubbermaid Products

Fashion is subjective, of course. And I’m writing this while wearing a too-small Harry Potter t-shirt and fleece pajama pants, but I also promise not to leave the house like that. When you do go past your front door, you generally want to look a bit better than that. OK, a lot better than that! Here are a few basic tips for looking your best.

Find a fit model who fits you
Companies use this creature called a “fit model” when designing their clothes. If you aren’t shaped reasonably like that fit model, you can try their pants on all day, and you’re probably not going to find a pair you like. Once you do find that brand whose fit model is shaped like you, it’s a dream come true. Pants that don’t gap at the waist! Shirts that cover what they should!

Also note that particularly in less-expensive clothing stores, there can be a pretty wide difference in size between two pairs of pants that have the same size number on their tags. Imagine a tall stack of fabric and a blade that cuts through them, making a pile of pants or shirt pieces ready to be sewn together. You can easily see how things may shift, making the top piece a different width from the bottom piece. The manufacturer has a range for that difference that they consider acceptable to still be called the same size. Thus two pairs of size 10 pants might not fit the same. Frustrating, but true.

And that doesn’t even begin to account for the differences between brands and designers. Next time a guy friend says, “My pants are a 38 because I have a 38″ waist… what does a ‘size 8’ mean?!” you can show him this chart of what a size 8 means. (Right after you add that he doesn’t actually have a 38″ waist since he’s forcing those jeans to button shut under his beer gut.)

Forever 21  Old Navy  Burberry Express Ann Taylor Michael Kors Michael by
Michael Kors
Tory Burch Lilly Pulitzer
Bust  35.5″  36″  36″  35.5″  36″  34″  35.5″  37.25″  36.5″
Waist  28-29″  28″  29″  28″  28.5″  26.5″  27″  29.5″  29″
Hips  37-38″  39″  40″  39″  38.5″  37″  38″  39.25″  39″

As I’m sure you know, a 34-26-37 isn’t going to fit well in the same outfit as a 36-29-40.

And then buy clothes that fit you.
We’ve all bought that cute dress because it was on sale and might fit better one day, but it’s on sale now! But it’s better to buy things that fit to begin with. Remember:

  • Your shirt front should lie flat. I should not know what the lace of your bra looks like because I sat across from your gaping buttons in a meeting.
  • Your underarms should not have curtains of extra fabric. Similarly, when you wear a sleeveless shirt, I should not be able to identify your bra in a lineup.
  • Sleeves should end just below the wrist. I sympathize here—I have short arms and should probably take up the sleeves of everything in my closet.
  • The seam of an Empire waist goes under your bust. If it’s going across your nipples, it doesn’t fit. But since this style makes just about everybody but the most rail-thin model look pregnant, you should probably look twice anyway.
  • If your shirt or dress is hanging off your shoulders, it’s just too big, and you look either sloppy or like a toddler playing in mommy’s closet.
  • Despite the ridiculous number of feathered jeans, seeing wrinkles across that area when you try on jeans or pants is a good sign that they’re too tight and probably causing some unfortunate muffin top to boot. Smile at your pants; don’t let them smile back.

But when you can’t, tailors are your friends.
Stop telling people you can never find pants that fit when what you mean is that they’re always too long. Hemming a pair of pants is easy—you can probably even do it yourself if you have basic sewing skills. And if you don’t feel confident in your sewing abilities, it’s an inexpensive task that’s well worth it for otherwise gloriously fitting pants. A tailor can even reuse your original jeans hem so they look just like they did when you bought them.

The inconvenient part of all this is that you really must hem pants to the shoes you intend to wear with them. You can hem them for heels, or you can hem them for flats, but they’re not going both ways. Figure out which type of shoes look best with those pants and commit. As a guideline for either, you shouldn’t see the entire shoe, but it also shouldn’t look like your pants are a hungry foot-eating monster finishing up a meal. If you are shredding the back of your pants leg as you walk, you’re doing it really, really wrong. If you’re still not sure, here’s a good pants length guide with photos.

Tailors can fix a multitude of other problems as well. They’re not just for wedding dress alterations! As a general rule, they’re more likely to help you make things smaller than bigger (duh). But they can’t perform miracles. If you found the most beautiful pants in the world, but they’re a size 14, and you’re a size 6, they’re going to be the most beautiful pants in a size 14 gal’s closet, not yours. (The exception is men’s pants, which are sometimes made with extra fabric in the back for this purpose.) They can also fix many of the above problems, like shortening your sleeves or bringing shoulders up to the right place.

Clip those threads!
Somewhere along the way, you went from the shops on the left side of that size chart above towards the brands on the right, but your graduation to grown-up clothes didn’t come with instructions! (It really should.)

The back of your nicer jacket or skirt likely has a split in it called a vent, which comes sewn shut with big basting stitches or a big X. It’s there to keep things nice in the process of getting it from the manufacturer to you, but you’re supposed to clip those threads before you wear it. Same goes for those pockets that are basted shut. I can’t count how often I’ve seen a young professional who didn’t know to clip her vents. (And in some cases, I’m not sure how they walked in their skirts with them sewn shut!) I was more than a little embarrassed recently to discover I’d missed one sewn in matching threads in a coat I’ve been wearing for some time.

At the bottom, let’s talk shoes for a moment.
First of all, Crocs and flip-flops (particularly the rubber thongs you picked up for $2 on clearance at Old Navy) are not shoes. Just stop. Now that that’s out of the way…

Most of you reading this are heading into winter right now, so file this one away for spring. If your toes or heel are hanging off your sandals, they don’t fit. Your foot should be within the sole. Seems obvious, and yet summers are full of women who don’t know how to buy sandals that fit.

As to winter footwear, there’s the joy of boots. I love them all. (Except booties. That’s another trend I’m ready to get rid of.) Did you know that you can shop for tall boots by calf width? It makes the hunt a lot easier for those who have trouble getting ones that will zip over their jeans. (The trick to that, BTW? Stuff your jeans in your socks before pulling your boots on to keep the jeans in the boots.) Many shoe sites online will let you sort boots by that option, and since they also often offer free returns, you’ve got nothing to lose.

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By day, Ruth works to make open source software communities better. The rest of the time, she makes things, which means her husband and kids know to watch out for stray sewing pins and to ask before eating anything made of fondant.