Why you shouldn't 'dress for your shape'

Chloe Sevigny.

Chloe Sevigny.

Growing up (I’m referring to my late teens and early twenties) I did a truckload of dumb, I’m-pretty-sure-my-brain-is-still-forming stuff like the time I got a lift with a guy I barely knew to a town far away because I really wanted to see Guided By Voices (spoiler alert: I lived!) But the one thing I actually regret was the years 18 to 21 where I not once went out without sporting at least elbow length sleeves in public. Why did I take these draconian sartorial measures? Because I had developed a rather charming case of keratosis pilaris on my upper arms (unscientific name: ugly red bumps) and was sure that if anyone spotted them in public I WOULD NEVER BE LOVED.

 

I don’t think I’m alone as I have friends who won’t wear boots (hate calves), only wear jeans (hate legs), never wear jeans (hate butt), the list goes on... Now just to be clear this isn’t the same thing as not wearing a particular shape or item of clothing just because it’s not your aesthetic. I don’t do flowy boho dresses because it’s just not me (sarcasm and hippie clothing don’t mix). The difference with dressing for disguise is when shopping you’ll pick up something love, try it on and still be smitten, but return it to the rack because you think it reveals something that you should be ashamed of.

 

It’s not particularly surprising that so many of us feel this way since for women, judgement of our bodies kicks in oh, around age 11 and from then on we not only have to think about what we like, but also start to take into account the gaze of others.  Think of all the articles you’ve read in your lifetime teaching you how to “flatter your figure”? These stories are particularly annoying because if you are thin you are taught how to give the illusion of curves and if you are curvy you are instructed to dress to hide them. Whatever your body type you just can’t win (in this case the prize being healthy self-esteem, I assume.) The idea of flattering fashion is just one strand of the message that women are always told in a bigger form that they should be nice and agreeable – it’s just the visual component of it. The truth is it’s fine for women to look chubby or flat-chested or spotty or any of the million things we’re told to avoid at all costs. Just because you don’t have an hourglass waist doesn’t mean you are obligated to belt everything! Horizontal stripes for all!

 

Another issue with dressing to “flatter your figure” is that it forces you to mentally carve up your body into separate components each to be judged, rather than seeing it as the lovely whole that helps you dance, cook, sing, run and just generally serves as your trusty vehicle to living life. Hating one part of yourself can only lead to hating yourself. Whether it’s about your thighs or your size or as in my case your skin, conforming to societal pressures and believing that something about yourself is unacceptable and ugly is just one short step away from morphing into “I’m ugly”.

 

And lastly this idea of dressing to “disguise your flaws” never leads to any sort of true style anyway. A look that is appropriate and inoffensive? Yes. But true style? No. This is because genuine style is about finding those pieces that seem the literal sartorial translation of your soul (in my case I’ve discovered my soul must be as covered with polka dots as Zooey Deschanel’s) and those pieces aren’t always the ones that give you the tiniest waist or glowiest skin. Many of the women whose style I admire like Chloe Sevigny and Solange Knowles often end up on the worst-dressed lists, but they always look happy, confident and like themselves. Do we really want to live in a world where all anyone wears is universally agreed upon flattering garments like bandage dresses? Ick. In my dream world we would all be wearing orange and yellow (yes, almost no-one looks good in them, but they are just such cheery colours that it’s hard to care.)

 

So what happened to my deep burning arm hatred? I realised I could keep hiding them and feeling miserable or unsheathe them from their polyester prison and wear whatever the hell I wanted. I’m now living life blissfully cardigan free and loving it.

20 comments

  • Horizontal stripes for all!

    Love it.

    Commenter
    missz
    Date and time
    June 27, 2012, 9:08AM
    • I strongly disagree with this artice - I think you have missed the point of "dressing to flatter", which is; none of us are perfect, we all have figure "flaws", but instead of hating ourselves or becoming anorexic, we should accept ourself and celebrate what looks good on us. It's not accepting you are "ugly", but rather you are human. It is liberating to know that you don't look good in skinny jeans but you look amazing in a a maxi skirt with a belt, for example.

      Don't think that your style icons, Chloe or Solange aren't aware of what they look good and bad in. Whilst we're at it, don't think that anything they wear is in the price range of us mere mortals either. Perhaps that could be your next article- "Why you shouldn't dress to suit your budget"

      Commenter
      Lizzie T
      Location
      Annandale
      Date and time
      June 27, 2012, 9:59AM
      • Great stuff, Nicole. I'm reminded of something else I read recently that included the wonderful line, "Pretty is not the rent you pay for occupying a space marked 'female'." Pretty is optional, fashionable is optional, flattering is optional.

        We waste so much of our lives hating our bodies and separating ourselves from them like it's somehow possible to have a mind without a body.

        Commenter
        SJ
        Location
        cyberspace
        Date and time
        June 27, 2012, 10:04AM
        • Don't be afraid to have some fun with fashion regardless of your age. As long as you enjoy it, who cares what people think? On the train in to work the other day I saw a brunette with purple tinted hair and in-your-face orange boots. A bit of colour amongst the drab commuters really brightened up my morning.

          Commenter
          FashionFan
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          June 27, 2012, 10:11AM
          • I have real bad KP too. I got a tattoo on my upper arm recently, and now my arms have gone from something I used to hide to something I love to show off whenever I get the chance. I now have something beautiful and that I love to show. For the first time in my life, I'm no longer ashamed of my arms but proud of them.

            I mean, I'm not recommending tattoo themselves willy-nilly, but this is what worked for me. Also, reducing dairy and gluten intake coupled with a little bit of regular sun exposure and moisturiser with AHA/lactic acid helped to calm it down. It'll never fully go away, though.

            Commenter
            Eleanor
            Date and time
            June 27, 2012, 10:15AM
            • Great article Nicole!

              I don't like how mags: a) assume we realistically know our body shape, b) focus on the negative about it and try to equalise all of us into the same shape - proportionally.

              I think there's room for advice, but maybe they could tell us how to highlight our (self-decided) favourite bits? And so what if makes us more disproportionate. I'm short waisted, maybe I like my legs looking really long?!

              Commenter
              Renee
              Date and time
              June 27, 2012, 10:43AM
              • 1. I think there's a big distinction between "accentuate your assets" and "hide your flaws".

                2. If you feel more comfortable covering a flaw then doesn't that result in a higher level of projected confidence?

                3. If, however, the "hiding" is too obvious then that just draws attention to the very thing you want to minimise. eg. jeans under a dress, shorts over swimmers, long sleeves on a hot day.

                Commenter
                Guy McGuy
                Date and time
                June 27, 2012, 11:22AM
                • I have a birthmark that I despised as a child and made ridiculous attempts to hide during summer. As I got older, I cared less. Now I'm only reminded of it in summer or a chance photo. (It's on the back of my ankle.)

                  Some friends have even only noticed it after knowing me for many years.

                  The lesson: if I don't pay it attention, nobody else will either.

                  Commenter
                  Dr Dan
                  Date and time
                  June 27, 2012, 11:25AM
                  • I have had KP since I was 6. I have it in a severe form, meaning my upper arms (and now a little of my back and lower arms) are covered in bright red dots. I don't think i would ever tattoo them (even though i have quite a few) for fear of the effect. However for the most part I try not to let it effect the way I dress. So far I have found that a vigorous exfoliation every second day and a 12% lactic acid lotion every day (AMlactin brought in from USA) does improve the redness and the roughness to some extent.

                    Eleanor... Hmmm i might have to look into the gluten/dairy connection....

                    Commenter
                    Leesa88
                    Location
                    Sydney
                    Date and time
                    June 27, 2012, 11:36AM
                    • While I agree with most of what you've said regarding self image, I think you may have mixed two ideas into the same basket here. The first is the idea of "dressing for your shape" and the second being "dressing to the shape fashion tells you".
                      I think dressing for your body shape, or what flatters, is the best way to dress as you can use it to accentuate the part of your body you think are the best and doesn't necessarily imply figure hugging. This just means playing your strengths and having enough self esteem to look at your body as an objective observer, there should be no hating involved!
                      But this ideal is not "how to fit your body in with current trends", which is about masking over the "imperfections" to create the "look" that whatever article you're reading is trying to promote. These negative attitudes are what I think is the point of your article not simply the idea of dressing for shape.

                      Commenter
                      Alexis
                      Date and time
                      June 27, 2012, 11:42AM

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