Did you know that our great-grandmothers and grandmothers had classes on how to dress well? The curriculum taught everything from how to choose flattering colors to how to sew your own beautiful garments.
In contrast, modern women’s fashion guidance seems woefully inadequate. Sure, every women’s magazine can tell you the latest trends or the hottest new designer. But most of those clothes are made for tall, thin, modelesque women, not the other 99% of us. American women used to be known for their impeccable style, and I say it’s time we reclaim that lifestyle.
So where to start? The fundamental struggle in teaching “style” is that it seems to be something that comes instinctively to some women and not to others. How do you translate the instinct into concrete rules that other people can follow? We should look to the world of art for guidance. You don’t have to be able to paint in order to recognize a great painting, and many hundreds (if not thousands of years) of art literature has waxed eloquent on the essential principles of artistic structure.
Fashion, like art, is a combination of following rules and individual flair.
Fashion, like art, is a combination of following rules and individual flair. Too many rules and you end up looking like you’re wearing a uniform. Too much flair and you’ll seem like the cooky aunt who lives in an attic. The key is to strike a balance between the guiding principles and your own personal taste. That way, you will create a wardrobe that looks stylish to everyone else and feels amazing to you when you’re wearing it.
I hope these guidelines will create a basis from which you can begin developing a beautiful and sophisticated personal style.
Rule 1: Consider Your Body Type
This might be hard to hear, but not everyone can wear whatever they want. If you’re 5’10” and slim, you’ll probably be able to wear whatever you want. Then there’s the rest of us. Each body type has its own benefits and drawbacks, so it’s very important to learn how to work with, instead of against, your body.
The three most important things to consider in terms of your figure are height, body shape, and asymmetrical features. For example, you may have broad shoulders or very narrow hips. The clothing you choose needs to balance the parts of you that are out of proportion. According to science, the ideal waist to hip ratio for a woman’s body is 0.7.
Your clothing should be helping you achieve the illusion of that ratio. Body shape and proportion are only one part of the puzzle, though. Height is a crucial factor as well. Everyone can benefit from clothing that elongates the legs and shortens the torso, but this is especially important for shorter women. We truly need to pay attention to how the length and placement of our clothing affects the length of our bodies, as I will discuss in the next section.
Rule 2: Follow the Rule of Thirds
If you’ve ever taken an Intro to Art class, this is probably one of the first things you learned. The rule of thirds is a simplification of the golden ratio, a mathematical ratio discovered by the ancient Greeks. The golden ratio, which is approximately 1:1.6, is seen throughout nature and was believed by the Greeks to be the most aesthetically pleasing proportion. In fact, many parts of the human body follow the golden ratio. But for simplicity’s sake, we will stick to the rule of thirds, which takes a similar ratio (1:2) as a rule for creating both pleasing compositions in paintings and beautiful silhouettes in clothing.
Let’s begin with how this translates onto the human body. Our bodies are approximately the height of eight of our heads stacked on top of each other. This rule is used in art for drawing proportionate figures, and you can put the same principle to use in finding flattering clothing. If we remove the head (Yikes, but think about it. You rarely wear clothes over your head.), then we are left with 7 “sections” with which to work.
Pay attention to where the lines bisect the figure. Let’s start with the three major points you will use: the natural waist (line 3), the mid-thigh (line 5), and the mid-calf (line 7). Generally speaking, garments that create horizontal lines at these points will be the most flattering. This is why a long shirt that goes almost to your crotch makes your legs look very short. A dress that hits just below your knees often has the same effect.
Let’s look at some good examples of using the rule of thirds.
Picture #1. The waistline is at the natural waist, and her skirt is hitting at her mid-calf. The ratio here is 1 (shirt) to 2 (skirt.)
Photo credit: SilkFred.com
Picture #2. This is one full dress, but her waist is still defined by a tie at her natural waist. The dress ends just above the knee. So cute!
Photo credit: Caralyn Mirand Koch
Picture #3. High-waisted pants are your friend. Too high-waisted might look exaggerated, but low waists look good on no one. The closer to your natural waist the pants hit, the slimmer your waist will look.
Photo credit: Laura Jade Stone
Now let’s take a look at some bad examples:
Picture #1. This look is a 1:1 ratio. She is cutting her body in half, which is making her look wider and shorter. No one wants that!
Picture #2. These pants are too low-waisted. It makes her torso look long and her legs look short. It wasn’t cute even in 2004 when those jeans were in.
Picture #3. There are many issues here. I won’t even start on the shoes. But the major glaring issue is how her skirt is hitting just below her knees. It makes the legs look so short. Also, the waist of her skirt is sitting low and makes her torso look long.
Rule 3: Always Have a Fitted Waist
The most important part about finding flattering clothing is remembering that you’re emphasizing the “ideal ratio” for a woman’s body. It probably comes as no surprise that the first (and easiest) way to achieve the coveted hourglass shape is to make your waist look smaller. This is why it’s so important to always have your clothing fit you at the waist, if nowhere else. You can get away with a breezy dress if it’s cinched in at the waist by a belt or a tie.
The exaggerated waist is one of the reasons we find 1940s and ‘50s fashion so alluring. The silhouettes in those decades were meant to draw attention to women’s natural figure and accentuate the bust while reducing the waist. We can still apply these principles today to achieve a stylish and flattering look.
A 1940s dress with the classic cinched waist and full skirt.
Photo credit: Elsa Hosk
A modern dress following the same silhouette.
Another important way to emphasize the waist is to avoid wearing two loose garments at the same time. If you wear a loose, oversized blouse, pair it with a fitted skirt or tailored, slim pants. If you’d like to wear a full skirt or wide-legged pants, the opposite is true. A fitted top is necessary to keep your figure from swimming in fabric.
Remember, the goal of your clothes is to flatter your figure, not hide it from sight. Many women make the mistake of trying to hide their less-than-ideal body under baggy, loose clothing. The fact is, most of us have a body that’s far from ideal. Our clothing’s job is to improve upon our natural figure and make the most of what we have.
Rule 4: Find a Formula
Take out a notebook and write down your favorite outfits. The ones that you feel great in, that you always get complimented on when you wear them out. Perhaps it’s a great pair of jeans with a nice top, or a dress that makes you feel like a million bucks. Write down what exactly those items are. Personally, one of my favorite outfits is my black turtleneck sweater paired with a slim midi skirt. If I took a close look at my closet, I would notice that I have 5 or 6 turtlenecks in different colors and multiple skirts in the same style. Clearly, that’s a formula that works for me.
Buy multiples of anything you really love.
Your formula will probably look different because you have a different body and different tastes than I do! But by looking at the clothing that you already own and love, you can begin to get an idea of what types of clothing you should continue to search out. As you develop your sense of style, you will be able to quickly pick out items that will look good on you.
Another great way to put this into practice is to buy multiples of anything you really love. Found a sweater that fits like a dream? Buy it in a few colors. Love that dress? Buy it in a couple of colors for different seasons. No one but you will know, and it does save you a lot of time searching out additional garments. For example, I own my favorite turtleneck in both black and white.
Rule 5: Choose Colors Carefully
This last rule technically isn’t related to silhouette, but it’s an essential part of building a beautiful and wearable wardrobe. In the eternal words of Coco Chanel, “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” When it comes to choosing colors, this rule could not be more apt.
Let’s start with the most basic principle. You should stick mostly to solid colors and simple prints like stripes and polka dots. Crazy colorful prints or bold patterns might work for some skin tones and body types, but they can be hard to pull off if you’re not careful. Generally, it’s safer to stick to solids and mix in only one pattern at a time. If you’re going to combine multiple patterns, make sure to stick to a very limited palette. A great example is Blake Lively’s layered pattern black and white ensemble.
You should stick mostly to solid colors and simple prints like stripes and polka dots.
One of the goals of a great wardrobe is to be able to mix and match a lot of your items. The easiest way to achieve this is to cultivate a limited color palette. This doesn’t mean only buying one color. It means picking out colors that are consistently flattering to you and with each other. I personally have two wardrobe “palettes,” one for summer and one for winter. My summer palette is mostly white, light pastels, and florals. My winter palette is mostly earth tones and classic winter prints like houndstooth and herringbone.
Keeping your garments to a limited palette not only helps you mix and match at home, but will give you guidance when you’re out shopping. You will start gravitating toward styles and colors that you know to be flattering, and it will make your shopping trips more productive and enjoyable.
Like everything in life, dressing stylishly will get easier with practice. Begin by simply paying attention to what clothing you love to wear, what makes you feel frumpy or unattractive, and start narrowing down your wardrobe. Only buy items that have passed the tests I have laid out above. As you become more intentional with your clothing choices, you will notice that getting dressed in the morning will become easier and more enjoyable.
I promise that every woman can benefit personally, professionally, and socially from learning how to dress better. You will feel more confident, and people will notice the difference. You have nothing to lose, so why not start today?
Recommended additional reading:
The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski
Clothes for You by Mildred Graves Ryan and Velma Phillips