Can Clothes Make You Look Fat?

The right garment can make an overweight person look elegantly proportioned. However, and this might sound like poetic justice, a badly made garment can do untold damage to a figure, making a slim person look disproportionate or worse still distorted because any poorly cut or cheaply made clothing will never flatter the body but rather portray it in an unbalanced way.

Clothes can make you look fat if badly cut, the wrong fabric or poorly sewn and finished.  Cheap, fast fashion is often unsuccessful, the result of which is an ill-fitting garment which unflatteringly bulges or drags in all the wrong places.  Inferior design can critically add pounds to the figure.

When dressing to look your best there are some considerations that need to be adhered to:

  • Appropriate design for body shape and height.
  • Weight, density, pattern and texture of garment material.
  • Attention to finish and precision of garment cut.

Bent Out of Shape

Appropriate design for body shape is the first issue to be considered when selecting a garment.  The following are some examples of the most common body shapes:

  • Rectangle shape
  • Inverted triangle shape
  • Hourglass
  • Pear shape
  • Apple shape

Certain designs can look splendid on some body shapes and yet have a detrimental impact on others.   Being armed with the knowledge of which category your body shape belongs to is the first step towards savvy dressing.

If not immediately obvious which body descriptor an individual belongs to, measurements should be taken using a cloth tape.  This task is easier if assisted, especially for shoulders and back but if this is not possible a mirror and some dexterity will have to suffice.  Wrap the tape around the widest point to take a measurement and hold the tape tautly not tightly.  Take careful note of the measurements which will make clear which body shape category you belong to.

The Pear

This figure type is often described as ‘pear’ shaped, whereby the individual has a small waist but a big bum and hips.  Ideally this type of figure should avoid any one piece in clingy jersey or lycra as this will only accentuate any disparity in balance and shape. 

In designs such as a straight dress there are frequently frustrating issues with excess fabric on the waist; excess bulging fabric can be disappointingly obvious where it is too big on the bust and waist but just right on the bum and thighs and alterations, although costly, are inevitable. 

In fact the A-Line, full gore or gathered skirt are three of the most flattering design choices in skirts, so too are full legged trousers teamed with a wide statement belt to cinch in and heighten that great asset: the tiny waist.  

Not since the mid 1980s has the all forgiving paper bag trouser been current but recently they have re-emerged onto the fashion scene and these too can be very flattering for this body shape.  

The Apple

The ‘apple’ shaped figure commonly describes the individual who has a waist which is bigger than the hip.  This figure needs to be careful to lift emphasis towards the shoulders rather than highlighting the central point of their anatomy and this can be done by utilizing color pop blocks in the pattern cut or through clever use of detail stitching.  

Avoiding any embellishments or shiny finishes on the middle part of the body is essential as is being careful about sizing; the ‘apple’ figure looks best in sizing that allows for ease of movement.  Any dragging of buttons, zips or seams across the midsection actually makes the wearer look bigger than they are.  

A double breasted jacket in a well-proportioned length, with a strong shoulder line, in a semi-fitted style can provide support for this figure type.  Layering techniques such as a waistcoat, vest or varying asymmetrical layers benefit by disguising tummy areas. Ideally a garment should support a figure: a garment should be well lined and interfaced, not fold into creases or drag across prominent areas accentuating imperfections.  

The dropped waist top or dress in a loose-fit will detract from the ‘apple’ shape as too will the perennial favorite the empire shaped design.  

The Rectangle

This body shape is one which has no distinguishing curves and in fact the chest, waist and hip measurements are all much the same.  The individual with the rectangular shaped body can experiment imaginatively with different fabric weights, textures and patterns, all of which can help create contrasts in an otherwise uniform figure.

A belt in an obvious color or design will draw the eye to the waist giving the ‘rectangle’ shape definition and has the effect of breaking the overall uniformity.  A full or gored skirt is an excellent choice as is a skirt or dress with obvious pockets that have embellishments such as button detailing.   A wide neck line such as a boat or slash neck will also help detract from any sameness.

Another clever design choice for this shape is emboldening the upper half of the body through shoulder definition by use of color, padding or detailing such as eplets, stitching or cape, a recent royal favorite which in 2019 emerged as a very flattering and sophisticated look.  However, not every occasion calls for a cape unless of course you are Superman or Wonderwoman, so a puff-sleeve, gathered or princess style sleeve will help create a similar effect or illusion.

Inverted Triangle 

This body shape tends to have a top heavy look such as wide shoulders, large bust or chest with narrow hips. The inverted triangle will benefit from enhancing or bringing more attention to the lower half of the body by creating volume or using fabric textures to give the illusion of symmetry and balance.  

The right cut or sensitive attention to placement of color contrast can create the illusion of balance in an otherwise top heavy shape.  Using color to create contrast is often referred to as color-blocking, employed prolifically in the 1980s by the legendary French designer Claude Montana, and deployed effectively in the fall of 2013, in Victoria Beckham’s ready to wear collection.

Clever use of stitching or fabric printing, whereby optical illusions such as the ‘Herring illusion’ or ‘Muller-Lyer line’ being deployed, can successfully alter the viewer’s perception and help establish an overall balance by tricking the eye. 

The Hourglass

This may well be the most enviable figure to have, well at least that was the case in the 1940s, the body fat is evenly distributed on both the upper and lower parts of the frame.  The waist is petite and visible and an overall balance is achieved.  

The wrap dress such as Diane Von Furstenberg’s famous and iconic jersey silk wrap looks simply stunning on this figure as does the like of a Pucci jersey famed for its psychedelic prints and favored by Marilyn Monroe for its ability to hug and cling in all the right areas.  Issa is another designer who makes playful use of jersey’s characteristic drape and cling which adorn and highlight curves, creating a goddess like physique.  

The hourglass should make the most of that well defined waist and accentuate it with a belt, failure to enhance or highlight this asset could result in square or block like appearance, further definition can be achieved by wearing volume below the waist.

Accentuate the curve by wearing a V-neck, plunge neck or boat neck, however, a scoop neck will only make the bust look heavy and therefore best avoided.  Bring attention to the shoulders and wear a gathered, full or puff sleeve.  Jackets should be single breasted and nipped in by darts or by accessorizing with a narrow belt which will draw the eye to the center and highlight that petite waist.

Print it Like You Mean it!

Recently developed digital cloth printing techniques have the capacity to shape and contour particular areas of the body in order to enhance individual appearance, and can accomplish very flattering sculpting results.  Manipulation of optical illusion through the application of screen printing has assisted designers in perfecting the appearance of the human body.  

The fashion genius Jean Paul Gaultier was one of the first designers to use illusion print on mesh netting, his 1995 fall collection highlighted the benefits of printing fantasy tattoos and utilized contour shading in the most flattering way, as did Temperley, in the fall of 2013, in their knitted graphic, Egyptian themed inspiration: the ‘Sphinx’.  Balmain, the French fashion house, also successfully manipulates impressions of the body through graphic print and tattoo illusion as well as utilizing more traditional embroidery details to create a perfect silhouette.

Certain fabrics do not flatter an ample figure, specifically thick or bulky fabrics such as boucle, and some robust tweeds, as the dense texture and thickness of the cloth can add pounds, as too can stiff unmalleable fabrics such as corduroy or some denims.

Satin materials or fabrics that have a shiny finish or embellishments should never be worn on an area that the wearer wishes to camouflage.  Wearing horizontal stripes, tartan or check patterns on the lower half of the body is inadvisable for ‘pear’ or ‘apple’  shaped figures.

It is All in The Cut.

A skillfully cut garment, a fundamental element of successful design, will have a sharpness to it which will easily identify it as being a well-tailored designer piece.

According to Hunter and Fan every element of garment design ‘contributes towards the visual perception and psychological comfort of the garment.  Principles of illusion can be utilized in garment design to flatter the figure of the wearer (Davis, 1996).

Pattern features that are cleverly used can trick the eye.  Design sections in a garment, such as a central panel block in a shaded, darker or color pop of contrasting fabric, have the effect of creating the illusion of a narrower and slimmer frame. 

In 2012 the ‘Panel dress’ made a serious impact on the fashion scene and The Guardian hailed it as ‘…the best to slip into and instantly look slimmer.’  In fact the Victoria Beckham fall collection of 2013 makes intelligent use of various cleverly cut designs to flatter the body: ‘Look 13’ broadens a narrow shoulder: ‘Look 14’ gives emphasis to the core detracting from any issues with heavy thighs or bum: ‘Look 21’ and ‘23’ make use of a color pop triangle helping to balance a top heavy frame.  

A clever cut can lend movement, when more unmalleable fabrics are selected for their particular characteristics, pattern sections can be cut into a design in order to give a garment more flexibility in areas where movement is required.

The bias cut, a popular design choice of the twenties and thirties, is capable of creating the illusion of elongation, adding length to the torso.  However, to the same ends, a badly cut bias piece will warp the figure and do a disservice to the wearer.  

Garments that are lined, interfaced and or bound, perhaps even gently padded will work for and support the body.  The correct fit will lift the figure and ensure that fabrics do not bulge or drag.  

A hand made or courtier piece that is lined, supported by facings, including weighted hems, which are particularly beneficial in thick heavy fabrics, and cleverly lifted and padded where needed will give any figure support and shape.   

Dress to Suit Yourself

Maintaining a positive mental attitude about body image can be challenging when we are constantly being bombarded by advertisements of the so-called ‘perfect’ body that have undoubtedly been retouched to impress.  As individuals we each have our own ideals of perfection which are just as valid as those upheld on any catwalk or glossy cover.   By learning how to present our best image to the public gaze we strengthen our confidence and enhance our value and appreciation for ourselves and as a consequence inspire respect from others.  

It is important to admit that not every design choice will flatter our figure despite how popular, fashionable or current it may be.  Dressing to suit your body shape is a skill and takes practice.  It can be fun experimenting with fashion but to get an accurate understanding of what best suits your figure, it is a good idea to put effort into researching the most flattering styles.  

Gather pictures of yourself in different outfits, study them objectively and do not be afraid to ask for help from someone you trust.  Create a board dedicated to your image, assess different styles, grade the looks based on the overall impression and appropriateness.

All this probably sounds a little narcissistic but will only be necessary until the process of finding the most complimentary look becomes more familiar.  The more you practice the more confident and competent you become.  It is important to remember to celebrate the joy of looking the very best you can each and every day!

If you enjoyed this, don’t miss ‘Do Clothes Make You Happy? (This will surprise you)’  

Sharon Cunningham

I enrolled in The Grafton Academy of Fashion and Design and studied there for six years before being taken on by a German fashion house with whom I worked for nine years, eventually leaving to return to university to complete my MA.

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