This month’s style-related obsession? Demystifying body types. I thought I had figured this out long ago, but learning is cyclical and recursive, right?
Why should I care? Well, there is a very sensible idea out there that, if you know the fundamentals of your body type, it’s easier to choose clothes that flatter you. It is almost certainly possible to take this too far, insisting that certain types of clothes are absolutely off-limits without ever even trying them.
I’m interested in finding a reasonable compromise. I’d like to bring you along for the journey because a) it might resonate with your own interests in proportional dressing, and b) I might be able to hit you up for some free assistance. (Guess I’d better come clean about that one right up front).
Here’s what I thought I knew about my own proportions:
- I am a “reverse triangle,” with broader shoulders than hips,
- my waist is large relative to my hips, and
- my torso is long and my legs are short.
It turns out that I was wrong about two out of the three. Only the second item on that list is actually true. Huh. Who knew?
My interest in this topic was rekindled recently when a new dress came into my possession. You may have read my post about said dress, in which I tried several different styling options. I received many very kind comments, and I will probably get a lot of wear out of this very lovely, very practical dress. But as I’ve been playing around with it, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the proportions are the opposite of what I usually wear. And there might be a good reason for that.
When I first tried the dress on, something seemed “off,” and I couldn’t quite place it. Was this just me being closed-minded, reaching for the same silhouettes over and over out of habit? Or was there a logical reason for my unease?
So I decided to do some body type research. I wanted to test what I thought I knew about my own proportions, to see if there is a good reason why I always choose certain shapes over others. I returned to many of my old style books, which have various systems for measuring, many of which I’m too damn impatient to do. (Buy life-sized butcher’s paper, tape it to the wall, and have somebody trace my nude figure? Really? I’m sure it works, but this is me we’re talking about. It’s not going to happen).
Instead, I grabbed a tape measure, took some quick measurements, and went online to try several “what is your body type?” quizzes. I was declared to be a banana, a strawberry and a spoon, all in the same day. I wasn’t sure where that left me, aside from wondering if I should whip up some daiquiris.
So I dug a little deeper. There are two different body types that you can look at: your vertical proportions (length of torso relative to legs, for example) and your horizontal type or shape (pear, apple, etc.) The vertical proportions were something I’d never measured, so I wondered if this might be a missing link.
I tried several different systems, measuring both the vertical and the horizontal proportions. I had the most success with what I found at Inside Out Style by Imogen Lamport. If you want to try this at home, I would strongly recommend her short video showing how to measure the vertical proportions, as well her posts describing each of the body shapes, which she identifies with letters such as A, V, and X .
You can keep your day job, promise! It doesn’t take that long.
The verdict? I am probably an “H,” which is also sometimes called a rectangle (or a banana, if you prefer). This means I’m pretty straight up and down — shoulders the same width as hips, waist on the large side and not well-defined. I sort of knew this, but I wasn’t quite sure.
I also learned that I am short-waisted and relatively long of leg, which surprised me greatly. I have no idea why I’ve assumed the opposite for so long. But every different measuring system I tried came up with the same answer.
It could be that my body type is changing as I get older; waists shrink as the bustline migrates southward, I’m told. But Imogene also says that the places where you first put on weight tend to be the places where you are proportionally short. That, for me, has always been the waistline.
There are all kinds of tips provided for women with my body type, to help us choose more flattering clothes. So I thought it would be fun to evaluate my new dress, as well as the silhouettes that I usually choose, against the guidelines. For this discussion, I will focus on the following tips for H types:
- Avoid drawing attention to your waist with a belt or other waist detailing;
- At the same time, choose somewhat fitted tops to show the shape of the waist, such as it is, without over-emphasizing it or creating a strong horizontal line there;
- Choose empire waists or fitted details right under the bust, which are more flattering than those at the natural waist, and
- Avoid skirts with pleats or gathers below the waist, as these will tend to make you look larger. (I guess this is because people expect the hips to go out a certain amount from the waist. If your waist is wide to start with, the hips will appear to be much larger.)
I don’t know if I agree with this whole belting thing, but we’ll come back to that. It’s the shape of the skirt that interests me. When I tried my new dress, I knew that the flared, full, A-line skirt was a departure for me; I’ve been going slim and straight for as long as I can recall. I also knew that fuller skirts flatter women with larger hips, which I don’t have. But couldn’t such a skirt also be flattering on me because it creates the illusion of curves? That’s what always confuses me about body type advice; it seems possible to reach contradictory conclusions.
Let’s just put it to the photo test, shall we?
In the first photo, you see a slim, straight, pencil-type skirt. These are known for creating curves. You also see a vest that nips in ever so slightly at the waist and then flares out, creating shape at the waistline without clinging tightly to it or creating a horizontal line across it.
In the second photo, you see a high, fitted waistline and a flared skirt. This cut may also create shape or curves, but perhaps for different reasons than the pencil skirt?
To me, the first picture is more flattering.
What do you think? Does the second photo highlight what I will euphemistically call the “pooch” area? (That’s the extra abundance that many of us carry right below the belly button). According to the body type guidelines, the full gathers of the skirt could be creating this issue. But maybe there is some other, unrelated reason why I prefer the proportions in the first outfit. My perceptions and preferences also shift when I see the outfits from different angles, or if I catch a glimpse in the mirror of the view from the waist up, only.
The first photo was taken 5 months before the second, so it’s also possible that things have “shifted” slightly since then. (I also think something may be going on with the fit of the dress around the bust/bodice area. It doesn’t look like I could possibly be wearing the same bra in these two photos, but I am!) But I doubt there has been a major change in my weight or proportions; I’m still wearing all the same clothes and nothing is noticeably tighter. Let’s just assume that it’s the clothes making the difference.
Focusing at the waistband of the dress, even though it feels like it falls at a strange place on me, I don’t dislike how it looks. Using the logic of the body type experts, is this very fitted waistline more on the flattering side, because it’s so high? Or is it still less than ideal because it’s highlighting a disproportionately large waist, trying to create an hourglass where none exists?
After awhile, I start to wonder if it’s ridiculous to even think about this at all. Am I just falling into the predictable and oh-so-dreary trap of thinking that women must always dress to look thinner? Why should we? Surely being curvier can also be desirable, can’t it, especially when you are a curve-challenged H to start with? Or how about not trying to manipulate our natural body shape at all? Now there’s a radical concept!
Maybe I’m just not enough of a rectangle for it to matter. Maybe I’m more of an in-between shape — just like on all those personality tests where I’m right on the line between types, getting inconclusive or contradictory results every time I test.
But before I leave all of this behind in frustration, I do want to address the belt issue. Just when I discover the joys of belting, is my body type asking me to cease and desist? I love belting; it adds so many polished options to my repertoire! The “avoid belting” advice for H shapes did include the caveats that low-slung belts around the hips might look good, and that empire waists (and thus very high belts?) might also flatter.
Here’s an assortment of many belted looks:
The only one in which I think the belt looks like it’s going around a really poorly defined waist is the one with the plum, corduroy jacket (top right). The bulk of the fabric could be part of the issue here, as can the angle of the shot. But I have to say — is it just me, or is the lower right photo the most flattering? The belt is slung a little lower there, isn’t it? Could lower be good, because it makes my waist look longer? I also wonder if the ruffle skirt in the top left corner might work better with belts than the straight denim one below it, simply because the wider shape of the ruffle at the bottom make the waist look smaller (or more in proportion). But to be honest, I can’t see much of a difference there.
So now I’m confused again. It all gets a bit technical for me! (Have I mentioned, lately, how poorly I score on measures of spatial perception?)
If you are still reading this and your eyes haven’t rolled back up into your head, then I can only assume you are fascinated by the body-type topic as well. I’m interested in your reactions. If you have strong opinions about which photos are more (or less) flattering, and perhaps more importantly, if you have a theory about why, feel free to chime in.
All constructive comments are appreciated. Fear not that you will cause me to discard perfectly good items of clothing! Proportions can be altered in a variety of clever ways. I’m interested in your theories and observations, your advice, your own experiences, and most definitely your opinions about body-type dressing.
How can we use insights about body type as a tool of empowerment to help us dress our best, rather than a restrictive system that inhibits us? Are these “dress for your body type” rules useful, or are they just too complicated? When we follow “rules,” are we dressing to embrace our shape or to hide it? How do you approach these issues?