An apple and a banana walk into a bar…

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?

About Anne @ The Frump Factor

Reflections on beauty and style, for women who weren't born yesterday. Bring your sense of humor and "Fight the Frump" with me!
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28 Responses to An apple and a banana walk into a bar…

  1. Katrina says:

    I too am utterly fascinated by the whole body-shape question and the multitude of answers (which do contradict each other). Although I am sorry to have missed the one where “strawberry” was an option! In my view it seems a useful and potentially positive activity, as opposed to comparing one’s body to runway models and magazine photos. The few things I’ve been able to figure out about my body shape (an A that is nearly an H) helped me understand more about why some things look funny on me.
    You have a great selection of illustrative photos here, it actually is very helpful to compare them. For the belts, I would say that all outfits are complementary to your figure except the one with the vest. (The outfit is adorable, it’s the belt that throws it off.) To my eye this is because there are too many vertical and horizontal lines criss-crossing and breaking you up. The same thing happens to a lesser extent in the photo with the belt and the jacket.
    For your nice new dress, I love it without the belt! I think it would also look nice with a wide sash, something that covers more of the midriff of the dress, as opposed to the brown belt in the photo which seems to be floating between the upper and lower edge of that high midriff piece.
    Okay, that’s my couple of cents, and I hope you find it helpful. I can’t tell you how much reading your blog has helped me identify some of my own areas of confusion, and start to figure a few things out.
    Sorry about the length, I guess I got on a roll!

    • Thanks so much — you say so many smart things here. I agree that the body type stuff is most helpful for figuring out why something looks “off.” I do find it strange that I thought the dress looked completely out of proportion, though, until I got used to it. Habits can be hard to break.

      And yes, the belt on the dress is not staying put in the right place — I’ll have to use fashion tape if I plan to wear it that way, or wear my wider belt (which still does the same thing, only less). I like your sash idea and actually tried a few scarves that way — it does look good; I just have to find one with a pattern that works. And I know what you mean about too many criss-crossing lines — the trick is to figure out how much is too much, I guess!

      Thanks so much for your input! It helps a lot.

  2. Beryl says:

    I agree with you on which of your belted looks is better.
    I play with a rule and decide if it really does improve a look. For instance, as an H, my belt should go under my jacket – a look not represented in your group of pictures, but one that really works with my body. (This is from a sewing website by Palmer and Pletsch.)
    I think we feel good in our clothes when there is positive external reinforcement, but any external negativity makes us uneasy in our choices. These dressing rules can act like this. We follow a rule with our outfit and allow that positive reinforcement to over rule our dislike of it.

    • That’s a VERY interesting point, Beryl. You are so right. I would really like to make sure that “the rules” become only one of many variables that I consider. There seems nothing sadder than an external “authority” causing us to doubt or second-guess something that we would otherwise love.

  3. Serene says:

    Anne, I really love this thought provoking post and for me, it enters into the psychology of dressing. I think the first question we have to ask ourselves is what we’re trying to achieve with our clothes? Are we trying to look thinner? Create an illusion of a specific body type? Hide flaws? Express ourselves? Fit in? That is the part that really fascinates me.

    As far as body type, for most of my life, I thought I was a pear shape. Then it dawned on me a few years ago that just because I have a full tookis doesn’t make me a pear because my shoulders are about as broad as my hips! Light bulb moment!!! This knowledge made me feel less self conscious about my hips. Which is ridiculous in a way, because my body didn’t change, just my perception!! (I KNOW there’s a lesson in there for me! :) ) So with this new perception, I started accentuating more said back side and stopped trying to camouflage it. I think your experience proves, as well, that much of our dressing is based on our perception of our body.

    Personally, I think the pencil skirt does you more justice! You look GORGEOUS in that first picture…with a va va voom figure! Your new dress looks more flattering belted, so I think you’re spot on to question the whole “no belting for an H” idea. Of all the last montage of photos, my favorite is your denim skirt look. The belting just makes the whole outfit!! Do you remember how you FELT in each of these outfits? Apart from just seeing them in print, how did you FEEL wearing them and which one felt the most like you? I think that’s the jumping off point! FABULOUS FABULOUS post! Hugs to you!!! ~Serene

    • Very interesting, Serene! I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who proceeded on erroneous assumptions for years. (Only your perception changed — Ha! I love it). I agree that the “how you feel in it” test is possibly the most important one of all! Sometimes the photos reveal a different picture, but it’s not necessarily more accurate.

  4. Susan Ashworth says:

    I too am fascinated with body shape and how that relates to figure flattery. Most of us know flattering when we see it. By analyzing it, we hope to recreate it more often.

    Of the first two photos, I prefer the dress. I admit to having a strong preference for dresses, and that is an especially lovely one. It makes you look very hourglass-y.

    I also like the vest and ruffled skirt outfit. It certainly does not surrender the waist, and it emphasizes (what appears to me to be) your slim hips. You seem to currently be having a waist obsession. (smile) May I suggest that you also remember to celebrate your strong points. I say this as a woman who has never had slim hips.

    Figure flattery is just one element of getting dressed. Another is – if you love it, wear it. So keep wearing the belt!

    Remember – it’s never over. Be prepared to rethink everything in your fifties!

    • Thanks very much for your insightful comments. I like your “take” on all of this, a lot! I think I have, indeed, been dressing to highlight the thin hips, for years. Part of my interest in this might be coming from a desire to question why I do that — and to explore different options. Thanks again!

  5. tamerakitten says:

    AWESOME post Anne!!! I am definitely an “H”–skinny arms and legs, no booty whatsoever, big boobies, narrow shoulders, and no waist. And add on to that I’m only 5’4 but I wear 30″ inseam pants–my legs are very long and I’m shortwaisted. AAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH!!! Not to mention the pooch.
    I’ve found that I have to be very careful with empire waists–if it’s gathered below the waist I look like I’m pregnant. Empire only works if its a seam with the gathering for the bust.
    I used to be a belt-a-phobe by I’ve found a well placed narrow one works. I often wear one on my top UNDER my jacket so you only see the front part – like Beryl suggested.
    And then sometimnes i say screw it and wear whatever I LIKE that I feel comfortable in!!

    • Hee! I’m so glad I’m not the only one walking around out there with no booty. Thanks for the reply.

      And you and Beryl are right about belts under jackets: I’ve done that a lot, and it seems to work. (I just didn’t include those photos in this latest post).

      I find myself wondering if you dress to highlight your long legs, or if you feel like you have to shorten them. That’s one of the many things that interests me about all of this — maybe we should just embrace the type we have and go for it!

  6. What a thoughtful post, Anne. You really did your homework!

    Just glancing at the top two pics I see a more flattering line in the left photo. But I am not exactly sure why – it could be the slightly shorter length of the skirt, or the slightly less “girly” feel of the outfit (girly isn’t negative at all, but it’s just a vibe). And in the bottom photos, the looks that appeal most to my eyes are the most tailored on top.

    I don’t know how that fits in with your H-ness – maybe your well-defined shoulders respond well to well-defined lines up-top? As far as your waist, or anyone’s waist, I find that so subjective. I have a small waist, but I don’t feel compelled to “highlight it” all the time – in fact, I like to surrender it in a slouchy top more often than not. That could be my oppositional side, of course! : >

    Thanks for linking up to Imogen’s quiz, I am going to take it! I hope I am a blueberry, I love blueberries.

  7. Margaret says:

    Regarding photo comparison #1- You may be focusing on the wrong thing here because, at least in these pictures, the major difference, as far as I can see, is that it looks like you had a major boob job and, given that, most eyes will not even stray to your imaginary tummy bulge.
    Regarding photo comparison #2- I think the belting achieves what it should in both the lower and middle pictures- creating waist emphasis/illusion of curve. In the two upper pics the belt seems sort of superfluous- both the vest and the jacket seem to already make you look reasonably curvy.
    Have you tried the dress and belt combo with the belt cinched a little tighter than you show it here? I feel that with an empire waist dress a belt should sit at the waist of the dress not at the waist of the wearer, otherwise it appears that the wearer is fighting against the proportions of the dress by trying to make it have a lower waist than was intended.
    Also, just to give you even more to think about, I recommend you play around with the sleeve length on this dress. I don’t know why changing the length of the sleeve can change the apparent width at the bust, waist and hip but I know from experience that it really does. Maybe something about where the horizontal lines are? For some reason 3/4 length or elbow length sleeves make my waist seem slimmer. Try tucking yours up inside themselves and see if you notice a difference. Feel free to tell me I’m crazy if this doesn’t work for you too. It might be all in my head.

    • Hee! Honest to God, I have NO idea what is going on with the boobs there. Seriously. Thanks for the other ideas! The belt you see with the dress really wasn’t working well, even when I tried to cinch it tighter. It just kept falling in the wrong place. Some readers did advise that double-sided fashion tape might work. I think for that reason, alone, I’m unlikely to wear it that way in the real world unless I get that fixed.

  8. Melanie says:

    I love your quip about making daiquiris after finding out you are a banana, a strawberry, and a spoon! An enjoyable read, although far too mathematical for me. I’m all about eMOOOtion. How do I fEEEL in it? Do the colours make me siiiing inside? There must be truth in all these thoughtful comments and suggestions, and I know that I am following guidelines myself because the outfits that I feel best in I’m sure are also the styles that fit my body shape. I do think colour has a lot to play in our looks, as well as sleeve length, skirt length, boot height, heel height, even length of hair… I think there is an algorithm at MIT that could help us out!! Strawberry over banana to the power of 10 times Xfactor Z spooned = style bliss, or something like that.

    I think you look great in all the photos, which is not very constructive for your cause I’m afraid, but following your instincts seems to work for you. You sense which looks are best and I can see why you prefer certain looks over others.

    • Well, I have to tell you, I’m kind of all about “feelings” too. I think what you’re seeing in this post is me trying to be all analytical and scientific. There is that side to me…… but then I get confused and, more importantly, IMPATIENT!

  9. notquiteold says:

    I like pencil skirts with high heels, although the shoe you are wearing is not bad. I’m not a big fan of short sleeves – most women’s arms don’t need to be cut at the widest part.
    I like the dress. Curvy and flattering. But skip the belt with it, unless you wear that jacket…that’s really nice.

    • I love pencil skirts with heels, too, but classic heels just are not my friend. I’m always looking for shoes that let me “cheat” (boots; shoes that look sort of like pumps but really aren’t, etc.) Maybe some day I’ll grow up and learn to wear real ones! And I agree that short sleeves are less than flattering, though I do wear them for practicality. I often look for a longer, thinner sleeve (falling somewhere in between bicep and elbow), but they can be hard to find. I don’t know why they keep making so many short-sleeved shirts that hit at the worst possible spot.

  10. gracefully50 says:

    Anne! You make me smile!!!
    I loved your banana comparison…fruit shapes…I’m not familiar with all this. Very informative!
    In my humble opinion, I like the fist pic for it’s classy. I love the jean skirt w/belt for it’s fun and sassy. And, the last pic…a perfect fall/winter outfit. I think you should wear what make you feel good…can’t imagine trying to follow some rules. Who made that up anyway?
    Great post Anne!

  11. Ginny says:

    What a fascinating post! And great comments! Personally, I like how you look in the dress–it’s va-va-voom, but in a subtle way. Sort of Marilyn-esque, as if she were going shopping. I think the dress does more highlighting (a tad sexier), whereas the vest-and-skirt do more smoothing-out (a tad more conservative).

    And in the second bunch, I’m a fan of the bottom right and left pix. I think a different (thinner? darker?) belt would work with the denim skirt ensemble, but I like the overall vibe of it. Same with the belted dress–I could see a scarf or an obi-like belt being really cute.

    Being big of bust and short of waist, I’m also told to steer away from belts, but I’ve discovered that sometimes I really like them. They help define my waist when my boobs threaten to create a continuous mountain of fabric from my outfit.

    This is all giving me much food for thought. I’m interested in body types and dressing for them, too, but it all starts to make my head swim after a while. There are so many factors to consider! I’m going to have to take that quiz…

    And then, like you, I start to wonder, so what? Rules, schmules. Wear what I like, what I am comfortable in. Then I get a glance of myself in a window or a mirror and think, whoa, is that me?! I don’t like how I look…and I go back to studying the rules. Sigh.

    BTW, when you mentioned fruit + spoon = daiquiris, I got the feeling we might get along. :-)

    • Great comments, Ginny! I’m so glad you visited. I feel better knowing that I’m not the only one interested in fomenting a belt rebellion. (And what’s not to like about daiquiris, really?) :)

  12. pastcaring says:

    Very interesting. I am another one who has internalised all manner of “facts” about my body shape for years, and hence had “rules” about what I can or can’t wear. The real truth, for me, is that anyone can wear anything and look great, if you wear it with enough attitude and confidence! I am enjoying experimenting with clothes and shapes I thought I “couldn’t” wear, including lots of belts, and I am finding that it’s good to break the rules!
    I like your Karina dress very much, and think the empire line is very flattering on you, without the need for a belt. It gives you a lovely waist and great boobs! I like it with the sleeveless sweater over the top and belt too.
    I agree with Melanie that colour has a big part to play in all this too. Have you tried your familiar shapes but in brighter/different colours? Your preferred palette is earthy and soft and any prints are quite muted and small. Which is fine, it suits you and looks pretty. But would you consider experimenting with stronger colours or bolder prints?
    Ooh, and mines’s a strawberry daiquiri, please! xxxx

    • Oh, I’ve definitely THOUGHT about experimenting with brighter colors…. but I’m pretty sure I’d need a professional consultant to hold my hand. I’m rather frugal and on a budget, with limited shopping time, so I really need everything to work together. So I tend to branch out into new color “families” slowly and deliberately!

  13. Sue says:

    Part of how we perceive ourselves in clothes surely involves our mental image of ourselves. I tend to think of myself as a no-nonsense person (whether I “really” am or not), and so I simply cannot think I look good when I’m trying on something with ruffles or a floral print, since that doesn’t match my idea of what a no-nonsense person wears. And because I don’t wish to be my mother, I flee from clothes that remind me of her, such as a certain type of button-front shirt or a particular type of abstract print. Yet because you don’t carry the exact same mental baggage as I do, were you to see pictures of me in a floral dress, you’d just see a woman in a floral dress. (Though you might well transfer your assumptions about the kind of person who wears a floral dress to me, and at least be predisposed to see me as that kind of person.) I suppose another part of it is just our eye’s familiarity, or lack of, with certain looks. I remember when the Ford Taurus first came out, back in the mid-1980s. I thought it was ugly because it looked so different from anything else out there, as the dominant style in cars then was more sharp angles and edges. Now, of course, my eye’s adjusted, and cars with rounded contours no longer look strange.

  14. I think you already have fairly solid insights about what looks good on you. I thought the dress was very flattering on you–all by itself. it positions the waist under the bust in an empire style which has the double-effect of rounding the bosom nicely and making the torso appear longer than it does when you are dressed in separates. And you’ve got me wondering about taking my vertical measurement.

  15. gingerR says:

    I think you look fine in both photos. To me the important thing is that you put something besides a skirt/top on. It’s a good thing to branch out style-wise and the dress does that.

    I’m not really so keen on the dress with a belt because the dress has kind of a high waistline and the belt looks more like it’s going around your ribcage than your waist. I would try a narrower belt with the dress and have the belt sit on the seam that defines the skirt from the bodice. My favorite look is the dress with the sweater vest over it. In that one the belt appears to sit lower and looks more natural to me.

    I go around about dresses and belts. Sometimes a dress with a plain self-belt is best. It gives you a waist but you don’t get all wrapped up in whether it goes with the dress.

  16. I was just watching the Nate Berkus show and there was a segment on a black blazer. One of the looks was belted, but it used a narrow belt rather than a wide one. It occurred to me that that might be the thing that would work for you. I think the first picture with the vest would look better with a narrower belt. That said, you still look great in all the looks. I do like the last one the best, it just looks the most “you”.

  17. Body shape is such a weird thing. Like everyone else i am fascinated because I want to look good, but I also want to wear what I want to wear and if it doesn’t look good I get upset. I’ll have to take that quiz!
    Recently I read an article on vertical body type and realized I have short legs in proportion to my body. I don’t know why this was such a shocker. My mother is built the same way. It does explain why I look better in skirts than in pants.
    I like your belted vests, especially when the vest is a darker color than the rest of your outfit. I even like the dress with the vest and the jacket. Very cool layering there!

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