This is Part I of my new series “How to Think About Style”, a weekly serial written with the purpose of helping you develop an authentic personal style. My goal: supply you with the framework necessary to express your personality through fashion.
If you’ve been a long-time reader of this blog, you’ve probably gathered that I spend a lot of time thinking about style. Not fashion trends, not product features – but style. With school out for the summer, I thought I’d put those thoughts into writing and hopefully leave you, the reader, with the ability to express your own self and look good doing it.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be covering a range of diverse topics with the goal of developing a framework for thinking about the clothes you wear and the style they purvey. But first, let’s all start on the same page. We need to define what we're thinking about it, which begs the question:
What even is style?
Great question, thank you for asking.
To me, style is the bigger picture thinking that enables someone to put on clothes and actually look good in them. Disregard the navel-gazing #menswear types who hip-fires quotes that draw a pejorative line between fashion from style; in fact, the two are intimately coupled. The way I see it, the word “fashion” merely describes the tangible end product of someone’s personal style curating what they wear and how they wear it. Unless you have 8am Bio lab every day of your life, you probably put some degree of thought into what you wear. Everyone does. For some, this is a grooming ritual; for others, it is as easy as meeting a dress code.
Even if it meant color-coordinating your jersey to your crew socks and sandals, there was still an intellectual process behind you leaving the house not naked. That is style.
Style is the artist; fashion, the canvas.
Style is the engine; fashion, the transmission.
Style determines the outfits you create, your confidence in them, and ultimately how you are perceived by others as a member of their world who they can most easily interpret with their eyes; fashion is merely what style looks like in an Insta photo.
Contrary to Pinterest’s pithy thoughts on the matter, style isn’t a “timeless” code of dress, or even particularly “grown up.” Some of the most stylish people I’ve ever met dress like high-tech ninjas mixed with codeine fiends. Rather, style is the strategy that you execute on every time you make the fashion choice to wear your boat shoes over your white sneakers, or vice versa.
Phew. Ok. With the boring stuff out of the way, let’s get on to today’s style topic: how clothing fits.
Remember – everything above was the boring stuff.
I've started this series discussing how clothing fits because it is the foundation of building a credible personal style. If you glean nothing else from this series, my blog, or sartorial advice in general, it should be the following: Fit Über Alles - Fit over everything.
How clothing fits your body is the single most important element of style in personal dress. No matter what you wear, no matter who you wear, you will be judged first by how it fits. It is the table stakes that allow you to develop the nuances that will come to define your personal style. I say “table stakes” because if what you’re wearing doesn’t fit, every other conceivable element of stylistic expression that follows is at best compromised, but more likely worthless.
Poorly-fitted clothing has the power to turn style icons into punchlines; just imagine the effect on someone who doesn’t have a retained PR staff to airbrush their gaffes.
It is for those reasons and more that I begin this series by talking about how clothing should fit. I intentionally chose an unconventional piece (drop-crotch pants) to illustrate my example because it better highlights just how overwhelmingly important fit is across fashion genres. Even when a piece doesn't "fit" (i.e. its proportions are different than typical pants), if it fits in a fundamental sense, it will look great on you.
Ergo, when it comes to developing your personal style and expressing that unique process and vision well through your wardrobe, fit isn’t just everything – it’s the only thing.
Now that you’re finally tired of hearing the word, let’s unpack what we mean by “fit.” We’ll start by dispelling two common misconceptions:
First and foremost: fit does not exclusively mean “tight.” Nor does it mean “tapered”, or “sleek”, or “cropped”, or any other evocative word that ultimately means form-fitting. Fit simply describes the way an individual garment was cut to hang on the body. If the way your clothing is cut matches your body type and measurements, what you’re wearing will compliment your proportions in a way that the designer specifically intended. For an extreme example, look at at the two men's suits below. They may challenge your idea of fit; regardless, both suits fit.
Every apparel maker, from Old Navy to Saint Laurent, has designers and pattern-makers who produce clothing based on their personal style and the population-wide standard distribution of neck, sleeve, and chest measurements that determine today’s standard sizing. If your body type fits their vision and your measurements align, ding-ding-ding-ding. In the broadest sense of the term, the congruency described above is what people mean when they say “fit.”
Misconception #2: no style of fitting is “timeless.” The most widely-accepted idea of “fit” has ebbed and flowed throughout the ages, from the voluminous (but “fit”) Zoot Suits of the 40’s to the cropped (but “fit”) Thom Browne suits of today. The basic garment remains a three-button men’s suit, but otherwise, little has remained the same. Look at the difference a mere decade made for the fit of what’s arguably the most conservative article of clothing a man will ever buy. Then try to imagine that effect on a more transient piece, like women’s cocktail dresses. Its borderline disingenuous to call a garment timeless when fashion’s notorious twenty year pendulum exists to change nearly everything. Sorry, fashion copywriters too complacent to find another word.
Before we devolve into nihilistic relatives, there’s still an objective handhold in all this “design vision” muddle: we are biologically wired to find athletic proportions ahem eye-catching. The physical traits defining human athleticism haven’t changed much in 300,000 years; therefore, the vast majority of people who aspire to “dress better” as part of a young adult self-improvement will subconsciously seek a slim fit that accentuates (not broadcasts) physical fitness.
This is both good and bad. The good: it provides a relatively impartial assessment that can realistically be accessed by the majority of the general population. Humans at every height, shape, and latitude can, through their own efforts and some informed shopping, achieve that fit (ex. it’s easier to buy a different cut of shirt than lose 40 pounds, grow 8”, and become Scandinavian enough to fit a Dior Homme suit). Simply put, you can change your habits – not your genome - to build a wardrobe around a widely-accepted idea of “fit.” That’s good.
And then there’s the bad: for many, their first experience with clothing that fits properly will indeed be with garments that they believe are too tight. The very same people who are trying to change their habits will often reject a change that fits because it feels different than what they’re used to. Amplified by the isolation of a store fitting room or an at-home unboxing, this initial rejection may mean the end of someone’s journey towards an understanding of fit and the creation of their own personal style. All because it’s different from what they’re used to.
Key term: what they’re used to. That familiar/unfamiliar paradigm has the nasty habit of turning people away from their correct size just because *gasp* something changed. In my opinion, this is a moot point, equivalent to a Titanic survivor claiming land was too dry for their newly-acquired tastes. You’ve recognized a potential improvement and you’ve decided to make change – of course it won’t feel the same as before. Unless the measurements of the garment are wildly off from yours and there’s fabric pulling and bunching around the seams, what may seem small is probably better than what once was. When your previous wardrobe consisted of “it might shrink”–sized Gildan Heavy Cotton tees, putting on properly-fitted clothes will indeed feel constricting. This is merely sensory habituation at work. Take a photo in the mirror, remove the real-time sensory feedback, and look objectively at the proportionality the clothing creates. Your “too small” clothes will be closer to that congruency described earlier than you think.
In other words, I promise you they are not too small.
So far, we’ve given a basic definition of fit, cleared up some misconceptions, and established a link between human nature and the Gildan t-shirt. The only thing that’s missing is a set of satisfying and definitive universals crammed into a numbered list. Unfortunately, there aren’t many easily-digested universals concerning “fit” – sorry, Buzzfeed.
There are, however, a few best practices that form a simple “back of the envelope” guide to developing a personalized understanding of what fits you, and therefore, building the foundation of your own personal style. So, for the grand finale, here are 7 easy rules about how clothes fit:
1. The closer you are to a population’s “average” height and weight measurements, the better your store-bought clothing will fit. Quite literally because it was made to. Thanks to a uniform shortage during the US Civil War, the American system of standard clothing sizes pulls measurements from a population-wide distribution of heights, widths, and lengths. If you’re a 5’10” 190lb American male, congratulations – off-the-rack clothing was truly made for you. Ditto for any 5’4” 140lb women out there. For anyone who doesn’t fit those oddly-specific criteria: not all is lost. Aftermarket clothing alteration is the most reliable way to get well-fitting clothes at a price lower than bespoke. Stores like Uniqlo will even do it for you at purchase, for free or pennies on the dollar.
2. Biology is the root and interpreter of all “that looks good” comments ever uttered. If you are in good physical shape, your clothes will look better on you. I do not mean this to be a commentary on the recent emergence of body positivity and “health at any size” movements. Clothing is designed to complement a designer’s vision of the body as canvas for their ideas. If that designer’s canvas is a fuller figure, even an Olympic swimmer would look absurd in the poorly-fitting finished product. Again, there are wide variances here based on both the designer’s intended fit and your own body type, but Christian Bale’s Machinist would still look sickly in a Hedi Slimane suit whereas an elite track athlete would find the slim profile compliments their slim, toned figure.
3. Proportionality is the fundamental notion of fit. Know yourself and your body type, and above all else, don’t just look in the mirror. Your brain is programmed to overcompensate your own appearance and quite literally show you an ideal version of yourself. For matters of proportion, use pictures to be the judge. It’s equivalent to using a stillframe from a video to focus on what’s important (you’ve seen CSI – zoom, enhance, etc.) Pictures remove both visual clutter and your brain’s real-time active adjustment process to give you an accurate idea of how the other 8 billion see you. If your features look too big or too small in a garment when photographed, it is likely because that garment is truly the wrong size.
4. Regardless of the designer’s vision, severity of taper always goes “inside-out.” A well-fitted “base layer” (undershirt, t-shirt, etc) will fit next to or close to your skin. Mid layers (OCBD’s, sweatshirts, etc) will generally be a pinky’s width away from your skin. Outerwear should rest comfortably on the outside of any layers beneath. Restrictive outerwear is the surest way to be miserable in motion, and will also make you look like Ralphie from A Christmas Story.
5. Don’t look like Ralphie from A Christmas Story.
6. Developing a sense of fit takes time and practice. Improvement takes general knowledge (which we’ve only begun to build), daily assessment, and a desire to learn. This will be a gradual process, and the moment you think you’ve got it down, you’ll see a style that contradicts most of what you just canonized and think “GOT DAMN life would be better if I dressed like that.” The difference between finding that new fit style then and now is that in the future, you’ll have your own developed idea of what fits you. As a result, your attempts to incorporate that new style will represent small modifications from a proven formula rather than this.
7. Don’t get style advice from Instagram. A vast majority of fashion bloggers have no clue about fit, and even fewer about some of the other more nuanced topics we’ll develop later in this series (namely, context and color palette). Remember: the only proven way to build a large social media following is networking, not competence. Instead, seek out professionally-curated sources. Look through designer or retailer’s lookbooks to get an idea of they want clothes to fit. For guys, I’d recommend the biannual J. Crew lookbooks and the monthly reddit “Top of WAYWT” threads. For girls, I’d recommend paging through Vogue, T Magazine, WSJ, or another reputable source where someone other than a single self-promoter decides what is published.
Thanks for reading! Did you enjoy the piece? The concept of the series? Anything you think I could clarify or otherwise improve? If you have feedback, please leave a comment below or on my Facebook page here.
As a reminder: this is only step one on a journey that will end with a thorough understanding of how to think about your personal style. Next time, we’ll begin building on the foundation developed here by talking about an outfit’s context. I’ll see you then.