7 Wardrobe Staples for Full-Figured Women

What should be in every plus-size woman’s closet? Start with these essential building blocks.

plus-size
Photo by Photo: Manfred Koh; Stylist: Mai Tran

Dark-Wash Jeans

Why? “Dark to medium washes look best on curvy figures,” says Amy Spivok-Richman, the Macy’s group vice-president who oversees the plus-size category for the department store. Lighter shades tend to spotlight bumps; deeper, uniform hues are more slenderizing.

What to look for: Forget trends. You want to pick a cut based on how it flatters your body. Denim that has a slight stretch to it will offer better control (and hold its shape longer). If you’re drawn to embellishments such as fading, whiskering, creases, and tears, keep their placement in mind: They will highlight that area of your frame. As for fit, you’ll know it’s right when nothing gapes, puckers, pulls, tugs, or (ouch) hurts.

White Dress Shirt

Why? The ultimate utility player, a crisp white dress shirt is chic, professional, and slimming under a blazer for work—and sexy when unbuttoned a bit lower and paired with a silk cami, statement necklace, and jeans for the weekend.

What to look for: “The quality of fabric is so important,” says stylist Nicole Brewer. “Choose something that’s sturdy with a little stretch—it should move when you do.”

Special Occasion Dress

Why? Because every woman should have dress-up garment that makes her feel smashing.

What to look for: “A great differentiating cocktail dress—not a classic,” says Marie Denee, founder of the style blog the Curvy Fashionista. “I call it my ‘freak ’em’ dress because it always looks good and makes you feel amazing.” The dress should not only play to your shape (see The Plus-Size Guide to Dressing for your best bets, in terms of silhouettes), but should also have some va-va-voom details: sheen, sparkles, or an ornamental neckline. One catch? Don’t confuse special with trendy: Avoid passing fads, such as a color like neon yellow, or you’ll soon be hunting for a replacement.

Pencil or A-line Skirt

Why? When it comes to skirts, the experts agree that these two shapes are the most flattering.

What to look for: If you carry weight on the bottom, “a clean, simple A-line skirt that gently skims over the hips and then falls comfortably to just below the knee or to mid-calf will balance out the silhouette and create an hourglass,” says Brewer. For a heavier midsection, a not-too-tight pencil skirt that starts at the natural waist and hits at the knee (or right below the knee)—worn with a blouse that silhouettes the body and has movement—accomplishes the same thing, says stylist Susan Moses.

Two-Piece Suit

Why? “A suit has the power to create shape, define the waistline, elongate the torso, and minimize the hips,” says Brewer. True, if you work at home or in a less corporate environment, you may not want to spring for one of the more formal styles—but the concept of a “suit” has loosened up over the years, so consider structured separates that can be worn together or combined endlessly with other pieces you already own (e.g., the pants plus a sparkly top equals date night, or throw the jacket on over a dress as a sweater alternative on chillier days). And if the occasion arises when you do need a suit—say, for a meeting with your boss or your child’s teacher—you have one.

What to look for: Maximum versatility. Denee recommends “a classic straight-leg trouser and single-button jacket in a seasonless color such as black, navy, brown, or gray.” (Sound too humdrum? Not once you’ve put your own stamp on the outfit with accessories and underpinnings.) You get what you pay for with this staple, so max out your budget to score the little details that will add polish and longevity: “I always check the fabrication—the lining or lack thereof, the reinforced hems, even the finishing on the buttons,” says Denee. “I want to make sure I’m going to get some mileage on these curves!”

Tunic Top

Why? “Tunics are great for clean lines around your upper body and providing coverage around hips and thighs,” says Brewer.

What to look for: The best styles draw the eye upward to focus attention on your face, according to Brewer, so think scooped, V-necked, or embellished necklines. Length matters, too. Make sure the hem doesn’t hang below the rear, says Spivok-Richman: “It will hug you and not look very attractive.” Fabrics with light stretch will help prevent pulling and tugging. “New hemlines like shark-bite [an inverted deep scoop that’s longer on the sides and shorter in the middle] and ruffles can both flatter and add a bit of interest,” advises Spivok-Richman.

Shapewear

Why? “Shapewear is a must-have!” says Frances Freixas, chief creative officer for national plus-size retailer Fashion to Figure, who notes that the majority of her sales staff wears the undergarments all day, every day. And why not: They suck you in, minimize lumps and bumps, create a smooth foundation for your clothing, and make you look generally trimmer. “Since our bodies change throughout the month, a variety of sizes might be a good idea to have in your shapewear arsenal,” says Brewer. “Make sure you have the right size for the right fit! Nothing should dig in or leave marks. Feeling uncomfortable should not have to be the price you pay to look good.”

What to look for: This ain’t your mama’s girdle. The modern version of the body-slimmer comes in almost every style imaginable, which means you can choose one that addresses your particular needs. For instance, high-waisted bike shorts—which begin just under the bra and end just above the knees—are especially popular with those who want control both up top and down below. Choose your desired coverage “in a material that’s both comfortable and has good memory. It should conform to your shape without any give or rolling up at the edges,” says Freixas. “Look for seamless, lightweight fabrications that blend spandex and nylon,” says Brewer. “Tactel is a new fiber that gives shapewear the smooth finish that’s ideal under body-conscious clothes.” Always try on shapewear before you buy it: You want pieces that allow you to sit, walk, and breathe normally. Shopping for a special event? Bring along your outfit to try on with the shapewear for the true test of what works best.

For more tips on plus-size dressng, see The 9 New Rules of Plus-Size Dressing and 47 Good Shopping Resources for Plus-Size Fashions.

(To buy: David’s Bridal beaded stretch-jersey dress, $179, davidsbridal.com.)