The Plus-Size Guide to Dressing

Green ruched dress with accessories and shoes
Photo: Manfred Koh; Stylist: Mai Tran

How to get the most flattering fit for a full-figured shape.

01 of 07

Which Shape Are You?

Green ruched dress with accessories and shoes
Manfred Koh; Stylist: Mai Tran

What woman wouldn't want a wardrobe of body-flattering clothes—outfits she can slip into confidently, knowing that her assets will be played up and the areas she loves less will be played down? But while there's plenty of dress-for-your-shape advice to go around, the majority of it either ignores plus-size women or lumps them together, as if their bodies were identical. (Memo to the universe: Not everyone size 14 and up should be wearing an Empire waist.)

In this guide, we'll break out full-figured body types into five categories, and then provide expert tips that key in to the specific requirements of each shape.

02 of 07

Body Type: Apple

Wrap dress with bag and shoes
Manfred Koh; Stylist: Mai Tran

Which is…: The majority of weight is carried on the top half of the body—especially in the middle, around the waist—creating a round appearance. In addition to a protruding tummy, many Apples have a larger bust and a wide back or rib cage. Legs and arms tend to be more slender.

The strategy: Divert focus from the midsection.

What to look for: "Scooped or V-necklines will create the illusion of a longer torso and a smaller waist," says Frances Freixas, chief creative officer for women's plus-size retailer Fashion to Figure. With jackets, "concentrate on slightly A-line styles that hit you at the hip with princess seams [vertical seams in front or back that give you a more waist-defining shape]," says celebrity stylist Susan Moses. Knee-length skirts and dresses with a subtle A-line shape—the widening of the silhouette should be gradual and not overly exaggerated—will minimize lumps or bumps.

Make boot-cut or straight-leg pants and jeans your go-to; a little volume on the bottom will balance out the top half. And "look for vertical patterns to elongate and draw the eye away from the middle," says Nicole Brewer, a style expert and former Biggest Loser contestant. A geometric print, like the one on the dress here, is designed to keep the eye engaged and camouflage the midsection. With solid-colored pieces, "break up" the torso region with simple details such as buttons or a layering piece like a vest or cardigan.

What to avoid: "Both too tight and oversize shapes can draw attention to a full tummy," says Brewer. While it may be tempting to focus on killer legs in an attempt to de-emphasize the waist, be careful how you do it: "Extremely slim-cut pants will emphasize the fact that the upper body is fuller," says Brewer.

Other no-no's:

  • Fussy details like pleats and pockets around the fullest areas (they'll draw attention and add bulk)
  • High-cut necklines (which spotlight your upper half)
  • Pencil skirts (they'll showcase your disproportionately smaller lower half)
  • Boxy jackets (the name says it all)
  • Belts worn at your natural waistline (a straight horizontal line highlights the span of the midsection; if you're a belt lover, wear one slung low on the hips instead)

Ultimate outfit: "A wrap dress to add definition to your figure, with a platform or wedge shoe," says Freixas. The criss-cross V formation of the wrap will provide a flattering shape up top while the shoes make the most of great legs.

(To buy: Calvin Klein polyester-blend dress, $109.50, macys.com; available mid-September. Ivanka Trump faux-leather shoulder bag, $195, zappos.com. Nine West leather pumps, $89, ninewest.com.)

03 of 07

Body Type: Pear

Black jumpsuit with shoes and accessories
Manfred Koh; Stylist: Mai Tran

Which is…: Weight is primarily carried on the lower half of the body, resulting in full hips and upper thighs, or a substantial booty (or often all of the above). Shoulders are typically narrower than the hips and there is a clearly defined waist. Here, the bust is frequently on the average to small side.

The strategy: Create a proportional silhouette by playing up your top half and accentuating your waistline.

What to look for: To strike a balance between top and bottom, aim for "structured jackets with slight shoulder padding, short jackets with shape at the waist, and tops with wide necklines such as ballet, boat, or square," advises Jodi Arnold, creative director of Eloquii, a plus-size fashion retailer.

Because they skim over the heaviest areas, these cuts are also pear-friendly:

  • Empire waistlines
  • Asymmetric hemlines that direct the eye upward
  • A-line skirts
  • Fit-and-flare dresses
  • Straight, full-leg, or boot-cut pants and jeans ("The line of the pant should fall straight down from the widest part of the hip to elongate the leg; wear lighter colors on top and darker colors on the bottom," says Arnold)

What to avoid: "Slim-cut or skinny pants will only accentuate the disproportion," says Brewer. Ditto for snug-fitting skirts, as well as pockets or any embellishments around the hips or bottom. And, she advises, "no jackets that hit at the widest part of the butt."

Ultimate outfit: The jumpsuit is especially flattering in a fluid fabric, belted to define the waist. "Keep the look monochromatic," says Brewer. Layer on a blazer to make it appropriate for the office (unless you work in a conservative, corporate environment), and to give it three-season wearability. An interesting collar necklace will focus attention upward.

(To buy: IGIGI polyester-blend jumpsuit, $148, igigi.com. GiGi New York embossed-leather clutch, $195, giginewyork.com. City Chic vinyl-and-metal belt, $25, citychiconline.com. Passiana woven-metal bib necklace, $40, passiana.com. Nine West nubuck wedges, $109, ninewest.com.)

04 of 07

Body Type: Straight (aka Rectangle or Pencil)

Black peplum top, blue skirt, shoes, and necklace
Manfred Koh; Stylist: Mai Tran

Which is…: The lines of the body run straight up and down; weight is distributed evenly on the top and bottom, with little definition or curvature at the waist. The shoulders and bust tend to be the same width as the hips.

The strategy: Use clothing to "create" curves in the right places.

What to look for: As with Apples, you want pieces that will make your waist appear narrower. "Wrap tops, surplice tops, deep scoop-necks, and V-neck tops are all great for helping to draw the eye downward, creating angles and giving the appearance of a waistline," says Moses, who has dressed celebrities including Queen Latifah, Wynonna Judd, and Gabourey Sidibe. (Bonus points for styles that have shape-creating finishings like ruching or princess seams.) Nancy LeWinter, editorial director of the plus-size shopping site OneStopPlus.com, suggests "tops with asymmetrical stripes, or feminine details like a ruffle on a classic cardigan to add softness."

Other good picks:

  • Fit-and-flare dresses
  • High-waisted pencil skirts
  • High-waisted pants
  • A-line skirts
  • Trumpet skirts
  • Full, long skirts
  • Boot-cut pants and jeans

What to avoid: "Skip anything straight-cut when it comes to jackets, skirts, and dresses," says Brewer. Garments that cling tightly around the middle will emphasize the lack of definition, as will belts worn smack on the midsection (picture the band on a cigar). A better strategy: Cinch a belt up high—just under the rib cage at what is almost everyone's smallest point—over a garment that flares out slightly from there to fake a curvier waist.

Ultimate outfit: With its gentle fit-and-flare shape, a peplum insinuates a waist. Pair it with a pencil skirt to create the illusion of curves. Adding interest in other areas—an open neckline, dangling jewelry—will move eyes away from your middle. Mimic the out-in-out silhouette of an hourglass shape with details that showcase your shoulders and base.

(To buy: ASOS Curve polyester-blend peplum top, $62, asos.com. IGIGI stretch nylon-blend skirt, $68, igigi.com. BaubleBar crystal-and-metal necklace, $48, baublebar.com. Chinese Laundry Kristin Cavallari herringbone slip-ons, $100, zappos.com.)

05 of 07

Body Type: Hourglass

Green ruched dress with accessories and shoes
Manfred Koh; Stylist: Mai Tran

Which is…: Fuller bust and fuller hips (and often booty) with a smaller, clearly defined waistline in between. Weight is usually distributed evenly between the upper half and the lower half.

The strategy: Flaunt your overall shape while de-emphasizing trouble spots.

What to look for: "Already balanced proportions need simple, streamlined silhouettes to flatter without overdoing it," says Brewer. Select cuts that follow your natural lines, like "peplums, shaped jackets, and wrap styles," says Amy Spivok-Richman, a Macy's group vice-president who oversees the plus-size category for the department store.

High-waisted skirts and belts will also help showcase your midsection: "A pencil skirt with strategic seaming [that visually shapes the skirt] looks amazing on an hourglass," says Moses. For jeans and pants, stick with slim-cut, body-skimming boot-cut or straight-leg styles with a mid-rise to show off your shape.

What to avoid: Oversize cuts, which will hide your curves, and ruffles or other frills around the bust that will just add unnecessary volume. "Cropped or Capri pants will make your thighs and lower leg look wider," says Moses. "Full skirts with busy patterns and belts that are worn low on the hip are also not flattering and will disrupt your natural proportions."

Ultimate outfit: An Empire-waisted dress with a ruched cut will contour and flatter your shape. Bonus: The body-loving silhouette and jersey fabric will show off the sexy curve of your hips.

(To buy: Kiyonna Plus Sizes rayon-and-spandex dress, $118, kiyonna.com. Calvin Klein leather tote, $198, macys.com. R.J. Graziano gold-plated earrings, $45, rjgraziano.com for information. Passiana metal bracelet, $120, passiana.com. Nine West faux-leather sling-backs, $59, zappos.com.)

06 of 07

Body Type: Inverted Triangle

Tunic top, wide-leg pants, shoes, and accessories
Manfred Koh; Stylist: Mai Tran

Which is…: The shoulders are broad and the upper torso tapers inward toward the hips (like the point of an upside-down arrow), making the upper half of the body appear heftier than the lower half. The hips, legs, and rear are often on the slimmer side, making the V-shape more pronounced.

The strategy: Direct attention away from the upper half and create balance.

What to look for: "Tops that accentuate the waist, like wrap tops and V-necks, will focus the attention downward," says Freixas. To fill out your lower half, try wide-leg pants, fit-and-flare-dresses, and A-line skirts, says Brewer. Choose jeans that have a slight taper to the knees, then a gentle flare toward the bottoms. Into colors and patterns? "Wear darker colors on top and use bolder colors for bottoms and shoes" to draw the eyes down, says Freixas.

What to avoid: Slim-cut and cropped pants exaggerate your shape by making legs seem puny in comparison to your upper frame. Crew-neck or wide boatneck collars will only accentuate shoulders, as will oversize collars, lapels, embellishments, and—no surprise—shoulder pads.

Ultimate outfit: "A tunic with a pair of wide-leg pants," says Brewer. With its somewhat columnar cut, a tunic "tones down the angles," she says, "so you don't sense where the broadness is." Wider pants, meanwhile, bring—here's that word again—balance, while a pendant necklace redirects the eye downward, away from the shoulders.

(To buy: Lane Bryant polyester tunic, $60, lanebryant.com; available mid-September. Lee Jeans curvy-fit jeans, $40, lee.com. R.J. Graziano metal-and-glass pendant necklace, $75, rjgraziano.com for information. Urban Expressions faux-leather clutch, $29, ebags.com. Fashion to Figure gold-tone cuff, $8, ftf.com for more information. ShoeDazzle faux-leather heels, $40, shoedazzle.com.)

07 of 07

What if I Also Have a…

White bra in pink box
Yunhee Kim

Small Bust?
Start with the foundation: a good bra. "If you are interested in enhancement, pick a slightly molded or padded bra," says Freixas. High or sweetheart necklines will add subtle volume—nix anything plunging. Draw the eye away from the chest with patterns, embellishments, or colors on the shoulders and arms. "Gathering at the waist and bandeau-style tops will also flatter," says Freixas. (Warning: If you're small-busted but also have a large tummy or broad shoulders, high necklines aren't for you—concentrate on sweethearts.)

Full Bust?
As with a smaller bust, well-fitting underpinnings are essential. (Get re-measured at least once a year to adjust for weight fluctuations or bra stretching.) Next step: Elongate the neck and narrow the width of your bust with "V" and "U" shapes at the neckline. Stay away from high necklines, boxy cuts, dolman sleeves, fussy details like pockets or ruffles, and large statement jewelry at the décolletage—which basically functions like a flashing neon "Check 'em out!" sign. "Wide-leg pants or long, flowy skirts will create a counterpoint to a large chest," says Arnold—just make sure those styles work for your overall body type. (If you already carry weight on your lower half, for example, adding excess fabric would be unflattering.)

Large Calves?
Mind your hemlines. Garments that hit right at the middle of the calves deliver a double-whammy: They draw the eyes to the widest parts of the legs while simultaneously making the legs look shorter. (You're better off with lengths that either graze the knees, or fall to the ankle or below.)

Skinny stilettos and ankle-strap shoes have the same unflattering results: The former look unbalanced on larger legs, the latter will visually cut the line of your feet, so they'll appear stubbier. "Stacked heels, wedges, or platforms will make your legs look longer and leaner," says Freixas. In the pants department, a slight boot-cut or flare will help balance the calves and thighs.

Full Arms?
"Three-quarter-length sleeves, elbow-length sleeves, and fitted but not overly tight jackets, blazers, and knits will provide flattering coverage," says Brewer. If your arms are full but toned, going sleeveless is another option—just avoid cap sleeves. "They tend to hit the arm at an awkward spot, making them appear larger than they really are," says Brewer.

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