The fabric illusionist – how different fabrics create different effects

posted in: Style advice | 1

The fabrics you choose for  your garments have a huge impact. Let’s look at a range of similarly-shaped dresses and skirts in plain fabrics. (All images from

1. Colour

Light v Deep

Many people believe that black makes you look slimmer and smaller. And this is true. But black can also make you look pasty and washed out, if your natural colouring is lighter, warm or muted. However you don’t need to resort to black to enjoy the slimming effects of darker shades. Any darker shades will make the wearer recede, whereas lighter colours make you stand out. A plain navy dress, with dark tights and shoes may be a good look if you are troubled by your weight, but consider using one of your lighter shades near your face, or one of your other colours for accessories like a belt or bag. It is worth noting that a straightish dress in a single plain colour will have an elongating look. If this is worn with tights and shoes in a similar colour this will give the longest, slimmest illusion. The same effect can be achieved with say trousers and a blouse, both in the same shade, again with matching shoes. This is quite a boring look, but if accessorised well it can work, especially for formal occasions.

hobbswhite hobbs blue



Warm v Cool

It is also true that cooler shades recede while warmer shades make a person look bigger. An orange dress, or pant suit for that matter, will make your body appear larger, while a blue dress, for example, will have the opposite effect.

hobbs orange hobbs blue

Muted v Bright

Bright colours again magnify the body, whereas more muted shades have the effect of making you appear slimmer. If you suit brighter shades rather than muted ones and you want to appear slimmer combine the brights with deeper or cooler shades.

hobbsmute hobbsbright

 2. Texture

Texture also has an effect on how “bulky” the figure will appear. A knobbly tweed will make a man look wider than say a superfine wool jacket, and here we see  a smooth light blue wool skirt compared to an embossed black leather one. These photographs also show the elongating effect of wearing a matching top and neutral shoes compared to a strongly contrasting black and white outfit with several horizontal lines (collar, waist, hem, shoes).

hobskirt9 hobskirt8


Also a firmer fabric with a lot of  structure will stand away from the body and create its own silhouette. While a stiffer fabric covers figure faults it is a bit like the highest common denominator – you will look as wide as your widest part. On the other hand a very soft clingy fabric will drape itself all over all your curves – spectacular if you have a very good shape, but not so nice if it reveals rolls of fat. For most of us something in between is best  – like Goldilock’s bed we want it neither too firm nor too soft but something in between.

Now let’s turn to pattern, or combining colours in a dress. This will produce a much more interesting look and will allow some creativity into your wardrobe. If you know what colours suit you a patterned dress containing these colours “does the work” for you. Have a look at my Pinterest pages to see some inspiring colour palettes which work with each colour direction. Patterns can also disguise figure faults very effectively as they break up the silhouette somewhat.

3. Scale

An important “rule” to bear in mind when choosing a patterned fabric to make into a garment is to consider the scale of the pattern. Small, petite men and women should choose small-scale patterns – a narrow pin stripe, or a ditsy pattern. A large man can choose a much wider pin stripe than a short, slim man. A larger woman needs a bigger pattern – the ditsy print will actually make her look larger. However if you are a bigger person who wants to wear a smaller print, or vice versa, this should work if the colours are not too “contrasty”.  The same thing works with tartan or plaid. Tartans are lovely and great fun to sew with but consider the scale of the check in terms of your own scale first – a larger person needs a larger scale.

Sylvie wearing a large pink and white Marimeko patterned dress
Sylvie, Customer Care Manager in Asset Management

Although the scale of this Marimeko print is large, worn with simple accessories and neutral shoes by Sylvie it makes a very nice hot weather outfit. Sylvie is French and an ace knitter. She also makes quite a lot of her own clothes so we like to talk about our projects over lunch from time to time.I bought this fabric on line, but decided the scale was too big for me.

I bought this Japanese fabric online, but I wish I hadn’t. On a computer screen it is hard to gauge the scale – I prefer to hold the roll or piece up and drape it across my body. This allows me to check the colour and see what the fabric would look like made up into a dress (or whatever). In the flesh I think the scale is too big with this fabric. Underneath I am wearing a Hobbs tartan skirt I “refashioned”.

It is usually true that vertical lines lengthen and slim, but stripes don’t always do this. There has been a surprisingly large amount of academic debate and experimentation on this subject. My view is it depends on the spacing between the lines and the amount of contrast in the divisions between the colours. Certainly if you use a horizontal stripe put the darker stripe across your thinnest part – usually the waist. I like stripes even more than tartans – everyone seems to wear Breton type tops these days, with the stripes running horizontally, and they are a very flattering look for all body types. For an interesting story about Breton tops see here.

4. Proportion

I  tried to make and wear a 1950s dress with a large sailor’s collar and a full skirt, made up in a pattern with a white background. It makes me look unpleasantly huge because the proportions are wrong on me. Especially the collar.

White 1950s sailor collar dress made from hand printed fabric
White 1950s sailor collar dress made from hand printed fabric

Such a sweet textile though – I love it! (Or does it look took much like an Emma Bridgewater tea-pot?) Maybe I can salvage it for something else – I printed the different colours on white sheeting with a tiny lino-print. Petite, narrow shouldered people need smaller, neater collars and other accents (pockets, belts etc) whereas larger people need larger accents. Also bear proportion in mind when choosing or making clothes with obvious design lines eg the waist position on a fitted dress. We tend to like uneven ratios such as 2:3 or 3:5.


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