The key to making flattering clothes

posted in: Style advice | 7

When making clothes to fit and flatter your body you need to take body line (silhouette), proportions, scale, details, texture and colour into account. If you understand the impact of each of these factors on illusion then you can choose how you use this information. Not everyone wants to appear as tall and slim as possible – for example a tall slim person may not wish to emphasise their features. However we are generally trying, when creating our outfits, an illusion of balance and symmetry. We also want to create a harmonious look – this means that the elements of your outfit work together, but also that your fabric choices need to support the design choice you have made. Many women, when thinking or talking about their bodies, often emphasise their worst feature – my legs are fat/short, my neck is too long, my stomach sticks out, my thighs wobble etc. But actually it is a good idea to think – what do I like best about my body? Where do I want other people to focus?

Silhouette (the outside line)

The silhouette is the outside line of the garment and it is crudely either a square/rectangle shape, or more curved. It is a good idea to work with the curves or angles of your figure for the most pleasing look.

The degree of closeness to the body is known as the fit, and commercial patterns usually specify is something is closely-fitted, loosely etc so that you can decide what suits you and what you prefer. The more fitted the shape the more it emphasises the body inside – the less fitted the viewer will see the outline of the garment shape and perceive this first. For example a closely fitted sheath dress, especially if it is made in a clingy or stretch fabric will reveal or mimic your shape, whereas say a duffle coat will emphasise its own shape.

Stella McCartney has chosen a suit which emphasises the curves of her figure – wide, padded shoulders, a flared jacket with pockets that emphasise the hips and a very tapered waist, possibly achieved by corseting. The very narrow hem finishes just a few inches above her narrow ankles and the streamlined shape is supported by pointed shoes with very high heels.

Stella McCartney in Navy, waisted suit
Stella McCartney in Stella McCartney

Structure of the garment (interior lines)

While the overall silhouette is very important the lines within the garment are equally important. Look at the seaming on Stella’s jacket and skirt. Although one fabric is used throughout we can see how she has used seam lines to help create an even more tapered waist and hem line, and the pockets definitely serve to create width at shoulder and hip, narrowing the waist and thighs even more.

  • vertical lines create height – the longer/wider a line the more it will influence the look of the garment
  • pleats create vertical lines but they also add bulk (width)
  • horizontal lines reduce height especially when they cut the body in two. Use a horizontal at chest or hip level to make the shorter half of your body appear longer (eg hip length top if you have longer legs)
  • a diagonal line can lengthen, unless it is short – in which case it will widen
  • curved lines have a more subtle effect and work well with more shaped figures.


This includes the collar, pockets, the neckline, buttons etc. The small collar on the left gives some length to the face, but mainly emphasises the narrowness of the shoulders. The collar on the right both lengthens the neck and provides width at the shoulders  and upper body, compared to the dark coloured skin-tight trousers.


This means we play down any element which is out of proportion – for example women with wide shoulders could emphasise this by wearing halter necks to reveal their shoulders, or shoulder padding to build them up more. But it is more likely they might wish to balance the shoulders by putting greater emphasis on the hips of their garment. If your legs are relatively long and your body from the waist up is comparatively short then you could choose a longer line top, ending at the hips.

Scale, Colour and Texture

I have covered this previously. In the collar pictures above you can see immediately how the yellow and beige proceed, and the black recedes.




7 Responses

  1. symondezyn

    Great post, and so true! I am constantly learning – when I first started sewing I thought fitting was the only thing I had to learn – boy was I wrong! LOL. I know now that there are many styles that just don’t suit me, however I can push the envelope a bit with the right fabric, details, or style lines. But just when I think I “get” my body, I go and make some atrocious style or fabric choice! LOL As disappointing as that can be, it is such a great learning experience! 🙂 It can make you rethink carefully what really made the garment a fail – was it the style or just the colour? the fit or just the fabric? It is quite amazing how the exact same style can work or not work depending on the details, and how even a changing hairstyle can affect whether a style suits you or not 🙂

    LOVE that Stella McCartney jacket!! 🙂

  2. mrsmole

    I think Stella must be wearing a very tight corset under that jacket…who has a waist that small? Lovely suit! I wish all these concepts were taught in high school and not just in design school so the general public would have some idea of what looks best over the basic body they own! I remember a model friend of mine saying no woman should ever wear yellow pants…it will make everything you have look way bigger!

    • fabrickated

      Thank you for your feedback Mrs Mole. I really love this suit and I think Stella must have thought about it a lot. I also think her husband was dressed very carefully to enhance her slimness.

  3. Sewniptuck

    Excellent info yet again Kate – thank you. I’m thinking of that failed shift and know exactly why it wasn’t flattering, the proportions were awful. It seems to be like pursuing the holy grail when we make something that is the right pattern for the right fabric with the right lines doesn’t it?

  4. qplourde

    Very informative post! As I get older, I think I realize more and more that there are just some styles that will never look right on me (no matter what size and how fitted) and that’s okay. It’s great to be able to figure out what works…for the most part of course….and still get to experiment.

  5. Stephanie

    That Stella M. suit is quite interesting. At first I was thinking it was too angular, but the more I look at it I like it. The suit that I bought over Christmas is kind of a 50s Dior knock-off and very nipped in at the waist, so I don’t know why I wouldn’t like it! Possibly my favourite part of her outfit though is the shoes – lovely colour and texture and I love the toe. The lengths of the skirt is also interesting, and the seaming detail is amazing.

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