Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How to go dress shopping

I've been asked a few times what my mental process is when I shop for a dress. After my Dress Project and years of dress buying, I think I've learned a lot from trial and error for what works on my body. Keep in mind, I'm not an expert on fashion, so I'm not going to know what exactly will work for your specific body needs, and these tips aren't going to be the be-all, end-all of what works for everyone. Again, it can be a lot of trial and error. However, these are general things that I think about whenever I do go shopping for a dress.

 Before you go:
1) Dress comfortably: Shopping around all day and trying on clothes requires comfy clothing that can be taken off pretty easily. I usually wear a simple dress and a scarf (for those stores with chilly A/C) and flats, which can all be taken off in the dressing room quickly without many problems.

2) Be prepared: If you know what you'd like to wear along with the dress, bring those along in a tote bag or bigger purse. Examples include shoes, a convertible bra, camisole, Spanx or the right kind of underwear. It sucks to try on a dress and not know if it will work at home because I've got the wrong underwear or shoes on (this happened when I went wedding dress shopping -- I forgot the shoes I wanted to wear). When I go shopping, I usually make sure I'm wearing a convertible, nude bra and nude-colored underwear beforehand.

3) Draw from inspiration: If you've got a particular type of dress in mind, bring magazine clippings or drawings of what you're looking for, so that store consultants will know what you want and will be able to better help you. If you see a dress on a celebrity that you love, bring that picture in -- maybe your department store will have a similar garment but with a cheaper price.
     You can also do this for personal features. I do try to find images of celebrities that have some similar features as me -- such as skin coloring, hair, height, body size, etc. -- so that I can have a good idea of what may also look good on me. For example, I sometimes look to America Ferrera's sartorial choices for inspiration.

Things to consider about the dress:
1) Occasion: Know what kind of event you're trying to shop for -- is it school, work, casual or a special occasion? If it's for an everyday event, I try to think of at least three places that I can wear the dress to (such as work, an interview or a networking event) so that I can get enough wear out of the garment. If it's a special occasion (such as a wedding or shower), you have to consider the event's location and time, and decide what elements to include in the dress from there. For a special occasion, I would consider a dress that has a subtle print, is solid-colored or has an interesting texture so that I can re-wear the item again but with different accessories.

2) Fit: Make sure the dress is comfortable enough that it doesn't squeeze you, but not loose enough that it doesn't show any body definition. Clothing companies do not have the same sizing measurements across the board, so when shopping, go for the size that you are most often. And if need be, try to grab the range of sizes close to yours, in case you need to move up or down a size. It's okay to move up a size if it will fit your body well in certain places such as your arms and chest area -- a tailor can also take in the dress if it's bigger in other places.

3) Length: I'm 5'4" in height, which is borderline petite-average height, so the length of dresses is often the most important thing I keep in mind when I'm shopping. I usually go for dresses that hit right at or a couple inches above the knee, because that length works best on my height and doesn't make me look shorter. And again, if it fits well but is way too long, this can be easily altered.

4) Cut: This can depend on what works best for your body and the occasion. Some dress types out there: Empire waist dresses feature a higher waistline, which give a streamlined look on the midsection and hide the stomach area. Sheath dresses are a little tighter around the body (much like a pencil skirt), which can show off curves. Another thing to consider with cut is to decide what body assets you'd like to highlight. Whether it's your shoulders (halter, sleeveless), legs (cocktail-length) or cleavage (halter) there's a dress style out there for that.

5) Color: This is another feature that can often be dictated by what occasion you're buying the dress for. Dark or neutral-colored dresses work well in office environments because they can be worn often and customized with a change of accessories. Bright or patterned dresses look great at social functions and special occasions because they seem cheerful and festive. However, you don't always have to follow these guidelines -- if you've got a favorite color, or colors that look great on your skin tone, wear them as much as you want. I tend to go for jewel tones, especially turquoise dresses.

6) Texture: This can often be figured out by what occasion the dress is for and where the event will be held. Wool, cotton and silk work well in work environments; chiffon, brocade and taffeta are often used in special occasion-type dresses. But that's not to say you have to follow this dictum: the fashion rules are changing, and some of these fabrics can work for many different occasions. Go for what you think feels best on your body.

When you're in the dressing room:
1) Move around: When I'm in the dressing room, I do a pantomime: I sit, stand, bend over, jump and dance in my dress, all while looking at its contours in the mirror. Knowing what the dress looks like in movement will help you decide whether it'll be appropriate for the situation you're going to be in.

2) Ask yourself: Do you really love the dress? Do you think it looks amazing on your body? Could you wear it more than once? Could you leave the store without the dress and not think about it afterward? If you answered yes to the first three and no to the last question, consider buying the dress. If you're only feeling so-so, move on and keep looking for the dress that works best with your body.

Further reading and inspiration:
- "How to Buy a Dress" -- Love to Know Buy
- "How to Buy a Perfect Little Black Dress" -- EHow
- "Why you should befriend your tailor" --  Already Pretty
- Dresses for Day; Dresses for Evening -- Academichic
- "Style Vocab: Shift vs. Sheath and more" -- Washington Post

Do you have any advice whenever you go dress shopping? Please share them in the comments!

signature1 by you.


  1. You really do know the ins and outs of dress-buying. I never thought to bring along the bra I would wear. Seems so simple!

  2. great tips! Also consider if you've found a "perfect" dress that just needs a little alterations. Maybe adding a button detail or removing some kind of embellishment without damaging the dress.
    For example, i got a great little summer dress in puerto rico but the detail on the neckline was irritating my arms b/c it went all around. So I just snipped it off and voila, comfortable, cute dress.

  3. i love those photos. ahahah. so happy.

    i have this huge polo dress i always wear when i shop. It's comfy and trying on shorts and skirts are easy.

    I am Denise Katipunera

  4. So this post was so interesting to me because you put so much thought on what to take into account when dress shopping. I do none of the things you listed and just go with the flow!! Very seldomly will I think "what shoes would go with this" or "is it too fancy" or "don't I have enough dresses"!! It's ridiculous I know, but this helped make me think more about how random I can be in my shopping!


I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Related Posts with Thumbnails