No more tears at H&M
March 20, 2012 6:21 PM   Subscribe

Help me avoid a fitting room meltdown.

Recent shopping forays have left me literally crying in the dressing room, but I simply cannot put off buying clothes any longer. I made it through winter with three wool skirts for work and two pairs of Old Navy jeans, but I'm starting a new job soon and need a whole bunch of springtime business casual and weekend clothes.

This should be exciting, right? It's not, though. Two long stretches of unemployment have left me hesitant to spend money on non-essential things, and in general, I do not enjoy looking at my body in the mirror. Especially under fluorescent lights.

In short, I have no idea how to manage--logistically and emotionally--buying a lot of clothes in the next few weeks. I do have a tentative budget in mind, and I'd like avoid buying online. As much as I hate it, I need to try things on!

So, please help with Shopping 101:

1. What are your best logistical strategies for doing a lot of shopping? For instance, should I hit a bunch of stores in a day, or one store a day for a week? I assume a list would be a good thing?

2. What should I do in the actual store? I generally do a lap around the entire store, then go back to items I like (and that I consider affordable) to take them into the dressing room. The downside to this method: I usually talk myself out of trying things due to their expense, practicality, or similarity to something I already own. What's a better approach? Should I try on everything I like, even if I think it won’t look good on me? How many sizes of an item should I take in to try?

2. What are your suggestions for avoiding a defeatist, "I hate my body" attitude when trying on clothes? I know that’s a big question, but basically, I'm looking for ideas on staying upbeat and optimistic when it feels like I will never again find a dress that fits properly. Crying in H&M was kind of a low point, you know?

Your advice and suggestions are much appreciated. In case anyone has location-specific tips, I'm in NYC.
posted by serialcomma to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (45 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I don't really have a suggestion for #1 and #2, but (and honestly this may sound flippant but I promise it's not), a drink and some heels make ALL THE DIFFERENCE.
posted by mckenney at 6:26 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have this problem, all the time. I'm always in between sizes and it drives me mad. If you have the time and the extra $$, don't forget you can buy many items a bit larger and have them tailored. Often times it takes a "meh" piece of clothing and makes it look fantastic.
posted by fillsthepews at 6:31 PM on March 20, 2012

This is what online shopping was made for!! You buy tons of stuff, qualify for free shipping, try it on at home, and return it in store. Then you can see what goes with what you already have, what shoes/accessories you'd wear, lighting is normal, it's awesome. I love Land's End for this -- their sizing corresponds well to the meausurements on their site, and you can return anything that doesn't fit to Sears. Land's End Canvas especially has some cute stuff.
posted by jabes at 6:34 PM on March 20, 2012 [11 favorites]

First, start by making a specific list of what you're looking for. (If you're not sure yet, then the true first step is to inventory your closet - maybe even take everything out to try stuff on -- to figure out what you've got. You might look at blogs or fashion mags, or just sit down and think about your specific needs for work, casual, formal, or whatever your situation is.)

Then make that list: black knee-length skirt, pale cardigan, one pair of khakis. Carry that list with you. Even print out/tear out relevant pictures if that'll help you remember exactly what you're looking for.

Then hit one or two stores at the best possible time. For me, that means if I go to a mall I go right when it opens. Or I go to a department store on a weeknight around 8pm. Figure out when you have the most energy and resilience, and go then. DO NOT OVERWHELM YOURSELF. If one store is all you can handle, then just do that, and spread out this entire endeavor.

Lastly, when you find something great -- meaning, it's on your list, it FITS, it's in your budget range -- then consider if you want to buy multiples. And once you've found the brands you like, then note them for the future. Maybe even write them down and/or add them to the list for next time. (That'll help you with sizes in the future, too -- in brand x you're a size 1, in brand z you're a size 2, etc.)

Good luck.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:37 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

ASOS is your friend (especially if you can wait a week or so for the items, since they will take a bit of time to ship).

It's free shipping both ways in the US, so you can buy a few things to figure out what size you are on their site, and then try things on in your house, with your good lighting!

Did I mention free shipping both ways? ;)
posted by too bad you're not me at 6:38 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do you have someone who could go with you to provide "emotional support?" It's most helpful when this someone loves shopping, knows the stores' inventory, and knows what will look good on you.

Also, chat with the sales people in the store. They may have suggestions for you.

If something works for you, consider buying it in a different color too.

Remember, you don't have to buy everything before the new job starts. You can start with the bare minimum and add to it. You can even get rid of the clothes (donate, swap) that don't end up working for you.
posted by oceano at 6:40 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since you mention having Old Navy Jeans, I think this is important to say: Old Navy sizing sucks. I actually have a lot of their clothes and shirts from them range from smalls to xl even though I have stayed pretty much at the same weight. Try on everything you will purchase there as it saves heartache and returns later. Additionally I have some stuff from them (like t shirts) that I thought, "oh this is the same as the one I bought last year" only to purchase and find out that almost the exact same thing looks like crap for some reason and my old ratty tshirt looks better. Please don't get discourage if something in the past from them no longer looks good or fits right in the store.
posted by raccoon409 at 6:41 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the problem may be that you're going to stores that make crappy, awkward fitting clothing that doesn't look good on most people. (You mention Old Navy and H&M; they are cheap, but you get what you pay for.)

I generally have good success going to the clearance racks of the good stores (or at least the medium-grade ones). Try the stores that you would generally skip because their general pricing is too high, and just go straight to the sales. I recently got a $40 sweater that I love and fits perfectly for $8, for example.

This also depends on your body type. What is the main problem you're running into -- I bet if you describe your body type, people will have good suggestions for what specific stores carry items that look good on that body type.

When I go shopping, I grab items as I look around. If there's a particular item that I need, I might pay a little more for it, but generally I try not to pick things up that aren't on sale. When I have too much to carry (or I've finished looking around), I head to the dressing room. Sometimes I try on 30 items and find nothing that fits -- I think that's pretty common! So don't be discouraged by it (although I know the feeling well, and it sucks).
posted by DoubleLune at 6:53 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Make a list, definitely. Go with Tim Gunn's essentials: Basic black dress, trench coat, classic dress pants, classic white shirt, skirt, blazer, day dress, cashmere sweater, jeans, and a comfortable alternative to a sweatsuit. You can modify this list based on what you already have and what you need for work, ie, if your workplace is more casual, you can substitute business casual pants for dress pants, or if you don't like dresses, you can get a colorful top instead. For work, basics like cardigans, pants, and cute flats or heels in a few colors can go a long way towards making a ton of outfits.

See if you can go with a friend who can help you decide on things. We are often our own worst critics, and sometimes a friend with fresh eyes can help you see that something is flattering (or tell you if it's not). Take a couple of sizes of each item into the dressing room and remember that sizing means almost nothing these days - sometimes the same item in the same color and size will fit differently!

For NYC-specific recommendations, definitely go to Lord & Taylor on 38th and 5th. They have a TON of office-appropriate clothes and they are always having a sale. You can go to their website and print an in-store coupon, or just show up there and tell the sales associate you forgot your coupon. I get almost all my work clothes there. Remember, even if the item is a little more expensive than you're used to paying, better quality items will last longer, so will cost less in the long run. For other inexpensive options, try Joe Fresh on 5th between 16th and 17th. They have decent quality items for low prices and (in my opinion) it's a little better in quality than H&M.
posted by bedhead at 6:54 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is what online shopping was made for!! You buy tons of stuff, qualify for free shipping, try it on at home, and return it in store. Then you can see what goes with what you already have, what shoes/accessories you'd wear, lighting is normal, it's awesome.

Yep, this is exactly what I did last year after going back to work after a period of disability -- I was too weak to do any intensive shopping trips, plus I had lost weight so I didn't know exactly what size I was any more. I ordered a ton of stuff from places like Banana Republic, Loft, Gap, etc. where I could get free shipping, tried everything on at home, then returned everything that didn't work in-store over the course of a few weekends when I felt up for it (most major retailers have 60- or 90-day return policies, so you'll have plenty of time). Just save the receipts and don't cut the tags off till you know you want to keep something.
posted by scody at 6:54 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not your body that sucks. The ill fitting clothes are simply not awesome enough for you to be seen in them. *hugs*

I second going with a supportive friend.
posted by mollymayhem at 7:02 PM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Nthing online shopping. Zappos (not just for shoes anymore) has free shipping both ways and their stuff comes really fast.
posted by Wordwoman at 7:02 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is pricey (well, maybe not, my perception is a little warped) but you should go to the nearest White House / Black Market and do it when they're not busy. Their sales people are PHENOMENAL. They generally have a healthy sale section. They will give you everything in the store that they think MIGHT look good on you and then style you to the nth degree. I feel bad turning them down sometimes, but really, they do a good job. I ALSO took pieces in there with me that I was trying to pair up. Again, they were super and helped me a lot. AND they have shoes in there, so you can try on dresses with heels.

Cannot stress enough my experience with the niceness and general excellent quality of their sales people. I'd go there first to get a feel-good buzz going and then hit Macy's or whatever.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:04 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know your pain, and I think I've mostly conquered my version. First, I shop in bite-sized chunks, not in one big trip. That way if things go badly at one store the whole situation doesn't snowball and turn the whole situation nasty; if I'm feeling down and cranky after store #3 I'm certainly not going to find anything at all at store #5 and then I'm just wasting my time. (In general, much more frequent bite-sized shopping was essential in helping me overcome my general aversion to it -- it took the pressure of "I have to find something right now but I can't if I leave I'm a failure if I stay nothing will fit!" off, which helped me focus on the more positive elements and gave me the flexibility to walk away if I didn't find anything.)

For #2, I recommend lists. The first list are specific pieces you're looking for -- going in without a filter is a sure sign to feeling overwhelmed. I sometimes go as specific as, "today I'm looking for casual tops with a large-print pattern," but even something as "I need something pink" or "today is cardigan day!" can be useful. That list helps me focus my attention on a narrower pool of options, which keeps me more upbeat since I'm not focusing on things I might like but don't fit me. It also helps me focus less on price; if everything in the store is an option I feel I should hold on to that $50 in case something better comes along, but if I'm only looking for brown pants then it's okay to spend that money. (I'll get to the second list you'll need in a minute.)

Also, you should talk to the salespeople. They're going to push you to buy things, but that's good because you want to buy things! They spend a lot of time looking at different body shapes, are very familiar with their inventory, and most are very friendly and genuinely interested in helping you, so trust their advice. When you go in and someone says hi, tell them what's on your list: "I'm looking for a blazer, but I'm really not sure what would look good on me. Can you help?"

For #3, you want to create a second list about yourself. This list is about the parts of your body you want to emphasize. Shoulders, waist, arms, eyes, skin tone, bust, hips, calves, height, wrist, collarbone, anything. Focus on those things in the dressing room. Your ideas about clothes are probably "hide the parts about my body I don't like," but push yourself to change that idea to "I want it to highlight the parts about me that I really like." Those highlights are your number one concern in the dressing room, not whatever you feel uncomfortable about. Train yourself to look first at those parts of your body, not at the other ones. And I can't stress enough: there's absolutely nothing wrong with your body, it's the clothes.

Finally, you should shop at higher-quality stores over fast-fashion ones like H&M or Old Navy. I know it'll be a big change, and the price tags a real shock, but it will make a big difference over the long-run. Cheaper stores let you buy more in a few big binges, but just reinforce awful shopping experiences. More expensive stores have better-fitting clothes, consistent sizing, more helpful and knowledgable staff, and better quality so you can hang on to a piece for a long period of time. You're not looking to completely replace your wardrobe in 2 weeks; you're looking to slowly integrate high-quality pieces over time. Get on as many mailing lists as you can, and pay attention to sales and clearance racks in-store and online; you will eventually find amazing deals.
posted by lilac girl at 7:09 PM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

My suggestion: Try everything on. Ok, not everything, but much much more than you want to buy. Chances are that 80% of it is going to look like crap but be heartened that probably only 20% of stuff looks good on anyone. Luckily, its usually different 20%s of stuff. So try on way more than you need and you may be surprised at what hidden gems you come up with.

And when things look horrible, you should genuinely not think that it is your body. Because there are clothes out there that can make any body look good. Those jeans look bad? Ask yourself 'who on earth would make pants that makes the wearer's thighs look so wide?!' Be indignant at the poor planning on the part of the store or designer.
posted by hepta at 7:10 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your first trip should be for foundations: that way, when you go in for the bigger stuff, you're prepared with your shopping ninja outfit: a properly fitting bra--better yet, "shapewear," loooove Flexees camisole--tights or hose, comfortable but presentable slip-on shoes, jewelry, and whatever street clothes that you already feel are somewhat flattering and easy to get in and out of. And a little makeup, if you don't usually bother.

This shopping uniform is helpful because you'll already be feeling a little better about how you look, and also because you'll be prepared for the clothes you're looking for. A lot of that stuff relies on a solid base layer. Joan Holloway doesn't just slip those dresses over a sports bra and jockeys.

and I fucking hate shopping.
posted by mimi at 7:15 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

For starting a basic uniform, I'm a fan of buying multiple pieces in different colors (and I have been known to get three pairs of the same black pants).

Also, bring a pair of shoes you are likely to wear with the outfit, especially for pants.

Also, don't forget that you can get things hemmed or taken in if they don't fit just right, for not a lot of money. I have altered my fair share of $15 clearance pants from New York & Co and gotten way more than my money's worth out of them.
posted by elizeh at 7:17 PM on March 20, 2012

when you shop in stores, wear a bra that fits really well, and a pair of panties with extra lycra. It will help you get in and out of pants with less hassle. Wear makeup so you look nice in the mirror, and keep your hair as low-maintenance as possible - ponytail? - because it will get wrecked by things you pull on and off. Wear comfy shoes, maybe bring a pair of nice shoes to get pants' length right. Wear a light tshirt, and nothing fussy.

Take lots of stuff to the fitting room. Go to a Dept. store and see what lines of clothes fit best and suit your style. Try on anything that appeals to you, as well as some coordinated outfits. If you find something you like, try on multiple colors. Maybe buy an extra top if something goes really well with a skirt or pants.

Online, - great service, quality stuff, no charge for shipping, - versatile, great service, return stuff at Sears, - has great pants, but charges a lot to ship, and doesn't have great sales, for shoes. I agree about shopping at better stores than Old Navy, etc. Quality clothes will fit better and last longer.

Don't go for volume. Buy 3 - 4 great outfits, see how others dress. Treat yourself to a new bra or 2, and new panties; it makes you feel better in the morning. And old stretched out underwear doesn't improve how your clothes look. You're really cute, and being way too self-critical; go invest in some pretty new clothes, and congratulations on the new job.
posted by theora55 at 7:26 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have a weird suggestion based on how I shop that might help. People are suggesting a list, but I'd suggest going list-less. Most of my frustration with shopping comes because I want something specific that I can't find (e.g. black cardigan with buttons not zipper, no ruffles, no collar, no scoopneck, under $50). What I want and can picture in my head either doesn't exist (this season) or it doesn't fit or it's more money than I want to pay.

So just try stuff on. Pick patterns or colours or fabric (or prices! I am a cheap shopper and just basically check out the sale racks and then leave stores) that you're drawn to and try it on. But no pressure. You're just seeing how well the designers made the clothes. Sometimes (often) clothes are cut weird. Laugh at the stupid designers who obviously have no idea that women with x-sized waist obviously have y-sized calves or who don't seem to understand butts.

Stop for a break midway through shopping for a drink or snack or whatever. Watch the people for a bit. Relax.

Then continue. But not for too long. Say, three stores, break, two stores. Done.

Also, for sure bring a friend (if you have a fashionable, nice one). I love shopping for other people (better than shopping for myself in fact) and will make my friends try on things that are out of their comfort zone. But they end up buying them. Probably not a sister unless you want brutal honesty. Although if you have a sister, you're probably used to that.
posted by hydrobatidae at 7:35 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

2. What are your suggestions for avoiding a defeatist, "I hate my body" attitude when trying on clothes? I know that’s a big question, but basically, I'm looking for ideas on staying upbeat and optimistic when it feels like I will never again find a dress that fits properly. Crying in H&M was kind of a low point, you know?

Always, always bring multiple sizes of a clothing item into a dressing room. You should be trying on the size you think might fit and also one larger. I agree that you should also be picking up everything you have even a mild interest in to try on (again, in multiple sizes).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:42 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I really like this book - it's called The Pocket Stylist and was written by a professional stylist. See if you can find it at the library -- I copied the section that applied to me and skimmed the rest.

She breaks things down by body type, gives you a basic list of must-haves based on your body type and ideas for work wardrobes, and has lots of really practical tips. One I liked is to take a tape measure with you -- measure things before you even try them on, and if the waist is way off, leave it on the rack! Please remember that women's sizing is awful - AWFUL - there is no consistency, it really is just a random number. She talks a lot about mixing high-low stuff, too, which might be useful -- have you considered shopping at resale or consignment shops? I would probably break out in hives if I had to buy so much at once, and I'd probably shop resale just to keep my $$$ stress from going through the roof. :)

You might be able to make a small wardrobe go further than you think, too. Start small, only buy things you like, and add scarves, solid-color tops, and a good tailored jacket to mix it up.

Last but not least, have you been to a good bra shop lately for a fitting? A couple of new bras and maybe some shapewear might give you fresh confidence in the fitting room.

Good luck, and congrats on needing clothes for work. It'll get better!
posted by hms71 at 7:55 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

For #1, since it's already been stressing you out, it sounds like doing one store and then doing something else to de-stress would be better than trying to do umpteen stores in one go. (Maybe we should have an NYC mefi meetup shopping day expedition? I feel like we've had a few of these questions recently, we should all combine forces.)

For #2, personally, I always try on way more things than I buy. Especially the things that are too expensive or impractical to warrant buying - if they look great, then I can at least have the fun of preening at myself for a minute, and if they turn out to look awful then I can sneer at how overpriced it is. For sizing, I find it completely depends on the brands. With tops or dresses, I can generally figure out which size to try. For pants, I'll bring in at least three sizes to figure out what my size is for that brand this year/season, and see if any of them are comfortable & nice-looking.

What are your suggestions for avoiding a defeatist, "I hate my body" attitude when trying on clothes?

Have you ever watched TLC's "What Not To Wear"? This comes up in a lot of episodes - if you have the channel, there are repeats daily. I remember one in particular where the make-over-ee was always wearing boxy shirts & shorts and the host (Stacy) was trashing how the outfit made her look short & stumpy, and she was kind of nodding her head and visibly wilting, but then Stacy stopped her and said something like "You need to understand, I am not talking about the shape of your body - I am talking about the shape you are choosing to make with these clothes." That phrase always stuck with me.

I mean, if you try on the same shirt in two different colors, and one of them makes your skin look like you've been zombified, would that defeat you, or would you be able to shrug it off with a "well, that is clearly NOT my color"? Fit is the same way. Something that looks spectacular on one body type would look totally unflattering on another. So, when you look in the mirror and dislike what you're seeing, you have to find a way to put the negativity onto the clothing (i.e. "This skirt makes my belly look big" rather than "ugh, look at how big my belly is").

And, I agree with everyone about getting a bra fitting first thing, even if you think you know your size, it's amazing how a change can creep up on you over time.
posted by oh yeah! at 8:03 PM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Go shopping with a tape measure. Because of vanity sizing, clothing sizes are pretty much meaningless these days and you end up having to try on way more stuff to find something that fits. If you are already feeling stressed, all the pieces that don't fit just make you feel worse. So, measure yourself ahead of time, and carry a little tape measure - they make ones that are keychain sized, even. if your waist is 40 inches, then you want to try on pants with a waistband that measures over 20" when they are folded flat. One quick zip with the tape can save you 5 minutes in a changeroom!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:05 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

My two cents:

Start with a budget. But have a maximum and a minimum.

Go to all the stores over a period of days, and make a list of everything you like with no regard for cost (or do this online).

Then compare your list to your budget, trim as needed, and take a trip back to the store to buy things without even trying them on again. Finit.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 8:30 PM on March 20, 2012

Are you anti-thrift store? I get tons of compliments on my wardrobe, and 90% of it comes from thrift stores. The ones where everything is arranged by size, so I can just go to one section rather than having to run all over the place.

Also, I don't think that anyone looks good under those flourescent lights. Ugh. I just try to remember it's the lighting, not me.
posted by sugarbomb at 8:30 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wear good underwear. Wear the sort of underwear that you'll be wearing under your work clothes. I wear many dresses at work and with them my Spanx, so when I go shopping, I wear my Spanx. And heels because I need to know how I'm going to look in the real world.

Make a list. You need to decide if you're big into pants, into dresses, whatever and then look through a few magazines to get some ideas of how you want to look. When you get into a store, take a look at the mannequins at the front. Those girls are wearing the trends. You don't have to wear the trends if they don't suit you, but it'll give you a sense of what colours and shapes you're going to see more of.

When I see something in my size that has a decent chance of working on me, I grab it and get someone in the store to start me a room. Don't schlep if there's someone around willing to do it for you. Try everything on and get a sense of what you love, what you like and what doesn't work. Then you get practical in terms of cost. Don't forget to check the washing instructions on things. Are you willing to hand wash? Can you afford to dry clean half your new clothes? What needs to be tailored? That's part of the overall cost so if you're on a budget, you need to consider it. But be willing to spend a bit of money for quality clothing. There is a huge difference between what you get at Old Navy and what you get at a slightly higher end store. Quality matters when you buy basics because you will wear them into the ground.

Also, when I have to do alot of shopping, I take pictures of what I've bought so when I'm in another store, I can mix and match items without having them with me. And I like to shop when its quieter so weekday mornings are probably the best bet.
posted by GilvearSt at 8:33 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

1. do you have any friends who love shopping who could accompany you? Some people love to do this and having that extra input can be super helpful. The extra pair of hands to bring you more sizes and pull out things you might have overlooked is a total blessing especially when you hate shopping.

2. Do you know what styles / things you are looking for?
Make a list & or tear photos from magazines of the kinds of things you think you might want so that you'll be better prepared to ask for help and show people what you want. You might consult some sites about what people consider bare bones wardrobe basics. If you need bras get those first and wear them when you go to buy your new clothes.

3. Like hms71 says take a tape measure with you. If you measure clothing you already own that you know fit well in key areas like waist and bust you can use that as a starting point for sizing and hopefully spend less time in the dressing room. Also it might be worth checking with a local tailor to see the prices on alterations - adjusting pants length and sleeve length can usually be done for not that much $$. Also some store and department store have an in house alterations department that can be cheap.

4. Dress for comfort when you're shopping - for me that means lightweight crossbody bag, tops and pants and shoes that are reasonably easy to get out of. Shops and dressing rooms tend to be annoyingly warm so I usually go as light as I can with the outerwear and bring a water bottle.

5. Smaller shops may be easier for you to deal with vs. H&M and Old Navy where there are piles and piles of trendy merchandise. I think you'd be able to get better help with fit and suggestions on sizing from places like Banana Republic or Ann Taylor Loft where there are fewer styles to keep track of. Other options might be more conservative stores like Lands End, LL Bean, Talbots or Eddie Bauer where they offer extended sizes online (petites, plus, petite plus even in some cases) in case that is affecting your fit issues. I think these stores are less like to drastically recut classic pieces or change sizing between seasons so if you find something you lie you may be able to buy the same thing later. Some of these offer pretty detailed fit info in their descriptions and you can sometimes even call and get garment measurements for specific sizes.

I'd try on everything you think you'd like. Even if it's impractical or expensive. It'll give you a better sense of what colors and shapes look good on you (and which don't) so you can make good decisions before the dressing room. I usually grab at least 2 sizes before heading to the dressing room - a tape measure will help a lot here to get the closest sizes. If I had this to do I'd probably do 1 long day and try to get it over with. good luck with your shopping.
posted by oneear at 8:34 PM on March 20, 2012

The key thing here is to find the right cut of skirt, blazer and heel for YOUR body.

I wear only A-line skirts, cropped jackets, and pointed-toe heels-- the difference between the way I look in those items of clothing and oversized boyfriend blazers, knee-length pencil skirts and rounded-toe pumps is HUGE! I look so much uglier it's ridiculous! But because I'm short and my legs are also kind of short, I must avoid most cuts of clothing.

So you need to go somewhere with a lot of clothes and find the exact style of clothing that suits you and then buy a few pieces in your size. Good places to start are J.Crew, LOFT and especially a consignment store or thrift shop with nicer items (Beacon's closet in Williamsburg has so many lovely pieces-- you will find something you like there that would be affordable nowhere else, probably. I can't recommend it enough, especially if you can go there on a weekday evening when it's not so crowded).

Then go online to Ebay and find some discounted designer pieces you could otherwise not afford in a retail store, which are the same style or brand as the pieces you like and which fit your measurements.

General rules:

Trendy clothes are not your friend. No thick, vertical stripes, no asymmetrical hem lines or ruffle overkill.

Polyester clothes are bad news. Avoid synthetics and half your problems will be solved.

Do NOT but tapered-leg jeans or pants! They will make your thighs look larger no matter what size your are. Avoid capris also, they do the same thing to your ankles.

Spaghetti straps are to be avoided in daytime wear.

Shirt dresses and wrap dresses are really flattering on most body types.

And if there's some reason you don't like your body right now, such as recent weight gain or loss of muscle tone, even a cursory effort at eating less garbage-food and becoming more active can kick-start your sense of well-being and foxiness.
posted by devymetal at 9:42 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

For number 3, when shopping I try to think like a man. By that I mean, I've never heard a man say "I'm too fat for these pants." Men say, "These pants are too small for me." So when things don't fit, men blame the clothes, not their bodies. I truly think that's a much healthier attitude to have.

I came up with this theory when I went shopping with my sister and brother-in-law. When the pants I tried on didn't fit, I sobbed in the dressing room about how fat I was. When my brother-in-law tried on pants that didn't fit, he shrugged and said, eh, the pants were too small. That's when I realized that I needed his attitude if I was ever going to survive a shopping trip with my self-esteem intact.
posted by McPuppington the Third at 9:52 PM on March 20, 2012 [9 favorites]

Oh man, I sobbed in an Express dressing room one time. I know that feeling. Just remember: The clothes are meant to fit YOU not the other way around. Never be married to a size, it says nothing about your body. Do go in the dressing room with multiple sizes. If no sizes look right, it might be the wrong cut for your body.

Look for one item at a time, don't spend more than two hours looking for it. Especially if you're going to a mall.

I agree with everyone else that you should start with bras that fit right-have a fitter at a good department store fit you, even if you think you know your size. I found out out I was wearing the wrong size the whole time, and it totally affects the fit of shirts and the like. Plus a good bra is so slimming when you cease to have double bubble trouble.

Also, if you're going to wear something regularly and you need it soon, the expense is justified. Think of it as an investment in your appearance.

But I'm also a big fan of sale racks. I also like trying stuff on in a physical store, noting the size that works for me and then I wait for the price to go down and buy it online.
posted by deinemutti at 10:17 PM on March 20, 2012

Also, pay attention how colors look on you with your hair and skin tone. I'm pale and have auburn hair, no way am I going to wear beiges, whites or paster colors-they wash me out. When in doubt, wear dark neutrals.
posted by deinemutti at 10:20 PM on March 20, 2012

Ordering online is so much easier than dealing with crowds and lines and dressing rooms. Pick some stores that have locations in your town. Macy's? JCPenney's? Nordstrom? Mall stores like NY & Co? Whatever you like. The big chain stores have variety; the boutique mall stores are more focused. Visit their websites. Browse and order lavishly at your leisure; the shipping will be free. Try on the clothes in the comfort and privacy and decent lighting of your own home. Return whatever doesn't work to the local store (I personally prefer this to shipping back, I like the security of having the return-receipt in my hand.) Maybe 1/5 of what you order will work if you're lucky, but so what? You haven't wasted daylight hours trotting around the mall, you're not tired, and you've got the clothes.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:28 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

What are your best logistical strategies for doing a lot of shopping? For instance, should I hit a bunch of stores in a day, or one store a day for a week? I assume a list would be a good thing?

Ok, so YMMV, but I've always found that if I go out with the intention of buying a particular item of clothing, I will always have a depressing / frustrating time at the shops, have a cry in the fitting room, and come home with either no clothes or clothes that I'm not particularly happy with (which I buy for the sake of buying something - ridiculous I know).

But! If I just go wandering around the shops with only a vague intention of maybe picking up something if I like it enough, I usually end up with a couple of good purchases. So my advice would be, don't put too much pressure on yourself. If you find something you like, awesome, but it's not the end of the world if you don't.

So, short answer: hit as many stores as you feel like. Go as many times as you want. No lists. They create pressure.

I also tend to buy something that I like the second I find it (ie no going away and coming back later) because of experiences I've had in the past wherein I would come back to a shop a week after identifying a good item of clothing only to find it was no longer available. If I'm unhappy with it, I can just return it.

You could go shopping with a supportive friend, but again, YMMV. I personally hate shopping with people. It puts me under pressure to buy stuff quickly, when my natural instinct is to hem and haw for ages.

What should I do in the actual store? [...] I usually talk myself out of trying things due to their expense, practicality, or similarity to something I already own. What's a better approach? Should I try on everything I like, even if I think it won’t look good on me?

Remember, it costs NOTHING to try something on!

2. What are your suggestions for avoiding a defeatist, "I hate my body" attitude when trying on clothes?

Been there! But I know what works for my body, roughly (empire lines, floaty stuff, bright colours) so I tend to focus my efforts of styles that I KNOW will suit me, so there is less chance of tears.
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:12 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I like going to the shops on days when I don't look my best - then I know that if something makes me look good in the changing room, it definitely will when I have neat hair and some make-up on.

Agree with the comments above about higher-end stuff - I'm between sizes (which let me tell you is a pain when it comes to getting pants to fit) and I find the skimpy cuts of cheaper shops don't work as well for me.

Do any local department stores offer a personal shopper service? Here there are several that do, and they cost nothing. Even Topshop offers one. That might be useful if you really have no idea what to gert.
posted by mippy at 5:22 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, I have cried many a time in dressing rooms. One small thing that helps is that I keep my back to the mirror until I have a full outfit on and am fully adjusted. That keeps me from doing the awkward pants zipper hop for pants that are too small, which just winds up making me frustrated and flushed and prone to sobbing.

Another thing is to TAKE YOUR TIME. It's not a race. And those fitting rooms are always wayyyyy too warm and so I just get super cranky, which is never a good thing.
posted by sperose at 6:27 AM on March 21, 2012

Say you go into a store. Look at their trousers section, and all the different names they have for how they fit. Things like higher/lower waist, wider/tapered leg, "curvy" for more hip less waist, etc. If you think your size might be N, get one pair of each fit in size N-1, N, and N+1, doesn't matter what they look like, just what the numbers are. Yes, this means you may have 9 or 12 pairs of pants to try on and some of them may be green striped hideous. If they have a dressing room limit, just leave half your pile with the attendant temporarily. Find out what that store's sizes mean to you. For example, I tend to love the styles of the Limited's "Drew" pants but I cannot wear them. None of them. No matter how cute they are and how much I want them to fit, there is no size that fits. I guess that's why they also make "Cassidy" fit is so they can try to sell things to people shaped like me. But now I know what racks I'm allowed to look at and what size number I'm looking for, and that makes it very easy - do they have something that looks nice to me, or no? But I had to do the initial investment to figure out what their crazy rules are. There are stores I don't shop at because their crazy rule seems to be "only people shaped like mannequins" but that's totally not my fault!

(a footnote to suggestions about a tape measure - the one thing this doesn't work well for is the waistband of pants, unless you get very careful. The "waist"band can be designed to sit anywhere between hips and belly button or higher, so to be able to do it all by tape measure, you'd need a table of zipper-length vs. best circumference. Of course, if you know you don't like wearing anything with zippers shorter than X or longer than Y, you cut out a lot of confusion. Your best bet is to measure your favorite best-fitting pair of pants, not yourself.)
posted by aimedwander at 6:54 AM on March 21, 2012

I know returns can be a hassle, but sometimes it's better to just purchase likely looking items and take them home. No cramped changing rooms, you can try an item with the rest of your wardrobe and take breaks when you need. It can be a pain to have to take things back, but if you pick stores that have generous returns policies, it's really not that big a deal. In your case, I would do a store or two, take everything home, try it on, and then in a couple of days do returns and then another store or two.
posted by clerestory at 7:15 AM on March 21, 2012

This is what online shopping was made for!!

Seriously, I think I've set foot in an actual clothing store maybe 5 times in the last 3 years. Fuck that depressing, stressful shit.

My best solution for actual shopping in actual stores, though, is that when you find something you really like and that fits well, buy it in every single color, or multiples of the same color so you never have to go back.
posted by elizardbits at 7:25 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I just have to say something against online shopping: My experience has been dreadful. Things fit about the same percentage as the ones in the store, so I have the store experience with the added drama of: pay for items I don't have, wait eagerly in anticipation of their arrival, find out they don't fit, be extra disappointed because of the length of anticipation, repackage, drop the package off somewhere, get my refund 3 weeks later. Plus I've had places be pretty awful about shipping and then I also lost shipping $ on something I didn't keep.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:29 AM on March 21, 2012

Easiest way I've found to go clothes shopping is to have a goal in mind not just that "I need clothes" but I need a black pencil skirt, spring cardigan, pumps or whatever know what you are looking for and target only those things. Which might mean you need to do a survey of your current clothes collection Which I know is the complete opposite of Ziggy5000's advice, you know yourself best so you'll know what options would work best for you.

Once you hit the stores you can pick up an item or 2 because they are cute but try and stick to your list. Check out online or in magazines to get ideas for where you might have "holes" in your current wardrobe to get ideas for things you might need. The trick is to be focused and have a goal, aimless hoping that somehow you'll find just what you want when you don't know what you want is a great way to end up stressed out in a dressing room. Also having a goal makes it easier to set a budget and to feel like you are getting somewhere. You can also do more than one trip, so set a day aside to say find the perfect kakhis then when you do your are finished shopping for the day and it's time for a nice coffee somewhere to celebrate.

Also what everyone has said the internet and the liberal return policies are your friend.
posted by wwax at 7:38 AM on March 21, 2012

I haaaate shopping for all the reasons you do. It's just awful. Crying in fitting rooms was a regular occurrence until about 2 years ago, when I figured stuff out. Note: I am Canadian, so online shopping is not a good option for me. It may be better for you.

I also shop alone, in case I have to quit. I've also had my shopping-loving friends talk me into clothing that may have FIT but in which I was uncomfortable (short short skirts, super high heels, fancy jewelry).

Here's how I do it:

Step 1: Pre-Shopping Mantra
"Size is just a number, size is just a number, size is just a number." Tell yourself that until you believe it. Remind yourself about vanity sizing, that especially things sized as sm-med-lrg-xlrg or 00-24 are pointless but even inch measurements mean very little.

Step 2: Make a BASIC list
Not like hydrobatidae's "lack cardigan with buttons not zipper, no ruffles, no collar, no scoopneck, under $50" but more like "dark coloured cardigan to go wear with my jewel-toned tanks." My list usually looks something like this:
- Jeans, tapered (Levi's or Gap?)*
- Tanks, hip-length (from Smart Set?)*
- Black ballet flats

* I frequently "shop" online beforehand and hit the stores with likely options first. The wandering the mall baffled stage comes later

Step 3: Give yourself permission to quit
Remind yourself that you don't really NEED these items today. You can always go back tomorrow.

Step 4: Put on your favourite underwear

Step 5: Have a drink (alcoholic!) alone, with your favourite book
I hit a bar near the mall or shopping street I'm going to and ordering a single decent beer or glass of wine. I read while I drink. When I'm done I'm just buzzed enough to be cheerful. Skpi this step if alcohol makes you weepy.

Step 6: Hit the stores you expect to find things in first.

Step 7: Do a lap of the store, but pick things up as you go. You sound a lot like me -- and I know I won't go back for things. If you can, avoid checking the price (if you tend to overspend maybe this isn't good advice for you, but I tend to lowball what I should spend and then nothing fits my budget). Decide how much you're willing to spend after you see if it fits and THEN check to price.

Step 7a: Pick up everything you like in 3 sizes -- the size you think you wear, one smaller, and one bigger. Once you get them to the fitting room, try them on at random without even thinking about the numbers. Only look at the size when you ask the shop assistant to bring you a larger/smalller item.

Which is where step 1 comes into play. Size is just a number. The shop assistant is not judging you for needing a different size and you are not judging yourself. This is also where shopping at sliiiightly higher-end stores will help (The Gap rather than Old Navy, Zara instead of H&M). If something doesn't fit the first time you're more likely to leave the store altogether than leave the changeroom and go back, so you want a store where the assistants are always around asking if you need anything.

Step 8: If it fits and looks okay, BUY IT
It's better to have too much and to have to return it that it is to leave the mall in tears because you feel like you've failed at shopping (trust me). You won't go back for it (you know you won't). And, if you took Step 7a seriously, you may not even be sure what size it is.

If it's a staple (for me, solid tank tops and solid tee shirts) buy a couple. Saves another trip to the mall.

Step 9: Keep the receipts in a safe compartment in your wallet
This keeps my buyer's remorse low. I can tell myself, "it's okay, it's okay, the receipt is right here, I can return this whenever I want" rather than "holy shit what was I thinking $80 for a sweater where's that receipt what is wrong with me!?".

Step 10: Do a check-in
Have you hit all the stores you expected to find things in? Do you have everything you needed? Great, gtfo of that mall!

Have you hit all the stores you expected to find things in but you don't have everything you need? How are you feeling? Discouraged, tired, grumpy? Go home and take a rest, come back tomorrow. Are you feeling good? Your feet don't hurt? You're not grumpy?

Take a stroll through the mall. Stop in any store that looks interesting. Repeat Steps 7 through 10.

Good luck!!
posted by AmandaA at 7:52 AM on March 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

I generally do a lap around the entire store, then go back to items I like (and that I consider affordable) to take them into the dressing room. The downside to this method: I usually talk myself out of trying things due to their expense, practicality, or similarity to something I already own. What's a better approach?

This part of your question is what makes me think that you need to evaluate your closet, figure out the specific pieces you need for work, then go out with a list. One of the downsides of a list is that depending on season, it can be hard (and thus frustrating) to try to find what you're looking for. However, ideally you've constructed a list of business-casual basics, which should hypothetically be find-able in any season. Having a very short list also makes it easier to go up a bit in price on each piece, which will limit the number of cheap, ill-fitting things you try on that make you cry.

For my business-casual warddrobe, the bare minimum was:

*2 pairs of very well-fitting pants, one black and one grey
*5 shirts or tops (mix of short-sleeve and light sweater/cardigans)
*1 pair black shoes

I actually aim for boring stuff that no one will notice--NOT what jumps out at me from the rack as something I like. While my stuff is cut pretty feminine, I think of it as "dressing like a dude"--in other words, kind of the same thing every day while not being the actual same piece of clothing. It feels boring to shop for but that's actually a plus if you don't love your body; trying on black pants in 4 stores will start to give you a much better sense of what specific design features on pants work for you (and perhaps more critically, don't work for you) and you internalize THAT rather than "nothing I picked out looks okay."
posted by iminurmefi at 8:59 AM on March 21, 2012

Hi - I used to enjoy clothes shopping, until my body shape changed dramatically (okay, I gained a lot of weight). It seemed I had no clue how to dress my new body - so I went with tunic tops and baggy stuff, figuring covering it up was the best I could do.
I finally decided I needed to step up my wardrobe, but still had no clue.
Then I found out about Personal Stylists (some stores call them Personal Shoppers). I went to one at Nordstrom. You make an appointment (leave 3-5 hours, but believe me, it's actually fun!). The stylist contacts you via e-mail, and asks a bunch of questions. I was very honest about my body type, and the kinds of fabrics and construction I like in clothing. I told her body parts I'm sensitive about (my upper arms), etc. It's also a good idea to tell the stylist what you're looking for - foundational pieces, etc. You can bring in a few favorite pieces for them to work with too.
I showed up and she had over 50 items already selected for me. The flurry of trying on began - very quickly she figured out what worked/didn't work, and ran off and brought back another huge armload of clothes. Lather, rinse, repeat. This woman knew the entire store, and shopped 4 different departments finding clothes that would fit and flatter me.
I should have specified a budget, because I ended up spending more than I'd planned, BUT I never hesitate in my closet when I get dressed in the morning, and I always look put together.
The other lesson I learned from this is: anything you already own that doesn't look GREAT, get rid of it - that way, you only own clothes that really work.
I believe Nordstrom, Macy's, and other larger stores offer this service - it's always free, and there is NO pressure to buy (although you will find things you love).
One other thing - the half-yearly sale started at Nordstrom a week later, and I recognized a lot items I had just bought. I called customer service, they took my account number and called me back later in the day and told me about the huge credit they'd just posted to my account!
Good luck!
posted by dbmcd at 3:09 PM on March 21, 2012

Thanks, everyone! I wish I could go shopping with all of you. There is a ton of fantastic advice here. If that NYC shopping meetup happens, count me in.
posted by serialcomma at 4:36 PM on March 21, 2012

I hope this isn't too Shopping 101, but it took me an amazingly long time to figure out that I can't wear the same size clothes all month.

My weight fluctuates along with my hormones (and my moods) so I've always tried to shop only when I felt good about the way I look. I'm sure that's saved me a few dressing room meltdowns, but it also ensured that nothing I bought would reliably fit well the rest of the month.

No wonder I always felt like I had nothing to wear! And who needs that after finally braving the dreaded mall? So be kind to yourself, be aware of the (totally normal) way your body changes over time, don't restrict yourself to only shopping when you look a certain way and don't think you have to have it all done tomorrow.

Too bad you're not on the west coast - I'd totally go shopping with you!
posted by Space Kitty at 9:29 PM on March 21, 2012

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