Comfortable, plus-size professional clothing
August 4, 2017 9:16 PM   Subscribe

Thus far in my professional life, I haven’t had to wear business attire, but I’m currently looking for a new job and I think it’s possible I’ll have to get a new wardrobe for my next position. I don’t know how to dress this body for this, and also I absolutely hate being uncomfortable! So I’m hoping the hive mind can help me with specific suggestions for garments/outfits that can work for me. Lots more info on what I want and need within!

I’m a 37-year-old woman who is plus size. I'm usually around an 18-22 or a 2X-3X in most things and kind of an apple-ish shape? I think? I’m short (5'4") and have a big tummy/no waist and fat face/arms, but not much booty.

I’m very concerned about comfort. My current daily wardrobe is usually these "jeans" which I love because they’re basically secret stretchy yoga pants - honestly, I have no interest in a non-elastic waistband because I believe life is too short to wear uncomfortable pants, and non-stretchy waistbands have to dig into my large stomach in order to stay up/when I sit down - and a cotton knit top or t-shirt. I wear (ugly) bras from Decent Exposures. The bras are maybe not the most supportive or flattering, but they’re the most comfortable thing I’ve found so far (no underwire, no scratchy lace, relatively easy to put on with a front closure) so that’s what I wear. Then I wear sneakers or slip-on flat shoes - no heels.

I don’t like sleeveless and I never wear skirts due to chub rub. I have tried various slipshorts, bike shorts, etc., under skirts/dresses and those things are ok-ish, I guess, but I prefer pants. I also feel sort of self-conscious in a dress.

Maintenance: I am lazy and wash all my clothes in the washing machine. I am not interested in getting involved in any ironing. I guess I could handle dry-cleaning but I would prefer not to have to deal with that.

In terms of my style/taste… I don’t like to draw attention to myself or my body via my clothing. I like boring clothes and boring dark colors - black, gray, navy, brown (part of the color thing is that it helps to conceal my terrible undergarments also). When I try on a bright color or a loud print, I typically feel ridiculous and can’t handle it. However I also don’t want to draw attention to myself by looking like a slob or tone-deaf on what’s appropriate. I like simple basic things. Oddly enough, I am quite artistic and love beautifully made things. I just don’t really like fashion for me personally as a way to express myself, if that makes sense. I do kind of like lagenlook/retired-art-teacher style, but I’ve never actually worn that stuff myself. Also, I might make exceptions for tops or whatever printed with subtle designs that turn out to be animals because I love that.

I’m in San Diego where it never gets super cold and usually doesn’t get very hot either.

Budget-wise, I’m not sure. If I get a fancier job, I can probably afford some more expensive clothing. Part of what I’m hoping to learn with this ask is how much money I need to set aside if I do need to get new clothes.

TL;DR: My primary concerns include dressing appropriately and being comfortable. Looking smaller than I am is not a primary concern. I have zero interest in: underwire, Spanx, pants with buttons, heels, pantyhose, tucking shirts into my waistband, tight/clingy, fussy-ness, very bright/loud except maybe in tiny doses. Most of the professional attire I’m familiar with (on thin people) requires at least some of the above, so I really need help figuring this out.

So! Fellow fat women: what do you wear to work that is comfortable and looks professional? I’d love both specific links to stuff I can buy as well as general suggestions. Comfy tops, bottoms, shoes, everything. I have no idea what I’m doing!! Thank you!

Note: reading over my question, I anticipate some of you may develop some concerns about my self-esteem and body image. That’s legit and an issue for me that I am working on, but my question is about what stuff I can get/look for that will work for me now with these preferences.
posted by atruesock to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (32 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
What works me is a soft knit skirt with an elastic waist, a nice tee with a pretty fabric (not just cotton) that I can wear untucked, like this combo and then, if it is cool out or there is air conditioning, a longer length jacket or sweater. I built a whole wardrobe like this from Goldwater Creek. They went bankrupt (and the quality went down) and bought out so I can't speak to the current quality but this kind of look isn't hard to find at other places.
posted by metahawk at 9:45 PM on August 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

My business uniform is basically:
Tank tops/shells from Target, layered under button down dress shirts from Lands End or Amazon. Sometimes I'll buy mens oxfords and have them tailored with darts to fit better.
Nice pants from Macy's (these come in short lengths, too.)
I wear loafers or oxfords for dress shoes, unless I am presenting when I wear an ankle boot with more of a heel.
(source: similarly aged, shaped, and sized woman)
posted by ApathyGirl at 9:49 PM on August 4, 2017

Those pants I linked have an elastic-assisted flat waistband I find very comfortable.
posted by ApathyGirl at 9:50 PM on August 4, 2017

I have been lucky enough to also avoid business wear for most of my career, which as a fat lady with a ton of sensory issues has been awesome.

When I do need to dress up I tend to wear a slightly more dressy-looking shift or swing dress, leggings (might you be able to get away with those depending on how nice they look?) and an oversize jacket (either men's or plus size and usually a couple sizes bigger than I'd normally wear as I hate feeling tight and restricted round the shoulders). If that doesn't look quite dressy enough for the occasion I'll add a big necklace or a scarf or something. It's not the fanciest, but it looks like I made way more of an effort than usual.

There tend to be a bunch of plain/monochrome but also soft and comfy dresses available in this style. I'm also interested in lagenlook but have never tried it - for some reason there's always tons of it fairly cheap in plus sizes on eBay where I live (UK), so might be worth looking there if you want to try it without a big price commitment.
posted by terretu at 11:47 PM on August 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd definitely try a stylist appointment with Nordstrom. They have stylists who work within your budget and style. Our body styles sound the same and I've purchased much of my business wardrobe there.

(It's worth stating that I work in their corporate office but they were my preferred retailer for years before I went to work there)

Specific items I love are:
These pants
This blazer
This top

You can get clothing tailored for your height which is pretty amazing to. I'm not sure the care instructions for the Sejour items but I've always thrown my items in the wash with everything else.
posted by toomanycurls at 12:19 AM on August 5, 2017

My first advice to you is to not spend a lot of money in buying work clothes until you know the dress code in your new job. Maybe you only need to dress professionally for important meetings. So you should only get a few sets of work clothes for your interviews.

The dress code at my workplace is casual. However, I always try to dress business casual. You dress for the job you want not the job you have. I usually wear blouse+jeans/skirt/pants or dress. I always go to work in my black nike sport shoes (I know it's a fashion crime but they are just too comfy).

I dislike ironing and i wash all my clothes in one laundry. I have a few blouses which look professional and don't require ironing. I think it takes some time and luck to find the right piece to build a non-ironing work wardrobe. There are just too few choices for female non-ironing shirts. Always start with buying basic items like a basic t-shirt, white blouse, pencil A skirt, black pants, black dress etc. And lastly, have fun! :)
posted by liltiger at 12:32 AM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

For women appearing "professional" is often all about structure. And since you want to avoid a lot of structure (for entirely valid reasons! What monster decided spanx shouldn't be classified as torturous fetish wear??) and because you're relatively short, I think you might be best served by getting comfortable in dresses.

The waists of dresses move with you, so you can bend and move in them without waistbands digging into your torso or pulling pants into place all the time. A good dress will provide definition to your shape without being fussy, and provide perceived lengthening because it won't cut you in half visually.

Check out this sheath dress from Land's End, which comes in a big range of sizes and subdued colors. To make it more business formal you would pair it with a tailored suit jacket and loafers. To be more casual you can wear a drapey cardigan on top and leggings in a complimentary color with comfy boots. If it's a party situation a colorful belt at the waist and pretty flats. Very flexible, and you would customize each look to contain things that you want in order to feel comfortable.

For example, a lot of women are more comfortable in sleeveless dresses with cardigans or jackets on top. I am not like that at all but you might find it easier to find combinations of clothes that fit your arms like that and don't feel confining in the shoulders. For chub rub issues, a dress with an a line cut will accommodate something more substantial than those pointless slip shorts, like cotton bike shorts, or you might be like me and just rock leggings under dresses except in the most melty of weather. You might prefer dresses made entirely of natural material and find that they don't even cause chub rub, or a switch of undies might be all you need.

I think sticking to neutral solid colors is a smart choice for being professional in addition to what makes you confident, so go with that. Have a few accessories with color for special occasions that make you happy, like a thin red belt or a floral scarf or fun green shoes, but those are things to keep an eye out for, not key components to a new wardrobe.
posted by Mizu at 2:01 AM on August 5, 2017 [10 favorites]

My uniform is similar to metahawk's. Skirts come from Decent Exposures, tops are generally the ballet-sleeve tunic from J. Jill, throw a cardigan over top depending on weather. If I wear the longer-legged version of the comfy boxer briefs from TomboyX, no other bike shorts are necessary for the chub rub issue. Might be worth noting that the tunic is a staple at JJill but they have different colors every season, so if the ones available now aren't colors you like, come back in a couple of months.

For pants I mostly wear the same jeans you do, but I do have a couple of pairs of elastic waist pants also from J. Jill that work fine and are comfy. I do find the fit of their pants to be hit or miss on my body, which sounds like yours but a bit larger, but the ones that work, work great.

I also have a couple of Lands' End sheath dresses that I wear with a cardigan on days when a dressier level of dressiness is unavoidable.

Shoes are always comfy black flats or sandals, usually something from Clarks.

I keep trying to expand my uniform but these are the things I always gravitate back to. Dress up a bit with scarves or necklaces as needed.
posted by Stacey at 4:21 AM on August 5, 2017

I tend to have to be somewhat professional.

My uniform is something like these pants, or these.

A top, cami or tshirt like these this, this, or this, this, or this.

Depending on weather and my itinerary I may wear the longer sleeved ones as they are. For the sleeveless ones I will always add a cardigans or jacket. Cardigans should be a fine knit, not chunky. My arms are short and fatso most jackets with full length sleeves are too long in the sleeve. So for comfort and ease more often than not I go for something like this or this or this.

I love bright colours so I have been known to have a courful top or jacket/cardigan with more muted everything else. If I have patterns only one item is patterned.

For shoes I normally wear something like these brogues or very low healed pumps.

Also, colourful scarves, some jewellery you're comfortable with.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:59 AM on August 5, 2017

I am not plus size so I can't recommend a particular store, but in terms of looking professional without sacrificing comfort I would recommend switching the elastic waistband jean to an elastic waistband black, navy, or gray pant. Then you can get away with a neutral t-shirt if you accesorize with a silk scarf or a piece of jewelry.
posted by donut_princess at 5:24 AM on August 5, 2017

Getting a wardrobe steamer will make life easier if you dislike ironing. Get the best one you can afford- the hotter the steam, the better it works. Steamers with hoses are better than handheld ones.

A great tip that makes garment steaming quicker and more effective is to hold the steamer head against the INSIDE of the garment and glide it downwards, so the tension of the fabric moving over the steamer head helps remove the wrinkles.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:25 AM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Fellow plus-size person whose professional uniform is usually black or charcoal trousers (capris in the summer) from either Lane Bryant or Sonoma plus size (I get 'em at Kohl's, and they have an elastic waist) and then either a dressy t-shirt or fairly subtly patterned top. Cardigan over it for winters and chilly rooms. Nothing is tucked in. For tops, I suggest hitting up The Dress Barn--horrid name, but great selection of nice and flowy sleeveless tops. Lane Bryant--which I normally complain bitterly about--occasionally has some really good sleeveless tops as well. Macy's does great fancy t-shirts, I like the ones with either a little embroidery or fabric pattering along the neckline like this or this. And let me just nth Land's End as a good place for skirts/dresses/blazers should you ever want to branch out. Look for their ponte collection in particular. I do 90% of my shopping online...
posted by TwoStride at 6:54 AM on August 5, 2017

Oh! In terms of money, I usually shell out $50-69 on trousers (I hit up sales at LB or Kohl's and just get 5 that last me for a few years before I wear them out) and tops range anywhere from clearance rack to $50 as well.

It you ever want to branch out in bras, it's worth going someplace and getting a fitting. My bras are usually $70-80 a pop, but they are incredibly comfortable, give me a better torso shape, and last forever with washing in a mesh lingerie bag alongside the rest of my clothes in the machine.

And if you ever need to level up to a full-on suit, Jones New York has the most plus-friendly shaping and sizine, IME. Additionally, you can get really good neutral silk shells from Talbots Woman (again, just wait for a good sale).
posted by TwoStride at 6:59 AM on August 5, 2017

Do any plus size women really enjoy wearing skirts? I'm astonished. The chafing alone disqualifies it for me. I'll do just about anything to avoid it, myself. And I see a lot of people here recommending a bunch of layers, which... for me as a person who gets hot easily and doesn't want to add bulk, layers are total no-go for me.

I think what you need is a few pairs of black stretchy pants (not leggings -- something with a decently thick knit material - "ponte" is a good search term) and a few nice tunic tops. Outfit winds up looking along the lines of this or this. Dress up with jewelry if necessary. Wear with ballet flats. Feels like pajamas.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:03 AM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm a fatty who loves dresses and maxi skirts in the summer--slip shorts fend off chub rub for me and when it's like 100 out they're more comfortable for sweating in than pants.
posted by TwoStride at 7:17 AM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

(And in winter, a dress over logo-free leggins or yoga pants is like wearing PJs to work!)
posted by TwoStride at 7:18 AM on August 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

Do any plus size women really enjoy wearing skirts? I'm astonished.

I'm a size 18/20/XXL depending on the brand, and I'm a pear and 5'3" tall (hi OP, are you me? :) ). I live in dresses in the summer when I have to look professional - anything else is too hot, especially that given the dress code at one of my jobs means I can either do slacks and a shirt and a scarf and maybe a cardigan or I can just throw on a dress and be done with getting dressed. I deal with the chub rub by wearing boxer briefs, though my wife and I just ordered our first round of TomboyX underwear and we're in love.

OP, if you're not going to get comfy in dresses (and I get that, my wife's GF is a big tall woman and I've seen her in a dress once in 4 years, at our wedding), have you tried palazzo pants? They're comfy (as good as going out in your PJs), they're flatting for wide hips, and they look dressier than they should. You can get them in bright pants (I might need those peacocks!) but you can also get them in solids too. Get a couple pairs of those, some solid shells and a couple of scarves if you want a bit more concealment, mix and match away, and you'd be good to go.
posted by joycehealy at 7:21 AM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

(and yes, seconding the dress over leggings in cold weather. dress + leggings + cardigan is how I got through my most recent professional conference in Boston in April - it was cold! - in comfort)
posted by joycehealy at 7:22 AM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

I love a good dress and greatly prefer that to pants,especially for comfort around the waist. I will buy any fit and flair shape dress and also wear leggings under them for modesty or warmth.
posted by toomanycurls at 7:25 AM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'll add in and as places to try. I don't think I've ever bought anything full price.
posted by kathrynm at 7:32 AM on August 5, 2017

Leggings with a tunic or dress over them - my uniform of COMFORT. And no chub rub! And comfort!!
posted by tristeza at 8:20 AM on August 5, 2017

Count me as another plus size person who likes skirts/dresses more than pants. However. I have had excellent experience with these Lands' End pants. On the models, they look like yoga pants, but when new and in good condition, they are appropriate for my business casual workplace. I wear them with a blouse and cardigan or a t-shirt and scarf. I replace them once a year though, because once they've gone through the wash a bunch of times, the fabric starts to look like they are yoga pants. I also really like these pants, for when I need pants in a fabric that looks a little more dressy. I know the description says tummy control. Ignore that, that's marketing. Just look at the sizes carefully and get the right size for you -- these are as comfortable for me as those Lands' End yoga pants.

Another thing that makes me feel more professional is to have really great jewelry. I have very nice chunky silver and gold hoop earrings (small, so they aren't flashy) and a collection of interesting and/or statement necklaces that I have purchased from etsy. The jewelry "finishes" an outfit and makes it look more pulled together, even though it is casual jewelry. Here are examples: 1, 2 and 3. I know you asked about clothes, not jewelry, but I'm pointing this out because jewelry can make comfortable clothes look more polished.
posted by OrangeDisk at 8:33 AM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

I haven't read all the above yet, but if you can afford it: Eileen Fisher. On the road to lagenlook, but a little more polished. Especially great for unstructured jackets. I've gotten most of mine from the outlet store in Burlington, MA.
posted by libraryhead at 9:02 AM on August 5, 2017

In warm weather, I wear men's cotton boxers under skirts. Super-comfy, sturdier and better-made than comparably-priced women's underwear, and allow great freedom of movement.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:30 AM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Torrid sells plus-sized women's clothes, skews slightly to younger crowd/fashion, but they have some very nice shirts that are entirely appropriate for business wear for women of any age.

I just purchased a few tops and dresses - very comfortable, roomy, doesn't squash the belly at all. Mine are sleeveless and, because I'm not comfortable with exposed upper arms, I wear a sweater or blazer/jacket over them and I think it looks pretty nice and is absolutely comfortable. I have only experience with their swingy dresses and with the shirts thus far, and I'm very happy with my purchases. Take a gander at their site and see if anything grabs you. Not sure where you are located, but there may also be a B&M store nearby to try the real clothes on your real body w/out having to internet-guess the sizing. My experience also is that the fit/size was spot-on.
posted by mcbeth at 11:48 AM on August 5, 2017

Long shirts over pants and shirt dresses over leggings, and then tunics over pants or leggings for days when you don't have any meetings. Yes, the shirts and shirt dresses need ironing, but it takes 5 minutes or you can get it done at the laundry, and that ironing is what makes you look together. I have a couple of syntethic long shirts that don't need ironing, and they are very elegant so that's absolutely a possibility for you, but when I wear them I have to think more about my bra because it shows through the shirt or the shirt moves to reveal it, and a comfortable bra is the most important thing for me (same with most tunics, IMO). During winter I have a couple of long indoor jackets/coats that I wear open over the other stuff. Statement jewelry are always good, but I often forget. I do remember to put on expressive scarves for the cooler times of year, not least because they can help cover the bra issues. And after I have become plus-size, I invest in good handbags, purses, computer sleeves etc., and in high-end shoes and boots. After a broken ankle they are mostly flats, but a quality brand heel can be fine. When I wore heels, I'd take them off when at my desk.
I'm best with dark solids, and I really like to have pockets for my phone and keys.

Sometimes COS is really good for this exact purpose, I think the head of design is plus-size herself. But they are very unpredictable and I've returned three pieces for each piece I've bought.

Also: get a good haircut and prioritize maintaining it. Or if you have long hair, prioritize keeping it in beautiful shape and making nice updoos. Either way, get your eyebrows done professionally. I've been lucky to find a stylist who is a very beautiful big woman, who understands what I need completely. BTW she is probably about your age, and depends entirely on upscale leisurewear and expensive sneakers, sort of like Madonna in the 90's. She always looks fabulous, but I'm not sure it would work in an office environment.
posted by mumimor at 2:22 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Similar to a lot of people on this thread. My usual default is a black skirt from Decent Exposures and a knit plain t-shirt from Land's End, or some of the Women Within lines (not the cheapest: it usually comes out looking cheap and not as professional). Knit cardigan over it, in the winter. A piece of jewelry makes it look dressier. For variation, black shirt over coloured skirt.

Subbing in black slacks cut to look professional would do nicely - I'm short and round, and finding slacks that fit me and look like I want them to basically never works for me, so I default to skirts. (I only get chafing issues if I do a ton of walking in heat, but I try to avoid that for other reasons, so mostly don't have a problem with it. I'm not sure what I did to get there, though starting with skirts in the winter might have been part of it.)

Most of my current cardigans are from Kobieta and I've gotten other stuff from there too. The cardigans are great because there are ones with pockets, which is useful when I'm wearing a dress. I overheat easily, but am usually okay if my clothing is all cotton or bamboo or something else that breathes. And she'll work with your precise measurements. Pretty sure I got the link from an Ask MeFi question a few years ago.

My step up from my usual (if I've got a meeting, presentation, etc.) is usually one of the fit and flare dresses from Land's End. I keep an eye out and snag new colours or patterns periodically, but because they don't have pockets, I don't wear them as often as I'd otherwise like.
posted by modernhypatia at 2:42 PM on August 5, 2017

Can you find 1-2 blazers you like?

In most offices I've worked in jeans + tshirt = casual, but blazer+jeans+tshirt = business casual.

That way you don't actually have to buy many things or change what you're comfortable wearing. You will have to dry clean them occasionally but you really don't need more than 2 -- nobody will think it's weird that you wear basically the same jacket all the time if the clothes underneath change. (Nobody will notice what you wear much period, as long as your overall vibe doesn't stand out as extra dressy or extra casual. You can test this yourself by trying to remember what any of your colleagues wore the last time you saw them).

Depending on the colors of the rest of your clothes I'd look for gray or navy which will go with most things.
posted by mrmurbles at 3:13 PM on August 5, 2017

I've worked in quite a few different dress environments, ranging from the jean and t-shirt mentality to a step below business (but above business casual). I would also recommend starting the job before buying a wardrobe-- I once thought that a place wore suits everyday just to find out that there was a super important meeting the day I had interviewed.

General stores that are good for me are Lane Bryant, Dress Barn, Lands End, and Kohls. There are a few random brands at Macy's (or any department store), but they can be hit or miss.

I wear a lot of cardigans. August Silk from Macys will last for years. Lands End is another place to get them if you want different colors.

Lands end also has great polos that have decent length sleeves-- make sure to look at the measurements on the different styles, because they vary.

You said you're not too into loud, but I really like these shirts. They're really comfortable, forgiving, and look dressy with a cardigan over them. That brand has a lot of different styles and patterns, so I would just look through to see it there are any you like.

I'm a big skirt person, but understand that's not everyone's cup of tea. That said, I wear these shorts under skirts. They're pricey, but they're completely worth it-- they don't roll up or down at all, are high wasted, and have pockets.

It's nice to have a few basic staples (black skirt, grey skirt). Pencil skirts look terrible on me, and I go more for an a-line. I've had great success washing Jones New York and Kasper suit skirts at home even though they say they need to be dry cleaned. YMMV. Sorry I don't have experience with their pants, but the brands are good-- maybe they could work for you?

I also like Lands End for pants (you can get a custom inseam for free on some chinos!).

I would invest in some dressy shoes that you like and are comfortable. For me, they are these. Nice shoes do not have to mean heels!

Finally, you say you like your bras because they're comfortable but are not flattering or supportive. I would try going to Lane Bryant and checking our their line (called Cacique). They might have something that is just as comfortable but work a bit better for you. If you feel comfortable, ask a person for help. If not, just try on a bunch!

Feel free to message me!
posted by veryhappyheidi at 3:28 PM on August 5, 2017

Eshakti has customizable work-appropriate dresses and jeans: (you can custom size items for your measurements and change necklines, sleeve length, skirt length, etc.)
posted by Geameade at 4:09 PM on August 5, 2017

WOW, what great suggestions. Thank you all so much! I'm still sifting through all the excellent information. I appreciate everyone who took the time to comment! If anyone else happens to have further ideas, I'm all ears. Thank you all again!
posted by atruesock at 10:34 PM on August 5, 2017

BodyGlide was seriously a life-changing discovery for me. It solved the chub rub problem (and also works great for preventing shoe blisters). Once I figured that out, I started wearing dresses all the time--so comfortable!
I usually wear a cardigan and tall boots with them, and maybe a scarf if it's "cold" (I live in San Diego too).

I am almost exactly your body type, and I get a lot of clothes at Talbots when they have their twice-a-year sale. Their clothes are beautifully made and very affordable when on sale. However, their pants are not really made for the apple-shaped lady.
I also shop at Target and Old Navy, but you have to keep checking back because their styles change a lot and sometimes they are hideous.

Also also, I love helping people shop for clothes, if you want a local shopping buddy!
posted by exceptinsects at 10:44 AM on August 8, 2017

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