Unrealistic Expectations  – the truth about off the rack clothes

Tailoring may not sound like the most exciting topic but it’s a chat we need to have. My inspiration for this blog often comes from conversations I have with my real-life styling clients. My “creative” process typically goes something like this…

On Monday, client A asks a question. It could be about a new style they’ve been seeing. Or an event or holiday on the horizon. Or even a fashion struggle they’ve been wrestling with. Then on Tuesday and Wednesday, clients B and C will ask something similar. That’s when the bell in my head starts going ding, ding, ding. Ahem, listen up, lady – This topic is blog-worthy! I know if an issue comes up with multiple people in a few weeks, it’s one of those things that is actually on more people’s minds and therefore needs to be addressed.

This past week, the subject that kept coming up as a particular pain point was how frustrating and even tear-provoking it is to buy off-the-rack clothing as a woman. 

Although a very unrealistic expectation, many women have an expectation that mass-produced clothes should fit them perfectly when bought off the rack. And that if the clothes don’t work, straight away, there is, therefore, something wrong with them and their body.

This is SOOOO NOT True

The truth is, that’s completely backward. Up until the 20th century, clothing was not mass-produced. Pieces were very loose-fitting, or an item was made particularly for an individual.

As a self-proclaimed fashion nerd, I remember watching Downton Abbey and drooling over the scenes where the dressmaker would come to create that season’s fashion for each member of the Crawley family. Having something custom-made for you seems like quite an indulgence today. Still, the reality is that we are each built differently and the probability of one item fitting many people properly is a recipe for disappointment.

A Brief Background

After the industrial revolution, mass-produced clothing entered the equation. Not necessarily as a replacement for custom-made counterparts but as a less expensive and more available adjunct. It was universally understood, at that time, that the intention of ready-to-wear or off-the-rack clothing was not to fit immediately. And that garments, once purchased, would need to be altered to fit correctly.

Then styles changed and became less form-fitting in the 1960s and 1970s. Consequently, less altering was required. And at the same time, fewer people were proficient in sewing. That is where the paradigm shifted. 

Nowadays, people (women especially) feel the need to fit their bodies into the clothes, when truthfully, it should be the opposite. We need to tweak the clothes to fit our individual bodies.

Your Tailor is Your Wardrobe MVP

That all being said, let’s get real. It’s not practical or cost-effective to have all of your clothes custom-made for you. Bespoke clothing is a luxury in the truest sense of the word. And ready-to-wear is what most of us have access to and can afford these days. So what’s a girl to do? Well, my most touted and repeated styling advice is this: 

 “Find yourself a tailor and make them your BFF”

Tailoring, my friends, is the KEY to making the clothes fit our bodies! And the key to turning that self-defeating, frustrating relationship with clothes shopping on its head. Yes, it might take a little more time, effort, and money, but it is SO worth it. 

My rule of thumb is to find clothes that are 80% of the way there in terms of fit (as long as they fit your other non-negotiables like style, fabric, and color) and then have a tailor take the garment the other 20% of the way. Simply said, tailoring makes pieces perfect for you and customizes them for your body.

While the thought of alterations can feel overwhelming – here are some helpful tips to make the experience more successful.

Tips for Successful Tailoring:

  • It’s easier to tailor garments down than let out. So, purchase a piece that fits the widest part of your body – and take the rest in for a customized fit.
  • Find a top or jacket that fits in the shoulders as that is the most complicated and expensive alteration. 
  • Hem skirts, dresses, and cropped pants to the point on your leg where it tapers. That is different for everyone and will be the most flattering for you.
  • Hem full-length pants to the specific shoe height you’ll be wearing. A slight break in the front and ¼-½ an inch from the floor in the back. This will create the illusion of legs for days.

Tailor The Items You Wear Regularly

Many people save tailoring for their finer garments. But I will say that altering less expensive pieces will make them look more upscale. When something fits well, it literally looks like it was made for you, because essentially it was! I personally tailor almost every pair of jeans I own. Getting them to fit in my thighs and bum means that there is often a gap at the waist. That coupled with the stretchier fabrics that are denim these days, and my jeans would be constantly falling down if not for tailoring. My tailor puts two darts in the waistband of my jeans and voila, they fit in the hips AND in the waist.

Yes, it might mean the jeans cost an extra $30 to have that done, but having jeans I love to wear and that fit me well is as they say, priceless.

The Items I Tailor ALL THE TIME + What I do

T-Shirts – Yes, I tailor so many t-shirts.

  • Take them up in length (so when tucked there’s not extra bulge).
  • Or I take the tanks up in the shoulders (so it doesn’t show side bra, and fits better in the neck).
  •  I also roll the sleeves and have them tacked to it hits at a more attractive point on the arm.

Jeans – the hem and more

  • Dart the waistband to stop waist gap and pants falling down
  • Cut the hem for a raw edge
  • Use a tricky hem to make sure the original jean bottom gets replaced once shortened – this is HUGE in the way an altered jean looks.

National franchises like Alterations Express make it easy to find a reputable tailor for most jobs. I also like utilizing the in-house tailors at bigger stores like Nordstrom or Saks – it makes the process more one and done! But in case you can’t tell, my non-negotiable is not doing the tailoring – it’s a game-changer!

Is this like an ah-ha moment or a duh, totally know that already kind of thing? And are there other things you tailor that I didn’t mention? LMK in the comments…


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Photo: Maggie Boyle


Cleveland-based personal stylist and fashion blogger.

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