A dress is supposed to be the simplest of outfits. Add shoes and jewelry and voilà — you look chic and pulled-together in an instant!

There’s just one problem. Tracking down a style that fits your body and suits your taste can be a major hassle.

Since dresses cover most of our bodies — including bust, waist and hips, where we women have the most size and shape variation — they can be a tough fit. A sheath may skim your waist but pull across the hips. A shift that fits your bust may sag at the shoulders. Plus, there are several little-known fit-related details that many women don’t know to watch for.

Here are the basics of finding a dress that fits, plus a few workarounds for frocks that don’t quite suit your figure.


Obviously, there’s some leeway when it comes to dress length. Minis, midis and maxis all have their purposes. But which length is the most versatile and flattering for the widest variety of figures? Look for a hemline that hits somewhere between the middle of your kneecap and about an inch above the top of your kneecap. This keeps you from flashing anyone when you cross your legs, but it also shows off the natural curves of your legs. Midknee dresses are a solid bet for women of all ages, sizes and shapes.


Certain styles, including swing dresses and shifts, are meant to be roomy around the bust. There’s no need to worry about those. But if you’re working with a sheath, empire or other style with a fitted bust, take heed: The bust of a dress should fit closely to your breasts without pulling. An obvious red flag? When the fabric pulls tight between the breasts. Also look for pulling near the armholes or shoulder seams. Any obvious bust-pulling means you should consider sizing up.


Make a habit of craning your neck to check the view from behind. Why? Dresses with shaping can look amazing up front and disastrous in the back. A well-fitting dress should follow the contours of your shoulders, back and buttocks without pulling or bubbling up. If your butt is larger than the dress is designed to accommodate, you’ll get a little bulge of material right above your derrière. Easy fix: Try a style with a flared skirt, which floats over the hips instead of clinging. The rearview is also where you’ll spot pulling or sagging around the shoulders.


Sleeves on a dress should fit like sleeves on anything else: Full-length sleeves should be long enough to hit the top knuckle of your thumb when standing with arms at your sides. And no matter what the length, sleeves shouldn’t be so tight that they pull or wrinkle. Nor should they bunch up at the armpits. When it comes to sleeveless dresses, keep an eye on those arm holes. If they stand away from your sides or dip down so low that everyone can see your bra, consider sizing down or tailoring. If they dig into your armpits, size up. Consider three-quarter sleeves since they’re flattering on practically everybody.


Dresses that don’t fit in the waist are extremely uncomfortable. Most shoppers can spot them right away. It’s still worth emphasizing that a dress that technically encompasses your midsection isn’t the same as a dress that fits you properly. Muffin top can happen with dresses, too. Do you find yourself bulging over or under a waistband? Then size up! Don’t worry about the arbitrary number on the tag; focus on finding the right fit. Ideally, a dress’ waist should hit where your own waist is smallest. It should also stand away from your body by a few centimeters.

Fixing fit issues

Have you just realized that most of your dresses have a few fit quirks? You’re not alone. Most women find off-the-rack frocks challenging in one way or another.

First off, know that knits are always more forgiving than woven fabrics. A variety of mild issues — pulling, tightness — can be avoided if you opt for ponte, jersey, terry and sweater-knit dresses.

A belt can be used to cinch a slightly loose waist, but proceed with caution. A belted dress that’s two sizes too big still looks lumpy and awkward. Belts are a good fix only when the fit is just shy of perfect.

If you’re dealing with a loose bodice, roomy armholes or faulty shoulder fit, try slipping on a structured jacket to mask these issues. A dress that’s too tight across the bust becomes a faux skirt when worn with a pullover sweater or blouse. A hemline that feels scandalously short can be mitigated by opaque tights and knee-high boots.

Better yet, consider getting your ill-fitting dresses altered. Nothing wrong with getting a waistband taken in or a hemline let out. A good tailor can also alter bust fit, sleeve length, even neckline style. That way, almost perfect frocks become instant outfits (each on a single hanger) that make you feel like a million bucks.


Sally McGraw is the author of Already Pretty, a daily blog about the intersection of style and body image.