In recent years, great strides have been made in the fashion industry to offer alternatives to traditionally gender-normative formalwear. Long gone are the days when the image of women in men's suits was something shocking or surprising, and yet, it's still really hard to go suit shopping if you have a femme body. So, here are some tips to better navigate the process of shopping for and buying a suit, whether you're a masculine-presenting queer woman, gender-nonconforming, or just someone who wants a damn suit. Below, three women who design inclusive suits for female bodies offer their expert advice on finding one.
FOCUS ON FIT WHEN SUIT SHOPPING
Ellen Ford, a design ambassador for the brand Sharpe Suiting, said it best: “If a suit doesn't fit, you look silly.” Fit is incredibly important when you’re looking to get a suit, because if it’s too big, then you look like you’re drowning in it, but if it’s too small, it looks like you’re vacuum-packed inside. “It's not that your body is wrong, or that you're wrong, or that your taste for a suit is wrong,” she adds. “It's that the suit doesn't fit you, and whenever anything doesn't fit, it looks bad.” Opt for a suit that fits in the right spots, and can be tailored to fit perfectly.
Marcia Alvarado, Sharpe Suiting's marketing director, says that a common misconception is that if someone has a larger body, then the suit should be big, which is actually not the case. “I think that when people go shopping for suits or clothing in general, if they're a larger body frame, they're thinking that they need to kind of hide. Even though your body type may be slender, larger, whatever the situation is, a suit is meant to be fitted,” she says. “Body type has nothing to do with how much you weigh, how short you are, or how tall you are because all of our clients look amazing in their suits because the suit is fitted to their body.”
CONSIDER SKIPPING THE MEN’S SUIT SECTION
Suits made for male bodies don’t take into account the differences in female bodies, which is why shopping with “men’s suits for women” in mind might be the wrong approach, according to CEO of Wildfang Emma Mcilroy. “Suits in the men’s section are not made for the varying builds of women and generally don’t consider key factors like a large bust paired with small shoulders or other variations of body types,” Mcilroy says. Male bodies have broader shoulders, and therefore suits made for the male body will be tailored to accommodate them — but won’t have the room for hips or busts.
Alvarado, who is also a personal shopper independently of Sharpe, says that for some of her clients, shopping in the men’s section can be a harrowing experience. “I've had personal shopping clients that won't even go into a Men's Warehouse or a men's store that has men's suiting without me by their side to be able to navigate, and not get stares or feel uncomfortable,” she says. When going into a store that may not even carry a product that will fit you, the added fear of being judged because of your identity is just an added, unnecessary stress that is unfortunately still a problem.
Ford also notes that employees in men’s sections or men’s suit stores may not be knowledgeable about the fitting of their products on bodies other than male ones, and if the customer doesn’t fit, they see that as their problem. But in reality, she says, “a suit is for anybody, and a suit is for every body.”
KNOW YOUR BODY SHAPE & BUILD
“Most common mis-fittings come around chests and hips and curves,” says Mcilroy. It’s important to focus on the build of your body when looking for a suit and not to settle for a piece that cloaks your features. These are the areas that strongly differ between menswear and womenswear, so shopping in the men’s section won’t get you a suit that will do a curvy body justice. It’s not because your body is wrong; it’s because bodies with hips and breasts are simply different.
WHEN SHOPPING MEN’S SUITS FOR WOMEN, KNOW WHAT’S TAILORABLE
Ford both designs suits and works with sewing custom pieces, so she knows what’s up in terms of tailorability. Changing the length of a sleeve, she says, is the easiest thing to fix: “All day long, you can get the sleeves up or down.” It’s also relatively simple to take a suit in and make it slimmer. The length of a jacket is harder to change, but definitely possible.
There are other aspects of the suit, though, that cannot be changed. First, there are the shoulders, which are probably the most important thing to have fitted, says Ford: “Once [that] fabric is cut, it's cut.” You also can’t change where a button lands, or where a pocket will fall, because as a general suiting rule, “those have to hit you in the right spot.”
SUIT FIT IS ALL IN THE SHOULDERS
Alvarado says that “the shoulders are the very first thing you should be looking for” when shopping for a suit, and knowing where the shoulders should fall makes it much easier to find one that fits. This is because the shoulders are the least tailorable part of the suit, according to Ford. “You can't really adjust the shoulders because that geometry is done in the cutting room,” she says.
Mcilroy reiterates the importance of fitting the shoulders: “You should focus on the chest and shoulder area to make sure that each piece is tailored just right to fit your shape.”
KNOW THE SUITING BRANDS THAT WILL WORK FOR YOU
While men’s suits are made for average male bodies, there are some companies that fit them for a slimmer one — which might get you closer to the mark in terms of off-the-rack fit. Take time to research the sizing and measurement of different brands and understand which ones can provide the best fit for your body type.
FOCUS ON FABRIC WHEN SUIT SHOPPING
A fabric with no give won’t move with you or accommodate for a fluctuating body. Says Mcilroy, “We have really focused on adding stretch to almost all of our suits — including the lining. This really helps accommodate the varieties in women's frames.” Plus, stretchy fabric is cozy, so you don’t have to sacrifice comfort to rock a suit.
IF YOU CAN SPLURGE, GO FOR CUSTOM
If you’re looking to invest in something you can wear for years, or something for a big event (like, say, your wedding), a bespoke suit may be worth the price tag. Both Alvarado and Ford emphasize the change that they and their clients feel when getting a suit specifically tailored to their bodies. “I have a very masculine body, naturally,” Ford said, “but, [despite] being so close to fitting into men's wear off-the-rack, the change in confidence and comfort and style from having my own custom suit was light years.“ A custom suit will be tailored to your specific measurements, and you can even have a say in where the buttons lay and where the pockets go. Everything is up for customization, so you’re sure to get something that fits and reflects your identity.
Alvarado notes that her clients feel more confident when they finally get something specifically made for their body. “We ask every single one of our clients if they are willing to share photos [in their] suit, and nine times out of 10, they all want to,” she says. “If you would've asked them before the entire process if they wanted to share photos, they'd probably say no. But at the end of the process, they're like, ‘Heck yes! I wanna share this.’”
MAYBE OPT FOR A VEST RATHER THAN MENS’ SUIT JACKET
When all else fails, consider skipping a suit jacket completely, and go for something more easily tailorable. Ford suggests a formal vest: “[With] a vest, you don't have the problem of fitting into the shoulders as much. A vest becomes tailorable in the shoulders.” That way, you can more easily rock a formal look directly off-the-rack. A vest will “give you the same look, but you don't have to fight the fit,” Ford says.
MAKE SURE YOU FEEL CONFIDENT
Obviously, you want to get something that you know you look good in. Mcilroy says that your suit needs to reflect who you are, both inside and out. “Make sure it compliments your frame, personal style preference, and comes in a badass color or print if that’s your thing.”
Alvarado notes that for many of the people she works with, wearing what they want to wear and being perceived in a way that mirrors their identity serves as a self-esteem booster. “When [our clients] walk out, they feel more confident, and when they get their suit back, they feel like people will be able to take them more seriously,” she says. And for Ford, a good suit serves as a hater-blocker: “When you look great, people can't argue with you about it anymore. And they can't laugh at you.” And, on that note, she gives us some killer advice: “Be yourself, and when you look great no one can say sh*t to you.” Word.
Ellen Ford, design ambassador for Sharpe Suiting
Marcia Alvarado, marketing director of Sharpe Suiting
Emma Mcilroy, CEO of Wildfang
Additional reporting by Claire Fox.
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