I recently awoke to the terrifying reality that I could no longer zip my pants. Or, worse, when I willed myself into them, they defined my body in a certain region all too graphically. There was also a visible panty line, which I responded to by throwing out all my panties that weren’t thongs. But then I discovered I could no longer tuck in shirts, since I couldn’t button the waist. When did this happen? Was I not paying attention, or was I in complete denial? Denial. As a fashion editor and author, I have made a career of clothes, so I’m not daunted by the task of shopping for pants — just annoyed that I need to. Clearly, I’m not alone. Women around the country say this is one of their most difficult purchases, as you can see from this reader’s lament:
"After trying on several pairs of pants, I found a pair that is really flattering, except for the low cut. They absolutely require me to wear seriously long tops or run the risk of exposing my little bundle of belly fat and (quelle horreur!) my butt crack. Unless I buy old-lady pants with elasticized waists, is it impossible to escape the tyranny of fashion?" — Marilyn Bethany, 59, Chatham, New York
Good question. The answer is that when shopping gets tougher — as it definitely does when we pass 40 — shoppers have to get smarter, more demanding, and less willing to settle. Here’s what you need to know now:
Buy by fit, not by size. According to Nordstrom fashion director June Rau, "The biggest mistake is not accepting that size is only a number. A size 10 pant from one manufacturer is a size 12 from another. Don’t be afraid to go up a size and alter it to ensure a perfect fit."
Buyer beware. No matter how fashionable the pants, skip anything with full pleats, pegged legs, smiley-face crotch lines, a baggy rear, or unlined wools with itch potential.
Find silhouettes you can count on, and update colors and fabrics each season regardless of trends. Designer Julie Chaiken has simplified this by launching a collection of her most popular pants styles, called Chaiken Profile, that will continue to be in stores each season.
Look for fit logos and tags. Some designers, like Sigrid Olsen, attach color-coded hangtags to each garment specifying proportions. In Olsen’s line, for example, a blue tag indicates "modernist" pants, which sit at the waist and have a relaxed leg. The fabrics may change each season, but the fit won’t. This winter, Jones New York Collection at Macy’s East and Garfield Marks Options are launching a new system called Fitlogic, which uses symbols to define specific fits. Once you find your best look, head for that symbol each time you shop.
Look for updates of classic brands. Eileen Fisher is adding stretch to fabrics, refining elasticized waistbands, and placing the yoke lower on the waist for a cleaner, more modern look.
Take advantage of free personal-shopping services, offered by most department stores, to preselect before you arrive. I called Marshall Field’s service and asked them to pull every pair of white pants in the store in my size range. Nineteen pairs later, I found a perfect fit and did my happy dance. I’m not sure even I would have persevered without the help of a personal shopper.
Factor tailoring into your choices. "A tailor can make you look trimmer with just a few minor alterations, like removing belt loops or pockets to eliminate bulk," advises Marshall Field’s personal shopper Sharon Eisenstadt.
Buy less, but buy better. A bit more money will buy quality fabrics and better tailoring. Get the best basics you can: pants in black lightweight wool, white cotton twill, gray wool, or khakis. After that, it’s easy to change your look by changing your tops and accessories. Be wary of trendy fabrics and shapes that lack versatility.