Waist Management: Dress to Slim Your Middle

How to find skirts, sweaters, and dresses that make your waist look small.

By Kim Johnson Gross
Full skirts skim your middle, while V-necks balance out hips.

Your Changing Shape

It doesn’t matter how we’re built: At midlife, our bodies are in transition. We may be the same weight as ever. Yet despite our healthier diets and fitness regimens, our bodies change with our changing hormone balance: We get thicker around the middle. I was shocked when, at 50, I noticed my formerly lean midriff acquiring a layer of flab for no good reason other than time and heredity.

How do we dress when our size becomes a moving target? Some of us continue to squeeze into the same styles we’ve worn for years. And some of us hide under loose clothes, which only makes us look bigger. The real solution, of course, is to stay attuned to our shifting shapes, and find new silhouettes that show us off at our best.

I’m not suggesting we overhaul our wardrobes every time our bodies undergo a bit of a change. But a willingness to consider new ways of dressing opens up style possibilities that are truly transforming. "There are a lot of clothes out there, and you will find something you look great in," says designer Dana Buchman, 54.

A new shape requires new tactics. Back rolls? A squishy midriff? Maybe your bras are no longer the right size or style for you. Ditto your skirt or trousers, if excess flab puffs over the waistband. Forget about tuck-in tops and go for hipbone-grazing, untucked ones — think "body skimming," not "skin tight."

"The most important thing is not the shape of your body but the agility of your body," says style icon Diane von Furstenberg, 58, a woman who understands the importance of how we feel in our clothes. "The way you move is what makes you look like you have shape — it’s what makes you look younger. For agility, I hike, swim, and do yoga." When she told me this, I had an ice pack belted around my back because I’d recently taken up rowing and made a wrong move — but that’s another story. It’s times like this when I’m thankful for the clothes that make me look better than I feel.

What to Wear

Waist Shapers

Full Skirts: These are flattering as long as they’re yoked or stitched down, so the volume starts several inches below the waist. Trumpet skirts and stitched-down pleats (both hot trends now) flare at the hem, bringing attention to your trim legs.

Shirts That Are Slightly Fitted: They’re both body-defining and forgiving, especially if the fabric is slightly stretchy. Turning up the collar will bring attention to your face rather than your waist; French cuffs can add pizzazz. Also consider a flourish of ruffles down the front, which will mask your middle, especially when worn under a fitted jacket. One of Dana Buchman’s favorite silhouettes for fall is a soft chiffon bowed blouse (looped, not tied) worn untucked under a fitted velvet jacket. The shirt softly skims the body while falling below the hem of the jacket.

Knits with Ribbing: They give the illusion of a toned middle, as does ruching, which pinches fabric into a softer silhouette while retaining a body-conscious fit.

Skin-Baring Tops: Don’t be afraid to show off your toned arms, your slow-to-age shoulders, or a bit of cleavage. Wide V-necks create a strong upper-body line (think inverted triangle) to balance a broad hipline. If you don’t like your neck, wear a bold pendant or chunky necklace of stones to divert the eye.

Tailored, Body-Conscious Jackets: "A boxy jacket will make you look heavier, but a long, structured jacket will give you definition and a leaner line," says LaVelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor. "If it fits properly, it will elongate your silhouette without adding extra bulk." A well-tailored jacket also instantly pulls together whatever you’re wearing underneath. And it’s not just for the office: Worn over jeans or even evening gowns, jackets add not only definition but great style.

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