Principle 4: Cut
Having taken a short detour to discuss ladies trousers, we shall continue to analyse the principles involved in a successful outfit. As we have established that trousers are a difficult item for women to wear, the well-dressed Catholic woman should make a habit of wearing skirts or dresses when appearing in public. Before we cover some basics of how to choose a flattering cut of garment, it is wise to address some of the reasons women are not in the habit of wearing skirts today.
One reason we do not wear skirts habitually is that we associate skirts with constricted movement as a result of the many too short and tight ones we see today. While a pencil skirt may be acceptably modest if not too tightly fitting, if you do not like to feel restricted then select fuller styles of skirt. A full skirt, long enough that we are not exposed when bending over, is actually far less restrictive than many a tight pair of pants. Very tight styles of skirts and dresses are to be avoided as immodest, even if they are knee length or longer.
Another reason that modern western women have adopted pants is that a skirt can seem less warm than pants in cold weather. Again, this misconception is mostly due to the very immodest skirts being sold, and the imagined pressure to attend social events, even in winter, in immodest clothing. The remedy for this is thick tights. Today, there is a large range of natural and synthetic fibres used in women’s tights. It is even possible to get tights lined with fleece, as well as cotton, wool, bamboo, cashmere and polyester varieties. When covered by a long skirt in a warm fabric I doubt that anyone will be able to assert that a skirt is less warm than the pants that they would have been wearing instead. Remember that you are free to wear coats, boots, gloves, scarves and hats. As you are no longer trying to showcase your body, there is no reason to expose yourself in too few layers during winter. Once you have acquired a few key items you should find you remain far warmer than you did in jeans and a jumper. As long as one wears skirts correctly there can be no difficulty in making them an everyday item.
We have already discussed the importance of defining your waist for good dress. There are a few other considerations for ensuring one wears well cut garments. The only difference between a skirt and top and a dress is that the skirt and top are two separate items, while a dress is a skirt with the top sewn on to make one single garment. Therefore we will deal with skirts first, and the principles articulated here will apply to the skirt of a dress equally as well as they apply to a true skirt. Once skirts have been covered we will move on to tops and the principles discussed will apply to both separate tops, and to the tops of dresses.
In order to assure a good cut to a skirt, we want it to enhance our feminine figure. The below left image shows an ideal the outline of the female body shape. We want our skirts to give the impression that our body shape is not dissimilar to this outline. Our waist should be made to look narrower than our hips and bust. Skirt designs which complement this body shape are flattering, while those that confuse this outline are unflattering. The basic pencil skirt, as long as it is not too tight, generally gives this impression by starting at the waist and following the contours of the hips down. Therefore, the pencil skirt is generally a flattering cut of skirt, unless the body beneath deviates obviously from the ideal figure. In that case, a looser style of skirt may be a more flattering cut, as there will be nowhere for any unfortunate lumps to hide in a pencil skirt.
Less fitted skirts are very flattering also because they still come in at the waist and flow smoothly out over the hips. It doesn’t matter whether the skirt stays fairly close to the body, or stands out in a fuller style. It is best for the bulk of the fabric to start expanding from the waistline, above the hips. The width of the waistband is unimportant, as long as it finishes above the hips. Having the skirt to expand from above the hips will create a smooth triangular line away from the waist, focusing attention upon it. It is also flattering for there to be extra volume at the sides of the skirt, as this will further emphasise the hips. Fuller skirts which fall from above the waist are also flattering from the profile view. They will either fall closely to the body, or expand equally on the front and back, which can emphasise the smallness of a women’s waist.
It is not flattering to have the bulk of the fabric of the skirt expand from the lower buttocks or thighs, even if the waist is visible. This will create a competing visual line at the widest point which will make a lady look bottom heavy. This is the case both where the skirt gathers at the bottom, as we see on Princess Diana above, and where the skirt is cut so that it sits tight over the hips and then begins to flare out at the thighs, as we see in the next image.
Also to be avoided are any patterns or embellishments which draw the eye to the lower bottom line. The same is true of any ruffles or pleats beginning at the thigh instead of above the hips. Instead of emphasising a small waist and wide hips, the fabric expansion at this low point will make a lady look long and shapeless with a focus upon her bottom. When a fuller skirt which is clearly not clinging to the line of the body is worn, a line around the thighs is not a problem, as long as the waist is defined.
Fishtail or mermaid styles of skirt are dangerous when very exaggerated. The pleasant hourglass structure of bust, waist and hips is disrupted by the addition of an extra tier of fabric at the knees. A small fishtail, not excessively tight, extending mostly at the back of a skirt can be acceptable. In the image to the left we see the Duchess of Cambridge’s sister wearing a well cut fishtail. Of course, to wear a fishtail successfully it helps to be as well-proportioned as she is. Again, all embellishments and patterns which draw a hard line across the thighs are also to be avoided on tight skirts.
One solid pleat in the centre of the skirt should be avoided as it may give the impression that the skirt is a pair of wide shorts. The start of the pleat in the centre of the body may draw attention to a woman’s crotch, which obviously should not be the focus of the outfit. Also, a central pleat tends to concentrate the volume of the skirt in the centre, rather than at the hips. This will make the hips look comparatively narrow, while any extra weight on the stomach is emphasised. If a centre pleat is the only unsatisfactory point in an outfit, it can be overlooked, but in general it is far nicer to have the pleats arranged differently.
The simplest good arrangement for pleats and gathers on a skirt is to be evenly spaced the whole way around the garment. This will result in the fabric expanding evenly around the body, which will emphasise the comparative smallness of the waist. The lines created by the pleats and gathers will also politely flow away from the line of the waist, further drawing the eye to this narrow part of the figure. Alternatively, some well-cut skirts arrange the gathers more at the sides and back than the front. This keeps the front of the skirt sitting closer to the body, with more expansion at the hips and buttocks, mimicking more truly the feminine figure.
Extra volume at the sides and back will enhance the feminine structure, while extra volume at the front will obscure the waist and create the impression of a large belly and narrow hips. In the top row of images below we see Audrey Hepburn in the famous costume she wore in Sabrina. The skirt is flat at the front with additional layering behind creating a bustle like effect. We see a similar structure on Grace Kelly’s wedding dress in the next two images. While these images have been included as dramatic illustrations of the principle, in general skirts of this size are impractical and extravagant. Skirts which are so large as to require much thought as to their graceful maneuvering, or require hooped constructions beneath to keep their shape, are probably pushing the bounds of good taste. This applies equally to long trains which require careful management to stay in order. The second row of images feature dresses with extra ruffles and volume at the front instead of the back or sides. Instead of complementing the ideal feminine structure, it is obscured.
Before we move on to examine the cut of tops, a note on the length of skirts is called for. It is far nicer to have skirts cut long enough to cover the knees, than to end above the joint. This is also the shortest length recommended by the modesty guidelines discussed in the first article of this series. Most likely many women who become interested in dressing better and more modestly today will find they have little in their wardrobes which qualifies as modest. Therefore it is understood that sometimes nearly covering our knees will be the best we can do. If you are purchasing anything new however, do keep in mind the unsurpassed elegance of a skirt long enough to cover the knees. Also be mindful of the height of any slits in a skirt.
The instructions for a well cut top follow the same principles of emphasising rather than obscuring the ideal womanly figure. As long as the outfit has a visible waistline, tops are generally more forgiving of unusual cuts than skirts. While fitted tops which sit close to the body are perhaps the most predictably flattering, looser styles, as long as not absurdly large are also flattering and easy to wear. Below we see a looser and a more fitted style of top which do not confuse a women’s natural structure.
Strange bulky additions to garments, or vast amounts of needless fabric will tend to obscure and distract from the natural feminine form. In the three images below we see the effects of pointless bulky additions to clothing. In general the woman tends to get lost under the dress. Also, the extra frills and lumps serve no functional purpose, leading one to wonder why they were added, except in some flustered attempt to keep up with a fashion that the wearer did not fully understand.
If, however, any additional volume is placed at the bust, this will leave most of the lines of the outfit in tact. Please forgive the immodesty of the illustrative images below. They are there to demonstrate the principle, which can be put into practice on a more modest garment. The difficulty of finding modest outfits which place emphasis on the bust is perhaps indicative that a desire to bring attention to that area of the body is not necessarily inspired by virtue. Therefore caution should be exercised to ensure that extra drapery in this area is not finding ways to make an outfit appear less modest than it is.
It is not obvious why anyone would wish to wear a cape today. What is a cape except a poorly designed jacket which spoils the line of ones outfit and forces ones arms to be exposed to the cold? There is no sensible reason for any woman to wear such a masculine and poorly functioning item. Nor should any woman wear a jacket, coat or cardigan like a cape, by draping it around her shoulders without putting her arms in the sleeves. Her options are either to wear it properly, or carry it in her hand. As only older women seem to indulge in this habit, it is possible that onlookers will mistake the age of any woman wearing a coat this way. Droopy batwing cuts are also not good options because the pointless extra fabric tends to obscure the female form, just as the extra fabric on capes does.
Small batwing or cape cuts on garments which do not pass the waistline, and are not so big as to totally obscure the figure are able to be worn. Before buying a garment that has such a feature it is strongly advised that it is tried on to assess the degree to which it will obscure the waistline.
Disproportionate sleeves are another distracting element which can be tacked onto a garment. We do not want to be overwhelmed by our clothing, and immense poofs and yards of drooping fabric which get in the way are not going to focus attention on us, but on the dress we are drowning in. On the first row of images below you will observe that our attention is not drawn to the wearers face, but instead ends up examining the offending fabric. Long tight sleeves are perhaps the most basic type of sleeve, but looser sleeves can be worn so long as they are not too large, or they are gathered back in to the arm. Short flutter style sleeves allow a very wide sleeve to be worn without damaging the silhouette. Such a wide sleeve would look odd if it extended past the elbow, but as a short sleeve they do no harm.
As we discussed in the article on modesty, ideally we will have elbow length sleeves, but in recognition of the comparative difficulty of finding modest clothes, merely covering ones shoulders will suffice. A minimum of a cap sleeve on a garment is highly recommended, both because it is doubtful whether ones shoulders can be considered covered without them, and because it lends so much maturity to ones outfit. Modest dresses without any sleeves make a woman’s shoulders look broad and her arms heavy. By adding the cap, the arms look smaller and more delicate. A three quarter length sleeve is very flattering because it draws attention to the waist, and a full length tight sleeve cannot distract from your figure because it follows it so closely.
Collars are a wonderful addition to any top because they so effectively bring the focus to ones face. When used in combination with cuffs a top looks nicely finished, like a well punctuated sentence. This is especially satisfying if the waist is also emphasised with a tie or belt. Ladies should resist any temptation they might feel to pop their collar, and instead wear it as it was intended to be worn. Deliberately wearing clothing incorrectly can look messy, as though the wearer had not given proper attention to the process of dressing. Also, as it seems only to be older women who pop their collars, onlookers may think you fit into an age group you have not yet reached.
It is easy to imagine some trepidation in making the neckline of ones top even higher than the two fingers below the pit of the throat guideline laid down for us. But even the great beauty Audrey Hepburn looked better with a collar to bring attention to her pretty face. Those of us not gifted with such extravagantly beautiful looks should not disregard the elegance of a high collar lightly.
The last element of a well cut garment is adding details to the yoke of a top. The yoke is the part of the top from the neck down to the top of the bust. Not all tops have a separately cut yoke, nor do all tops cover this area of a woman’s body. This is the segment of fabric missing on strapless garments. However, as we will be wearing tops which cover this area, any extra details or changes in texture on this part of the garment will do much to bring the focus of attention to your face. This will be especially effective when combined with a collar. This is not a necessary element to being well dressed, but is such a nice addition that it seemed worth mentioning. By highlighting your face, the attention will stay on you, a well-dressed and noble woman, not on your clothes or your body.