We Use the Word Flattering a Lot—But What Does It Mean?
Fashion’s favourite F word is everywhere. Most publications use it regularly—Who What Wear included—and often it’s as a bit of a measurement for how we shop and what we wear. But while the concept of flattering isn’t problematic, we find its definition far too limited.
In the simplest terms, something that’s flattering looks amazing on whoever is wearing it—we’ll argue that it feels amazing too. Yet if you look to its use in the fashion industry (among stylists, editors, etc.), far too often what’s deemed “flattering” is more closely equated to what makes a woman look slimmer, smaller, or have a figure that resembles an hourglass shape. Flattering’s doing a pretty good job at encouraging women to seek a so-called “ideal” shape, but seeking personal style and contentment, not so much. So we went looking for a new meaning.
To do so, we enlisted the help of women we admire, and even more importantly, women who regularly challenge the status quo. This includes Good American Co-Founder Emma Grede, who’s changed the retail industry with her size 00 to 24 denim line she created with partner Khloé Kardashian; Chidera Eggerue, a body-positivity advocate who launched the #SaggyBoobsMatter; and other industry leaders. They gave us their personal interpretations of “flattering” that go beyond fixing, slimming, or hiding and inspire us to define it on our own terms.
“The term ‘flattering’, without most people realising, often means ‘this hides your flaws well.’ The reason being is because this statement is mainly used toward fat people. In an ideal world, ‘flattering’ should really mean ‘this brings out your [name of amazing feature] really well!’ If people do want to use the word, it’s always polite to follow the compliment up with a positive reason it’s ‘flattering’ without hinting at hiding any flaws.”
— Chidera Eggerue (@theslumflower)
“To me, ‘flattering’ is not only looking the best we possibly can but mostly feeling the best. I love an outfit that will let my body breathe and that won’t make me feel uneasy at any time of the day. As I grow older, I feel like comfort is my number one criteria while choosing an outfit. I love jumpsuits because they are comfy, drama-free in the morning, and they can be dressed down or up. I feel the same about dresses and a jean-and-shirt combo.
“The most flattering outfit is the one that gives you the most confidence and lets your light shine through. I don’t believe it’s necessarily the one that makes you look the hottest! My most flattering outfit to me is my pink denim jumpsuit where I pin my All Woman Project pins because I feel it fits my personality, my mood, and makes me feel special.”
— Clémentine Desseaux, model and founder of All Woman Project
“When I think of a piece of clothing that is flattering for someone, I feel it enhances the great qualities of a person, such as warm earth tone colours that enhance your goddess glow by bringing out your skin’s natural highlights. The aesthetics that resonate with my personality and for me at the moment are a mix of Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and The Matrix Reloaded Trinity vibe with a hint of ’90s R&B—Aaliyah and TLC.”
— Aleali May, image consultant and stylist
“Women are taught growing up that ‘flattering’ is about hiding perceived imperfections, but at Good American, we believe in celebrating every curve, so that isn’t about hiding what you’ve been given. Our goal from day one was to offer sexy and flattering styles made to fit women just as they are. Flattering clothing empowers women to feel strong and confident whether it’s a sweatshirt, a bodysuit, or a great pair of jeans.”
— Emma Grede, CEO and co-founder of Good American
“Flattering is so subjective. For me, it is anything that goes in at the waist and doesn’t show my arms. I think you have to really know your body and understand what your priorities are. For me, comfort and looking good must go together as often as possible.”
“For me, ‘flattering’ does not mean looking like the ideal social norm—rather it’s that moment where a woman is glowing because she feels so confident. When my team designs our clothing, we want our girl to feel like the most amazing version of herself. For almost everyone (myself included), this does not mean looking like a fashion model at a yoga retreat in Bali—that’s not our goal for women and that’s so dated.
“For us, feeling your best means celebrating being curvy, celebrating being lean, and always embracing being unique. So we make sure that our design colour palette can complement all different skin tones and that we create styles up to three times that will make every woman feel like Beyoncé.”
— Michelle Wahler, CEO and co-founder of Beyond Yoga
“The word ‘flattering’ by definition doesn’t bother me. It’s the idea that you should your body to appear thinner above all else does. It’s as if personal style, what’s interesting, current, or even forward doesn’t matter unless an outfit highlights what is projected onto us as desirable.
“Before plus-size style bloggers and the online community of women repeatedly bucked the notion that figure ‘flattering’ was the only way a woman of a certain size could be attractive or stylish, the word, for me—and coming from thin ‘style experts’ in magazines and on television segments—often felt like a synonym for ‘invisible.’
“Personally I get dressed to express myself and flex my creativity rather than to shave off a few pounds. Getting dressed is much more fun that way!”
— Kellie Brown, And I Get Dressed
“For me, ‘flattering’ clothing more about how a garment makes you feel and that gets projected outward. It’s different for each individual. Clothing is flattering when a woman feels confident, beautiful, and ‘badass.’ As long as the person wearing the clothing feels good, that’s flattering, and really, that’s all that matters.”
— Dana Asher Levine, Hollywood stylist (Shonda Rhimes, Fox Television Group chair and CEO Dana Walden)
Defining or even redefining ‘flattering’ isn’t a be-all and end-all to the conversation but rather a starting point for you—and us!—to rethink how we talk about fashion that, in an ideal world, values individuality and expression over everything else. Have a different take on what the term means? Find us in the Who What Wear Insiders group—we’ll be talking about this and we’d love to hear your take.