It used to be that women literally suffered for their fashion. Their rib cages were crushed inside unyielding 19th-century corsets. These lace-up undergarments were so restrictive that they stunted the development of vital organs and often resulted in the death of mother and baby during childbirth.
But as feminist movements gradually took hold and society developed a deeper appreciation for a woman’s God-given silhouette — and not its unobtainable wasp-waisted ideal — underpinnings and outer attire became more forgiving. By the time World War I rolled around, women could actually breathe in their bustiers.
While the hit TV show “Mad Men” kick-started a retro 1960s fad in fashion, in which perky breasts, defined waists and curvy hips are de rigueur, today’s clothing is all about accommodating a woman’s natural shape, not about manipulating her figure to fit inside a claustrophobic girdle.
Comfort and Style Are Not in Opposition
Being a slave to fashion ought not to be a phrase we take literally, says style expert Melissa Magsaysay.
“Comfort equals liberation and freedom from confinement,” said Magsaysay, fashion writer for the “Los Angeles Times” Image section and author of the forthcoming book “City of Style.” As we move away from the traditional gender roles of women only being super-feminine, there are more interpretations of what women can wear.
“The 1960s is when women stopped wearing bras, and in the 1970s, you had the advent of the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, which was form-fitting but didn’t require any heavy artillery when it came to undergarments. That was a groundbreaking moment in women’s fashion.”
To pick clothing that’s chic but also complements your body type, you have to maintain a realistic approach to today’s on-trend styles, says Magsaysay.
We’re not all meant to wear all trends.
“You have to start from a place where you’re 100 percent comfortable,” Magsaysay advised. “You have to determine what clothes work for your body and not the other way around. You cannot do skinny jeans if they’re uncomfortable.
“If there’s a part of your body that makes you feel self-conscious when you wear a certain type of clothing, then don’t wear it. There are 800 kinds of jeans out there. Find a pair that makes you feel good.”
When you find a fashion staple that flatters your silhouette — be it a maxi skirt, shift dress or boot-cut pant — you can rely on that as a wardrobe foundation and build from there, adding other au courant bits and pieces.
“So many girls are wearing the maxi dress because it’s comfortable, makes the body look longer and then you have the shape on top,” Magsaysay said. “You can dress it up by adding armfuls of bangles or a pair of sandals in summer. Versatility is a big part of comfort.”
We also have textile technology to thank for the fashion industry’s progress in comfort.
“So much attention right now is going into creating fabric that promotes comfort and longevity,” said Mary Alice Stephenson, a New York-based style expert and fashion commentator who regularly lends her sartorial insight to “Vogue,” “Allure” and “Harper’s Bazaar.” “Women want fabric that breathes better, feels better and lasts longer, and with that comes more comfort.”
In the past, clothes and accessories were created in an artistic way, and women had to fit the frame. Now, Stephenson points out, clothes are being tailored to fit women.
“Designers are constantly searching for new ways to create clothes that look good, feel good and do good in women’s lives,” she said. She pointed to a bevy of supple, smoothing undergarments that are so lightweight you almost want to wear them by themselves.
The same is true for shoes. Women no longer have to stuff their feet into little blocks to make a bold fashion statement.
“Women used to occasion-dress,” said Stephenson. “They couldn’t wait to get their high heels off at the end of the day. That’s all changing, and women are wearing high heels morning, noon and night because of the technology put into the shoes, the way the folds are made, and the inserts that are specially designed to cushion the heels and the balls of the foot.”
For shoes, Magsaysay said, “To maximize your comfort level, find a brand of shoe that fits you the right away and stick with that label. You don’t have to have the same wardrobe as everybody else.”
Confidence Is Fashionable
When it comes to cultivating a wardrobe that’s high on comfort and glamour, confidence is the most stylish accessory a woman can own, says Stephenson.
“For me, the best fashion is happy fashion,” she said. “We’re a very visual society, and fashion gives women confidence.
“When you find something you love, you have to wear it with abandon. Fashion doesn’t work if it doesn’t make you feel great.”