The cut of a garment is as crucial as its style - here's how to tell the difference.
In part two of this three-part feature series, I'll look at how to identify a quality cut in a garment.
Every woman prefers a her own style of dressing - some like a casual look, some prefer tailored, office-oriented clothes, others lean towards glamorous clothes or sportswear. But different styles are one thing - cut is another.
The quality of a particular cut depends largely on something that most ready-to-wear purchasers (IE: most of us) aren't familiar with - ease. Ease isn't how relaxed you feel in something, it's the difference in size between your body and the garment. Swimwear or a tight t-shirt are actually smaller than you are, and this is known as 'negative ease'. But most garments are slightly larger than you are, and that's known as positive ease.
Depending on the amount of ease in the garment, it will fit you tightly, snugly, loosely or very loosely, and there is no right way for a garment to feel - it's a matter of personal choice. Some women like the tight, hugging fit of jeans and bodies, for instance, where there is very little ease, while others prefer the loose, unbinding cut of palazzo pants and kimonos.
However, in addition to the ease required for you to move around comfortably in your clothes - known as 'garment ease' - there is also another type of ease - 'fashion ease'.
Fashion ease is the amount of extra fabric the designer puts into the garment, over and above what is strictly necessary for it simply to function - if you like, the 'generosity' of the cut - and it's something that becomes immediately apparent when you compare clothing at a high price point with that at a low price point.
Quality garments generally have fuller sleeves, deeper cuffs and more room at the knee, for instance. They don't bind across the back, they don't ride up when you sit down, and you can raise your arms without distorting the garment because the sleeve head and the gusset under the arm have been cut more generously.
The problem is, adding ease to garments costs manufacturers a lot of money, and when the clothes are MASS manufactured, all those little extra bits of cloth can add up to a fortune.
Designers at every price point try to keep fabric wastage to a minimum, of course, but those at the low end shave off every bit of fabric that they possibly can. This is one reason that cheap clothing often feels 'mean' or skimpy - the cut has been shaved to the bone in order to reduce manufacturing costs. One way to get around it, if you do have to shop from cheaper ranges, is to go up a size or two - but no more than this or you'll start to distort at the shoulderline, where the garment gets wider.
It's also one reason you've probably already noticed that you're a size or two bigger in a cheap brand like Primark or River Island than you are in a more expensive one like Marks and Spencer. Take the two dresses shown on this page, for instance. The one at top left costs £199 and is by Jaegar; the one below right costs £35 and is by River Island. Superficially similar at first glance, both being little black dresses with some transparency, they are actually very different animals. The Jaegar dress has sleeves, is pure cotton and has two layers, enabling ease of movement and transparency at the knees and sleeves. It would probably be very cool and comfortable to wear, but the cut is a tad frumpy unless you're small-busted. The River Island dress in contrast is polyester and elasthane - the low-end manufacturer's go-to fabric and rather sticky to wear. It obtains its fit by stretch, not cut, and it's both sleeveless and much shorter - well above the knee, thus enabling the manufacturer to save on cloth.
However, as in all things, quality is not the only issue. In a dark enough room, the poor cloth might not show, and the fuller skirt is forgiving to a pot belly. If it only had sleeves and was a foot longer, it would be much more wearable by a mature woman, but you could get away with this if you had skinny arms and legs. It is entirely a woman's own choice (and partly a moral one) whether she opts for a classic, well-made garment over a fun-for-a-day el-cheapo discard.
These examples also illustrate the fact that one way to get around poor fit at a lower price point is to look for garments with stretch. You will notice vastly more stretch garments in lower-priced brands because it enables manufacturers to cut corners on the fit - it is not a coincidence that the vicose/elasthane wrap dress has become so massively popular in recent years.
One area where you might particularly notice a lack of generosity in the cut of cheap garments is at the armscye (sleeve hole). Extra fabric at the sleeve head, giving the user a wider range of movement, not only requires more fabric, it also requires more skilled stitching, and possibly a worker who's paid a higher rate for the clothing assembly. All of this cost has to be added to the cost of the garment and the difference recouped from the customer. This is also one reason why cheaper clothing ranges produce more sleeveless garments - sleeves are expensive to produce, costing about one third of the total fabric of the garment but they are also expensive to stitch - poor stitching in this area is immediately noticeable to a customer.
Another area where lack of ease can be noticeable is across the back. Removing the back seam from a pattern removes one extra step in assembly, but it also means that the garment won't fit so well, because the curvature of the spine isn't taken into account. Quality jackets and coats nearly all have a centre back seam for this reason, so this is something to look out for.
Quality blouses and shirts usually have a shoulder yoke, which permits the garment to sit neatly and flatly at the shoulderline and neck. Any excess fabric used for comfort (which is taken in where necessary with blousing, pin-tucking or the deep back pleat often seen on men's shirts), can then be gathered slightly below the shoulder where the fabric bulk won't be noticeable. Cheaper cuts of shirt and blouse just have the back and front meet each other in a seam right over the top of the shoulder - this is neither as comfortable, nor as tidy as using a shoulder yoke.
In much the same way as the back seam on a jacket, a two-piece collar, with a seam up the back, is more tightly shaped to the neck and has less tendency to bag than a one-piece collar.
When it comes to sweaters, a quality knit should be 'fully-fashioned', with the garment pieces knitted to shape and then assembled, rather than being cut out of a rectangular piece of fabric as if the item was woven rather than knitted (look for a seam running from the underarm up towards the neck, rather than the sleeve fitting as if it was a jacket). Fully fashioning requires more steps in the production because you have to 'needle park' or change the knit from rib to interlock, etc, which tends to make it more expensive, but you also tend to not get problems like bagging every which way, and it also results in a snugger fit to the body.
At all price points, and in all types of garment, a cut can either be generous or ungenerous. For instance, I have two pairs of jeans which in a photograph look almost identical - both denim, both indigo, both bootcut, both with a 9-inch rise - in terms of style they are identical. But the pair from M&S are so straight in the leg as to be virtually shapeless, like boilersuit trousers, while the pair from Next are much longer in the rear rise than in the front, roomier in the butt, tighter on the thigh and wider at the hem. Altogether more womanly in shape, the latter pair take 10 pounds off me because the CUT is flattering - paying the designer to get that right costs the company money, and they will cheerfully pass it on to you, the customer.
While we're on the subject of jeans, jeans with the outside leg seam set slightly towards the back will give you more ease in movement and a relaxed fit, while ones with the side seam set slightly forward will introduce a slimming, vertical line that can be very flattering. Depending on your preferences, both of these cuts are readily available from a wide range of manufacturers.
In any wardrobe, you'll get the most wear out of cuts that are simple and 'clean'. These won't date easily. Avoid exaggeration at all costs - huge collars, huge floppy lapels, outsize patch pockets, big pocket flaps, daft sleeves with bell shapes and flounces everywhere, buckles and straps, deep turnups (more than 1in), ridiculously tight clothing, wide shoulders. In blouses, jackets and coats, look for a shoulder that comes as close to your shoulderline as possible, and for overcoats and raincoats, a raglan sleeve fits more easily over a standard sleevehead.
Quality garments often display detailing that you don't get on cheaper garments. I'll look at applied detail such as topstitching in my article on 'finish', but with regard to cut, look out for extra but telling details such as turnups on trousers, French (turn-back) cuffs on blouses, four cuff buttons rather than three and the use of multiple-weight fabrics such as a wool coat with velvet trim, or a silk blouse with chiffon sleeves. Sewing together two fabrics of different weights requires a lot of skill and shows that the manufacturer has more faith in the garment.
Age and weight
Many women continue to show loyalty to particular brands even when they are no longer suitable for their age and weight range. This is a mistake. Once you hit 40, forget the juniors departments, where the cuts are aimed at teenage girls with small boobs and not much waist definition. You now need what the trade 'missy' cuts (which would more accurately be called 'womanly'), with more generous allowances for your bust and butt. This doesn't mean that you have to look like a full-on matron of course, but it should also ensure that you're not constantly squeezing yourself into clothes that you haven't a hope of fitting into. Missy ranges also tend to have more sleeves on items like dresses, which is a godsend for those of us who prefer to cover our arms, and skirts and dresses are usually knee-length or below. In the UK, I would hit shops like Jaegar first and work my way down the price points from there. Own-brand ranges from respectable department stores such as Liberty, Debenhams and Harrods are also usually very good - department stores don't attach their own name to goods they think are rubbish.
The same rule applies if you're outsize - shop at the manufacturers who design specifically for your weight range first, don't just buy ordinary clothes in bigger sizes - there is no quicker way to look like a frump. When women gain fat, they gain it in specific places, they don't just get bigger all over as if their bones were growing. Your frame remains the same, but you'll gain on your hips, thighs, bust, belly and the tops of your arms, and the cuts of the garments you wear need to take that into account, not just get endlessly bigger at the shoulder as if you were a bloke.
How to choose garments with a quality cut.
When you try on a garment, give it some hammer before you buy it - don't just hold it up against yourself and look. If it's a skirt or trousers, squat down in it - does the waistband poke out at the back, is it too tight on the knee? Does it give you enough room in the rear?
In trousers, in order to get a good fit you usually have to pay more money than you would for a skirt of equivalent quality - you're paying not just for fabric but for the comfort of a properly cut rise that won't slice your crotch in half every time you sit down.
If there isn't a chair in the changing room, ask for one, and sit on it in front of a mirror. How high does the skirt ride when you cross your legs? This is as much to do with the cut as with the length - if you have a tummy, a pencil skirt will ride higher than a 'pegged' skirt, which has slight gathers into the waistband and is more accommodating to the pot belly that most of us acquire after menopause.
When you try on a jacket - possibly the garment where quality is the most crucial - reach above your head and watch how the front revers rise. Do they threaten to come up and chop your ears off? Now do the garment up and see how far you can reach upwards - dos it pull at your ribcage? Bend your elbows - how tight is the sleeve? Does the 'stance' - the bit where the front edges meet - fall at a flattering place on your bustline and the collar sit flat against your collar bones? This is crucial for a jacket to look and feel good. Now reach around and hug yourself from both sides - is there enough room in the back?
How does it look when it's open? Most of us don't wear our jackets closed all day, and double-breasted jackets in particular often stick out like boards if they're worn undone. Can you reach behind you and pretend to scratch your back? If you can't, take it off and put it back on the hanger - if you have to wear this thing all day it will drive you nuts.
To tell if a knit is fully fashioned, turn the item inside out and look at the seams - if they look ravelled or are sewn over with interlock stitch, the pieces may well have been cut from bolt knitted fabric, but if they look clean or like a solid braid of yarn, the pieces were probably knitted to shape, which means the item will retain its shape better.
Above all, when it comes to clothes, try on things you know you can't afford in high-end shops where you have no intention of buying anything. It costs nothing and you will quickly get your eye in for what is meant to constitute a quality garment - then you can use your newfound knowledge to shop well at a lower price point.