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Everything You Need to Know About Tailoring Your Clothes

Alterations are the single most crucial element in dressing well.

Think of the most stylish woman you know.

She has her clothes tailored.

It doesn’t matter where you shop or how much you spend on your clothes. I don’t care if you buy full price at Neiman Marcus or exclusively discount shop at T.J. Maxx. Alterations are necessary regardless of your body type. 

You need alterations if you shop in the Petite, Missy, or Plus departments.

Alterations will highlight your favorite features, minimize what you might be insecure about, and elevate your outfit, regardless of the price tag, to look more expensive.

They also help you maintain your clothes longer if you are on a weight loss journey. 

Everything You Need to Know About Tailoring Your Clothes

Everything You Need to Know About Tailoring Your Clothes

Related: How to Look Expensive Without Breaking the Bank 

Since the beginning of time, men’s clothing has relied on tailoring. Today, even men’s discount stores have an alterations department.

But women continue to rely on buying off the rack and hoping for the best. Other than some better department stores and a few specialty boutiques, alterations are rarely offered to us. 

This means we must take it into our own hands. (Like pretty much everything else in life.)

One of my first jobs out of college was as the manager of a high-end boutique in Philadelphia. What set us apart from some of the competition was that we offered in-house tailoring, something unheard of for a store of our size. 

That experience, all those years ago, taught me the importance of alterations. And the store’s seamstress taught me everything I know about garment construction. She was a master.

She was also wonderfully eccentric.

Once, when she asked for a pay raise, and our boss said “no,” she built a fort out of cardboard boxes around her workspace and refused to speak English for a week, so I learned how to reconstruct a blazer, a few Portuguese curse words, and an unconventional yet effective way to negotiate.

Simpler times, but I digress. 

It’s hard for the untrained eye.

Years ago, I was in the closet of a dear client who was trying on a blazer she had recently purchased. It was immediately apparent to me that it was at least two sizes too big. She didn’t believe me until I pulled in the back, turned up the sleeves, and pinned her hem up. 

“This was what I thought it looked like!” she exclaimed when she looked in the mirror. 

That’s when it dawned on me that most people don’t see how things fit them the way a professional does.

Finding a great tailor is challenging as they are rare experts. Your best bet is to ask around your community, use referrals, or look online. 

I found my go-to tailor thanks to our local neighborhood Facebook page—those women could rule the world.

Of course, a lot of items off the rack fit just fine. But in general, the core pieces of your wardrobe will need a little nip and tuck to make them fit well. And if you have fit challenges, knowing how to alter a garment will make shopping and getting dressed much easier. 

A Simple Guide to Alterations

Everything You Need to Know About Tailoring Your Clothes

Alterations open up a world of options. They give you a lot of power over your clothes. If you know how to use them you can start to make your clothes work for you, rather than force yourself to work for your clothes.

Does every piece of clothing need to be tailored? No, of course not.

But consider them for core pieces and wardrobe staples, or something you love that would be even better with a few minor adjustments.

Some things to consider as we dive in:

Have an Alteration Budget.

I recommend taking 10% of your total shopping budget and set it aside for alterations.

Don’t look at the price per piece, instead look at the total spend, since not every piece needs to be tailored.

Alterations Are Not Magic.

Don’t overcomplicate the process.

Alterations are not meant to create new garment. Rather, you want to make what it is work for you.

Understand Darts and Seaming.

As you start to use alterations, you’ll begin to look at garments like a tailor and become familiar with what you can and cannot alter. 

You’ll see darts and seams as roadmaps. 

Remember, if there’s a dart, you can alter it. If there isn’t one, it’s best to avoid creating a new one. This would involve reconstructing a piece, a task that’s rarely worth the effort.

For example, look at the back of a blazer. There might be one long seam down the center, darts on the back at your waist, or both. So, if a blazer is too oversized, it can be taken in at these points quickly. 

But if, for some reason, there aren’t seams or darts, it’s not going to be a straightforward alteration. 

Size Up to Size Down.

If you want your clothes to fit properly, consider your largest body part and fit from there.

If your shoulders are broad, fit them first and alter down.

If you have a full bust, fit that first and take in your jacket/blazer/blouse around it.

If pants fit your hips but gap at the waist, buy bottoms that fit your hips and take your waist in.

Listen to Your Tailor.

A good tailor will tell you if something is worth the cost of the alteration or not.

When I was a stylist I had a wonderful tailor on the team who has since retired. She would always tell us if the alteration was worth it, or if we were better off replacing the item.

For this post, we’ll break down what kind of alterations to consider.

Waistband

By far, this is the most popular and useful alteration.

If your hips are bigger than your waist, and that’s the case for most of us, fit your hips and fix your waistband.

It’s SO EASY and you’ll have dozens of more options to choose from.

Hem

Hems on pants and skirts are another popular yet overlooked alteration.

Of course, if your pants are too long, you can have them hemmed to your preferred length.

Less popular but just as effective is to have your hem let down.

I’m 5’10 and often have to have the extra length in an otherwise great fitting pair of pants let out to give me an extra one or two inches.

Petite? Hems are particularly important for you. Petite sizes are not based on length but proportions. If you’re buying petite sizes because they give you the length you desire, you may get a better fit in the Missy department.

You can also be petite with long legs. In that case, purchase a petite size and have the hem taken down like I do.

Everything You Need to Know About Tailoring Your Clothes

When hemming jeans, be sure to keep the original hem.

As for sleeve hems, the best practice is for your sleeve to hit the top of your wrist.

Jackets and shirts with extra details at the cuff can be a challenge to alter. Sometimes you can remove a cuff, shorten the sleeve and reattach the cuff.

You can also (depending on the garment) take the sleeve up by the shoulder thereby retaining the sleeve embellishments.

Shoulders

altering shoulder area on clothing

And speaking of shoulders, if you have narrow shoulders, take in the shoulders of your jackets, blazers and dresses. This will make a big difference in how your look comes together.

When the shoulder of your blazer are too big on your natural shoulder, your jacket will look oversized. This is how garments look like they are wearing us.

If you are broad, size up to fit your shoulders and take in everything else.

Back and Side Darts

Jackets, blazers, and dresses often have one long or two parallel seams running down the back.

You’ll also see two seams or darts on the front of the garment at the natural waist.

These are there to create shape. If you find that a blazer fits in your shoulders and bust but feels full in your waist, have your darts taken in a tiny bit. This simple alteration completely changes the look and fit of your clothes for the better.

Fullness Out of Pants

Have you ever tried on a pair of pants and loved the way they fit except it feels like there is too much fabric in the legs?

You can easily fix this by taking some of the fullness out.

A tailor will be able to see how much to take out and how to balance it with the cut of the pants. Likely, they’ll start right below the hipbone and go all the way down the side seam to the hem.

Belt Loops

If you wear a belt with your pants, keep your belt loops.

If you never wear a belt, and sometimes tuck in, have your belt loops removed. You never want to see a belt loop without a belt.

Super simple fix.

Remove Pockets

Remove Pockets

Do you hate it when you can see the outline of your pockets through your pants? Me too. 

Don’t worry; you can have them removed. 

They may pull and open in an unflattering way when you move. If you don’t need them and the pants otherwise fit, you can have your pockets sewn shut for a smooth fit.

Sometimes pockets add too much volume and bulk where you don’t want it – you can have them removed. 

Everything You Need to Know About Tailoring Your Clothes
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MEET THE AUTHOR

Megan Kristel

Megan Kristel is an entrepreneur, working mom, and former personal stylist. Tired of the one-dimensional portrayal of women online, she founded The Well Dressed Life as a resource for other professional women.

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Mary

Friday 3rd of May 2024

If I buy pants to fit my waist they are too big in the hips & baggy in the seat. That seems to be a more difficult alteration, I’ve had problems finding a tailor that does it well. Pants are also frequently too short in the stride, also seems to be difficult to alter. Wish I could Fonda great tailor, still looking.

Daphne Gilpin

Wednesday 29th of May 2019

Thanks for explaining that men's alterations are a standard retail operating procedure. My husband wants to start dressing nicer by buying some suits. Your article helped me see why having the suits alters is an important step.

Daphne Gilpin

Friday 15th of February 2019

Thanks for pointing out that when the shoulders of your clothing hang over your natural shoulders, it can make your clothes look over-sized and dominate your appearance. I have pretty narrow shoulders and have that same problem with most of my jackets. I didn't realize it had such a big effect on my look; I'll definitely be looking into having my clothes tailored soon!

Julie

Saturday 10th of February 2018

What a great article! I have been getting items tailored for years and still learned some new tricks.

Megan Kristel

Saturday 10th of February 2018

Thanks Julie!