Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book Review - Out of Shape: Debunking myths about fashion and fit

Are you human shaped? Then you should probably read this book.

I was fortunate enough to stumble upon it in my local library’s online catalogue. I have this habit of typing in words like “fashion”, “textiles” and “sewing” to pore over all the books I want to borrow. This book promises a lot just from its title so I wasn’t sure that it would follow through. A book about being “out of shape”? Diving into the realms of fashion and tackling the issue of how things fit? Could it be any more perfect for me seeing as that’s what fills my head every moment I think about sewing?

I need to tell you before I begin that this book struck a chord with me. As it unfolded every truth resonated with me. I found myself nodding along, uttering the occasional “yes!” and laughing at the author’s and my own shared angst about clothes and how they (don’t) fit. I will be talking up this book because I loved it but the views are my own.

From the outset the author sides with you telling you “I am a critic, and I reserve the right to call bullshit when I see it. I’m on your side - the consumer who faces small everyday agonies in wearing clothes”. She spends some time teasing out what is meant by the word “fit” and what is meant by the word “size”. These terms are already familiar to us. We know when we actually shop that we must choose a size to get the closest fit to our body but RTW can never really compare to a hand made garment. When using a sewing pattern however, we’re faced with a myriad of choices. Our measurements fall into one or a variety of sizes that we can grade and as we shape this garment and contour it to our figures we may choose adjustments along the way that allow the end piece to look like it was made for us. Because it was. Most people don’t have this luxury though, they’re stuck in between these concepts of size and fit not even knowing how to put their frustrations into words. The power of this book comes in being able to differentiate and explain these things.

“If fit is subtle and subjective then size is abstract and impersonal. Fit is cultural; size is industrial. It’s completely out of our control, yet it’s the part of clothes shopping that depresses people the most.” 
“Much of our angst about size and fit springs from the notion that to be socially successful, we need to constantly tend to and revise our appearance. I call this philosophy ‘orthovestia’, after the Latin words for ‘correct’ and ‘clothing’.” 
“Orthovestia doesn’t solve the practical problem of finding well-fitting clothes. Instead, it fools us into believing that if our clothes don’t fit it’s our fault for not understanding, training or disguising our bodies properly. It works by making us feel like failures who need experts to guide and correct us. But I want to show that what seems like helpful advice is really social control and moral shaping.”

In case that wasn’t enough to pique your interest the book takes a turn to look at how clothes have fit people throughout the centuries. She asks the question of why old clothes look so tiny compared to the clothes of today and goes looking for the answer in libraries, museums, galleries and vintage clothing stores. What I found resonated with me most about this discussion was the subject of underwear.
“Underwear aims to control and contain the naked human body so that it becomes inconspicuous and docile, and doesn’t call attention to itself through the textures of its hair and skin, its quiverings and bulgings as we breathe and move.”
One of the most striking revelations for me was the discussion about corsets. We look back on them as oppressive and wonder what that physical pressure would have felt like on an hourly basis with fabric taming your shape into the figure of desirability. Once the discussion turned to modern clothing she revealed that while we no longer have corsets physically restricting and shaping our bodies, we now have this internalised “corset of flesh” where we mould our bodies through diet and exercise to tame our shape into the very same figure of desirability.
“Our feelings of frustration and inadequacy about our bodies come down to this basic conceptual shift from an externally moulded silhouette to an internally moulded one. We’ve come to understand corsets of flesh as badges of freedom, modernity and self respect, and the fabric corsets they replaced as cruel, painful devices of primitivism, oppression and submission. And where once there were moral panics about young girls tight-lacing their corsets, now we fret about teenagers with eating disorders”
Never before have I come across a concept so startling and true. And it all came from underwear. While I kid myself about my shape and how clothes fit me I know that had I lived in the days of corset wearing I would have tightly laced it up to fit the ideal. And while I kid myself that I’m free to wear whatever I want and I have a good understanding of what works for my shape, I am most certainly trying to shape my own body through diet and exercise. My corset is different from those that lived in the past but here I am faced with the same oppression. This author has eyes that see through the layers of angst, frustration and confusion around clothing one’s self. She has a way of giving power to her ideas by stating them so simply and thoroughly. Her tone throughout the book is of someone well read and best of all curious about the workings of the world. She will lift the lid on so many details about clothing old and new and reveal them to you for what they really are.

Her journey throughout the book is to come to understand where sizes come from, how they differ in different countries as well as companies. She quizzes shop assistants on what size they think she is, she invites her blog readers to guess at her size, she leaves no stone unturned in her search for some truth or meaning in these little numbers we find on the tags of our clothing. At the same time she’s trying to unearth why we are so weirdly attached to our size when we know that clothing from every store in every country all over the world never fits the same. While we’re busy sorting through our own change room angst she’s trying to explain to us that the world isn’t actually trying to make us feel horrible about ourselves. Companies are trying to make money by trying to fit as many bodies as they possibly can. Their sizing is so dilute it never fits anybody perfectly. That doesn’t mean that poor unsuspecting clothes sitting on hangers in a shop are out to get us.

I felt like I was falling down a rabbit hole while reading this. A really awesome and well written rabbit hole of truth and wisdom. There are things in this book that I know I have been frustrated about in the past but I lacked the vocabulary or insight to describe it. 
“But just when we think we’ve figured out all the crazy-sounding body types and fashion rules, we learn we’re not even the best people to judge our appearance - other people are. As TV makeover shows and uncanny comic-book heroes tell us, we’ll grow either repulsively unfit or monstrously overtrained if left to our own devices.” 
“Yet we don’t think of this orthovestic gaze as cruel or oppressive, even though it’s precisely that. Instead it’s framed as helpful, as protective, as healthy, as sensible and as virtuous. And when we criticise other people, we choose to focus on our own helpfulness rather than how bad this might make them feel. After all, we only have their best interests at heart.”
Perhaps this book resonated with me because I’m currently shaping my flesh corset whilst making my real corset (aka wedding dress) to be worn on the day of most significance in my life. Perhaps it resonated because like the author I too have found myself stuck in a piece of clothing in a change room writhing around hoping on hope that no one will have to cut me out of the bloody thing. And perhaps it resonated with me because she’s just a really great writer.

Whatever the reason, I find myself having to return this to my library now. So I’ll be whipping out my card to buy this book to keep on my shelf to reread some day. Because it’s just that kind of book.

Want to buy it for yourself?

Try hereherehere or here.

Want to read more of her work?


So, has anyone else read anything like this that resonated with them? Any books I'm missing out on?


  1. Excellent :) I'm waiting for my copy to arrive, I bought it shortly after chatting to you about it the other day! A well written piece, Thanks Jodie :)

    1. Awesome! I'm glad you found it. I think you'll enjoy it and I hope that if you pass it on to your friends they may find some home truths in it!

    2. this sounds like an excellent book. i will look out for it!

  2. Going right now to reserve it at my local library!

  3. I've not heard of this book! I'm curious now. But it looks like it's not distributed in the U.S. :( I wonder if it will be sometime.

  4. Thanks for reviewing the book! Sounds like an interesting read! Now I have to wait when it becomes available on Amazon.

  5. I'm intrigued and am now going to track a copy down in the uk...

  6. Sounds great! Thanks for the recommendation. I love books which dissect our social assumptions.