You would not be reading this article if you did not have some concerns about the fit of your women’s suit. I’m here to help, even though some of my opinions may seem a bit … blunt. Just remember I want you to look your best every time you have to wear a suit. This guide focuses on how a suit should fit a woman in a professional setting.
You may have seen our earlier article, How a Suit Should Fit a Man. I suggest you read it since a lot of the guidance there is still valid from a garment tailoring perspective. Come back here to review my notes about fit, which are very different. I don’t agree with the idea that women’s professional suits should mimic men’s styles.
While a man can wear the same suit to a wedding (even his own!), a job interview, or a funeral, there is no single outfit that a woman can wear to all three events and still look appropriate.
Unfortunately, this means that on the rare occasion that many women need a suit, it doesn’t fit. The style may have changed, or one’s weight may have changed or shifted. For women who need conservative suits with greater frequency (like a lawyer on a week+ trial), one wants to easily choose the necessary garments without worrying that they will be somehow inappropriate. Nothing undermines that all-important first impression worse than clothes that don’t fit the current you in the current situation. So without further ado, here are key considerations for how a suit should fit a woman.
The length of a jacket will vary based on styles and preferences. For the most flattering fit, ensure that neither the bottom of the jacket nor the bottoms of the sleeves end at the widest points of the body (i.e., the widest points of the bust, stomach, or hips).
It is not necessary to mimic men’s styles when wearing a suit. Button-front, collared shirts are not required for professional presentation. My personal preference is a shell or a thin sweater with no buttons to gape around my endowments.
However, one detail from men’s attire is still valid for women in a professional setting. Long sleeves, ranging from bracelet length to full length, will always be more formal. A sleeveless sheath dress does not look as professional (or be as warm) as the suit the man beside you is wearing.
To button or not to button:
In another departure from the fit of men’s clothing, where men’s jackets are expected to be buttoned except for the bottom button, women’s jackets offer greater flexibility. Some women prefer to wear a suit jacket fully buttoned. In this case, there should be no pulling or gaping across the buttons or any of the seams. Other women, like me, prefer to wear the suit jacket fully unbuttoned. Here, it’s not necessary that the jacket can be buttoned, only that it looks like it could fully close. You should be able to cross your arms or drive a car comfortably with the jacket on.
The length of pants depends on two major factors: the cut of the trousers and the type of shoes expected to be worn with them. While pant styles change a lot and rather quickly, classic styles for business suits are best in a professional setting.
For straight- or slim-leg pants, the bottom of the trousers should fall to the top of the shoes’ heel when measured from the back. This length allows a small break across the front of the trousers. If one prefers, straight-leg pants can have a larger break, to the bottom of the heel. But any longer than that is undesirable. Pooling trousers at the bottom of the shoes will look sloppy and will wreck the trouser hems where they scrape the ground. The nice thing about these styles is that they offer the flexibility to wear whatever heel you want. Cropped trousers have been in style for some seasons as well. The most flattering length is right around the top of the ankle bone, but note that cropped trousers are not as formal as full-length ones.
For bootcut or wide-leg pants, the bottom of the pants should be 1/4 to 1/2 inch from the ground in the chosen heel height. Loose-bottomed pants cut for flats will look too short when worn with larger heels. Katherine Hepburn and Amelia Earhart are classic examples of how long wide-leg pants should be.
Pleats … just don’t. They add visual weight, bringing the focus of attention down, rather than up to your face.
Cuffs on the bottom of your bootcut or wide-leg pants are great if you’re taller or your legs are significantly longer than your torso. They will have a shortening effect on petites. If you like cuffed trousers, wear them. Just make sure they are long enough: cuffed trousers shouldn’t be cropped for business formalwear.
As far as pant rise, it’s largely a matter of personal preference. A mid-rise or a rise no higher than the belly button is always classic for business clothes. If you prefer lower rises, ensure your jacket covers your waistband when you raise your arms.
You should be able to walk comfortably without having to hike up your trousers. If they are sagging, take in the waist. We offer waistbands with small sectopms of elastic to address the need for a little flex when changing positions between walking and sitting.
Trousers that fit well while standing might be too tight once you sit down. You should be able to sit without feeling fabric digging into your waist or into your seat. This is often a trouser rise issue: you may need a longer rise, particularly in the back, for the trousers to fit comfortably.
Pants that are too tight will cause their side pockets to gap. Some women prefer to use fake front pockets or keep their front pockets stitched closed to avoid this. Trousers that are too small also wrinkle across the stomach and hips or cling too tightly to lumps and bumps.
Like pants, the skirt should fit comfortably around the waist and hips without excessive wrinkling. A pencil skirt or A-line cut are classic styles for women’s suits.
In a professional setting, the skirt length traditionally falls around the knee,
- just above the knee,
- across the middle of the knee, or
- just below the knee.
While petite women can wear shorter skirts than taller women without looking like they’re too exposed, shorter skirts will rise when seated, possibly exposing more of the leg than desirable. The heel height worn with a skirt will also impact how short a skirt appears. Some people feel frumpy without heels in skirts, but no one should feel required to wear heels to look professional.
Skirt slits are also a consideration. The bottom opening of the skirt without the slit should be large enough to walk comfortably, and a slit that is too large may expose more of the leg than desired, especially when walking upstairs. The skirt is too tight if the slit is open while standing normally.
A pencil skirt that slides around so the fastening keeps moving is too loose and must be taken in. A skirt that hugs the bottom curve of the wearer’s bottom is too tight for a professional setting.
These are just a few considerations for how a suit should fit a woman. In a professional setting, your clothes exist to present you and your ideas in a flattering light. The resultant focus should not be on the clothes, but rather on the person wearing them.