Dr Printlove! or, how I learned to stop worrying and love wearing patterns.

This is for the women who’ve told me that they love prints, but never wear them out of fear they’ll look “huge.”  My response is 1) you are never as fat as you think you are, 2) stop beating yourself up already, and more practically, 3) if you have areas of your body you’d like to conceal, prints can be your best friend.

Also, let me stress that this information applies to skinny girls as much as it does to their more luscious counterparts.  You can use prints to disguise a flat chest, a lack of curves, or shoulders that are too broad or too narrow.

According to TLC, petite women should stick to prints smaller than their fist, and larger women should stick to prints smaller than their hand-span*.  This may hold true for all-over repeated patterns, but I disagree when it comes to the new digital or asymmetric prints.  In my opinion, not only do these look incredibly cool, but they can be used to magically divert the viewer’s eye to where you want it, and away from where you don’t.

Let’s start with a blouse which sadly gets it all wrong:

Ashley Stewart Women's Plus Size Web Exclusive Self-tie Tropical Print Blouse

The problem here isn’t the print – which I love, incidentally. Notice how the dark purple is up around the bust and the shoulder, and the one big spot of white is right on her belly? These sadists have made a stunning model look like a bowling ball. The placement of the print calls attention to her stomach and takes it away from her chest, shoulders, and face. It’s sad, because this blouse could be gorgeous AND flattering. The truth is that this is an inexpensive blouse which was mass-produced at a factory where they did not have time to plan the exact placement of the print. More than likely there will be versions of the blouse which have a more flattering print placement, but you’d have to be in the store actually looking at the item, and go through every one in your size to find (if you are lucky) the one with the best arrangement.

Finding a well-designed print is a matter of a) luck, b) careful searching, or c) money. Designers are very particular about print placement. They know that it makes all the difference in the world, and you are paying for their attention to detail. The very best ones will design the entire garment around the print, rather than the other way around.

Of course this isn’t always the case.  There are plenty of unflattering expensive designer clothes out there, and if you know what you’re looking for, there are plenty of well-designed bargains out there, too.

My hope is that with a little help from yours truly, you’ll be able to tell the great bargains from the rip-offs, so that you can identify the best-value prints for your budget and shape.

Here is an example of a print done well:

HENRIK VIBSKOV 'Vero' print blouse

Notice how the pattern of red and white follows an hourglass shape, drawing attention to the bust and making the waistline look slimmer.  It also stops before the full width of the hips, making them look smaller, too (naturally to enhance this effect you’d need to wear something dark on the lower half).  This blouse is quite expensive (click on the photo for details – it’s on sale for £115, or about $175).

Here’s another flattering print blouse:

CECILIA PRADO Print V-Neck Kaftan

This one is by Cecilia Prado, and it’s also pricey at £210/$315 (click on the photo for details).   Notice how there is an inset of knit mesh in the center which draws the eye in to the, creating a narrower line.  The sleeves are full enough to cover any arm issues (YAY!) BUT (and this is very important) they turn the print in a different direction and use the brighter part of the print, making the arms appear distinctly different from the body.   Often these kimono-sleeve blouses can actually make the body appear wider because there is no differentiation between sleeve and torso – you are basically adding the width of BOTH of your arms to the width of your body.  This blouse cleverly avoids that with the use of the pattern and the way the sleeves are cut to be longer than the body. The fullness of the sleeves work further to make the body seem smaller by comparison.

Here is an example of a kaftan with no differentiation between sleeve and body:

Matthew Williamson Escape Acid flower-print kaftan

Notice how everything looks like one giant shape?  This top was actually MORE expensive than the last one (orig £375, now on sale for £187, or almost as much as the Cecilia Prado).  Matthew Williamson is a great designer. I have 2 caftans from his collaboration with H&M, but what you’re paying for here is the quality of the fabric, which is likely an exquisite double-layer silk chiffon, in a signature limited-edition print.  What you’re NOT getting for your money is a design which will enhance your figure.  This style is best left to the skinnies (OR a woman with big thighs and arms but a small waist- i.e. ME – could carry this off with a contrasting-color belt to define the waistline and a sleek, dark bottom half).

Lest I should leave you thinking that the only way to get a nicely designed caftan is to pay through the nose, let me offer this example:

Snake Print Chiffon Blouse

It’s polyester, but it’s only £45 at Mango.

For further discussion of caftans and how to style them, see here.


Now, if you are concerned about looking bigger, there is one type of print you should avoid wearing across your entire body: ditsy, tiny prints.  Like this:

TOPSHOP Long Sleeve Heart Print Shirt

This print will not only do NOTHING to enhance your shape, it can actually make you look larger.  Once again, it comes down to proportions – the size of the print vs. the size of your body.  The good news is that you can use this information to your advantage:

Patrizia Pepe Camicia Top in Mix Nero Print

This top uses a small repeated pattern to draw attention up to the shoulders and away from the torso. Yes, it’s very expensive. (Give me a break, I’m not a miracle worker!)

Here’s another shirt which uses this same principle, but with the solid and the print reversed:

French Connection Hatched Horses Shirt , Black Print

This blouse takes attention AWAY from the shoulders. If you’ve got a swimmer’s build (broad shoulders, narrow hips, this would be great with white trousers. And guess what? They’ve done a negative version if you NEED the attention at your shoulders:

French Connection Hatched Horses Classic Shirt

Here are some other examples of tops which use prints to draw the eye (all for $30-$60):

eVogues Plus size Off Shoulder Stripe Print Top Pink
INC International Concepts Plus Size Top, Short-Sleeve Tie-Dye Peasant
River Island Grey floral print shirt
woman lights print top, t shirt and tank xs - plus size

Cool, huh?  But those aren’t the coolest prints you can find.
One of the greatest inventions of the modern fashion era, in my opinion, is the digital print.  By manipulating and combining prints on the fabric, some amazing effects can be achieved:

Mother of Pearl Keres printed silk crepe de chine shirt

Don’t even bother asking about the price (okay, it’s $550).  If you’ve got the wallet, this is a great way to broaden your shoulders.

Peter Pilotto is one of the modern masters of this, if your wallet can stretch to $910:

Peter Pilotto J printed silk shirt

If you like that, it’s your lucky day, because I found a dramatically less expensive version (only £40/$60! proof that with a little looking these CAN be found at reasonable prices- it even says it’s made of silk):


This shirt is not for the shy, but notice how the print broadens the shoulders and narrows the upper torso?


Finally, because I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight otherwise, I’m going to distract you with examples of the pinnacle of modern print manipulation.  First, Alexander McQueen:

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN dragonfly print dress

And of course we can’t forget Mary Katrantzou:



OKAY, BACK TO REALITY… and realistic styling advice!

This next blouse is a print which has a nice soft diagonal to it, and would be lovely on any size, provided your upper body is in proportion (i.e. you don’t have huge gazongas, very narrow shoulders, or a prominent belly):

Salina Claude Print Blouse

It won’t make your shoulders look broader or smaller, it won’t distract from a belly or make your boobs look bigger, but it’s a soft print with a subtle diagonal line which won’t make you look any broader.  HOWEVER, it does have quite a high neckline which won’t be flattering on women with exceptionally large bosoms.  It would be perfect on an hourglass or pear shape, tucked into a skirt:

styling a print blouse: hourglass/pear shapes

(I put a LOT of thought and detail into my Polyvore sets, so please click on the photo and check it out  – there’s a fabulous bee bracelet from Target hidden in there).

Skirts and dresses are an hourglass/pear shape’s best friend.   If you are more hourglass, you can get away with more on the bottom (prints, light/bright color).  Hourglasses can also leave the blouse untucked, but it should be belted to show the waist (this is useful if you are short-waisted, it’s a way of visually lengthening your torso while showing a small waist).  If your hips are wider, you’re better off going for A-line or full skirts, being sure to keep a clean silhouette at the waist.  The length of the skirt will depend on the proportionate length of your legs (and how much you like your knees).

Have I exhausted you yet?  No?  Great!  Let’s have a look at some dresses!

Can we all just agree never, ever to buy dresses like this?:

Calvin Klein Plus Size Curved Animal Block Printed Maxi

This dress is designed to convince you that it’s going to make you look like a long, lean column.  Instead, it’s going to make you look utterly shapeless.  I hate this dress.  It’s the modern equivalent of the awful muu-muus that women of size had to wear in the 1970′s.  It is utterly devoid of personality and form.  This dress says “I think I’m fat and I’m ashamed.”  And shame on Calvin Klein for charging $140 for it!

Now compare that to this:

Ashley Stewart Women's Plus Size Sleeveless Abstract Print Dress

Aaa-OOOOOOOOOh-gah!! Now THIS is how to wear a print!  This woman looks stunning.  STUN. NING.  I’m certain she’s a larger size than the woman pictured above, but DAMN this woman looks fine.  In a very fitted, bright, all-over print, too.  How can this be? I hear you ask.  First, the dress is perfectly proportioned for her – it hits right at her knees.  Her waistline is clearly defined, and her bust and hips appear to be about the same width (notice also the flesh-colored heels to elongate her legs).

Oh, it’s just the model!  I hear you say.  Well look at this:

Ashley Stewart Women's Plus Size Multi-colored Knot Front Maxi

Same model. Same shoes. VERY different look.  It’s not nearly as flattering as the short dress, but I still prefer it to the monochrome column dress above.  Why?  This one has personality and shape.  But even more importantly, this dress would only be worn by a confident woman who feels she has nothing to hide.  Yeah, maybe she looks bigger.  But I dare you to tell her that.  This woman doesn’t give a damn what you think.

Okay, so what if all that color frightens you? How about this:

Ashley Stewart Women's Plus Size Sleeveless Referee Print Dress

This dress isn’t as stunning as the multicolor short one, but it’s still flattering and cute.  The bold print is broken up into smaller panels, which is slimming and lengthening.  You can see her waistline, and her bust and hips still appear equal.

Want more examples?  Okay:

Ashley Stewart Women's Plus Size Foil Overlay Maxi

This dress is not awful.  It’s understated and elegant – not my thing at all.  But on this particular model, having seen her in the other dresses, I’d say that it’s too long and hides her nice waistline.  However, if you are more apple-shaped (with no waistline to display), then this might be the dress for you.
How about a long, bold-print dress which doesn’t overwhelm the wearer?

Ashley Stewart Women's Plus Size Tube Tropical Print Maxi Dress

This is so cute I can’t stand it.  I dare anyone to call that woman “fat.”

Now I’d like to take a moment to point out that those last 5 cute dresses cost about 1/4 the price of the first awful one.  They’re all by Ashley Stewart, and available on amazon.com at very reasonable prices ($28-$35!).  I’ve had such a hard time choosing my examples that I’ll just toss in a few more here (remember that the photo links to the item, so you can just click on the photos to check them out):

Ashley Stewart Women's Plus Size Sunburst Color Block Maxi
Ashley Stewart Women's Plus Size V-neck Chiffon Hi-lo Dress
Ashley Stewart Women's Plus Size Striped One-shoulder Maxi
Ashley Stewart Women's Plus Size Belted Printed Hi-lo Dress
Ashley Stewart Women's Plus Size Striped Drape Neck Dress

“Hey, don’t slender girls get to wear dresses, too?”  Yes!


This blue sheath dress is only £20 at TESCO (yes, really!) and is great for hourglass or boyish shapes.

Jane Norman Printed dip hem beach dress

This strapless maxi dress is great for someone with a smaller bust but thicker thighs.


If you’re petite and boyish then DING DING DING I’m jealous because you can pull off this groovy printed shift dress.


BUT WAIT!  I hear you say… you’ve covered lots of ground for hourglass, pear-shapes, and plus-sizes, but what about the skinny-legged among us?  Oh, my friend… if you are one of the short-waisted, big-busted, no-bottom, all-legs people… you lucky few get to do what the rest of us could only DREAM about… wearing prints on your bottom:

long skinny legs and no butt? you can wear skinny printed trousers!

The key to this look is to think more 1950′s pedal pushers, and less Peggy from “Married with Children.”


Whew! So that’s it for today.  I sincerely hope you’ve learned something about how you can use prints for your body, how to choose them, and use them to your advantage.  If there’s something that I haven’t made clear, or if there is some aspect I haven’t covered, please let me know either in the comments or via Ask Me Anything.

Just dive in! (clip from Dr Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964)

*First, let me state for the record that I don’t care how fat you are.  I’m writing this not because I think you need to look smaller, but because people have specifically asked me this question, and by golly I’m going to answer it to the best of my ability.  My interest is in building your confidence and getting you to make braver choices which more accurately reflect your totally bitchin’ personality.  However, my research led me to discover a writer who would take me to hilarious task for my advice (bonus points for her use of the word “tenebrous, and incidentally I WHOLEHEARTEDLY agree with her re: the plot to get larger people to wear lots of dark clothes) and specifially for my ideas about tiny prints, although I’d like to think that I’d get bonus points for disagreeing with general fashion wisdom about big prints.


on “Dr Printlove! or, how I learned to stop worrying and love wearing patterns.
2 Comments on “Dr Printlove! or, how I learned to stop worrying and love wearing patterns.
  1. This is great! I am so excited about the gold sequin-effect one, I haven’t even read the rest of the post yet because I must go order it immediately. More later, and thanks!

  2. Your wit and wisdom, coupled with amazing visuals helped me to understand why I have been avoiding prints. Going forward, I now know to look for pattern placement in addition to the right cut (looking forward to reading all about that from you!). I’m enjoying every article so much and am particularly thrilled to get some printed pants! Thank you. ❤️

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