Noe Valley Voice May 2003

Tiny Clothes, or Big Fat Me? Sizing Up Noe's Boutiques

By Sharon Gillenwater

The women's boutiques of Noe Valley have begun to sprout the most beguiling displays of summer clothes. As I stroll down 24th Street, each window seems more brilliant than the last. Storefront after storefront of lacy shirts, filmy skirts, and coquettish dresses chip away at my will to resist, until I would gladly trade my last unemployment check for the perfect summer frock.

But the economy isn't the only thing standing between me and a new dress. It's something much more shameful. After five years of living in the neighborhood, I am ready to come out of the dressing room and confess: I just can't seem to fit into the tiny clothes.

An "Average Size" Person

OK, I am not 18 anymore. In fact, I am a 38-year-old mother of two. And while I'm no Calista Flockhart, I don't consider myself fat, either. Having had my second baby in the summer of 2001, I didn't even venture into the boutiques last year. But this year, after an earnest regimen of thrice-weekly yoga, I was optimistic about being able to spice up my wardrobe with something springy from, say, Designer's Club or Rabat.

So I was disappointed and frustrated when, after visiting several stores, I realized that I could not fit into most of the clothes in my usual size. My own stubborn pride prevented me from trying larger sizes. But in some cases, even a size "Large" looked too small.

I began to ask around the neighborhood and found several other slender-looking women who had experienced the same problem. One, who would only identify herself as "Noe Valley Average Size Person," confessed that she gave away some gift certificates she had received to neighborhood boutiques because she was intimidated by the tiny clothes.

So I had to ask myself...are we getting bigger or are the clothes getting smaller?

Probably a little bit of both, says Donna O'Leary, owner of Ambience, which has stores in both Noe Valley and the Haight. First of all, your body changes as you get older, especially if you bear children. Even if your weight stays the same, you're likely to get a little thicker around the waist or at the hips.

Secondly, the prevailing styles over the last few years have tended toward the straight, tight, and clingy, which are not all that flattering to the curvaceous. And finally, she says, you should not expect sizing for boutique merchandise to be the same as that found at Nordstrom's, the Gap, or Banana Republic.

In other words, if you usually buy size 8 at B.R., don't be surprised if you have to go up to a 10, or even a 12, when shopping at a boutique, where the merchandise can come from hundreds of different vendors with different sizing conventions.

Don't Get Hung Up on Sizes

Sizing for women's clothing, says O'Leary, is widely misunderstood. "I buy from probably 300 vendors," she says, "and they all have different sizing."

There are three categories of sizes for women: "Junior," "Contemporary," and "Missy." The Junior category is meant for bodies in their teens to early 20s. Contemporary is for women in their 20s to early 30s. The most forgiving category is Missy, which is more generously cut for women in their 30s and beyond, who may have had babies and can't afford the personal trainers, nutritionists, and cooks employed by postnatal celebrities who seem to bounce back to their prenatal shapes in a matter of weeks (the scum!).

The problem, according to O'Leary, is that fun, fashion-forward styles are often hard to find in Missy sizes. Consequently, boutiques that sell the latest styles are more likely to be stocking sizes meant for women in the Junior or Contemporary categories. Therefore, women who enjoy wearing the latest styles should not be ashamed to buy a larger size from a boutique.

"If you normally wear a 10 and you have to go up to a 12, so what?" O'Leary says. "Just cut the tag out!"

Over at Rabat at 24th and Noe, store manager Jennifer Rivera agrees. "Never assume you are one size," she says. "It's actually a lot of work to find something that fits you nicely, because sizes vary so much. You have to try a lot of different sizes and styles."

Rivera says that she has tried stocking a wider variety of sizes but that the 12s and 14s always end up on the sale rack. "Our most popular size," she says apologetically, "is a six."

And Now the Good News...

Fortunately, the straight, hip-hugging styles that have been in fashion of late have yielded this year to a more retro look, characterized by roomier A-line skirts and feminine, full-skirted dresses.

"These styles are fantastic for both younger and older women, and a lot of brands are making them," says O'Leary. "They are so much more forgiving and feminine, and they look fantastic on all kinds of bodies." She says that shoppers interested in these new styles should look for brands such as Trina Turk, Sue Wong, Tessuto, Mica, and Gigi.

Rivera says that a new shipment of 50s-style dresses from New York designer Nanette Lepore are turning heads at Rabat. "She also makes suits that are not so conventional but still appropriate for a professional environment," she says.

Over at Joshua Simon, sizing is consistently more forgiving than at most other 24th Street boutiques, but owner Liz Klein cringes when asked if her store caters to the "Missys" among us. "I hate that word 'Missy,'" she says. "It conveys that you have given up your fashion sense. But it is true that all sizes do not fit the same."

Klein acknowledges that there can be a tradeoff between size and style, but maintains that it doesn't have to be that way. She makes a concerted effort to stock lines that satisfy both, as evidenced by the attractive and youthful fashions found in the store's window displays.

For example, Joshua Simon offers the diminutive Three Dot line of T-shirts in both regular and "easy-fit" sizes. "You know how small they usually are," Klein says. "The easy-fit versions offer more forgiving sizes while allowing you to maintain the stylish look."

Joshua Simon carries items from the popular Parisian line Rayure, as well as "knockoffs" of the line that are cut more generously. The store's best-selling jeans from Christopher Blue have also been well received by those who have trouble finding jeans that fit. "They are a stylish stretch jean that does not look like a stretch jean," she says. "If someone tries them on, they usually buy them whether they need a pair of jeans or not."

So that's the skinny on skinny clothes. Armed with my newfound education in sizing, as well as some insider knowledge about the brands to buy, I plan to revisit the boutiques of Noe Valley with my head held high. I have a couple of weddings to attend this summer and figure a nice, full-skirted sundress will suit me just fine. And if I have to go up a size, so be it. But you can be sure that I will cut the tag out. h