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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

We were not cut out from a template - tips on finding clothes that fit

While I generally try to avoid negative information, I confess, I am a big fan of the web site EtiquetteHell.com. The stories of wedding, business and everyday etiquette faux pas submitted by the Etiquette Hell regulars are sometimes quite horrendous and sometimes just plain hilarious but always educational - it's my best source of "what not to do".

One of the resent "bad retailer" stories addresses a sadly wide-spread trend in the clothing and shoe industry - lack of good service, product variety for and general acceptance of people who were apparently made outside of some "perfect human" template, of which we are all supposed to be aware before going clothes-shopping. A tall, curvaceous bride and her friend go to a bridal botique and are told by a sales associate and store manager that the store is upscale and, thus, does not serve "fat brides". They get similar responses at other boutiques until the bride finally decides to just go and have all the dresses for the wedding made by a good seamstress. Perhaps the scale of the bridal boutique associates' discourtesy was exaggerated, however that particular story did receive 7 pages of responses on Etiquette Hell forum.

Another story - in the same groove - is told by a tall woman who has large feet. That is, her feet a proportionate to her size, but on a general scale they are fairly large - size 11. When she goes to an upscale department store to look for shoes, she is told that the store doesn't carry large sizes because it's upscale. Apparently, if you have larger feet, you automatically become a country bumpkin.

My heart goes out to the larger folks despite the fact that I myself am a smallish person. Why? Because, while at the other end of the spectrum, I too apparently do not fit into that "perfect person" template created by... somebody. I wear size 5 - 5.5 shoes - can't find them anywhere for a reasonable price (sadly, Nordstrom, despite it's great selection of smaller shoes is outside of my "reasonable price" range at the moment). I was actually giggled at by shoe sales associates and was jokingly advised to go look in the children's section. It's cute the first 2-3 times and is not outright insulting, but does get old eventually. I have the same situation with clothes, because I am short. Prior to my first marriage, my income has been questioned by - yes - bridal boutique salespeople because I look youthful (What business is it of anyone, how much I earn, until I actually decide to buy something and am required to pay?). An associate in yet another bridal boutique went as far as extrapolate my youthful looks into a conclusion that I was pregnant - otherwise why would I be marrying so young? Look, folks, it's one thing to get carded when buying alcohol - I applaud store clerks who do that on a regular basis, as they are required by law. But having my motivations and my income questioned because of how I look? Especially when I clearly stated that I was just looking and haven't committed to buying anything? Excuse me?

Is it any wonder then, that I pretty much stopped shopping at brick-and-mortar stores? When I am fabulously wealthy, I will find a seamstress and have my clothes custom-made. In the meantime, I had myself measured, picked a few dedicated clothing vendors who actually DO realize that us - "out-of-template" people - have to wear something too and started shopping almost exclusively on line. I do have to exchange things sometimes - sizes vary from one manufacturer to the next, which is understandable, but all in all, I am happy I no longer have to deal with strangers questioning my age and ability to pay and making stupid jokes about sending me to the children's department. I think I am getting the better end of the deal. Below are a few of my personal favorites that offer wide range of styles and sizes.

Ladies

Chadwick's of Boston - not exactly the Mount Olympus of quality, Chadwick's, nevertheless, has been my favorite for eight years now. They were there for me, when I was a young professional looking to expand my wardrobe and they are still there for me today, saving me in many a fashion emergency. Their special sizes range from 4P to 26W, and while they do sometimes go into extremes from being a bit too stodgy to trying oh-so-hard to get into the trendy market and falling short, their tried-and-true lines remain my faithful friends. Their prices are very reasonable and if you are a regular shopper, they'll be happy to send you an extra coupon in addition to an existing deal.

Their three-four piece wardrobers (a jacket with matching pants and skirt, sometimes with a dress or a vest) are awesome money savers and the catalog and web page layouts are always helpful for finding what else might go well with the matching suit pieces.

Their formal wear is still a bit stodgy, but getting better and better, including the evening options for petite, tall and women's sizes, which is generally very hard to find. They are also one of the few sellers out there who don't try to pack petite women into something teenage-looking and larger gals into tent-like garments. That is a big relief!

Chadwick's shoe selection is pretty good, and while not all of their shoes run as small as I would like or as large as to help that tall lady with 11-size feet, they do offer wide width, which is another big improvement.

Newport News had also decided to get on the special sizes bandwagon - especially in the petite area, which is great because I love them: a little more interesting, a little more trendy, a little lest stodgy... Their petite sizes run from 2 to 16, women's - up to 22 - 24W, including some really good evening wear choices. The shoe sizes run from 5 to 11 - big applause here.

It's true, that Newport News (like many other catalogs) sometimes try too hard to be trendy - so hard, in fact, that they put together outfits that make even their own spectacular models look bad. And that takes a lot! But all in all, the News are definitely one of my first places to run to in a fashion emergency or simply to look for good ideas. Newport News was where we found dresses for my two bridesmaids and I think the ladies looked spectacular (not an easy feat, considering I wore a non-traditional red wedding dress. The girls' dresses we chose were silver satin.)

Coldwater Creek is a bit more on the softer, casual side, but still offers some wonderful business and formal choices, nearly all of which come in sizes from petite 6 to regular 24. Just as Chadwicks of Boston, Coldwater Creek has been working on winning a younger, trendier portion of the market in addition to its existing mature devotees. Sadly, their spectacular shoes do not come in anything smaller than 6 (although they do go as large as 11). I could probably take advantage of their boots - if worn with a thicker sock or hose, but all those stunning evening pumps are - alas - beyond my reach. :-(

Shoes aside, I do love their clothing selections and - most of all - their jewelry and accessories, which are invariably beautiful, original and designed to suit women of many tastes, from the classic "little pearl choker" types to the fans of bold and beautiful colorful stone pendants and bead bracelets.

Their service is excellent and their catalogs are always beautifully designed and written. I enjoy leafing through them just to learn how to write good product descriptions. As with Chadwicks, they will reward you for being a regular shopper by throwing in an extra $10 - 20 off coupon in your next catalog or in your merchandise package.

Travel Smith you are probably sick of hearing about from me. What can I say - when Travel Smith stops being the best source of travel-friendly clothes and accessories, I'll stop talking about it. :-) While their main competitor - Magellan's is still sticking to the most basic travel attire choices for men and women, Travel Smith is definitely making some bolder strides to get away from travel sweats and into serious travel wardrobing, without forcing you to drag an old-fashioned steamer trunk wherever you go.

They do offer clothing in petite sizes from 6 to 18 and plus sizes from 16W to 26W - most of it washable, all of it wrinkle-resistant and eminently packable, as well as stylish, colorful and comfortable. Sadly, their shoe selection for women still leaves a lot to be desired - the shoes look borderline orthopedic and the sizes only go from 6 to 10. Oh well...

I have only discovered Soft Surroundings recently and was very impressed by their beautiful selection and - again - size options. Petite sizes range from petite 2 to 18, as do tall sizes, women's sizes range from 18 to 24. Shoe sizes go from 6 to 11. Their accessories, bed and bath offerings and home decor pieces are to die for, so definitely take a peek.

Ever since I ordered my wedding dress, there will only be one wedding attire seller for me - eBay's Silk Road Bridal. I know I raved about them last year in preparation for my wedding, but I'll say it again - all the snooty overpriced wedding boutiques with their misplaced orders, inaccurate measurements, late deliveries, too-expensive alterations and rude presumptuous associates can go to hell. (Those wedding boutiques that don't fit this description - sorry, guys, it's too bad that the rest of the establishments in the wedding attire industry give the five of you a bad name.)

I don't know, how many people told me that I was insane for ordering my wedding dress on line, but I did my homework on the seller and stood firm. I e-mailed with the seller representative for a couple of weeks, she sent me free color swatches so that I could pick the exact shade of red I wanted for my wedding dress, I picked the style, sent my measurements, paid and received my dress five weeks later - the right color, the right style, the right size and detacheable train. The only other manufacturer offering red wedding dresses is Simplicity Bridal. While their dresses are beautiful, just the dress itself would have cost me $800 - not including the alterations, which would have been necessary because I am so short.

Silk Road Bridal offers some gorgeous wedding dresses in a variety of styles and colors - the most expensive one being only $347.75 plus shipping (that's cheap, comparing to what girls pay at a standard bridal boutique these days), you get what you want, made specifically for you. You can order a matching veil, shawl and purse, if you want to. Depending on your dress choice, you may even get one of these options free. All you need to do is stay disciplined and not expand or diminish in size significantly between the time you order the dress and the time you actually wear it.

They also have a ton of bridesmaids' dress styles (that will work very well for proms and formal events - tea-length and full-length), as well as flower girl styles - also made to measurement and following your choice of colors. Sizes range from 2 to 32, you can ask them to make the dress longer or shorter depending on your height and to make it in relaxed, regular or tight fit depending on minor size fluctuations that happen to us all. You can go traditional or a little less so; strapless or sleevless; long-sleeved or short; with a big poufy skirt - or with a slender flowing one. You can even get a maternity wedding gown (hey, it happens!).

This is what I call customer service - you pay and get every bit of information you need, your choices, your preferences, your everything for a reasonable price. I dare any place in the United States to beat that!

Gentlemen

First and foremost, guys, GET YOURSELF MEASURED BY A PROFESSIONAL. Please. Waist, inseam length, neck circumference, arm hole, arm length - the whole nine yards. Men's Wearhouse is a good place to do that - they do alterations there all the time. Try a few things on, even if you are not going to buy anything, just to make sure exactly what fits you and WRITE IT DOWN. Once you have all that information, you can safely shop on line at least at two places - Men's Wearhouse and S&K.

Men's Wearhouse is my husband's long-term mecca - and trust me when I say: that boy can dress (and, no, he is not gay!). When our aikido instructor needed a complete outfit (suit, shirt, tie, shoes, socks - the works) for a big gala (40th anniversary of our art in America), he asked my husband, and Gerry sent him to Men's Wearhouse. The Wearhouse is not the cheapest place to shop, although they do have sales, discounts for regular shoppers, etc. However, they are known for their excellent service, many good reliable clothing choices and consistency, plus their huge (no pun intended) big and tall selection that runs from 35 short to 60 long. Their shoe sizes go from 6 to 16, which might not cover the largest of feet, but is still a good range, especially when we are talking about dress shoes.

S&K is another good menswear friend in a slightly lower price range than Men's Wearhouse but still with decent quality and good selection. We bought our male wedding attendants attire from S&K (I can't say groomsmen, because one of them was my Dude of Honor) - suits, shirts, ties and pocket squares. There were a couple of mix ups with sizing, but we did straighten everything out in the end and the boys looked dashing and debonair. Unfortunately, S&K do not offer shoes - oh well, nobody is perfect.

If you have the money to invest into a truly high-quality wardrobe, definitely check out Paul Fredrick. Like Men's Wearhouse, they will be happy to custom-made your clothes for you. In addition, they sell their suits as separates. While it may seem like another way for a ritzy clothier to rip off customers, it actually makes sense - suit sizes are usually based on whatever is your largest measurement. So, if you have broad shoulders and chest, if you buy a suit to match the top portion of your body, your pants will be too big in the waist. With Paul Fredrick you can get a jacket that fits your top and perfectly matching pants that fit your bottom.

Their big and tall section is a little skimpy, although the shirt selection is spectacular, going from 16-37 to 20-37. They also offer a few very nice coats in sizes going as far as double-extra-large tall. Pant waist sizes range from 30 to 48 inches and I think if you buy on line, they come unhemmed, so you can take them to your neighborhood dry cleaner (most offer basic alterations, including hemming) and have them pinned up and hemmed with you present, which is a better way anyway.

Despite running the risk of having to hear your moans and groans (and not in a good way), I would like to conclude the gentlemen's portion of this article with Travel Smith - yet again. Travel Smith is not just a good place to shop for travel-friendly clothing - they are also very good at putting together attractive outfits that are ju-u-ust outside of the traditional but not so much as to shock your sartorial sensibilities. One of their recent collections - washable suedes - is perfect for guys who prefer casual style of dressing but would like to get out of the jeans-and-t-shirts or polo-shirts routine.

They do offer long sizes (jackets - up to 48 Long, pants - up to double-extra-large long) as well as short sizes, because - let's face it - there is Michael Jordan and then there is my dad at 5'6" and my eldest cousin at 5'4".

The shoe selection for men is quite a bit better than that for women and includes business/formal choices, business casual choices and hiking choices in sizes from 7 to 14.

Travel Smith is not cheap, but if you follow the clearance section, you can find some excellent bargains.

Happy shopping and don't let anyone tell you that you don't deserve good service, good selection or good quality just because of the way you look. There IS no "perfect person" template.

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