In my job there are many adjectives and phrases that customers use to describe themselves or others as it pertains to clothes. Some are explicit (“These pants make my butt look huge”), while others are more vague (“This dress makes me feel young”). Oftentimes these comments are said off the cuff and unedited, but they are usually honest. In the waves of these descriptions and expressions I have heard over the years, the term that stands out as being the most classic, supremely comprehensible and well-received is the word “flattering.”
Truly, the term has a similar function to lip gloss. Both are used liberally, they allude to an improvement in one’s appearance, and they are both specific, but also inherently ambiguous in nature. So what do people mean when they say the word?
For some, the clothes that are flattering are the ones that make the wearer feel the skinniest. Others find it flattering to hide the body in draping fabric, while others still find a supremely fitted silhouette the most flattering. There are also people who think categorically. For instance, some feel they are the most visually arresting when their shoulders or décolletage are highlighted in a given outfit, and others feel best in clothing that emphasize the legs.
But it goes deeper than that, to a layer which conflagrates both our senses of pleasure and of our constant chase of the Goldilocks principle of perfection — not too hot, not too cold, just right. If you feel that your shoulders are too broad, you will like the clothes best that minimize them. If you feel self-conscious about your hips, you will like the clothes that draw attention toward your waist. If you don’t like the shape of your arms, you will feel most flattered with a sleeve.
This complicated, idiosyncratic blend of confidence and insecurity is perfectly fine, except when we use it in regard to someone else. Then we take our own set of values and apply them to someone whose idea of beauty, esteem and perspective may be entirely different from our own. Some women really love strong shoulders, curvy hips or the shape of their arms, so what then? Using the word “flattering” can become a Gift of the Magi moment, where no matter how positive and well-intended the message is, it is sent and received on two different wavelengths.
And yet, when someone proclaims a particular clothing article to be flattering on someone else, it is universally accepted as a stamp of approval.
It is more specific than “You look beautiful,” and less specific than “Your waist looks tiny.” Using the word “flattering” may very well be, in and of itself, the golden mean, the yin and yang of compliments. And while it can certainly signal disingenuousness, it can also indicate that the term has developed a meaning that is less practical and more esoteric. It could be that when we say “flattering,” we point to our idealized selves, whether that resembles a 1960s pin-up girl, an ultra-modern minimalist or something entirely different. I like to think of it as a term that when spoken into space is heard and understood by the soul before it meets its preassigned meaning and form.
I like it for that very reason, that it is a word that takes two perspectives into consideration. In communicating with customers, I use “flattering” to mean that my opinion of a chosen garment has intersected with what I know the customer’s ideal to be. It is a signal of aesthetic efficiency, of balance and the best of both worlds.