What to Wear While You Lose Weight

On your way to a smaller size? Here's how to deal with wardrobe woes

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 28, 2006
6 min read

There comes a time in every successful dieter's life when they stand befuddled in front of the closet, wondering what in the heck to wear.

The clothes that fit a few weeks ago now hang in loose and unflattering folds. But with goal weight still several pounds away, it's not time to invest in a whole new wardrobe.

It's a happy dilemma, but a dilemma all the same. So what's a soon-to-be-slimmer person to do?

What not to do, the experts say, is to keep reaching for those same old baggy duds -- at least not after a certain point. Clothes not only make the person, they can make the person feel and look slimmer. And some say that dressing to look your best, no matter where you are in your program, can inspire you and help propel you further downward.

That's the word from Judy L., a marketing consultant who lost 80 pounds in one year, going from a size 22 to a size 6 or 8.

"When I was eating, I used to go out of my way to get special foods,'' says Judy, who asked that her last name not be used. "Then I tried to get my mindset to change, and now I get my rewards in terms of clothes. A piece of layer cake may make you feel good, but looking in a mirror also feels good."

Clothes can be a barometer of how you feel, as well as how much you weigh, says Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Weight Management Center: "Some people say, 'I won't buy anything new until I have lost 15 pounds.'"

If that helps motivate you, that's OK. The rule of thumb, Fernstrom says, is that losing 8 to 10 pounds translates to going down one size. Still, if you lose "up to 15 pounds, you may be OK in your old size," she says.

But putting off buying new clothes until you really need them doesn't work for everyone.

"Before you start dieting, go right out and buy one or two outfits that fit and look great and then wear those to death until you need smaller ones," suggests Judy L. "Pretty soon they will be swimming on you, and you will look like a little kid in your mother's clothes."

Sharon Haver, founder and style director of FocusOnStyle.com, advises dieters to concentrate on flattering, well-fitting basics. "A shirt, a pair of pants; things with a bit of stretch -- meaning some Lycra or an elastic waist."

Pants without a set-in waistband are easier to take in. A-line skirts show the "you" underneath, and, when they get a little loose, won't look as baggy as a too-large pencil skirt would, she says.

"Why would you want to feel frumpy at any stage of your journey?" Haver asks. "You want people to notice every pound you lose and say, 'You look fantastic!'"

If you don't want to break the bank for clothes that will be discarded 10 pounds down the road, shop online auctions, thrift shops, discount malls, or simply buy less expensive brands of clothes than you normally would, Haver says.

Melinda T. has lost 57 pounds in 67 weeks. At first, she winged it, borrowing smaller duds from friends.

"I waited until I had lost two sizes to get clothes," says Melinda, who also asked that her last name not be used.

"They tell you not to buy elastic waists because you can't tell if your pants are getting tight on you again, but I like elastic in back. I shop everywhere -- Wal-Mart, a hosiery store that has some clothes, thrift shops."

Melinda bought dark bottoms and mix-and-match tops. "Very basic," she says.

Though experts advise showing off your slimmer body with proper-fitting clothes, stay away from overly tight ones. Philip L. Goglia, PhD, founder of Performance Fitness Concepts in Santa Monica, Calif., advises clients to buy a slightly larger size than they need while they're actively losing.

"Buying smaller reminds you of feeling tight," he says. "Let your new physique come naturally. You don't need a big old potato sack, though. You need to see your shape change. It's very motivational."

Although Fernstrom doesn't advise buying clothes in your target size, Goglia says it's all right to buy one piece that might have really "spoken" to you and gotten you inspired to lose, be it a swimsuit, special dress, or whatever.

Put the garment on a hanger, he says, and put it in the kitchen or someplace else where you'll see it first thing in the morning. Attach a note to it, saying, "This is me. This is my dress."

Several experts suggested buying a new belt to cinch in your loosening pants and let your shrinking waist show without a lot of hand-punched holes. Or get a slide-ring belt -- no holes at all!

Some other suggestions:

  • Start wearing colors you may have shied away from before. The bottoms may need to be black or brown, but go a little wild with tops. Fernstrom says white is "the new black," but confine it to your top -- few people can really get away with white pants.
  • Knits go the distance. Susie Galvez, owner of Face Works Day Spa in Richmond, Va., says knits adapt to changing sizes better and can look nice longer.
  • Take a look at clothing lines that offer comfortable, basic pieces designed to mix and match. Just make sure they skim over your new frame and don't envelop you.
  • Wear long with short. Galvez recommends pairing longer blouses with shorter skirts. Long skirts, meanwhile, look better with shorter blouses. The idea is to avoid cutting the torso in half.
  • Invest in some good shoes. Depending on how much weight you lose, your shoe size may change. And you may want to ditch your sneakers for something a little sexier: Fernstrom notes that even an inch of heel does wonders for your calves, while Haver points out that you may be comfortable in thinner-soled shoes now.
  • Get a new handbag that compliments you, advises Galvez. A tiny purse carried by a large woman is not in proportion, she says. Adjust the straps so the purse rides higher than your hip line.
  • Buy bathing suit tops and bottoms separately to ensure the best fit. Some retailers, like J. Crew and Lands End, allow you to mix and match, including in the tummy-cinching tankini styles. Buy a suit in a basic color like black or navy, and splurge on the pareo or cover-up. "That's the place for hot pink," Fernstrom says.
  • Wear nice hosiery and gorgeous lingerie. Successful dieter Judy L. says she used to think Victoria's "Secret" was that Victoria hated people with a weight problem. "I hit the jackpot when I could wear that underwear!" she exclaims. She recommends buying good lingerie as a reward.
  • When you're considering buying an item, ask a trusted friend how it looks on you. "Don't buy it just because you can get into it," advises Judy L.
  • Get a manicure, pedicure, or facial. Melinda T. lightened her hair and dove into her new life as a blonde.

You don't have to be a dieter to know that sizes are wacky these days. One manufacturer's 16 may be another's 18 or 14. Some retailers want it this way -- their "proprietary fits" create brand loyalty. And then there's "vanity sizing," where a garment that once would have been labeled a size 10 is now a 6.

That's why Fernstrom does not recommend people set a target size. Go by fit, and not size, which means trying everything on!

And what about those "fat" clothes that -- hallelujah! -- are now swallowing you?

The experts agree. Toss the larger clothes! Better yet, light a bonfire.

Goglia works with a lot of celebrities. "They are not unlike Joe Civilian," he says. "They have a fear of gaining the weight back, so they hold onto all their old clothes. When they look in their closet and see the 'fat clothes,' it means they haven't said good-bye to 'Fat Mary' or 'Fat Paul.'"

Besides, who needs a bunch of baggy clothes taking up closet space that you could devote to slimmer-fitting fashions?

"I now feel like I have the right to dress tight," exults Judy L. What did she do? Bought some Versace jeans. In turquoise.