That said, there are some knacks to shopping for clothes online -- things I had no idea about when I began -- so I thought I’d note them down for future reference. They are the kinds of things I wish I'd know when I started.
My focus is on women’s work clothes, in plus-sizes suitable for someone 30+. A lot of what I say below will work for anyone, but this is my bias, so beware of that if you have different needs.
Here’s what I’m going to cover:
- Measuring your size, recognising special needs, conversion tools and budgeting
- Finding what you're looking for, keeping a purchasing diary, tips and tricks
- Sites I recommend, brands I recommend
1. Measuring your size, recognising special needs, conversion tools and budgeting
To shop online successfully you need to know three things about yourself: your size, any aspects of your body type which make fitting into off-the-rack clothes difficult, and your taste.
The first thing you need to do is get a sewer’s tape measure, which is made of flexible cloth -- you can get them from most department stores, or fabric shops. If you can’t get hold of one of them, a long piece of string, and a measuring stick or builder’s tape measure of some kind will also do. Don’t use a ruler to measure your piece of string, unless it’s more than a meter in length.
Measure the following parts of your body, and make note of the size in both centimeters and inches: bust, waist, and hips. You also want to measure your height.
Here’s a nifty guide which tells you how to measure these things (apart from height), and some other body parts besides: http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-get-your-body-measurements.html, and here's what you're measuring for: http://www.navabi-australia.com/service?p=wwm.
Re-take these measurements at random times over the course of a week or so (or even better, a month), and note the results. There should be some variation. You want to know how your body changes over the course of your daily and monthly cycle. This is so you don’t buy things to fit your morning waist measurements, or your pre-menstrual measurements, if they are very different to your evening or post-menstrual measurements.
You will end up with a list of sizes in centimeters and inches. Look at it. Decide if any of the measurements should be discarded. For example, I just didn’t do a very good job on my first try, so I chucked those measurements out. Then, write down the normal range of your size, like so:
Bust: 103-104cm, 40inNow make a note of the local clothes size you normal fit into, eg.:
Waist: 90-97cm, 37-38in
Hips: 106cm, 42in
Height: 170cm, 67in (5.6ft)
Australian size: 16-18Here is an online converter, which will give you a rough idea of how your usual size maps to that of other countries; but be aware that it’s not consistent from shop to shop or brand to brand: http://www.onlineconversion.com/clothing_womens.htm.
You'll compare these measurements against the size charts given for each of the items you consider, and that's how you'll know what size to buy. You need to do it for every single item, until you are familiar with a particular brand. Make sure there's no special notes about an item not being true to size as well. Keep in mind, too, that sometimes these sizes are more important than others -- a flared skirt doesn't need to match your hip size, because it will be larger anyway, but it does still need to match your waist size, especially if there's no stretch in the fabric or elastic in the waist band.
Now that you have an idea of your actual size, you need to think about any special needs you have. One of the reasons I can’t find clothes locally is that I have several requirements, and I can find clothes that meet them separately, but not together. The Australian population just isn’t big enough to service enough choices for me to find what I want. Knowing about these special needs in advance makes searching online stores easier -- I can knock out a whole heap of clothes without even looking at them, because I know they are unsuitable.
To give you an example, I tend to react to clothes made out of certain synthetics. Not all of them, but enough of them that I tend to only buy natural fibre clothing. I also have food intolerances, which means my waist can increase by 3 or 4 sizes within an hour if I have a reaction. For that reason, I cannot wear fitted clothes with a waist that has no give. Put these two things together, and it knocks out all but 5% or so of the women’s clothes available in any given store.
I’m also a triangle shape, so some styles suit me and are much more likely to fit me than others. You can find a guide to body shapes and what suits them here: http://www.navabi-australia.com/p/fashionadvice/. I find a lot of the language on these kinds of sites eye-roll worthy, but the basic ideas they talk about do actually help you choose things that will fit, so it’s worth at least a quick scan if you aren’t familiar with it.
Your issues and shape are likely to be different to mine, and you may not have ever consciously considered them before -- you just automatically don’t pick certain styles in shops. If that’s the case, try to think about it now: the things you never buy, and the things you prefer, and whether there is a reason other than taste. Here are some examples:
Height: Maybe you’re short, and have to keep an eye on hemlines and on whether the fabric is something you can take up easily yourself; or maybe you’re tall and need to sew an extra few inches to the hem in a contrasting fabric, or wear tights, or a petticoat with lace which extends the length.
Disproportionate: Maybe you’re big-busted, so you need to always size for your chest before your waist or hips. Maybe you’re big-hipped, or big-waisted, or have some other feature which is outside of the normal distribution curve for your height and weight.
Other: Maybe you can’t wear animal products of any kind. Maybe you’re pregnant and need to have waists that are flexible. Maybe you have a phobia which affects your choices.
Whatever your special needs are, list them under your size chart. In all these cases, some styles and fabrics will suit you better than others, and I’ll talk about that more later on.
Conversion tools and budgeting
Finally, you need to think about what you need to buy, your budget, and how much you can buy with your local currency when you’re buying something in another country.
As a rule of thumb, you should have a good idea of the items you need to buy so you don’t get suckered into impulse buys, and the amount of money you have to spend so you know when to stop. Writing a wish list and a budget is a good place to start.
Your wish list might look something like this:
2 summer work skirts
4 work blouses
1 summer work dress
5 pairs cotton tights
I’ll talk about keeping a buying diary in Part 2, where you can keep track of what you have on order, and when you complete your wish list. For now, just write down what you know you need to buy.
Your budget should include the following:
- The maximum amount you can spend in the current pay period.
- If you’re in Australia, include $50 for return postage -- you will make some mistakes at first and need to return things, so budget for it. Don’t think of it as wasted money, think of it as the petrol and lunch money you’re not spending by going to the local shops.
- Include another $50 for incidental problems which might arise unexpectedly (ie. sudden conversion rate changes, bank fees, import duty -- it’s never happened for me, but it’s potentially possible if the item is expensive enough)
Once you’ve subtracted your “returns budget” and “problems budget” from the overall amount you can spend, you will have the actual amount you can spend on clothes. Put it in big red digits above your size chart so you keep it in mind while shopping.
Here are a couple of currency calculators so you get an idea of what your spending limit is worth in other currencies:
Many shops will give prices in your local currency automatically these days, but double-check that is the case. Always re-check the exchange rate right before you make a purchase, and keep in mind there will still be some variation due to bank fees and so on.
2. Finding what you're looking for, keeping a purchasing diary, tips and tricks
You are now ready to start looking at clothes!
Even though you have done a lot of prep work, it takes a bit of practice to translate that to the actual clothes you’re looking at online.
Finding what you’re looking for
I recommend you spend a lot of time looking before you actually buy anything -- compare what’s available at different shops and what you like.
One of the hardest parts of finding things for me was locating suitable shops which had international delivery. I started by looking for “plus size women’s clothing”, which led me to a few shops but wasn’t really what I was looking for. I actually had the most success with UK department stores, and US boutiques.
Most online shops have shortcuts you can use to only display the items you’re most interested in. Nearly all of them divide by gender, and then by “sale”, “new”, “plus size”, and then by type, such as “skirts”, “tops”, etc.
In addition, you can usually just show items in your size (make sure you check the site’s size chart, so you get the right size -- don’t assume it matches the norm). You can often search by fabric type, or designer, or clothing type, in more detail, using either the tagging, shortcut menus or search box. You can often search by sleeve or hem length when it comes to items like skirts and dresses. And, perhaps most importantly, you can search by price-range a lot of the time.
At this stage, I look for other information about the product. In particular, I look for the washing or care instructions to make sure it’s not “dry clean only” for items I want to wear often.
I also look to see if there are customer reviews. Often there are, and they will include useful info such as whether the item is true to size, the zip sticks out, the colour is not true-to-screen, and so on. Remember to take the customer comments with a grain of salt -- everyone’s different, and one person’s perfect fitting bargain is another customer’s dud. However, if every customer rates an item 1/5 stars, you probably want to think twice. (Although, I once read a review which said, “Everyone said this was sized for a giantess, which made me very excited, as I am a giantess. It’s perfect and I love it.” So there you are: a poor rating for the right reason could be gold for you.)
Once I’ve narrowed it down to a few items, depending on the price, I will sometimes do a Google search to see if I can find them cheaper or on sale elsewhere. Sometimes this works out really well -- a lot of departments stores and boutiques are actually aggregation services which showcase many other brands, so you can go and look directly at the site of the brand in question. They will often have sales, or special offers, or additional goods not listed in the department store. However, the department stores often ship faster, and will have rewards programs for regular buying, so it can be worth going through them instead.
Here’s a summary of the process I use:
- Go to a site and narrow it down to just the search parameters I’m most interested in.
- Make a long list of possible clothes -- this is a broad catch-all of clothes that fit my size, special needs, wish list and budget. Bookmark the items so I can easily find them again.
- Winnow the long list to a short list -- keep open tabs of similar items and compare them. Do any of them not quite fulfill requirements? Do I like any of them more, or actively dislike any of them? Do I feel the same way the next day? Close tabs until you only have open the items you are serious about buying.
- Double check sizes, and all my other criteria, and the washing instructions.
- Enter the items I plan to purchase in my buying diary, which I discuss below.
- Buy the items, and record the reference number. Track their progress, assess them when they arrive, and decide whether to keep them or return them.
Remember: only buy the things that a) fit all of your requirements, b) are on your wish list, c) are within your budget, and d) you actually like. That last one, in particular, makes the process much more joyful than I was expecting. I'd become so used to just buying what fit, rather than what I liked -- so take pleasure in the range that's now open to you.
Keeping a purchasing diary
If you hope to do a lot of shopping online, it’s worth keeping a record from the start. This serves several purposes, as you can:
- Track your expenditure, and how much of your wish list is filled.
- Know which size suits you best in particular brands to make future purchases easier.
- Get a sense for how quickly different stores deliver the goods.
- Record the washing and care information for delicate items.
- Note any problems with billing, returns or customer service.
Below is the information I keep in my buying diary, which is just a Word document with my size chart, wish list and budget at the top, and then entries in a list underneath.
- Name of store and url
- Each item’s: name, price, size, url, care instructions, and once it arrives, how well it fits (or not)
- Date of purchase and reference number
- Notes on anything else, such as speed of delivery, problems, special offers I redeemed, etc.
I also colour code each item: green for arrived and fits, pink for arrived and doesn’t fit perfectly, red for arrived and returned. I use yellow for any special notes -- if a shipment goes missing, or I email a query about an item, etc.
This diary has been incredibly useful. I know to size up on some brands and down on others. It helped me figure out when an order hadn’t arrived within a reasonable timeframe so I could send a query (they re-shipped it). I know that I won’t buy again from some stores, because the item is wearable but not a perfect match for what I want in future. I know the care instructions for items I’ve cut the tags out of. In short, the buying diary is now a fantastic resource.
I strongly recommend you start your own diary, even if it’s in a very sketchy form, and you mostly track what you buy via email folders or whatever (which I also use).
Tips and tricks
Always check the sales rack first, especially if you are an unusual size, or have off-beat taste. You will often find some really good items there. In fact, I rarely buy anything full-price, as there’s so much range even within the sales that I can fulfill my wish list several times over with items I love.
A lot of stores have a free customer service option, often via chat and/or email, in which someone can tell you the exact measurements of a piece of clothing. This is really useful if you are between sizes, and need to know whether to size up or down. With the shipping costs to and from Australia it's better to get it right the first time, so take advantage.
Check to see when free shipping kicks in and how much that will save you (note: mostly you pay for international shipping no matter the size of your order). Sometimes it’s worth buying a pair of socks or something so you get free shipping, so make sure you have some stocking stuffer type items on your wish list as well as the larger items.
Try to find photos of real people wearing the item, or models similar to your size. Sites which have customer reviews often also have customer photos. This will really help you get a sense for what a piece will look like when you wear it.
Get a feel for how quickly a site sells out of your size by seeing how fast popular items go from the “new” page, to the “sold out” page. Don’t worry if that means you miss something gorgeous the first time; there will be new stock. It’s helpful to know whether you need to decide quickly, or whether you can wait and hope for reviews, and/or a sale or a special offer.
Always check the returns policy before buying online. There is usually a time limit and other conditions on returning items. Sometimes you will need to return them in the next day’s post to make the deadline; sometimes it’s not worth paying for return shipping. It’s worth thinking about this in advance so you aren’t caught out financially.
I basically decided that it wasn’t worth sending back anything worth less than about $100 due to the price of return shipping. In the few cases the item was under $100 and wasn’t quite as perfect as I’d hoped, I’ve managed to make it work. For instance, couple of pairs of stockings were tighter than I’d like, but still wearable. And I decided to wear a camisole under a dress that is slightly too large in the bust; I actually think it looks awesome that way, so the bug became a feature.
I’ve only returned two items which were expensive enough to warrant a refund, and they were early on, when I wasn’t sure what I was doing and got the sizing wrong. I had no problems doing so in either case, but did end up slightly out of pocket due to postage. For what it’s worth: I think of this as the equivalent of the petrol money I didn’t spend on a wild goose chase through the local shops. I now know enough to save a lot of time and hassle by shopping online, so I think it’s been worth that minor cost.
3. Sites I recommend, brands I recommend
Here are the sites I’ve had most success with. My favourites are at the top, and least favourite (but still successful) at the bottom. Your needs may vary, so take all the usual precautions before buying anything from these vendors.
Wonderful merino wool range -- I particularly love the t-shirts, which are elegant enough for work.
The House of Fraser (http://www.houseoffraser.co.uk/)
A UK department store, with a fantastic range and search functionality. Useful information is given: sizing, care instructions, materials used. Items are pricey, but there are some good sales items, lots of natural fabrics, and everything I’ve bought has fit -- although I’ve since modified the sizing I order slightly, based on how those first items fit. Delivery is very fast, and they have a loyalty reward program. Photos aren’t as great as on some other sites, but are adequate. Customer reviews are incorporated, but not as useful as on some other sites.
Brands I’ve tried and liked:
- East (you can find their direct website here: http://www.east.co.uk). East’s clothes, despite the slightly naff colonial-inspired name, are gorgeous and look fantastic on. They are pricey, so go for the sales items, but worth it. I size down one size in this brand.
- Dickins & Jones (http://www.houseoffraser.co.uk/on/demandware.store/Sites-hof-Site/default/Search-Show?cgid=BRAND_DICKINS%20%26%20JONES&fromBrand=Dickins%20%26%20Jones) is, as far as I can tell, the store’s own brand. Everything fit perfectly and looked nice, but in snug styles; definitely don’t size down with this brand.
A US boutique. Mainly retro styles for younger women, but with lots of cotton dresses and skirts in funky patterns, and lots of plus sizes. The interface is fantastic -- really the best. Sizing is good, customer feedback is excellent, and the range is great. The best items tend to sell fast in plus sizes, but there’s a large back-catalogue and lots of sales items to search through.
Brands I’ve tried and liked: Leota (http://leota.com/). Leota are the makers of one of the few dresses in synthetics I own (the Sweetheart dress), and it’s so lovely. Customer service from Leota is excellent, but delivery on the slow side.
Stride Shoes (http://www.strideshoes.com.au)
An Australia store, and I had already tried on the brand I was looking for and knew my size. Interface is very ordinary, but easy enough to use. Range is good, lots of sales items, and delivery is fast and free within Australia.
Brands I’ve tried and liked: ECCO (http://global.ecco.com/). Most comfortable shoes, boots and sandals I’ve ever worn.
Cancer Council Shop (http://www.cancervic.org.au/)
Australian shop specialising in sun protection. I bought a range of women’s sunhats, and they are all gorgeous, fit well, and came in a good variety of colours. Delivery was a little slow.
The Dark Angel (http://www.thedarkangel.co.uk)
UK specialist in fantasy wear. They make awesome vests, which is what I bought. Customer service is slow but excellent, and the clothes are gorgeous. Delivery is on the slow side. It’s worth emailing to double check your size, if you are not planning to wear bulky layers beneath the vests.
A German designer-focused, plus size specialist. They have a lot of synthetic fabrics, and not a lot of natural fibers. Interface is good, no customer reviews. Customer service is good, and refunds are slow but without problems. I loved one of the items I bought, but sent the other (by a different designer) back because it was such a dud.
Brands I’ve tried and liked: Manon Baptiste (http://www.navabi-australia.com/_manon-baptiste.html). Fit true to size, and looked great.
US department store with a focus on designer-wear, and very pricey. I basically only look at stuff on sale, and then only from one designer who came highly recommended for comfortable work-wear in natural fabrics and plus sizes. Interface is okay but not great, delivery on the slow side. Items fit as advertised, but I won’t be rushing back to buy more.
Brands I’ve tried and liked: Eileen Fisher (http://shop.nordstrom.com/c/eileen-fisher). Fit is a little large, but is very comfortable, just as advertised.
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