Big Girl in a Skinny World: Formal Gowns for All Shapes and Sizes

Full-figured fashionista Ashley Falcon reveals how to find the best dresses to survive wedding season.Ashley's picks for chic formal dresses.

At just about every black-tie event I have ever attended, I'll invariably spot a heavyset 20-something draped in a shapeless black jacket, frumpy skirt, and sparkly camisole. I call it the Golden Girl Special, and it's a sad staple of the formalwear section of your nearest plus-size retailer, where curvy women and their grandmas are forced to shop from the same racks. With wedding season upon us, I expect to see plenty more examples of these unflattering ensembles on girls too young to have even heard of Betty White.

I won't sugarcoat this one: Finding a chic, formal dress in a plus size is a grueling task. The options are limited, the styles hopelessly tacky. And too many big girls shop at the last minute, then balk at spending real money on a well-made, figure-flattering gown. Sorry, sweeties, but you get what you pay for when it comes to eveningwear. But trust me—there's no greater high than strutting into a glittery ballroom in a killer dress that has your friends doing double takes. Such pieces are worth every penny. Cut corners elsewhere.

I typically begin my search at a high-end department store like Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's, or Saks Fifth Avenue. Be sure to check out their websites as well, which tend to offer a more varied "Web-only" collection. Here's the catch: These sites usually don't keep a deep plus-size inventory. If a gown is available in your size, you could wait as long as 45 days before it arrives. So forget about last-minute shopping. Be sure to order your size and one size up—cocktail dresses tend to run small. My favorite brands include David Meister, Badgley Mischka, Tadashi Shoji, and Adrianna Papell. Teri Jon and Kay Unger offer eveningwear up to a size 16, so check them out, too.

In terms of fit, look for cuts that follow the natural lines of your body. Scoop necks, tasteful V-necks, sweetheart cuts, and off-the-shoulder numbers are especially flattering. I wish I could wear drapey chiffons and sleek jerseys, but they leave me looking plump or lumpy. Stick to thicker, preferably lined fabrics, like stretch satin, which suck you in and conceal ripples. If you've got a really round body type, find a dress with detailing at the waist—a sash, belt, or even ruching—which will transform your apple shape into an hourglass.

One last idea: Instead of buying yet another black dress (seriously, how many do you own?), stand out this summer with an all-season jewel tone like garnet, cobalt, or plum. Something about a vivid splash of color always emboldens me to hit the dance floor and live large! If you've found a stunner for your next formal event, be sure to clue me in at Cheers!

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