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The Sleeveless Dress…To Be or Not To Be

The Sleeveless Dress…To Be or Not To Be

Living in the tropics the sleeveless dress is the dress most often of choice, but for many women, especially  those over 40, it’s not the flattering silhouette that they want.  I’d not given it much thought until this article by Sally McGraw of Already Pretty blog when a reader lamented over the dirth of dresses with sleeves. Let’s hear what Sally said,  then I have an interesting observation to close the comments.

The reader said. “Why they don’t make dresses with sleeves anymore? Why can’t I find dresses with flattering sleeve lengths for summer (about midway to elbow)? I’m so tired of having to buy shrugs and jackets then coordinate them over all my dresses. It’s discouraging. Do designers do this so we have to buy more clothes? Any insights/advice about this would make me so happy!

Sally responded, “And this is a phenomenon that we Minnesotans lament for the opposite reason: When it’s winter, the mere prospect of wearing sleeveless dresses makes us shiver. Even layered, they just aren’t as warm. Many of my readers and clients and friends are on a constant hunt for sleeved dress options, and retail buyers are hungry for them, too. But they are rare critters.

For years, I made my own assumptions about this bizarre trend: That the shift to shorter or no sleeves was related to our country’s obsession with youth, since sleeveless garments would appeal younger women who aren’t as self-conscious about their arms (supposedly). I also wondered about cost savings for the manufacturers, who could use less material overall and also design one basic dress shape for the entire year. Growing shopping and fashion markets in warm cities like Miami and Las Vegas struck me as another possible factor, as did the overall move toward “seasonless” dressing.

And if it weren’t for this WSJ article, I probably would have continued with my guesses. But here are the reasons, as outlined by designers including Nanette Lepore and Trina Turk:

  • Sleeves are frumpy. (This is news to me.)
  • It’s difficult to design a cute or flattering sleeve that also feels comfortable.
  • Related: Sleeves can restrict range of motion, which causes more comfort issues. And in our comfort-centric climate, designers fear that buyers won’t tolerate restricted range.
  • Design features that make sleeves more comfortable and less constricting – like gussets – are costly and seldom included.
  • Sleeves can mess with the lines and overall tailored elegance of a dress.

So there you have it. Even though customers are clamoring for them, designers just don’t want to do sleeves. Mainly for aesthetic reasons. Annoying and frustrating.”

Well her women readers had a lot to say on the subject too.

Sewing Fraille said, “As someone who sews, it’s really weird to see the excuses the designers make. Sleeves are frumpy? (See my dress above). You can’t make them flattering and still comfortable? They mess with the tailored elegance of a dress? (Yeah, the 3/4 length sleeves of my dress add to the tailored elegance. It wouldn’t be nearly as elegant sleeveless or with short sleeves). Good grief, you’re a designer– you should *design.* Sure, it’s harder than a sleeveless dress, but you make other sorts of tailored garments with sleeves, and it’s not that much harder to make a shirtdress than, say, a shirt.

I think it’s really just that dresses with sleeves cost more to produce and don’t sell as well because they fit fewer people. In fact, out of all the sleeved dresses I’ve seen, rare as they are, most of them have been knits, which tends to confirm my suspicions– if the material stretches, you don’t have to pay attention to fit as much, and a wider range of people can wear it. You can even see this trend with garments that would be considered the last bastion of tailoring, like tailored jackets made out of ponte knits.

Sylvia_40PlusStyle said. “Well, according to Betty Halbreich of Bergdorf & Goodman fame, designers don’t make them because they feel they are not youthful enough! Betty has been encouraging the designers to create sleeved dresses for years but to no avail….”

And Ginger said, “That is really sad. There is so much design potential in sleeves! They ought to take a cue from the 1930s; the sleeve designs there are amazing and widely varied throughout the decade.”

The Accidental Icon echoed this comment, “I recently found a young designer named Victoria Irving who I wrote about on my blog. One of her signatures is the fabulous ways she does sleeves. It was what first got me to look at her clothes. The sleeves in her work are a masterpiece in and of themselves. As I always say there should never be an either or and there are some days a sleeveless dress is the only way to go and can have a shawl or a shrug if need be. But I guess the real issue here is that so many women are wanting it. Aren’t there more clever designers like Victoria who can figure it out?

Thursday said, “Aside from strappy summer dresses and halternecks, I ONLY want dresses with sleeves. Most of the time, I don’t want to have completely bare arms, and I live in a climate where cardigans in summer are too warm, but it is awkward to layer enough warmth with a sleeveless dress in winter. Having to layer a long sleeved top underneath a sleeveless dress, with a knit over the top sure does get frumpy.
I only tend to experience difficulties with sleeve fit with certain brands that are in the process of expanding from core sizes into plus and don’t make enough allowance for arm fat. A little bit of elastane tends to go a long way here. I think the reasons for a dearth of sleeves on dresses here are pretty thin. It’s clear sleeves don’t work for everyone, but there is obviously high demand for sleeved dresses so designers just need to step up. I’ll keep on buying from those brands that have clearly mastered this *very* difficult art…

While Marlen commented, “Huh, I actually never really noticed how there aren’t too many sleeved pieces. And just like most of your readers said, I pretty much jump on any dress that has them! I think they look elegant, and I appreciate how they balance out a short hem. I’m a bit surprised with the designers’ reasons- I don’t think I’ve ever felt particularly uncomfortable in a sleeve! Though I can see it being hard to make it look tailored and clean. I know Zara has some nice sleeved pieces during the winter, so that’s one other store to check out

Not everyone agreed with these views though and this comment from Sunni Standing was typical of the pro-sleeveless group, “I just wanted to weigh in from a sewing and fitting perspective. As someone who sews my own clothing and has fitted ladies who sew their own clothing, sleeves are really hard to fit which is probably a huge reason why designers don’t include them in dresses. We ladies, want lots and lots of movement – we want to be able to drive, hug other people, shake hands, reach for things and so in an area where there is a lot of movement, this requires a great deal of fitting for the individual wearer. Granted, with the improvements in stretch fabrics these days, this could help and designers could start creating dresses with sleeves in these fabrics (and they should!!) but in a woven fabric with no stretch, sleeves are really hard to fit right. Each woman will vary so much. Once you’ve got a woven dress with sleeves that fit perfectly, going back to a restrictive dress with sleeves is impossible.

Now all this said, the women here in Merida, where it’s summer all year round, wear both types of dresses with neither having preponderance. I admit that the slim and youthful appearance of a sleeveless dress, usually a bright print, is attractive and it’s worn by women of all ages. But a dress with sleeves offers so many more style opportunities.

women in merida

The point being made about the lack of effort (or ability) of designers to produce dresses with sleeves is also valid.. Linda Przybvayszewski in her book The Lost Art of Dress talks about how designers were told not to bother learning how to design dresses for the sophisticated woman. Apparently no one wanted to appear sophisticated. This began in the 60s as the sudden shift to youthful styling meant that fads in silhouette, fabric, and color, trimmed with something bright, were cut along the simplest of lines.

So there you have it. Designers are no longer taught how to design across a broad range of clothing options. Are there options for us? Yes! Frequent those designers and shops that cater to your needs for a dress with sleeves.

The readers of Sally’s blog offered their opinions on where to shop. Here are a few: SWAK (Sealed With a Kiss), Shabby Apple, Mika Rose, Mode-esty, eShakti, Amazon.com,  Maxstudio and 6pm.com and I would certainly include Macys and Nordstrom too, as well as any of the vintage stores like Unique Vintage.

And peruse Pinterest, especially my many Pinterest albums on Sister House for looks you love. Many of those pins have the source where you can buy the dress.

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