Reader Christine sent me this plea:
One of the things I’ve accepted about my body is that skirts and dresses are better. But sometimes it’s hard to find them, and then to figure out how to layer them. I love sleeveless dresses but then it can be hard to figure out what to wear if it gets cooler; a light cardigan in spring, a fall jacket in fall, but then … what are the most versatile dresses. Also I’m in my mid 40s so the leggings look isn’t much good for me.
Fantastic question, doll!
I shunned dresses for ages, believing them to be far too stuffy and formal for my business-casual lifestyle. But somehow I got swept up in the whole “day dress” revolution, and over the past few years, I’ve become addicted to them for the same reasons as Christine: They just WORK for my bod.
When my interest in wearing dresses was first rekindled, I set out to enlarge my collection. First stop: Savers! Quickly discovered that most of the frocks available at my beloved thrift shops were sleeveless. And I thought, “OK, all these sheaths must’ve been donated by fellow Minnesotans who finally accepted that, since we get six months of winter, sleeveless frocks ain’t practical.” But once my search expanded to the mall and Internet, I noticed that most retailers offer mainly sleeve-free frockage, too. And I was baffled. Sleeveless sheaths in the dead of winter? For really, BR, J.Crew, et all? Do you think we ALL live on the Equator?
But since they were all that I could find and they DID look pretty smokin’ on me, I slowly amassed a collection of sheaths. And, with a little experimentation, I found them to be truly versatile pieces. A sleeved dress is a ready-made outfit, and that is a grand thing when you need something quick and dirty. But a sleeveless dress allows for layering and accessorization, which means your creativity can run rampant. And I loves me a little rampant creativity.
I had bales of fun raiding my outfit archive for layered dress looks, and picking out my faves. Here are a few suggestions for layering with dresses to get us started. I have focused mainly on sleeveless sheaths, as they comprise the bulk of MY collection, are generally the easiest to procure, and truly are versatile little beasties. But I’ve got a couple of sleevers in there, as well.
And, as always, this is just to get us started. I do hope you’ll all chime in with more dress-layering ideas!
My current favorite look, hands down. Works fantastically well with a sleeveless sheath and a fitted, cropped blazer. Depending on your proportions, you could also try a sheath with a swing jacket, a sheath with a boyfriend blazer belted over it, or a sheath with a military-style blazer for a really funky look.
These are both recent outfits, but I’ll definitely be rocking this look come the cold. Add tights and tall boots, maybe a cozy scarf, and the combination is instantly winterized.
OK, don’t let me count the ways, that’d be massively boring. INSTEAD! Let me just say that a nice curved-hem bolero is fantastically enboobening for those of us smallsters, and provides a less buttoned-up look than a blazer when paired with a sheath.
I feel like this is a look I am yet to truly master. To me, a dress/cardi combo SCREAMS 50s secretary, as evidenced by the pearls-and-buttons themed ensemble and sweater-clip deployment shown above. But I’ve seen sheer cardis belted over dresses with grossgrain ribbons and pinned with silk flowers, which makes for a delightfully romantic look. For those with the right proportions, a belted long/grandpa cardi can look chic and mod as well. And I’m sure there’s more. Suggestions?
These are some blanket-wannabes, I realize, but I just love the look of a sleeveless sheath with a bulky wrap for transitional seasons. Draping over the shoulders works equally well, and provides more warmth than either option pictured.
Adding a scarf or wrap to your dress-blazer or dress-bolero combination adds warmth and interest. Also, scarfing it up can make those other layers seem less severe and structured.
Yeah, so, ponchos DEFINITELY aren’t for everyone. And the itchy, be-tassled kind that we all the rage in the 70s are not generally advisable. But ponchos certainly are conversation starters! And a sleek, sweater-y one like this, combined with a sleeveless sheath, makes for a great transitional outfit. Or a great they-turn-up-the-AC-in-my-office-to-snot-freezing-levels outfit.
The boatneck is key, here, as it lets the dress peek out near your collarbone. A cowl, turtle, or crew will hide dress straps entirely, creating the appearance of a skirt-sweater outfit. Which isn’t a crime, of course, and can be fantastic in colder climes! More layers = toastier femmes. But since we’re talking layered dress looks, I’m focusing on boatnecks which let the viewer SEE that you’ve paired a sweater with a sheath. A sheer sweater – like this loosely-woven Eileen Fisher jobber I’ve got on – is even better as the dress will show through, subtly.
I wear my jean jacket like a blazer, and have a little cropped army-green jacket that gets the same treatment. Even a leather jacket could pass for a blazer if paired with the right dress. Something boyish or rugged looks fantastic with a girly frock, like my eyelet sundress here. Variations can be created for spring (leather jacket and floral dress with boots), summer (jean jacket with sundress and sandals), and fall (army jacket with sweater dress and boots).
Letting a sheer dress or colored slip peek out from under a more substantial dress is a great way to create interesting, warm, funky layers. That specific sweaterdress outfit got trotted out at LEAST ten times last winter.
But you can also layer a shirt dress over a sleeveless dress, as shown in the second photo. I prefer this look with a long-sleeved outer dress – often belted over the inner dress – but shorter sleeves can work, too. This is a great trick for dresses that hug a little too tightly: Let them peek out as an underlayer and utilize a thicker, more forgiving dress on top.
Now, I must say that I don’t generally condone turtlenecks beneath sheaths. It gives off a decidedly schoolgirl vibe which turns me right off. Even a crewneck tee shoved under a sheath can look awkward and dowdy. I vastly prefer that added layers sit atop the dress … although I definitely wear tees and longjohns as my base layer in January. I just don’t let them show!
Over to you, kittens! Are you addicted to dresses? Got a few sleeveless frocks and classic sheaths hanging in your closet? How do YOU layer them up for variety, style, and warmth?
P.S. Hi, my name is Sally, and I’m a pink-and-black-aholic. Geez, man.