Reader Request: Feminine, Professional Looks for Athletic Figures

Reader Janel sent this question to me via e-mail:

I am 5’4, slightly busty, and thanks to years in gymnastics, diving, and weightlifting I’ve been blessed with big strong legs, an ample tush, as well as broad shoulders and “guns.” I’m wondering about some professional looks that are feminine on my muscular/curvy body, as well as show off what I’ve worked hard for.

As I mentioned to Janel, some of these tips will need to be adjusted (or, potentially, ignored) depending on personal taste and unique proportions, but hopefully a few will be helpful to a few of you stylish, athletic ladies.

Specialty vendors

This may be an obvious one, but be sure to scour the offerings of vendors like Athleta , Title Nine, and Lole. Yes, these manufacturers specialize in gear for actual sports, but they also create streetwear that works beautifully with the athletic female form. I’ve owned organic cotton dresses from Athleta, and wore them to my office for years. Seek dresses, blouses, and skirts as many of the pant styles are a bit too sporty to work in most office environments.

A-line skirts

This style of skirt is often described as “universally appealing.” Nothing is universally appealing, in my opinion, but A-lines do work well on many figure types, including an athlete’s frame. Pencil skirts might cling to muscular thighs and a high butt, and full skirts might add too much volume (especially in Janel’s case, since she says she’s busty), but a nice, gentle flare will accentuate your waist and give just the right amount of balance.

The high neckline/sleeveless combo

What’s the easiest way to show the world a great set of guns? Going sleeveless, of course. Now, obviously, this will only work in warm weather and at relatively casual offices, but if you’re looking to show off those hard-earned arm muscles, seek out sleeveless tops and dresses that feature relatively high necklines. Pairing a really deep neckline with sleevelessness will result in a bit more skin being shown than is typically acceptable, but shallow Vs and scoop necks should both work.

Potential pitfalls

  • Skinny pants: Don’t avoid them altogether, but my athletic clients have always said they’re a source of endless frustration in the thigh department. Opt for straight legs or trouser cuts instead. Or buy straight legs and get them tailored into skinnies!
  • Button-front shirts: Another garment that can be tough to fit the athletic female body. Jersey knit versions will be a bit easier to wrangle, if you love the look of a button-down.
  • Blazers: Such a great staple, but if you’ve got a swimmer’s/rower’s shoulders that can make fitting into a snugly tailored garment well-nigh impossible. Again, jersey and ponte versions may be more forgiving.

Image courtesy Athleta

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for alreadypretty.com. See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

Next Post
Previous Post
  • Even leaving aside whether sleeveless-ness (<–I made that word up) in the workplace is appropriate–I tend to think not, but I realize that's my own idiosyncrasy–I would be cautious about showing off the guns in a professional setting. Really muscular and defined arms in a woman may not be socially unacceptable anymore, but they're still enough of an outlier that they can be a distraction. I would rather clients/patients/customers concentrate on what I'm saying instead of noticing how capped my delts are, you know?

    As far as clothes go, I have the female weightlifter's classic problem: big quads in relation to small hips and waist. To fit over my thighs but not be ridiculously loose and unflattering everywhere else, pants either need to be fairly widelegged or stretchy. Ponte pants are a joy 🙂

    My latest (surprise) find is that dolman sleeves are extremely flattering on my now-wider shoulders. I have two of these Gap sweaters: http://www.gap.com/browse/product.do?cid=78128&vid=1&pid=780440&scid=780440002 and they are my new favorite garments.

  • Cindy

    This client could be me! I am the same height, large bust, athletic physique with strong legs, etc. I find that Liz Claiborne pants (and many Talbots) are cut to fit me better through the rear and legs, so I search them out whenever possible. I also LOVE blouses, and am so pleased that fitted blouses are in now. I am working on stocking up for a lifetime, as this allows room for my bust, which has always been a difficult area when wearing a blouse (safety pins and Hollywood Fashion Tape can only do so much!). I totally agree about going with the dresses and skirts as much as possible, although I deal with a broken heelbone and it can be hard to find stylish shoes that fit my support needs. Thanks for introducing me to Athleta, which really does have some great choices that fit my style interest and my body type!

    • Sal

      Awesome! Thank YOU for the pants tips, Cindy!

      • Tara

        I also love Athleta dresses. I’m wearing one today and it’s both comfortable and super flattering!

  • RM

    Thanks SO much for this! I am forever wondering why certain pants and skirts seem to look perfectly appropriate on others and completely inappropriate on me! And I have the darndest time trying to find button front shirts and blazers that fit my arms (I am no bodybuilder, just athletic) but don’t swamp my small waist. Even my muscular calves often don’t fit boots or skinny pants. I go for accessories like scarves to jazz up simple dresses as much as possible–thick jersey is my favorite, as it is forgiving and allows me to move around, a necessity for my work. I look forward to the comments for more tips! I am proud of my post-10 years of field hockey body. 🙂

  • LK

    I have the larger thigh problem and I’m a smaller size everywhere else. I always have to buy pants a size larger so they fit over my legs. Getting the pants tailored is an awesome idea! I never thought of it myself, I always just belted everything or wore dresses. Although I still can’t find a pair of shorts that fit right to do the thigh to hip to waist ratio being so uneven.

    I also have athletic arms. Don’t buy capped sleeves it makes the arms really disproportionate. Better off with butterfly sleeves or sleeves that come down over the bicep.

  • Tara

    Another good option for organic cotton dresses that are both comfortable and attractive is Patagonia. I have a few of their dresses and LOVE them.

    • Sal

      Yes! Forgot Patagonia – good call.

  • Linda

    I have good luck with Ann Taylor curvy fit pants. “Curvy” means different things to different designers, but Ann Taylor’s curvy is small in the waist and roomier in the seat/thighs. I wear a lot of pencil skirts and blazers, but often have to size up in the skirts and have the waist taken in. The blazers can’t have a skinny sleeve and I usually can’t layer much more than a very thin shell under them. Wrap jersey dresses are adjustable and stretchy – Diane Von Furstenberg is pricey, but Banana Republic makes some good ones, too.

  • Allison

    Ugh – I LOVE the blazer look, but after about 12 years of swimming (and only a few of “retirement”), my shoulders are nowhere near comfortably fitting into them… Some day!

  • Great round-up of ideas, Sal! I totally agree with the skinny jeans thing. They rarely fit me well – I actually have just as much of an issue fitting my calves into them! I love a flowy, wide-leg trouser. I’m most comfortable and confident in them and they can still be tailored enough to nip and highlight my waist. Yay for muscles! Boo skinny jeans 🙂

  • sigourney

    I have always been physically active, both doing sports and at work, so my calves are strong, my shoulders and back are strong and so is my neck.

    First off, I would say, avoid frills. A little ruche in an advantageous place is classy, but lines should be kept clean.

    A-Line is always good, so are boot cut trousers. Wrap dresses and wrap tops are great, too. Cowl necks for a strong neck, waterfall necklines flatter. And I find it important to keep jewelry in proportion, no tiny golden chains but one substantial silver rope chain or bigger pearl necklace, big pendant. Same goes for earrings, watch or cuff bracelets.

    I think a strong body makes a statement all its own.

  • I’m fairly muscular thanks to being a gardener and love skinny jeans but only with knee high boots; with shoes/low boots I tend to feel it makes my thighs seem wider. Cap sleeves make my arms look big so I avoid those, especially because my muscly arm ‘at rest’ just looks disproportionately big on my small frame. Strangely I don’t get this effect in sleeveless tops. Mostly though I try to be proud of my muscles 🙂 not to mention the wierd tan-lines I get…

  • Great post. It confirms what I always thought: my body is curvy/athletic/muscular. All the things you list as “problems” are just that for me. I find that the cheap-o JCPenney’s brand, St. John’s Bay, straight-leg jeans work well for me as “almost” skinnies and they have a nice stretch. I do belt them so they stay up in the waist, though, as I have a long torso. And warning: you have to try on every single pair you’re considering buying as they’re so cheap that the sizes are not consistent. They do last a long time wear-wise though.

    I do love A-line skirts and wrap dresses and I’m planning on those being my “go to” summer wear items. I REALLY wish I could more easily wear button-down tops. The size that fits me in the arms and waist area is often a bit tight around the bust and shoulders. Bahh! I wear them anyway either with a cardigan on top to hide the gapping at the bust, or AS a cardigan over a t-shirt, with just a button or three done up.

  • Beth C.

    Lots of awesome pant options here- I agree with the Ann Taylor recomendation. Does anyone know of a brand that cuts blazers/ button fronts with shoulders/arms a little bigger? The current style trend is SO super narrow in the arm right now even plus size stuff taken in in the body is tight in the arms on me. I work in a pretty conservative industry- Pointe and jersey blazers are not going to fly for client meetings and I have a hell of a time finding jackets that will contain the guns. Any ideas?

    • Katharine

      Button fronts are probably best just tailored. Get the size that fits the shoulders, and have the sides taken in. (They are making button fronts these days with some Lycra in the weave; those sometimes fit me depending on the brand. Not that I wear button-fronts, but sometimes I feel like I “should”.)

      I have naturally huge shoulders and broad back, and used to bodybuild (and so now have fat arms). The blazers that tend to fit me best are Tahari (again, I’m not a regular blazer wearer, but sometimes try them on). And in Canada, Jacob seems to cut both for higher butts and slightly wider shoulders. Calvin Klein dresses often fit my shoulders and back pretty well while still fitting nicely in the waist, although I’ve never tried any of the suiting. And of course since my build is “athletic-chunk” I’m up in the 10-12 sizing range, so proportions may vary lower down. (Jacob, though, also works for my size-6 co-worker who is actively athletic and sports plenty of muscle.)

      Worst for me is anything in the Gap range (including BR) — anything shaped/unstretchy from them NEVER fits my back or arms — and JCrew, which seems to design for the classic stringbean shape with scrawny little arms and no rear elevation.

  • melinda

    “Pencil skirts might cling to muscular thighs and a high butt”

    I ride a bicycle most places and I love pencil skirts- I want to show that off, because I EARNED it!

    • Sal

      Good on ya, Melinda! I’ve never done anything but a full skirt on my bike. Too timid!

  • K

    I’m going to support the suggestion of finding a good tailor. I have the same problem in the hip and thigh. I aim for curvy cut jeans and trousers (Gap is surprisingly successful and certain cuts at Banana Republic), but even then I often have to get the waist taken in. I have skinny jeans, but had to size up significantly – I like the super stretchy jegging styles and then take the waist in when I remember. Sometimes it feels like cheating, but I will often buy trendy items I have a really hard time getting in a flatter in cut at a rather cheap brand and then spending some money to have it tailored. It can also work for blazers, size up to fit your shoulders/bust and then have the waist taken in.

    Some days I wish I could living in jersey dresses at the office, but my profession is too formal for it to be any more than an occasional thing.

  • Though I pretty much have the opposite body type, I would totally wear that dress. I think there are definitely some things that look good on almost any woman, and a simple cotton dress is one of them!

  • I second the recommendation for boot cut pants. I’m a runner and my calves are my biggest problem, especially with tall boots being so popular. I wish *all* boots came with a wide calf option. I have to laugh about pencil skirts, and the site of my bottom in a pencil skirt–I don’t know if I should rejoice or cry. A-line skirts=awesome. Knit dresses that flare (not gathered) from a high waist are also awesome. Knit dresses with a straight cut in a bulky knit turn me into the michelin man.

  • Frenchie

    I am definitely this body type–wide shoulders, little waist definition, larger thighs. I rarely wear pants anymore. I am much more comfortable wearing dresses (empire waist, shifts) and a-line skirts. In colder weather, I wear them with leggings and boots. It’s become my “look”. I don’t like that extra fabric between my thighs when I wear pants. It’s more comfortable for me to wear dresses and skirts, and I think it “feminizes” my athletic build.

  • I second the recommendations for ponte. Love that stuff. Cardigans. Cowl necks and dolman sleeves. And mostly? Confidence. There is nothing wrong with a muscular build and we should not be self-conscious about flaunting it.

  • Polly

    Yay for the farmgirl body type. We unload hay wagons, flip tires, and swing kettlebells.
    I notice that I really have to avoid anything that is “square.” Polo shirts are HORRIBLE on me. A drapey ruffled cardigan, a pencil skirt and heels, a stretchy wrap dress from Athleta or elsewhere – these look best. Have to be careful not to chop myself in half.
    I have a couple of knit blazers from the Gap, a couple yrs old – that are wonderful. The Minnie pants from JCrew are nice because of the flat front and side zip. Yes to the stretchy jeggins…Old Navy was carrying some “High Waisted Rock Star” skinny stretchies that were very nice, you might find some on a clearance rack. These are different than the Low Rise Rock Stars that are in stores now.
    I also found a really cute George brand knit wrap dress at WalMart recently – the paisley print sort of resembled something at Jcrew.