How Sleeve Length Impacts Figure-flattery

Just when I feel like I’ve got the basics of flattering a variety of figures committed to memory, I read, hear about, or experience something that proves that the world of dressing is wide and deep and ever-expanding. My most recent discovery? Sleeve length can totally transform how a woman’s silhouette appears to the observing eye. I KNOW. Sleeve length. Who’d have thunk it?

Ages ago, I talked about a counter-intuitive sleeve-related tip: Sleeveless garments often work better on full arms than cap and short sleeves. So as we dive into the topic of how sleeve length can impact figure-flattery, let’s start there, shall we?

SLEEVELESS

Many women feel self-conscious about showing their arms because the Beauty Standard Machine has decided that any arms that fail to be slender and toned are sub-par. And that’s just bunk, as we all know, but it can make many of us loathe to don anything sleeveless. But as I mentioned in that previous post, a sleeveless garment has the advantage of the unbroken line: The observing eye sees your arm from shoulder to wrist, with no sleeve to highlight one portion of your arm over another. Even if your upper arms aren’t tan and toned, they will generally look longer and leaner in a sleeveless top. And even if you’d like your arms to appear fuller, a sleeveless look may create a more graceful line.

CAP SLEEVES

These have become the summer sleeve standard for some reason, but they hit most arms near or at their widest point. Any garment with an opening or hem that falls across a limb will draw the eye to its own ending spot, emphasizing whatever is happening at that spot. With cap sleeves, that’s generally the upper part of the upper arm. As Imogen has pointed out, slanted cap sleeves work for some figures and are often more flattering than horizontal caps.

This is especially true for women in possession of large busts. Some cap sleeves (and some short sleeves) fall parallel to the bust, which draws the eye right there. Great if you want your bust emphasized, not so great if you don’t.

SHORT SLEEVES

Short sleeves fall a bit lower on the arm than caps, but still generally bisect the upper arm in a wide spot. This style is great if you wanna show off your pipes, but offers many of the same challenges as cap sleeves: Visually widens the upper arm, draws the observing eye to the bustline.

Many flutter sleeves are the approximate length of short sleeves, and their loose, unconfining shape mean that they’re less harsh on full upper arms. (I don’t seem to own any, or I’d have included a photo here!)

HALF SLEEVES

Half sleeves perplex me a bit. They’re darned close to three-quarter length, but not quite … and often feel awkward. I suspect this is due to some variant of the Golden Ratio: Cutting your arm exactly in half at the elbow looks less elegant than somewhere more third-y. That said. if your waist is narrowest high on your torso, half sleeves may end parallel to it, thus drawing the eye there.

THREE QUARTER SLEEVES

This length is lauded by many as THE most flattering in the universe. I’ll admit that it’s my personal favorite, but question the universality of any figure-flattery technique. Regardless, three-quarter sleeves have become a year-round staple since they offer a bit of breeze in summer and reasonable coverage in the winter. If your waist falls a bit lower on your torso, this style will emphasize it since the sleeve ends where your waist narrows. If you’d rather draw the eye away from your waist, half and three-quarter sleeves are best avoided.

LONG SLEEVES

As a matter of fact, long sleeves are a solid option for those who would like to distract from the midsection. Though they do draw the eye down a bit, so hopefully you’re OK with a little focus falling upon your hips. If arm length is a concern, long sleeves (or sleeveless garments) are often good bets – other lengths can draw more attention to the relative shortness/longness of the arm.

Now. Many of these considerations are subtle. Arms move a lot, so sleeve length is a fairly changeable factor. Also most people will not see your half sleeves and instantly think, “WOW, LOOK AT THAT WAIST!” This information doesn’t often register on a conscious level, but it’s there in the subtext of your outfit. So considering sleeve length as you contemplate your own figure-flattery priorities can help you refine the silhouette you present.

And, as always, none of my figure flattery advice posts should be considered gospel, including this one, and I fully expect you to read them with a grain of salt. Style “rules” are merely guidelines, no matter who is dispensing them. I trust you to use your judgment. And I trust you to take what applies to you, discard the rest, and assume positive intent.

What’s YOUR favorite length of sleeve? Why? What do you love about it? Do you consider how sleeve length impacts figure flattery when you dress? Or is that low on your priority list?

Top image courtesy Alter Brooklyn.

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  • AnnR

    3/4 length for me. I have short arms so long sleeved blouses are often too long and end up rolled up to, 3/4 length. If I can just buy the sleeve that length I save myself having to roll it up.

  • I flit between sleeveless, half sleeves and long sleeves, because I have abnormally long arms for someone of 5ft2 which means that 3/4 length sleeves aren’t proportionally right! It’s all about personal proportions, I think.

  • I also struggle a bit with 3/4 sleeves: I have average length arms but they don’t flatter my skinny forearms. Half-sleeves are better for me, but I’m more likely to be wearing 3/4 sleeves shoved up to the elbow because they seem to be the pervasive sleeve length nowadays.

  • I like sleeveless, angled cap sleeves, elbow-length, and three quarter. I’ve got long gorilla arms, so long sleeves are often not long enough unless I buy the item quite oversized. Plus they are not needed here in the summer, and in the “winter” it’s easiest to wear sweaters/jackets over short or cap sleeves for less bulk.

    I honestly don’t think much about figure flattery when picking sleeves though. It’s all about freedom of movement and not being irritated by my clothes.

  • Great post and the photos are so helpful. I find short and half-sleeves the least flattering for me. I love a 3/4 sleeve and will go sleeveless too (hah! take that, over-50 fashion police!) : >

  • Great post, thank you! I’ve never understood why short sleeves makes me uncomfortable, but of course: they end right at my bustline where I really don’t want any more attention!
    I prefer capsleeves for tops and for when it’s hot, mostly because my arms aren’t that big so they can handle some extra attention. I do however have flat shoulders, and my shoulder points looks wide and sharp in sleeveless. They do not like the extra attention!
    3/4 is a flattering length, but I live near the arctic circle. Even during summer I want my jackets to have full-length sleeves (for chilly evenings) and during the rest of the year I anyway struggle for warmth. Full length sleeves it is!

    Full lenght sleeves on jackets and cardigans makes layering difficult both for short sleeves, halfsleeves and for 3/4s. So I stick to full-length for my warm pieces, and capsleeves for my cooler pieces =) A combination of pracical and estethic reasons.

  • I love 34 length or long sleeves the most, and as it gets really cold here there’s no other options for 6 months starting in September 🙂

  • Really a beautiful collection of sleeveless dresses. I love to wear. Thanks for sharing.

  • I strongly prefer 3/4 sleeves for figure flattery – I’m short, with short limbs. But all sleeves, unless I’m being particularly dressy or particularly cold, end up shoved up to my elbows anyway.

    Second on the list? Sleeveless.

  • Sam

    Oddly, I love sleeves that are slightly too long and I wish the whole thumb-hole thing, seen in hoodies/sportswear, would migrate to cashmere sweaters. The slightly longer sleeve can give the look a slight tomboy edge that I like to incorporate.

  • missjulied

    I’ve found that 3/4 sleeves look really dumpy on me. I always assumed it’s because I have short limbs (the same way that capri pants look dumpy on me), but it sounds like they work really well for many of you with short limbs. I wonder what the difference is?

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  • LinB

    I prefer either 3/4 or bracelet length sleeves: they offer coverage for my arms, both as sun protection and to avoid inflicting pain on the eyes of others; and they don’t get in my way as I type at the office keyboard. (I don’t wear loose bracelets for the avoid-clanking-on-the-keyboard issue; I wear dangly earbobs to avoid clanking on the telephone receiver when I answer the office landline.)

  • Elle

    I’m increasingly a fan of half sleeves. As someone with a high waist, and hips that are considerably broader than my bust, cropped cardigans with half sleeves like the one Sally is wearing in the picture are something I find very flattering.

    My trouble with 3/4 length sleeves is as much practical as aesthetic– I spend a lot of time with my elbows propped on my desk, and 3/4 length sleeves are somehow awkward in that position, so I keep finding myself pushing them up over my elbows. That, and I find that, on my frame, if 3/4 sleeves are not precisely the right length, they always somehow look like they were aiming to be something else and didn’t make it.

    Also– yay for sleeveless things, my summertime favorite.

  • D

    I LOVE 3/4 and half sleeves. Comfortable, and they protect me from ridiculous air conditioning, so I wear them almost year round. I also love sleeveless, but they came into play more often when I lived in South Texas. I’m not a fan of cap sleeves. Figure flattery is pretty low on my priority list when it comes to sleeves on my clothes. Comfortable and work appropriate are the important things for me!

  • Aziraphale

    Thanks for the interesting and thorough post, Sally. I don’t think I have a favourite sleeve length. I like them all, depending on the outfit, but I’ve got thin upper arms so there’s nowhere the sleeve hem can bisect them in an unflattering spot, right? Cap sleeves are probably the most flattering, because they make my upper arm look a bit fuller.

    One thing I have noticed is that cuffing or scrunching the sleeves of a button-front shirt, cardigan or blazer is often way more flattering (and practical!) than leaving them down. I’m not sure why this is — maybe because it draws the eye upward, toward the waist? If you could shed some light on that, I’d be interested to hear it.

    • Dee

      To answer your question I thinks its because, (as I was told as a sales associate in retail fashion), when the sleeve is down the eye sees fabric and can’t discern where the waist ends and the arm begins and you look wider. We were told that showing the wrist and a bit of forearm makes for a slimmer look. I find that unless it really cold I prefer to have my sleeves pushed up a bit or the cuffs turned up on a jacket. Another thing about 3/4 sleeves, if they are baggy around my forearm they are not as flattering as they are if the fabric is tight on the arm. Again, probably an illusion on how wide your arm appears to be.

      • Aziraphale

        Fascinating! Thanks, Dee. That totally makes sense.

      • I push up the sleeves all the time, and I have not been aware of why, but I realize now that it´s to do with flattering proportions. If it´s cold in winter I will wear two slim, long-sleeved undershirts to keep me warm and push up my shirt sleeves anyway!

    • Beti

      “make my upper arm look a bit fuller”

      This makes me laugh a little, Aziraphale, but not at you. So many women want just the opposite that I suspect you have often have women telling you not to complain. Gah. There’s always something we don’t like, isn’t there? Sigh.

  • LizY

    I find that the width of the sleeve makes a big difference, too, especially with long-sleeved garments. In the pictures above, the items with sleeves are fairly close-fitted. Would be interesting to check to archives for full-sleeved pieces in Sally’s collection.

  • Nomi

    3/4 sleeves are uncomfortable for me — I’m always either trying to tug them down to my wrists or pushing them up on my arms. I like sleeveless tops & dresses, particularly in the hot climate where I live, but I have a problem — I have a large bust and a lot of extra flesh (not to be gross, but basically it’s breast tissue) in my armpits, so only very closely fitting, no-back-or-chest-showing, sleeveless cuts work, and those are hard to find. If you have any advice I would love to hear it! I can’t be the only person on earth with this problem.

  • Lara

    My absolute favorite is the 3/4 sleeve, especially if paired with a shirt tail hem worn out (with pants, not a skirt). I always feel my legs look longer with this pairing. I have very wide shoulders, and long sleeves on a button down are always too long if I accommodate my shoulders, or the shoulders are too small if I size for my arms, so 3/4 sleeves solve this problem. It doesn’t seem to be quite as much of an issue with knits for some reason. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always thought of cap sleeves as rather pointless, and rarely kind to the average arm. Put a sleeve on a garment, or don’t!

  • Anonymous

    My arms are long and I have wide shoulders. With 3/4 sleeve I look like a gorilla.

  • Thank you for noting the problems of cap sleeves & to a lesser degree short sleeves! They totally make less than perfectly toned arms look huge. I can’t stand them & avoid cap sleeves like the plague. I’ll take sleeveless in summer any day, definitely. Much cleaner, sleeker line.

    3/4ths sleeves are tricky on petites — my arms are a little shorter & “average” size 3/4th sleeves will just look like the sleeve is a too short long sleeve. At least an “average” long sleeve I can roll / scrunch / hem up & it looks ok. It can be harder to find petite 3/4th sleeves.

  • Three-quarter or sleeveless are my go-tos. They either hide or cleverly disguise my manly butcher biceps…

  • Eliza

    I have slightly long arms, which makes finding long sleeves which hit correctly a bit of a challenge. I think I’ve only found 2 shirts in recent years that were long enough! Cap sleeves almost always do bad things to my arms and the slope of my shoulders, so I tend to avoid them. Most of my sleeves are elbow length, since I find it more comfortable than 3/4, which bunch around my elbows.
    This is maybe more of a neckline thing, but I also love asymetric tops, where there’s only one shoulder strap and the other shoulder is bare. The dramatic angles of these tops seem to create more flattering arm lines.

  • Chris

    I can’t help but notice that all sleeves look good on you Sal.

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  • My favorite length is either sleeveless, half or 3/4. I like half sleeves because they do draw attention to my waist, and I think help de-emphasize my shoulders. I hate any kind of really tight sleeves and always wind up pushing up long sleeves.

  • Olivia

    I like a 3/4 or a half sleeve. I have short arms and most full length sleeves are too long.

  • As a person who is always cold, I prefer long sleeves, especially in winter. I’ve never understood short-sleeve cardigans, when the AC is cranked down to 40F in so many buildings during the summer. Those cardigans are so cute, but I know if I buy one it won’t get much wear. Same with sleeveless party dresses in winter; if I don’t have or can’t find a long-sleeved shrug or other cute cover-up for my arms, I don’t buy them.

    I do love elbow-length sleeves, which seem to be popular lately. They do good things for my small shoulders; somehow make them seem a little wider and more balanced with my hips. But 3/4 sleeves make me crazy. Inevitably, the top I want to wear under the 3/4 sleeves has long sleeves, and though I try to scrunch them stylishly, I still end up looking like I’m wearing “high water” sweaters. 🙂

  • SKP

    Interesting proportion topic, Sal.
    Personally I hate wearing 3/4 sleeves. They irritate me (why is there fabric flapping around my elbow?!) and also make me look squarer and chunkier than I am. It could be because of my high waist (as you mentioned) or because of my long arms and broad shoulders (as some commenters said.) I prefer half or long sleeves and have been known to chop 3/4 ones.

  • KL

    Sal, I think you’ve nailed why I dislike half-sleeves so much. I have average-sized arms and am not particularly self-conscious about upper arms, except when I’m wearing a half-sleeve shirt. The length is parallel to my high waist, but since I don’t actually have a defined waist, the effect is just to make me look even more boxy than I already am.

    On the other hand, despite my waistlessness I am much happier with 3/4 sleeves because they usually fall halfway down my lower arms–I am petite with petite proportions except for an average-length torso, so I often buy regular sizing in tops–and draw attention to my slim wrists. Unfortunately, I run cold and 3/4-sleeves are not warm enough for me in winter, even in merino wool fabrications.

  • To this line: “If arm length is a concern, long sleeves (or sleeveless garments) are often good bets – other lengths can draw more attention to the relative shortness/longness of the arm,”

    I’d add: not true if you are tall with long limbs! Long-sleeved tops *are* 3/4 length on me. Thank goodness I work in the arts and it doesn’t matter for me! I wonder what other tall gals do for more corporate workplaces?

  • Moira

    I most adore 3/4 sleeves, but as I live in a very warm climate, they really aren’t year-round options here; in the summer months, you want as little of your body covered as decently possible. That said, despite all the wise words about sleeveless versus cap sleeves, I prefer cap sleeves. This is less because of my arms and more because I find so many sleeveless tops and dresses have the arm hole cut SO WIDE that there is no way not to have a sliver of bra showing. I could layer a cami beneath – but see above about “very warm.” I agree that the slanted cap sleeve is more flattering than the square. I also like half sleeves, mostly b/c I have a small waist (at least relative to my overall size), so I don’t mind calling attention there! But they’re hard to find.

    Long sleeves always make me feel weird. I just push them up to 3/4 length, every time.

  • Erika A

    I LOOOOOOOOVE cap sleeves! Despite the face that the “rules” say I shouldn’t look good in them (I have a big bust and fleshy upper arms) I think they look great. I have narrow shoulders and they somehow balance out my shoulders without making me look frumpy. They’re also demure enough for the office but have the same well-ventiated feel as a tank top.

  • Such an interesting post Sally – I love that you compare your own range of outfits to demonstrate what happens with different styles of sleeve; it makes a real difference but you still look fabulous in each one!

    I think the sleeveless/arm exposure is one of the biggest misconceptions about dressing that’s quite hard to ‘get over’. Naturally, I want to cover the tops of my arms as they feel a little wobbly, but short sleeves (as you say) don’t always look that good – it takes a lot to realise that sleeveless is more flattering.

    Personally I love half and 3/4 sleeves, but generally only rolled up, folded or ruched. Not only is this flattering but it adds an extra, insouciant element to any outfit which I love. Rolled up sleeves get the job done!

    Elly

  • Sonja

    It’s really interesting that you find half sleeves awkward and love 3/4 sleeves, because it’s just the other way around with me. Shows how differently people are wired.
    It’s usually quite warm where I live, so the temperatures really have to drop before I wear any sleeves that are longer than elbow-lenght. But when I do, I expect them to cover my wrists, which feel cold easily.
    So for practical reasons, I either wear really long sleeves or push my 3/4 sleeves up to achieve elbow-length.
    It’s also an aesthetical thing, because I totally buy into the idea of emphasizing your waist this way. I have a tiny waist and my elbows fall exactly at its narrowest spot, so for me this seems to work ( although I might be the only one that notices).
    I’m not very happy about the fact that 3/4 sleeves are everywhere in the shops, but right know I’m thinking that I might shorten the ones on my tees and shirts.

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  • M-C

    Cap sleeves end above the wider part of the arms, not on it (as short sleeves often do), as they’re supposed to hit the hinge between the arm and shoulder. I think you’re being unfair to them because you have nice wide square shoulders, so they don’t add much to you. But for those of us not so well-endowed in the shoulders, cap sleeves are a blessing, and much better than sleeveless. There’s also the small matter of sleeveless often not being OK in corporate jobs, while cap sleeves can pass most everywhere.

    Also long sleeves don’t really necessarily draw the eye down. If you want long sleeves, if you have them on a top that’s either shorter or longer than the sleeves, there isn’t as much of a problem with potential butt emphasis.

    I note that you don’t say anything about sleeve width, which can emphasize or not whatever may be going on with the length, just as for a skirt :-).

    • Sal

      Again, these are just guidelines, though they are based upon my own experiences as well as what I’ve read in dozens of style books and blogs, and heard from style experts. Where cap sleeves hit on the arm depends upon the build of the person wearing the sleeves, but you’ll notice I said, “near or at their widest point.”

      I didn’t go into sleeve width to keep the post simple. Also aside from 3/4 and long sleeves, most of these styles don’t vary much in width!

    • I’m glad someone else mentions the effect of sleeves on more than just bust and waist! I like cap sleeves because I’m between an A and an X – small waist, big hips, medium shoulders and bust. Cap sleeves, particularly the slanted ones, do an amazing job of widening my shoulders and balancing my hips. Sleeveless I avoid like the plague, because they do the opposite: slim my shoulders and make me look like a very out-of-balance triangle.

  • I mentioned above how I like cap sleeves for their shoulder-widening and hip-balancing effect, and why sleeveless does the opposite. As for 3/4 sleeves… I find my arms are fairly temperature sensitive. So when it’s hot, the shorter the sleeve, the better. And when it’s cold, nothing will do but long sleeves. I can go bare-legged (or only in hose/thin tights), but I hate uncovered forearms in a chill. Right now I’m wearing 3/4 sleeves, and balancing them with mitts!

    I admit I might be willing to handle this differently if I found that one length was hugely more flattering than another. I guess I’m fairly fortunate to have decent arms – scrawny by most historical beauty standards, but not really thin nor heavy. I’m not self-conscious about them at all. I like the look of 3/4, but find them uncomfortable, and don’t mind how other lengths look. Except horizontal cap sleeves sometimes bind when I’m reaching, and that’s annoying.

  • Phyllis

    I’m fascinated by how many people who have posted have their own preferred length, but struggle (as I do ) to understand why. I prefer sleeveless in the summer because of the straight line coming down the body,but in the other seasons I always seem to push up my long sleeves to the 3/4 length and I don’t know why ,but it just seems to feel more graceful and I am truly uncomfortable in long sleeves unless they’re in a coat and I am wearing them strictly for warmth. I always push up sweater sleeves and have since I was ten years old and much thinner than I am now. I also always roll the cuffs of shirts and shirt jackets– somehow the snugness of the roll on my arm feels comfortable and secure to me. I am currently altering a very pretty floaty kind of long shirt jacket with cuffed sleeves. The sleeves extend down over my hands so they have to be pushed up or altered, but my usual tactic of rolling the sleeves isn’t working on this fabric–they just unroll themselves instantly, and I’m afraid that if I just shorten them to 3/4 length I’ll miss that extra fabric. Advice, anyone? My sewing books don’t talk about this issue.

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  • Sharon Brady

    Love all the clothes featured here, thank you for this article it was a huge help.
    Can tell me where to purchase the clothes featured?

  • Sharon Brady

    Cap sleeves are horrid on me. I have always had heavy arms. Tops and bathings suits that tie at the neck are very flattering on me. : )