Lovely reader Mary e-mailed me lamenting the dearth of long-sleeved garments available today. I have DEFINITELY noticed that long sleeves are in short supply, especially when it comes to dresses but also among tops, many of which tend toward 3/4 instead of full sleeves. I know this irritates many of you readers, including plenty of folks who live in climates warmer than mine! I haven’t been able to find any research or confirmation, but my theory is that this shift to shorter or no sleeves is related to our country’s obsession with youth. Short-sleeved and sleeveless garments seem to be marketed to younger women who aren’t as self-conscious about their arms (supposedly). Older gals are left to either wear those same styles in hopes of emulating their younger counterparts, or scramble to find the limited sleeved options on the market. Mary pointed out that cost savings for the manufacturers may also factor in.
She went on to ask, “What do you suggest for a woman who wants to stay warm yet look good?”
Looking good is subjective and staying warm is relative, of course. In my experience, most women who lament winter dressing options do so because piling on loads of layers in order to keep your body warm adds bulk and volume to your outfits. Assuming this is the primary concern – balancing bodily warmth with visible bulk – I suggest you pick your cold-weather dressing battles.
Most humans have Cold Weather Weak Spots – body parts and areas that MUST be covered in order for the body to feel warm and comfortable. Common ones are hands, feet, and necks, but anything is fair game. In Mary’s case, she is hella warmer in actual long sleeves than 3/4 ones; She needs her arms covered to feel truly warm. In my case, it all comes down to my feet and neck. My legs don’t get terribly cold and my core is usually just fine so long as my extremities are covered. When my feet and neck are warm, most of the rest of me is just fine. So I’m totally willing to go out in a shortish skirt, 3/4-sleeve top, and tights so long as I’ve got warm boots and a scarf on. I will admit that I do frequently wear sleeveless dresses under my blazers and cardigans because they’re what I have on-hand, but also because my blazer sleeves fit better when I do. If I cover my neck and feet/ankles, I’m usually fine.
If, like Mary, your arms need to be covered to keep you truly warm, stick to full-sleeved blazers and sweaters and consider compromises elsewhere, like lower necklines or tights with skirts instead of pants. If your core needs to be covered and warm, go for warm, wooly sweaters but pair them with fitted bottoms like pencil skirts or slim-fitting jeans. If your lower half is the danger zone, wear longjohns and pants but try for a fitted blazer on top. The same principles apply here as do whenever you’re dealing with voluminous garments: If you do volume in one half of your body, do sleek in the other.
(An aside that has nothing to do with volume or proportion: Investing in fibers like silk and cashmere will definitely help. Both add minimal bulk and help you retain body heat better than cotton and poly blends, and are less itchy than wool. Possibly excepting merino, which can be pretty darned soft. But we’re mostly focused on coverage and balance, here, so you can read more about my fiber recommendations here.)
NOW. This is all fine and good so long as “cold weather” means “around 20 degrees or warmer,” at least in my case. My Cold Weather Weak Spots theory only holds true so long as it’s cold but not my-snot-has-frozen-inside-my-nostrils cold. If your climate regularly gets so cold that the weather gurus issue wind chill warnings OR if you are just plain freezing all winter long and being warm is your top priority, I suggest investing in a few Whatever Sweaters: Sweaters so big, thick, and warm that they can handle subzero temps. You can see mine here, here, and here. They are super bulky and super warm and I bust them out when temps hit the negative digits. (Most are foreign-born or handmade. Try Aran Sweater Market, Etsy, or Nordicstore if you can’t find anything locally.) You’ll notice that I still pair them with fitted bottoms – thick leggings, skinnies, and jeggings – and I definitely encourage you to do the same whenever possible. Whatever Sweaters can still work within the volume/sleekness balance principle. But if your legs need more coverage, go for it – jeans and silk longjohns make a great team.
Bottom line: If you’re miserable and freezing you won’t look your best no matter WHAT you’re wearing. If you can identify your Cold Weather Weak Spots and keep them covered while compromising elsewhere, do it. Pick your cold weather dressing battles. If it’s horrifyingly cold or you only feel comfortable when you’re encased in wool, silk, and loads of layers, that’s totally fine. Winter is hard enough to endure without suffering for fashion.
How many of you can name your Cold Weather Weak Spots right off the bat? Does keeping them covered mean you can go with less coverage elsewhere? Or are you someone who needs loads of layers and coverage at all times? Other resources for truly warm winter sweaters or other garb? Do tell!