Reader Requests: Why Are SO Many Dresses Sleeveless?

why dresses sleeveless

Gerri popped this one into the suggestion box:

I would love a post about 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. I have a few dresses that fit great and are flattering but need different lengths/cuts/colors of shrugs and jackets. It’s discouraging. Do designers do this so we have to buy more clothes? We have hot humid summers so wearing my regular jackets doesn’t work. Any insights/advice about this would make me so happy!

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.

Want to turn the tide? Continue to let your favorite designers and retailers know that you’d spend even more money with them if they offered dresses with sleeves. Although designers don’t love adding sleeves, it’s clear that some of them do it anyway because they know women really, truly want them. With constant reminders, perhaps they’ll shift from adding the occasional sleeved dress to a collection to adding the occasional sleeveless dress to a collection.

P.S. From what I’ve seen, Boden stocks sleeved dresses year-round. And Nordstrom almost always has some petite and plus dresses with sleeves.

Images courtesy J.Crew

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  • Lands’ End has many dresses with sleeves as well”

    • Becky Ford

      I was going to suggest the same thing! I’m not tempted by many of them (because I agree with oohlookasquirrel, about *wanting* to layer dresses), but it’s not because they’re not lovely.

  • Sewing Faille

    How a propos! I just made myself a dress with sleeves from a 1950’s kimono dress pattern, and it is unbelievably cute and comfortable. (I don’t know how to insert links, so please forgive this monster: http://sewingfaille.blogspot.com/2015/03/advance-9441-1950s-kimono-sleeve-dress.html)

    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? (See my dress above.) 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.

  • Sewing Faille
  • oohlookasquirrel

    I actually LOVE sleeveless dresses! I’ve tried on so many dresses with stupid little cap or flutter sleeves that just look lumpy under a cardigan. I expect to layer over dresses, and I want to be able to do it with as little fuss as possible. Also, I’m a 4-6 in dresses, but my full upper arms frequently prove to be larger than garment sleeves can handle. It’s a bummer to try on the perfect dress only to be foiled by the sleeves again. I’d rather build a collection of outer layers that work well with my body AND dresses. Yes, it’s more work to make outfits, but layering is worth the fuss, in my opinion. It’s interesting to learn that my own favorite feature is somebody else’s pet peeve!

    • Dust. Wind. Bun.

      Me too! Actually, more specifically, I don’t like any dress more formal than a t-shirt dress with sleeves anywhere between sleeveless and elbow or three-quarter. It just reads too ’80s Laura Ashley to me. (Though I admit I have kind of A Thing about short-sleeved structured clothes, particularly blazers, and structured dresses hit that same button for me.) I have a few dresses with short sleeves and honestly, I only put up with them because the rest of the dress is special enough to make it worth it.

      I have two (cheap) silky polyester blouses that I wear when I travel for business (I have a red and a blue capsule for those trips, so I have an extra-dressy blouse for each capsule in case we go out to a fancy dinner 🙂 ) that both came with cap sleeves on. The shoulder/sleeve seams were bound underneath (I think it’s called a French seam?) so it wasn’t a bare seam, so I (carefully) just clipped off the sleeves along that French seam. So far it’s working perfectly – now I have a sleeveless shell that fits under jackets and wraps. Obviously you wouldn’t want to have to do that to every item in your wardrobe or an expensive piece if you don’t know how to fix it, but for these two shirts, that were EXACTLY what I wanted minus the sleeves, it was great.

    • Emmy

      ^ This. Sleeveless dresses easy to layer. Over them with jackets and cardigans, and under them with thin t-shirts or sweaters.

    • Mia

      My thoughts exactly! I have a few sleeved dresses and the number of cardigans and jackets I can wear with them is greatly reduced. I still like them, but I find them way less versatile.

  • 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….

  • Ginger

    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.

  • I just got the Lois maxi dress in black from Sealed With a Kiss, and the just below elbow length sleeves are perfect! A maxi dress with sleeves seems especially rare, so I immediately bought another one in purple. Just a note on sizing from them- most of their stuff is made of very stretchy soft jersey knit, and the 14/16 fits me perfectly, and I usually wear a 22 in other brands, so size down! Also, I’m 5’11” and the length of this maxi dress is perfect. Just trying to spread the word, because I love it so much!

    • mendotawaves

      Thank you for posting that site–they have a huge selection!

  • Barbara

    It is frustrating not being able to find the right garment or in a fit that works for my shape. Even harder now that I am well into middle age (or the age of my middle). But one solution is sewing clothes myself. Growing up I had to sew my own clothes if I wanted anything decent….living in the middle of nowhere without clothing stores, before the age of online shopping, plus having little money…sewing was the only solution.
    I realize its not for everyone, but if you learn to sew/adjust patterns (its not hard) and have time it provides ENDLESS fashion options. Its not always cheaper (nor is that the point for me now) but it means I can get exactly what I want in fit, style and fabric.
    Love your blog Sally! Really appreciate your insight and humor!

  • I’ve taken to looking at “modest” geared companies since they usually have decent sleeves (ex. Shabby Apple, Mika Rose, Mode-esty, etc.) I have to hem anyway so it doesn’t bother me if the length is longer to begin with.

    • Ginger

      eShakti is another one, though I don’t know that modesty is the reason. But the majority (vast majority?) of dresses and tops have sleeves or sleeve options. I pretty much don’t buy dresses anywhere else.

  • Talia

    It is so disappointing. In Ohio, we have some nasty winters where going sleeveless is simply not an option. I would purchase more dresses to wear with boots if only they had sleeves! Sleeveless makes me shiver with cold!

  • Sunni Standing

    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.

  • I don’t get. I thought if there was a demand in this Western world, there would be supply. I mean… Is this marketing.? There are a whole lot of customers willing to spend money on an article and manufacturers don’t make them? That cannot be happening. It must also be that there are costs involved. Like in “we cannot sell a lot of dresses, because we cannot design them properly so they appeal, so we get left with them”. Hurray for the designer who can give us the stuff we want. It is the proverbial whole in the market.
    I have to admit, if I buy a sleeveless top which I love, it gets totally spoiled if I put a long sleeved top underneath it.
    Greetje

    • Cloggie

      Women still “need” to buy dresses, so they end up buying the sleeveless ones anyway. I know that I do. I buy fewer, but I don’t think the designers thing it’s worth the hassle of sleeves.

  • 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?

    Accidental Icon
    http://www.accidentalicon.com

    • So few designers now, but hopefully some will start following in Victoria’s footsteps!

  • Natalie

    I have large, muscular arms from rock climbing, and I have found that dresses with sleeves very rarely fit me well. Sweater dresses tend to work, because they’re really stretchy. But for spring/summer-weight dresses, the sleeves almost never fit me well. As a result, I almost never buy dresses with sleeves, even though I’d be inclined to do so if I could find ones that fit. Last time I bought a sleeved dress, I rarely wore it because the upper arms were too tight to be comfortable, even though the rest of the dress fit perfectly. And this was a cotton knit dress with some spandex for stretchy comfort! For me (and I assume many women) dresses are already more difficult to fit than separates because they need to fit the shoulders, bust, waist, hips, and length. Sleeves are just one more place for us to have problems with fit: length, upper arm width, elbow width, forearm width.

  • Ginger

    I’m probably not willing to pay more for sleeves and I dislike sleeves that don’t fit.
    I work in a cold building so I have a collection of summer sweaters. Nearly everything goes with white. I’d rather spend money on a sweater I can wear with several things.

  • K_Line

    Sunni took the words right out of my mouth! 🙂

  • Anamarie

    This post was a crazy coincidence. I wore a 3/4 sleeved wrap dress to work today. One of my colleagues asked me where I find dresses with sleeves. She noticed that most of my dresses have them. I told her that I do sometimes find dresses in stores from major brands. I try on a lot of dresses from particular designers and get familiar with their fit. Then I go online and find all the dresses I can from the designer who fits me. I usually have luck on Amazon.com and 6pm.com.

    • I have several maxstudio.com dresses with sleeves. Now if they just had pockets…

      • Anamarie

        I love maxstudio! I have a couple of their dresses with sleeves!

  • Jamie Etwas

    Their excuses are empty when you consider, referring back to the original complaint, that every shrug/jacket/sweater we buy has…sleeves. So, if they aren’t *skilled* enough to figure out how to make something attractive or flexible, they ought not to be designing clothes in the first place

  • Allison

    Well, these are totally not pathetic excuses. I mean, look how men have exactly the same problem finding suit jackets with sleeves. You know, because the sleeves are just so difficult to design for suit jackets, and everyone knows that sleeves make men look old and frumpy, and anyway it’s just too tough to figure out how to make sleeves fit those muscular arms and be flattering at the same time.

  • Cloggie

    Also, sleeves mean taking my blazers to the dry cleaner less often.

  • Thursday

    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…

  • 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 🙂

    xo marlen
    Messages on a Napkin

  • Kat

    I just wanted to add that for some retailers, it is a very deliberate decision to make you buy more. I work for a company that wants to be all about layering, so 90% of the dresses and top they sell are carefully designed to be either sleeveless, extra low cut, or almost sheer, so that if you want to wear them, you’ll also have to buy one of our shrugs/cardigans/camisoles, conveniently placed nearby.

  • Roxane

    I’m definitely one who would rather have a sleeveless dress that fits and doesn’t restrict my range of motion than one with sleeves. On the other hand, I prefer knits in general, so that should be less of an issue. I used to have large deltoids and biceps for the rest of my size. Now I just have larger upper arms. Either way, anything fitted, woven, and with sleeves that actually fits is a pain to find. Fortunately, I live in a mild climate.

  • ImogenLamport

    They also make the garment more expensive to manufacture – that is one of the major reasons (but they won’t tell you that in public, but I’ve been told by designers in private that is why they don’t put them on). They are fiddly to fit!

    • Alfia Galimova

      That is the major reason! So true! But they make shirts and tops with sleeves and they fit most women. How is it different? I think the reason is that they want you to buy more. A cardigan and a jacket as an addition to the dress. Or a shirt to wear underneath. Don’t you think so, Imogen? Another thing is it’s easier to wear sleeveless dress under a jacket or a cardigan. Creating a collection designers have to think about it. I am not taking designers side but just thinking how it works. However, as a customer I prefer dresses with sleeves. It’s a must for me even if they are completely see though. It’s a great option for a hot summer by the way! Made one dress like that recently for myself and very happy with it. You would think it would look old fashion and old lady like but with a right proportions/silhouette and a right fabric looks actually super modern and flattering.

  • Geri O’Donnell

    This is why I taught myself to sew. long, short, midi, cap, puff, tulip, bishop, raglan- I can take my pick!

  • crtfly

    I resent not having the choice. It’s like trying to buy a hand tool that is not made in China. I am willing to pay more for what I want, but good luck finding it.

    Chris

    • Alfia Galimova

      Start sewing or find a good dressmaker!

      • crtfly

        You’re right of course. Definitely sewing isn’t for me so I am looking for a good dressmaker. That seems to be the only solution for me.

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  • terra100

    The Limited has a list you can join that surveys you every so often on what the store will be selling in the near future. I just completed an online survey that presented about 10-15 summer pieces they are considering selling. I only said I would buy one piece — printed pants. The rest I rated as low as possible because none had sleeves, lots were sheer, and all skirts/dresses were very short. There are not only ratings you can give to the possible upcoming outfits but also a comment section for each. I’m planning on answering every one of these surveys in the future so that my voice is heard about these issues. And I wish more retailers surveyed their patrons like this.

  • Alfia Galimova

    Agree 100%! Very hard to find a nicely designed dress with sleeves for everyday. What about evening? It is practically impossible specially without looking 100 years old!!!

    That was the very reason I started designing and making my own clothing. Getting so many positive comments (and customers) on everything I make and not only from women over 40 much younger too. I believe a great style is ageless!!!
    Anyway, sleeves is a must for me. Found my way to make very light sleeves for summer dresses too.
    Also cannot have anything without pockets. Not for tissues and a mobile but to look cooler with my hands in:-)!
    Another thing I am addicted to is an asymmetric neckline and a collar. Those are my signature. They make any outfit very modern, very now! Probably hard to believe but it works every time. Anyway, I am working on my commercial pattern line now and very exited about it! Hope it will meet needs of many women and make them little bit happier.

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