Ask Allie – Age, Weight, and Wearing Sleeveless Tops

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As we women age (almost 60), and our arms aren't as firm, should we avoid sleeveless altogether?

I am a size 20 and have read that I shouldn't wear sleeveless or strapless dresses because I am plussize. Is this true? It's hard to find cute clothes with sleeves that don't make me look like my grandma, I am 22. What do you think?
– Jessica

I get this question often. I feel that no, you should not shy away from sleeveless pieces if you feel good in them. Often what you hide you end up emphasizing. Also, that which you find to be a glaring issue is not as obvious to others.

older women sleeveless
Women over 60 who look fabulous in sleeveless tops:
Diane von Furstenberg, Sally Field, Susan Sarandon, Gloria Steinem
plus size sleeveless
Plus size women who look gorgeous in sleeveless dresses:
Beth Ditto, Queen Latifah, Nikki Blonsky, Mo'Nique

A few tips:

  • Stay clear from cap sleeves. Cap sleeves usually hit at a very unflattering place on soft arms. It hides the curve of the shoulder and ends right at a large part of the arm.
  • Watch cut-out or racerback sleeveless tops. A true sleeveless top can be quite flattering, but more sccoped-out or tank styles can make a soft arm look larger. A scooped-out armhole shows the under-arm skin, back skin, and any softness in the shoulder, which can just emphasize the look of extra skin.
  • If you do a short sleeve, consider one that hits the middle to bottom of the upper arm. Like a cap sleeve, a short sleeve can cut your arm at a very unflattering point, making it look wider and softer.
  • Color makes a difference. Wear colors that flatter your skintone, which will make your arms look healthier, and actually slimmer and more firm. A good example is white – while white is a popular basic, it is a pretty difficult color for many to carry off, and it can make an arm look more pale, more wrinkled, less toned. If you want to wear a color like white, consider it as a bottom layer or wear with a sleeve.
  • Distract the eye. A scarf or necklace with your top will draw the eye from your arms to your accessory.
  • Reduce the prints. While prints can often trick the eye in a good way (such as hiding curves), it isn’t that kind to the skin that is exposed. Prints can emphasize pale or crepey skin, and highlight your arms (or any exposed appendage).
  • Balance the outfit. An exposed arm is more on display if it’s paired with a tight dress and a short skirt. Using structured pieces on the bottom (straight leg jeans, crisp twill cropped pants), and cleaner lines for the top (not a lot of ruffles or chiffon or clinging knits), the figure as a whole is balanced. If you are more one to wear flowing fabrics, you can still achieve balance with a skirt that hits at the knees or longer, and by wearing heavier knits like stretch wool and Ponte de Roma.
  • Consider your accessories. If you are exposing your arm, you can trick the eye into thinking the arm is smaller and more firm by your choice of accessories. Small, delicate pieces can make an arm look larger, while bigger, structured pieces can make one look smaller. A large bag, a scarf looped around the neck, a chunky bangle bracelet – these pieces can really help balance out the body when wearing sleeveless garments.

I often use my mother as a style example, and I have to again for this situation. My mother is in her ‘60s and regularly wears sleeveless pieces and looks amazing. While she regularly practices yoga and is very active and fit, gravity and time of course has affected her skin. When she wears sleeveless tops, she wears bright jewel tones, accents her outfit with a statement necklace, and balances the lack of sleeves with a crisp structured pair of pants or shorts and a larger bag. She always looks smart, polished, and confident when wearing sleeveless pieces.

Don’t let your body restrict you from wearing what you love, and what is practical. When it’s hot, it’s hard to restrict yourself to sleeves. Come shopping for a formal affair, it’s very difficult to find fashions that are not sleeveless (or not dowdy). Try different silhouettes and mix it up with different accessories and I think you will be pleased with the result!

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  1. I have no financial interest in this company and have only bought a few pieces of clothing, but I noticed that Cabi has somehow figured out how to cut their patterns to hide some of the less-than-photo-ready body parts. In our ever-warming climate, forgoing sleeveless tops would be agony – so a designer who understnad how to flatter our bodies is a real find.

  2. All good examples.  I am a size 18/20 and routinely wear sleeveless, mostly because I live in Florida.  I agree on cap sleeves; I despise them.  I either go sleeveless or 3/4 quarter sleeve, no in between.  I also do not own a single white top for the exact reasons you mentioned.  I like to wear jewel tones near my face.  But I never thought about my bag to balance it out…what a great tip!

  3. As a 45 yo, size 14-16 woman, I have found that a shorter sleeve, even a
    cap sleeve looks better on me than a sleeve that hits right at my
    (ample) breast line, adding bulk where I already have too much.  I
    usually roll up the sleeves of baggy T-shirt for this reason.  A sleeve I
    really avoid is any kind of dolman–again, too much bulk.  Having said
    that, I have to be on the very top of my weight to obsess about my
    arms.  I do work out, and I think they usually look OK. 🙂

    for posting these great pics of plus-sized and “plus-aged” women, by
    the way.  They al look fabulous.  I’ve only been following your blog for
    about a month and really enjoy it.  I’m learning a lot, feeling
    inspired, and getting some great ideas.

  4. If it makes you uncomfortable to show your upper arms then don’t. If you don’t have a problem with it, then do. The mirror makes a good help in making the decision.

  5. Great guidelines, Allie. I wrote about exposing my upper arms a couple of says ago — sometimes (esp in Florida) it’s just practical! I like your advice about balancing the look with good coverage elsewhere, that works for me  : >

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