The Wall Street Journal


Fashion Columnist and News Editor Christina Binkley of The Wall Street Journal Talks to Jamak Khazra, Founder and Designer of Bluesuits Collection about when and where it is appropriate to go sleeveless.

The Wall Street Journal


The Unwritten Rules on Going Sleeveless Designers love bare-armed looks, yet many women are self-conscious; when to go for it
By Christina Binkley Updated July 13, 2016 2:48 p.m. ET
Going sleeveless can be a surprisingly controversial decision. The bare-armed look is everywhere these days, on women of every age and size. Stores are overflowing with tank sheaths and other shoulder-baring tops and dresses. Yet the rules of when to bare your arms aren't clear. Women who do it are sometimes criticized if they are deemed too old or their arms too flabby. Such judgments leave many women feeling self-conscious. Sleeveless is the predominant look in dresses and tops for summer and a favorite of designers. But more women are wondering about the unwritten rules of going sleeveless. WSJ's Christina Binkley joins Tanya Rivero to discuss. Photo: Caitlin Ochs for The Wall Street Journal Apparel labels and retailers are keenly aware of women's desire for sleeves. Women have swamped Appré, a fashion site that caters to mature women, with requests for more tops and dresses with sleeves, says co-founder Cynthia Weber-Cleary. "We should just name our site and we'd make a fortune,"she says. Outside the Vatican, few workplaces still have formal rules about sleeves, other than banning spaghetti straps and strapless tops. Yet even though society has dropped other longtime fashion conventions, from hosiery to neckties, bare-arm phobia hangs on. Men face it, too: They go sleeveless only at the most casual of places or for athletic activities—and not even at most golf courses. Author and television personality Moll Anderson says she flouts other old-fashioned rules her mother taught her, such as one that she should cut her hair short after marrying and having a baby. And in principle, she believes in the right to bare arms. "If you're comfortable in your own skin, you should wear it. I don't care if you're 90 years old," she says. But she started to feel self-conscious about her arms two years ago, and began covering them up. "I'm going to be 57 this year,' she says. "Sometimes the judgment is so harsh." Michaela Jedinak, founder and designer of an eponymous British label that caters to women in finance and politics, says she carries only two sleeveless dresses because most of her clients prefer short sleeves. Ms. Jedinak says sleeves help to create a more balanced look that is perceived as stronger and more professional. Jamak Khazra, founder and designer of Blue Suits, a custom label that caters to executive women and socialites, says going sleeveless is more of a concern for her American clients than Europeans. Even young professionals worry, she says. Women in their 20s and 30s are more likely to reject these rules. Marianne Kirby, a 38-year-old blogger and social critic in Alexandria, Va., penned a treatise in favor of going sleeveless at any size. She says she considers herself "indisputably fat" but goes sleeveless without qualms. "We all want Michelle Obama 's arms," she says, referring to the first lady's famously toned limbs. But she says she rejects "all sorts of rules about controlling women's appearance." Ms. Kirby does use a rule of “three pieces make an outfit." Adding a scarf or statement necklace, for instance, can take the focus off your arms when you're wearing a sleeveless top. This is one area where personal preference can rule. The long-armed look of sleeveless can be more flattering than some short sleeves. But sleeveless tops and dresses require excellent fit. Too big an armhole can reveal undergarments, while too tight a fit looks awkward and is uncomfortable. A sleeveless sheath or top worn under a jacket or sweater is wonderfully flexible, offering warmth in frigid air conditioning, as well as armor for that moment when the boss steps in for an impromptu chat. Switch the jacket for a shawl, and you've gone day-into-evening, when many people feel more relaxed about going sleeveless even with professional colleagues. Ms. Khazra notes that it's never too late to go bare. She notices that her clients get freer about bare shoulders as they get older. "My clients past 60, they keep the jacket on," she says. But "past 75 or 80—they go sleeveless at galas. At that age they want to be free of all these thoughts."

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