Ask FGG: Adding Sleeves to Summer Dresses?

25 May 10 - Ask FGG, Plus-Size Fashion - Toni - 8 Comments

Sleeves or No Sleeves? That is the question.
(image and dress courtesy of Stefanie Bezaire)

We love reader mail. Hearing what works – and what doesn’t – here at FGG inspires us to provide the most useful and (hopefully) engaging content possible. Here’s a recent reader email requesting a summer fashion fix for girls who are self-conscious about their upper arms:

I have a question and am wondering if you or any of your other readers might have some answers. I have recently discovered my love for dresses! Unfortunately, so many of the cutest styles are sleeveless, and i hate my upper arms! I’m wondering if there’s an easy way to add or lengthen sleeves, even/especially if the dress is made with a print fabric. Thanks again for such a great blog. I’ve found such great advice and tips and just feel happy every time there’s a new post.

Boy, can we relate to this issue! Of course, the first thing we’ll say is to encourage you to embrace your arms, flaws and all. It might be that you haven’t found the right dress with the right cap sleeve, wide strap, or cute neckline that places the focus on your whole cute package instead of one perceived flaw. But when it comes to more practical, DIY solutions to this issue, we turned to an expert to tackle this question: Stefanie Bezaire, a Toronto designer specializing in fashion for sizes 12 and up.

I totally understand where you are coming from–I hate my upper arms too! But over the years, I have found a few things that work for me.

The easiest, non- sew solutions would be:

1. Getting a super cute stretch body suit or body-hugging stretch tee with 3/4 length or short sleeves, preferably in something current and edgy. (FGG: we found several plus-size bodysuits here). Lace is so in right now and would look great under solid colors and/or prints. With a print dress you can get a bit creative and do an ’80s vibe with a denim vest and colored leggings too. The key with prints is to stick to plain colored lace–black, white or grey only. Otherwise the prints and the lace will compete and there will stares (sadly for the wrong reasons).

2. Get a lightweight shrug, cardigan, or even a button front shirt (roll up the sleeves and tie it at the waist and you’re done!). For summer dresses, look for something lightweight but not too fancy, like a jersey knit or lightweight faded denim also known as chambray (so popular right now and very accessible).

3. Draw the eyes away from the arms by adding some bold accessories. A great hair bow or headband, an elegant brooch, some fab earrings, a wide waist belt–all these things will distract from your trouble areas and highlight your assets.

4. Find a professional to help you out. When you really want to make a dress work and you have the money to pay for something custom, go for it! There are many designers who will be open to helping you find the right solution for your garment. They will most likely make sure the dress fits properly too by adjusting the hem or bust line, etc.

For the more advanced fashionista, I have some sewing solutions.

1. The simplest sewing fix would be to buy a wide trim, gather it on one side and attach to the straps (you usually will need at least double the length of the armhole to create some nice fullness). Lace again would be good, or even an eyelet fabric. Keep the trim you use in line with the style of the dress and you can’t go wrong; for example, if the dress is a simple cotton don’t go adding metallic lace. Also, try to get something the same color as the dress. Don’t go crazy with contrasts as this will only draw the eye to the arms instead of away from it.

2. If you want a sleeker, more complex option, you can always buy a dress pattern with sleeves, cut out only the sleeve pieces from the pattern and carefully attach them to your dress. A general rule to determine the right size is to measure the armhole length on the dress and add 1″- 1.5″ for ease. Compare that measurement to the one on the pattern, and if they match up you are all set! You can always use a little ribbon trim to cover up trouble spots or add length where needed.

3. When adding sleeves just won’t work, and you can’t find anything at a store that you like or that fits, don’t forget that you can also make your own lace body suit, shrug or cardigan as suggested in the non-sew tips. This is definitely a longer process, but there are some great patterns out there that are easy, affordable, and will give you exactly what you are looking for.

If you are a beginner to sewing don’t fret! There are many YouTube videos and perhaps some sewing classes in your area that can help you get started. Finally, my best tip would be to have confidence and love what you are wearing. If you walk tall, everyone will be looking at that beautiful smile on your face and not even noticing your arms!

Stefanie, thanks for sharing all of these great ideas! Girls, do you have any solutions for our reader on adding sleeves to sundresses or other clever cover-up solutions? Tell us about them in the comments.

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karennina says:

i love the beach, but have huge upper arm flaps…. help!!!!

candice says:

Hi- I love dresses, Hate no sleeves…Ive made a collection on bolero style shrug jacket things. I buy cheap (Wally world $5) v neck tshirt tops in every color in a size smaller than I normally wear, but make sure the arms arent too tight. Then I cut them straight up the middle on the front only. Put the shirt/ jacket on and with a piece of chalk, look in the mirror and mark how long i want the jacket to be. Then I cut the extra length off. You can use pinking shears and be done. Or if you sew a tiny bit, and i mean a tiny bit….stitch all around the raw edges w/ a matching or contrasting thread. If you stitch right on the edge you get a slight lettuce edge to the fabric. Super cheap, super easy.

I think you all should stop hating your arms. You are the only one focusing on them. People look at you and just see big girls. They don’t go into details. So you can either be a big girl who is cute and confident or just cute.

Peony says:

I’d work on embracing your arms. That’s hard for me, too. Until I achieve whole-hearted acceptance of my body, I rock wraps and cardigans. Torrid almost always has some cute little cardis and shrugs around — often ones with short sleeves! They have that 40′s-50′s pinup thing going on, so I’ve stocked up.

Pashminas are my other fave. If those are too hot, you can find faux ones in cotton or grab some of the gauzy cotton wraps at Walmart and Target (under $15 each). If managing a wrap bugs you, pin it to the strap of your dress with a brooch.

Moe says:

The older I get the less I care about exposing my arms.

Embrace the pashmina! They come in great colors and are lightweight.

I also agree with trying the longer sleep top under neath — that seems to be huge right now and looks great. But on hot days it might be a bit much.

Celeste says:

I wouldn’t add sleeves; I’d just wear a dress that already has sleeves because it’s going to be cooler than wearing layers. If you are that unhappy with your upper arms, a sleeveless dress may just not be the right choice for you, and that’s okay! I might look for separates–a skirt plus a top that has the sleeves I like, or a two-piece suit that has short sleeves on the jacket.