Picking Your Cold-weather Dressing Battles

Already Pretty outfit featuring striped dress, black cardigan, magenta tights, Rebecca Minkoff Logan, Gudrun Sjödén scarf

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.

Related posts:

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!

Originally posted 2014-02-17 06:03:36.

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32 Responses to “Picking Your Cold-weather Dressing Battles”

  1. Anna

    Shorter sleeves @ same price = less material = less cost = greater profits for manufacturer. A no-brainer!

    • AO

      exactly what I was going to say! I really do think it boils down to less fabric, easier to make (so not as much time spent on each garment by the worker, and so more garments can be made) – both these things add up to tremendous savings on fabric and productivity level …from the point of view of the producer.
      I wish there were more options for long sleeve or 3/4 sleeve dresses. I am stumbling around on the learning curve for shopping on ebay, and have found some lovely options for longer sleeved clothing, but mostly for the pre-owned searches I’ve run and you just have to be so careful as you can’t try the garment on or feel the fabric/see the garment construction before purchasing!

      • Beth C.

        Yup. Sleeves, especially in a non-knit fabric, are difficult and time consuming to draft, fit, and set into the armseye. That’s actually a big reason why you don’t see a lot of sleeves on Project Runway- they don’t have time to make them right so better to not try. Plus, again especially in non-stretch fabric, it’s difficult to fit a wide range of sizes, bicep, arm length, wrist circumference, etc. etc. vary hugely from person to person, so better to make sleeveless/ cap sleeved than to end up with a bunch of one-star internet reviews because the sleeves were too tight on one person, too loose on another, too short on someone else, blah blah.

  2. Becky

    I have a theory about manufacturers and slong sleeves – I think it’s easier to fit a variety of body shapes if arm length isn’t an issue. Long arms, short arms, think arms, thin – sleeveles or cap sleeves fit them all in more or less the same way.

  3. Barbara

    You make some great points here, Sal! I do tend to spend the Montana winter encased in wool. Arms and neck are my weak spots, so long sleeves are a must, and I wear a scarf almost every day. Funny about shoes…as I’ve gotten older my feet are warmer. I sometime wear Toms and have even been known to go without socks.

    I love merino sweaters because they don’t tend to pill.

  4. Becky

    My cold weather weak spot is my feet and ankles. They get cold even in the summer. I only wear wool socks (Smartwool is still my fave) and in the winter I often wear double socks.

    I discovered recently that merino long john bottoms under cheap leggings is very warm and looks better than i expected – instead of looking lumpy and weird, it thickens up the leggings to look more like ponte pants.

    • annr

      Merino long underwater under not-wool pants gives them a new lease on life in these sub-freezing temperatures. They make a big difference during my public transit commute and chilly workplace day.

  5. shawna

    Oh I love that “my snot has frozen inside my nostrils”! Well not actually love the experience; love the expression. Did you invent it? May I steal it? Actually it doesn’t get cold enough where I live for that to happen so I will need to be creative in using it.

    I am quite happy with 3/4 length sleeves and warmth isn’t an issue but not baring my arms is and I too am frustrated with all the sleevelessness. ON the flip side, where I live summers also don’t get terribly hot so I would be happy to find summer dresses with a little bit of sleeve.

  6. jamie

    I always struggled when I lived in Minnesota with spring styles. As soon as the 40s hit, stores are full of short and 3/4 sleeve styles, when what my body wants is a nice lightweight long sleeve. I’m not ready for short sleeves until it’s at least 70! Lately I’ve found some nice quality Eddie Bauer long sleeve shirts at Sam’s Club…of all places. Prices are good too. Land’s End has also been good for quality long sleeves.

  7. Bernie

    I think I am wearing my Whatever Sweater already, and it’s well above freezing here. Not sure what I am going to add when I hit Chicago later this week! I hope I won’t be needing nostril protectors… I have thermal tights packed for underneath thick leggings and treggings, so I’m hoping this thin skinned Brit can manage the MidWest in reasonable style. If not, we’ll just be spending longer in the Art Institute and blues clubs – someone’s gotta do it!

  8. Sue

    My cold spots change based on the activity.

    Cycling outside in the winter? My torso must be warm, my hands need to be warm if it’s under 40 degrees, but my lower legs and feet can be more exposed.

    Going to the gym or playing tennis in the cold? My upper body needs a thin layer covering up to my neck and wrists, but I can wear shorts or a skirt once I get moving.

    Sitting around my house? Running errands? Now my hands, neck and feet need to be covered. I use down booties, fingerless gloves, and a scarf or hoodie, inside. This is why 3/4 sleeve winter sweaters bother me. I can understand thin sweaters that might be more useful in spring and fall having shorter sleeves, but when they make thick sweaters with 3/4 sleeves I want to scream.

    I don’t even wear my 3/4 sleeve t-shirts under my warmer layers in the winter. I need full sleeves at home.

  9. Anne

    It is disturbingly warm in Northern California this winter so most of my whatever sweaters and “Coatigans” are still in cedar chips. I did spend 13 years living in the mountains of Nevada and Utah. The key to staying warm for me was making peace with the woolie hat. It’s true what they say:if your head is warm then you’re warm all over. I learned to keep a small hairbrush with me and run a tiny dab of hand cream over my hair to tame the hat hair fly-aways.

    I do have a pretty strong dislike of 3/4 sleeves. They make layering a challenge, and if you pair them with cropped pants, you look like a kid who is outgrowing her clothes. On the bright side, I’ve heard rumors that they make you seem taller??

    • Sally

      Hmmm, I’ve not heard those rumors myself, Anne! Interesting … though I wonder if that might be linked to the outgrown look. Tall folks often have sleeve fit issues due to long arms, and 3/4 sleeves can look “too short” in some cases. I’m spitballing, here, because although I know 3/4 sleeves can draw the eye to your waistline because of where they end, I’ve not been aware of any tall-ening properties. Anyone else have thoughts?

  10. Nebraskim

    I run cold no matter the season. Summers actually are worse because of air conditioning (restaurants are the worst but the office is also always unbearable for me). I wear turtlenecks folded up (not down) so the top of it hits my chin, pretty much from October to April. (serves dual purpose of keeping my neck warm and also covering up the turkey neck.) I wear silk or polypropylene running shirts under the t-necks, and then layer a wool sweater/jacket/down jacket over it. I wear tights (or fleece leggings with socks) and clogs or booties (I just got some bright red LLBean gum boots that I am LOVING….) with skirts. I do not wear pants very often.

    In summer, I usually wear crew neck long-sleeved t-shirts or button front LS cotton shirts, with skirts and a jacket or cotton sweater for the office. I wear scarves with t-necks and crew necks. I never wear boat-necks, v-necks, cowls.

    I always wear low cut socks inside my danskos/shoes in the summer (but never hosiery and rarely sandals). My life is a constant battle to keep warm enough. I even have some fleece handwarmers for the office. Alas. But I love cold climates. I’m kinda weird.

  11. eveange66

    Well here wher I live in Europe, this winter has been unusually too mild but very windy and rainy. But we still use to wear long sleeves tee shirts and woolen jumpers and shirts, cardigans, you name it, all with long sleeves. You won’t find dress with short sleeves (or no sleeves at all) but a few exceptions. Instead, there are those blouses with 3/4 meant to be worn underneath. I need to have my upper arms, torso and neck covered and protected but can live with short skirts BUT thights anyway (yes even with trousers) as going bare legs would be the death of me! And always a jacket under my coat. This means that sometimes I have 4 layers but then I take public transportation with some walking involved. When it is very cold, I heard that several thin but warm layers are much better that one or two bulky ones. I know Uniqlo provides warm underclothes. And when I am on my motorbike, well everything must be covered from head to toes.

  12. Eleanorjane

    I find a warm scarf a great help. When it’s really cold I’ll reach for my big wool/cashmere pashmina and pull it up to over my whole neck almost to my ears when outside. I also wear gloves a lot to protect my hands and nails from drying out in the cold (and ‘cos it’s warmer).

  13. tassie

    I agree with Becky, no sleeves makes it easier to fit a wider range of people. Also cardigans have been very popular the last few years, so with sleeveless they can sell us a dress AND a sweater instead of just a dress.

  14. Laura

    I was about to post the same as Becky – 3/4 sleeves are easier to sell because they’re never at a wrong length for someone, as opposed to long sleeves which need to hit at a certain point. I’m actually finding more long sleeves than I have in years past, especially in dresses – and long sleeved dresses were an endangered species for a while there!

  15. Shaye

    It’s funny how people living in different areas have different concepts of “too damn cold.” 20 degrees is way too cold! I don’t leave the house unless wrapped in down, (secondhand) fur, cashmere and silk if it gets down that far. However, I’m apparently perfectly willing to go out in one of my 3/4 sleeve vintage coats if it’s in the high 30s or up. I think they were meant to be worn with long gloves, but I don’t have any, and my forearms are one of my warm spots. My hands, legs, feet and ears are essential for keeping warm. I usually do earmuffs instead of a hat, because I’ve got too much hair to fit easily under a hat.

    I don’t self-regulate well, so any season is all about layering for me. I have several lovely sweater coats that are outerwear in warmer temps and one level of inner layer when it’s cold. And for this same reason, I LOVE the easy access to 3/4 sleeve and cap sleeve styles. I want to be able to remove my long sleeves and have my arms exposed if I get too warm indoors.

  16. Rebecca

    Great discussion and I love the Nordic winter wear but I’ve got to feel a bit smug as we enjoy our Southern Hemisphere summer!
    I would HIGHLY recommend merino as a fabulous layering fabric. New Zealand has a lot of sheep and we produce some of the best quality merino in the world. I wear it all winter – thin so avoid bulk, not itchy, warm. Our best know brand (with prices to match) is Icebreaker and I happen to know they have just opened a concept store in the Mag mile in Chicago. Available on line too. The underwear is amazing -lasts forever.
    At 163cm tall and petite frame, I wear 3/4 sleeves all the time – enhances height

  17. Caterina

    For me, it’s all about merino wool layers in several weights. I discovered merino three years ago because my then-new boyfriend invited me to join him in long-distance bicycling, his favorite sport (and I like it, too). I learned that merino wicks away sweat and doesn’t stink, and that it’s important to layer up or down depending on weather and wind conditions. Thus began my merino “collection,” which now includes multiple tank tops and long-sleeved base layers as well as socks and medium to thick outer layers like cardigans and sweaters.

    There are different weights of merino from light to heavy. Check out http://www.icebreaker.com for its designations: 150gm (very light) to 380gm (heavyweight). Also check out http://www.ibex.com another measuring method: 17.5 micron (light) to 24.5 (outer layer). I’ve purchased from both of these companies and the quality is quite high. My experience is that Icebreaker’s tops are generally cut longer than Ibex’s, which is better for me because I’m tall and have long arms. The products are expensive so I hold out for sales (which these sits are now having).

    Since I run cold, discovering merino layers has been a boon — not just for bicycling in cold weather but for staying toasty indoors, too. I have pretty sensitive skin and have done well wearing these layers without itchiness.

    About 3/4 sleeves — my wrists need to be covered in cold weather. Fingerless gloves can help with that but overall I just don’t buy 3/4 sleeves for cold weather. For summer, I think they’re wonderful.

  18. BamaCarol

    Here I am in a house with the temp set at 67 and I am freezing! Gloves, 3/4 sleeve tee, long sleeve cardigan, thick leggings and thick socks. I guess I would not handle the Northern US very well! I, too, have been told that the 3/4 length sleeve is to make you look taller – something about the sleeves hitting at the waist. That is about all I can find here in tshirts unless I go with short sleeve and I just do not look good in those. Plus the office buildings keep things so cold in the summer that we women usually freeze. Men in business suits is still the norm where I work so the office temps are kept cool to accomade them. I wear fingerless gloves almost year round in the office while the guy across the aisle from me has his fan on almost year round.

  19. Kris

    I can’t stand long sleeves, unless they have some sort of elasticated cuff, which is hard to find. This is because my sleeves need to be shorter than those on my lab coat, so I’m always pushing my sleeves up to my elbows. Elbow length is perfect for me (and also rare!), and I wear wrist warmers if I’m at my desk, or under mittens if I’m outside. Scarves are ALWAYS worn, and I also have indoor toques in case it’s chilly inside.

  20. Jessica

    Yes! This is so aggravating! I am casually trying to thrift a long sleeve dress to wear to church or dress-ish events that I do not have to try to wear a blazer or a cardigan with so I can stay warm. These types of dresses are rare. I found a few on NorthStyle but they sometimes lean towards looking a little older than my age. It’s like the industry has forgotten about a younger woman wanting to look chic but we need some sleeves!!

  21. Heidi L.

    I know what you mean about the 3/4 sleeve. It’s cute if you don’t have to put anything over it,but aggravating if you do and/or want them for warmth. I tend to be cold in the body and indifferent from the knees down. However,I admit being from Los Angeles I am sort a cold wimp. We were just in London where it was around 40 most of the week and I determined that when the wind blew 4 layers was not quite enough. I would recommend as many cashmere layers as you can afford(hint:thrift them,quite affordable and lots of options,at least around here)and also if you’re wearing a skirt or dress a silk slip is a nice layer and feels great too.Wintersilks is good for these in a number of “skin” colors and a couple lenghts.

    Heidi in L.A,

  22. beate

    when it comes to “real cold” i throw “sleek” in the icy wind.
    norwegian sweaters, woolen dirndlskirts with “quilted” petticoat, clumsy felt boots. big shawl and a hat – coverage for your head helps a lot to stay warm!
    maybe i look wide as high, but my smiling face with rosy cheeks has more charm then a freezed to death body in sleek attire ……

  23. Karoliina

    As long as my neck, my feet and my ankles are nice and toasty, I’ve been known to freak out people with what other may perceive as a lack of adequate clothing. That said, when the temperatures fall below -10 centigrade, I start layering thin layers of wool on top of one another. When it get’s colder than -20C, I have to make sure that my scarves don’t contain silk, but are either pure wool, cashmere, alpace or blends thereof, as the silk starts feeling too cold.

    That said, when things start heating up, I need to make sure my neck and feet are as uncovered as possible, as otherwise I may start to overheat quickly.

  24. E

    Hello Sally,
    Is there a way of getting merino wool long sleeve tops to feel less itchy?!

    I bought two last winter and have worn and washed them multiple times ; I cannot adapt to the texture, I guess.

    Having medium length hair has helped cure the all-season cold neck .

    Drinking hot drinks cools you down in summer, warms you in winter ( just throwing that out there).


  25. E

    Thank you for your answer Sally!
    I tried the hair conditioner treatment and it worked ( 80% less itchy – not bad for a home remedy 🙂

  26. 33

    Living in Los Angeles I often don’t realize how defenseless I am against cold weather (any temp below 50). Thanks to doing snow shoeing, snow hiking, and mountaineering I learn to cover my head, my neck, my ears, my hands, and water proof my boots. I also choose merino wool (top, long johns, and socks) over any other material. If there’s wind chill I use a balaclava (a must during my skiing days).
    Off the trail I still use beanies, gloves, mufflers, ear muffs to cover heat escaping areas. I also prefer a long coat. A long coat keeps the chill out most effectively.