One wedding dress, two sleeves, zero frump?
January 19, 2010 2:34 PM   Subscribe

Two questions: does a wedding dress with sleeves always look dowdy? And, if not (!) : Help me find a wedding dress that has at least 3/4 sleeves but won't make me look like a grandma!

I've recently had emergency surgery on my arms. I'm getting married in 6 weeks, somewhat spontaneously due to a family member's health problems. I'm supposed to keep the scars out of direct light for about a year, but more importantly, I'm not keen on having my mangled skin on display. This isn't a question about rocking my scars.

So, adding to the pressure of getting married sorta on the fly, I now need to find a dress that has 3/4 sleeves or longer. This nixes about, oh, 98% of the dresses out there. Before the surgery, which removed several skin cancers on my shoulders and forearms, I wanted to get something feminine and kicky, like this or these. Now that my arms need to be covered, it's become impossible to find anything that length with long-ish sleeves, as most of the long-sleeved bridal gowns are for Mormon or Orthodox weddings. These dresses, while pretty, just aren't my style.

I don't want:

Enormous Princess Diana sleeves
A lace jacket that will have guests confusing me with the mother-of-the-bride
Anything under 3/4 sleeves.

I know, I'm being picky, so I also decided that the dress can be another color (so, not a wedding dress), with a white sash. I might have an Etsy designer or local (NYC) designer make a dress to meet my requirements, so please send more affordable names my way. Barring that, do you have any suggestions?

Anonymous because the wedding is a quasi-surprise occasion and very, very small!
posted by anonymous to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (55 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
6 weeks is long enough to have a dress ready-made, if you are comfortable having a seamstress do it. It shouldn't be any more expensive than buying one off-the-rack. Something like this dress seems to fit your "feminine/kicky" vibe, and would be absolutely adorable in white with 3/4 instead of full sleeves, especially if you shortened it to knee-length. Heck, it would be adorable in any color.
posted by muddgirl at 2:42 PM on January 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

My left arm is frozen at an awkward angle so I tend to not wear sleeveless tops or dresses. I completely understand about the whole not wanting people to show your bare arms thing. Most people don't even notice my arm, but I am a bit self-conscious about it.

Instead of forgoing you cute feminine dress ideas, could you not buy the wedding dresses and wear a shawl or a 3/4 cardigan to cover your arms? That's what I do when I find cute dresses that don't meet my covering arms requirement. Personally, I think a white pashmina (or cardigan) would work well with your example. Or, add a splash of colour to your wedding dress by buying a coloured shawl/pashmina.
posted by carabiner at 2:45 PM on January 19, 2010

What about a bolero-type jacket? Or a "shrug" jacket (basically just arms joined at the back)? Those don't scream "mother-of-the-bride," they're long-sleeved, not sheer, and there are a great many available partly because many churches require covered shoulders but the brides want to wear something sleeveless after the church part is done.

But on the long-sleeved dress thing, I think long sleeves can look great. I would tend to go for more fitted long sleeves, but I think there are several styles that aren't dowdy at all. (And it may just be bad luck that this season, the only long-sleeve bridal gowns showing are for conservative religions; when I got married, almost everything had a corset and was shaped like a bell, it was awful.)

One final note -- would long opera gloves work? You can get them all the way up to your armpits. Depending on the location of the scars, you could get a dress in the style you'd originally planned and pair it with long gloves (although of course you'd have to decide which dresses looked right with gloves).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:50 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was going to suggest elegant gloves, but of course you have to have access to your hands (rings, eating, etc.). But there are these things (no idea what they are called) that look like gloves but have no fingers, just a thumb hole. They are like a fabric tube with a hole for your thumb. You may be able to get some really elegant ones, or have a seamstress make them for you.

I can't find any good example pics, so I will point you to this hideous one. Imagine them minus the scary bows and rhinestones, in white or whatever color and as long as you need them to be.
posted by soelo at 2:53 PM on January 19, 2010

I would personally buy a dress and then get it altered. I don't think adding simple white sleeves to a dress would be that costly, especially if it already had thickish straps or short sleeves. Obviously you will have to go with a style that it looks natural such as the the 4th image to the right in the link you provide would look very nice with long simple narrow sleeves. I actually own a dress very similar to that wedding dress but with long sleeves and it's really nice.

Also there are a lot of dresses with laces sleeves (not lace jacket I agree on the mother of the bride thing) but I don't know if they would provide enough coverage. Something like this.

You could also consider doing shortish sleeves and long white gloves, but that might be a little formal for you.
posted by whoaali at 2:56 PM on January 19, 2010

I think a cardigan would look great with this.
posted by runningwithscissors at 2:59 PM on January 19, 2010 has a nice selection of searchable dresses. I'm not a member, but a prelimiary search of dresses with 3/4 sleeves brings up some nice options, specifically the Adele Wechsler on the top row, and the Justin Alexander on the bottom row.

The search for long sleeves doesn't seem to yield what you want- mostly lace sleeves. Kleinfeld also has searchable directory, but my quick search didn't show much.

What about Etsy Alchemy?
posted by rachaelfaith at 2:59 PM on January 19, 2010

So I'm presuming that super sheer/lacy sleeves are out. How about exposing a little skin from the knees down to offset the covered arms? That might balance it out and avoid dowdiness.

Shorter skirt? It's kinda retro but I think it's cute.
Dress with a shrug Maybe in a more opaque fabric that you'd prefer. I'd avoid just adding a wrap to another dress and get two pieces that are meant to go together. It'll look more put-together and intentional.
I don't find this dowdy but perhaps it's too much back exposure.
I like the second one on this page quite a bit. Very simple and clean.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 3:00 PM on January 19, 2010

What about a satin shrug to go over whatever dress you choose? You could even clasp it with a beautiful broach. Just don't take it off and you're golden!

Here are lots of options on Google shopping.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:05 PM on January 19, 2010

How about a more youthful-looking lace jacket?
posted by halogen at 3:05 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

From a link on otherwordlyglow's list, I think the Jackie O dress in the left of this image isn't dowdy at all - it's retro and hella sexy. Well, OK, it's tea-length, but picture if it went just to the tops of her knees.
posted by muddgirl at 3:05 PM on January 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also, is backless OK? Or low-back? That can turn an otherwise dowdy dress into something feminine and kicky.
posted by muddgirl at 3:07 PM on January 19, 2010

I think the key to making 3/4 sleeves look young is to avoid any and all fullness in the skirt. You want the rest of the dress to hug the body and be as short as you're comfortable with. Have you thought about looking in the formalwear section of some place like Nordstrom for a dress that is not specifically a wedding dress? Would you be willing to do not-white? You may have many more options that way.
posted by slow graffiti at 3:08 PM on January 19, 2010

I've got scarring on my upper arms that I wanted to cover on my wedding day simply because I didn't want to deal with "what happened?" from every ancient aunt and uncle I haven't seen for years. I had my dress made which helped, but I has sheer elbow length sleeves in the same material as the top layer of the dress. The other option I considered was LONG LONG LONG arm covers - the ones that come to a point over the back of your hand and attach over your middle finger. I found the sheer sleeves looked the best (slightly retro, not obnoxiously obvious the way gloves are). Sheer may not work if your scars are still quite red - in that case I'd go with a nude stocking type thing under the sleeve. That'll add another layer of sun protection too.

You might want to try looking at retro style dresses too - the shorter length is less likely to get super ultra formal with longer sleeves.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:08 PM on January 19, 2010

Long sleeves on a wedding dress are beautiful. And you will be beautiful. NOT FRUMPY OR DOWDY.

I got married in January and wore long sleeves. It was a traditional dress that I got at a traditional bridal shop -- I know you're on a six-week schedule here -- but FYI I selected a short-sleeved dress and the bridal shop had the manufacturer make it long-sleeved for me.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:11 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not always. Here's a link to a page on wedding gowns designed by a friend of mine. I think all, with and without sleeves, are gorgeous.
posted by bearwife at 3:13 PM on January 19, 2010

Maybe something like this or this?
posted by scody at 3:13 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree that a seamstress is the way to go. What if you did something in a 1950's retro kind of vibe? Something like this or this one (with the shorter skirt) in white would be really lovely. I picture it with a cute birdcage veil and maybe a poofy crinoline underneath.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:15 PM on January 19, 2010

I've had good luck with Unique Vintage. They ship fast and have a good return policy if it's not right. I found this one that sort of looks like your pre-sx dresses with sleaves.

I used Whirling Turban which has this one.

Congratulations and good luck!
posted by dog food sugar at 3:15 PM on January 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ivanka Trump had a full skirt and lacy sleeves with her dress. I'm not sure if those sleeves offer you adequate arm coverage, but I can easily see those made as long as you would like. I think a seamstress would easily be able to mod a dress pattern you like to have sleeves like these. I think fairly fitted sleeves made of a filmy or sheer fabric (layered or thicker if you need true opacity) would be modern and pretty.
posted by bluefly at 3:16 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're looking for general styles that won't look like a sleeveless dress with sleeves bolted on, something kind of 30s or 40s-inspired could be pretty sweet - take a look at this or this. The softer lines make it work. If you want something kickier, this kind of thing is cute and girly - I think it would be simple and pretty, made in a really gorgeous raw silk or sateen.
posted by peachfuzz at 3:18 PM on January 19, 2010

I had long sleeves paired with a portrait collar for my wedding. Hard to believe it's so hard to find now, but my mom made it for me, so that helped.

It was similar to this look, which is a two piece outfit but looks like you could get the skirt in white too.

If you're getting something made, this medieval/celtic style could be really nice, without the belt. I think the tight sleeves are key to not looking dowdy.
posted by saffry at 3:18 PM on January 19, 2010

Just wanted to say that I think long sleeved wedding dresses are absolutely lovely; I think the fact that they're so uncommon these days is more of a pro than a con, in terms of you wearing one.

If you decide to go the Etsy route, you can do an eBay search for long-sleeved dresses for ideas to suggest to the designer. There is a LOT there (much of it not what you are looking for but quite a bit that could be), and if you browse through a bit you might see something that inspires you.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:24 PM on January 19, 2010

Ivanka Trump's wedding gown (linked by bluefly) was inspired by Grace Kelly's.
posted by spec80 at 3:25 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think that this shirtdress-style wedding gown is lovely. The Etsy seller notes that she can make it different lengths, so you could have it made short like the dresses you like.
posted by Meg_Murry at 3:27 PM on January 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

And I know you said you didn't want poofy sleeves, but in proportion it can look nice. Here is an example from Audrey Hepburn's wedding to Mel Ferrer. It is the same length as the kicky, feminine dresses you linked - just with poofy sleeves.
posted by spec80 at 3:36 PM on January 19, 2010

Since the LDS church strongly encourages modesty and since Utah winter weddings can be cold, you may find some things on their bridal sites. Here are a couple of images you might find inspirational (not dowdy, still bridal, 3/4 sleeves).

The Santiago may give you some ideas for more flowing sleeves that could look elegant, the San Jose also has full sleeves, and it would be pretty easy to get the sleeves lengthened on the Bainbridge.

I'm not LDS, but I thought maybe this would give you some other resources to check for ideas! Or do an image search for "wedding dresses with sleeves" for other ideas you could take to a custom designer.
posted by BlooPen at 3:39 PM on January 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oops--meant to add that (since you mentioned the Mormon thing), that you might be able to just hack some of these off to get the shorter kicky style you want. Most of those links I meant for inspiration for the top half, not the bottom...
posted by BlooPen at 3:41 PM on January 19, 2010

A lace shrug like this may not be a bad idea. (Link is to a knitting pattern site, rather than something you can purchase readymade -- I'm including the picture as a for-example idea. But if you like it and you or someone you know knits, then hey.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:42 PM on January 19, 2010

I wish I had a scanner so I could show you my Gramma's wedding photos from 1952. She wore a cream shantung silk shirt dress with crystal buttons, elbow-length sleeves, a tiny white feathered hat, short veil, gloves (of course), killer high heels, and a gardenia corsage. She looked exactly the opposite of frumpy - in fact, the reaction of anyone who sees the photo is WHO IS THAT?, invariably followed by YOUR GRAMMA WAS HOT!

This is the closest image I can find - imagine the neckline a bit lower and wider and shawl lapels instead of a little collar and you should get the idea.

While this style dress would still be gorgeous at knee length, I love a full, tea-length skirt and the trick to not looking frumpy is to wear high (at least three inches), delicate heels that really show off the ankles.
posted by Wroksie at 3:45 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is more traditional and less kicky than you're looking for, but here is another 3/4 sleeve look that could be modified if you decide to go the seamstress route.
posted by anderjen at 3:48 PM on January 19, 2010

I suggest just having one made, or altered. You could buy a dress that you like and have a good tailor add sleeves rather than have one made from scratch. I recommend Nelson Tailor Shop on the LES; they are amazing and affordable. If you bring the dress in, they can probably tell you what can be done with it and either order the right fabric for you or tell you what type of fabric you need so that you can go pick it out.

Some of the dresses you linked above would look great with lacy skin-fitting sleeves; if the scars don't go over the shoulder, you could make the dress strapless with sleeves starting off the shoulder like this one or this one from Kleinfeld's.
posted by melissasaurus at 3:54 PM on January 19, 2010

You might hit a fabric store and peruse the formalwear patterns to see if you can find a jacket you like. There's a pretty good selection there, and a seamstress/tailor should be able to whip it up for you pretty quickly. Mine was Butterick, I think, bog-standard any-fabric-store stuff, and pretty much every jacket pattern we saw had at least one sleeve and one jacket-length variation. A number of styles were very Jackie O/mod/50s/60s, too, it wasn't all superpoof or renaissance-wear.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:05 PM on January 19, 2010

Lots of great bolero makers on Etsy- 1, 2, 3, 4.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:25 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Check out dolly couture... a version of this dress with slightly longer sleeves would be totally kicky and feminine.

I also like this one (and a few others from the same site), and the dress and jacket combo in this wedding is quite pretty and not at all frumpy. Rohm has some pretty bridal shrugs.
posted by logic vs love at 4:32 PM on January 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

I had long sleeves paired with a portrait collar for my wedding. Hard to believe it's so hard to find now....

Sleeves are hard (start counting them on Project Runway) and it's cheaper and more profitable for the maker to give them a miss. As long as the customer is shelling out big money regardless and the venue doesn't turn the bride away for immodesty, it's inevitable.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:47 PM on January 19, 2010

Here are two examples I saw recently on Once Wed: one and two.
posted by collocation at 5:09 PM on January 19, 2010

I've got some prominent scarring on my upper arms. After years of picking the least bleh option from the sleeved tops, I started using a dressy shawl instead of sleeves so I can pick a sleeveless top if it's the one I want.
"Shawl" covers a lot of ground; really just think in terms of any shape or length of fabric. For formal events think of shimmery or silk fabric, draped heavy or light, high or low... even something narrow but long that you can attach to your arms with some double-sided tape to keep them covered, that can attach t the back or front of your dress or just hang in a lovely loop - disney princess draping. You could do some gorgeous weddingy shapes with a light length of satin (with maybe some backing to block light better in your case).
posted by Billegible at 5:20 PM on January 19, 2010

You can absolutely do lace, like the dress whoaali mentioned. Simply have them put an opaque nude lining underneath, the same color as your arms.
posted by Vaike at 5:29 PM on January 19, 2010

I was looking for something similar for my wedding and ended up going to a dressmaker with a vintage 60's vogue pattern (pictured here- I went with the style on the left, but shorter and with 3/4 sleeves.) There are lots of vintage patterns out there in similar styles. I also looked bridesmaid dresses and considered this one, which can be ordered with 3/4 sleeves.
posted by sophie at 5:34 PM on January 19, 2010

this kind of bolero jacket is nice, not frumpy (hover over the top right corner to see the 3/4 version).

also, this was kind of Y2K, fashion-wise, but I think the ballgown skirt and cashmere cardigan (maybe updated with a belt at the waist, a la Michelle Obama) was just a terrific look.

if you are thinking less formal, speaking of Michelle Obama, she really does rock the cardigan-belted-over-sheath-dress look, and i think that will flatter you under any circumstance besides maybe the third trimester of pregnancy. to recreate it, find a white knee-length sheath with a scoop or square neck (or strapless, or spaghetti straps), put a fitted, longer white cardigan over it, leave it unbuttoned and belt with pretty sash. wear with fabulous heels or even boots (although white boots can be a little too go-go, and other colors might not look right)
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:23 PM on January 19, 2010

I encourage you to take a look at Siri, particularly their bridesmaid dress collection, many of which have sleeves, and come in white (if you are set on that color -- personally I think you should go with whatever color in which you feel most comfortable.)

the Loretta Young dress? I think this could fit the "kicky" criteria with the addition of a crinoline.

And from what I remember about shopping for a wedding dress, a lot of higher end designers will customize a dress for you on request. I had the skirt changed on mine (from ruched to plain a-line) and even the shade of white. One of those cute short dresses you linked to could easily have sleeves added by a seamstress at the store or someone you find on your own.
posted by Mimzy at 6:26 PM on January 19, 2010

Wedding dresses with sleeves look beautiful, and there are many out there in all styles. A quick google brought up this page. These dresses are definitely not mother-of-the-bride-esque (though some may be a bit too renn faire if you aren't a renn geek like me).

I would continue to look online -- I found a lovely sleeved dress for sale on ebay and was going to get that before my mother decided to make my wedding dress -- with sleeves.
posted by jb at 7:32 PM on January 19, 2010

I think a white (faux or not) fur bolero would look really nice - you can play up the winter aspect of your wedding (assuming you are with us up here in the Northern hemisphere). The second one on this page looks nice, but it seems like there are a lot of sleeve length options, and they look pretty nice as long as you don't go too cheap.
posted by fermezporte at 7:53 PM on January 19, 2010

Just agreeing that there are some great jackets out there that are tailored and feminine, not lacy or frumpy. I don't think there are any pictures of my sister's wedding online, but if you want to memail me I'll send you some. She had a short jacket with long sleeves that would look great over the sort of dresses you like. Hell, if you're a size 4 or so, I'll see if she's willing to lend it to you.

After some googling, I guess it's sorta like this, but more tailored and more of a angular collar. And it doesn't come with the scary zombie bride pictured.
posted by mercredi at 8:07 PM on January 19, 2010

What about a little lace bolero? You can find them with varying degrees of opacity in the lace. And if you're matching it to an existing dress and the white-on-white thing is getting fussy to match, maybe you could choose a bolero in a color- blue could be lovely, red could be elegant, or even black could be graphic and daring.

There are a lot of these out there since many people don't like to show bare shoulder in churches, so I actually know a number of brides who wore boleros for the church part of the wedding.

Here are some ideas: thick ivory lace, structured satin, beautiful asymmetrical teal satin with rosettes. If you like any of these, I bet an Etsy alchemist can construct one for you.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:25 PM on January 19, 2010

(I mean to add, obviously,
An Etsy alchemist can construct one for you... with the sleeve length and opacity you prefer).
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:33 PM on January 19, 2010

I haven't read all the posts here, but I'd suggest taking a peek at Offbeat Bride. I stumbled upon this through one of my favorite blogs, Cake Wrecks. A lot of the dresses there don't stick to the standard white strapless beaded gown that's become the traditional look in the past decade. A lot of them have that coverage but in striking, surprising ways. Like this one, or this one.
posted by inkytea at 8:43 PM on January 19, 2010

I am in love with this dress, which is vintage '50s as suggested by several people above. I would probably have a knockoff custom made, but it could be a good deal if it were your size.
posted by katemonster at 9:01 PM on January 19, 2010

Wow, I am beginning to feel incredibly self-conscious about my wedding dress based on all these descriptions. It had 3/4-length sleeves (not super-tight), a corset bodice, AND a long, full skirt! I have apparently broken every known rule of wedding dresses.

Anyway, the thing I was writing to tell you about was that a bateau (or slightly off-the-shoulder, but with shorter skirt), or deep scoop or a V-neck goes really well with a fitted 3/4-length sleeve and full party-dress skirt.

If you wanted to get real crazy, you could even do a sort of modified shirt-dress thing with wedding fabric, and maybe with more of a portrait collar instead of a plain shirt collar.

A good local designer/clothier/seamstress could ostensibly pull off a dress-from-a-picture in a few weeks -- that's what happened to me.

Anyway, here's the dress I ended up wearing. I could see a similar neck/sleeve combo working with a shorter skirt.
posted by Ouisch at 11:16 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

And here's a draped bateau neck with long sleeves and full, shorter skirt. Lovely.
posted by Ouisch at 11:26 PM on January 19, 2010

I would look into silk wedding dresses from the 1930s and 1940s for inspiration. My grandmother's wedding dress looked like this and one of my aunts borrowed it for her wedding decades later. This is a similar style from the 1960s and the open back makes it a little more edgy. My mom's wedding dress from the late 1960s looked a lot like this one. Here's a short sleeve dress that would also look nice with longer sleeves. This one is also gorgeous and would look lovely with long sleeves. I agree that your best bet would be to go to a seamstress unless you find one you like on vintage/resale sites or the LDS one. Good luck and congratulations!
posted by emd3737 at 11:48 PM on January 19, 2010

Came here to link to Offbeat Bride but inkytea seems to have beat me to it.

Also, maybe it's just my personal preference but I think as long as you rock a nice square (my fave)/relatively open neckline, the sleeves won't make you look __insert undesirable adjective__ at all.
posted by citywolf at 6:14 AM on January 20, 2010

I would love it if you came back and posted a picture of what you ended up going with. Please update for those of us who are living out vicarious shopping dreams through you!
posted by TooFewShoes at 4:33 PM on January 25, 2010

It's probably too late to be of use for the OP, but I happened upon this; I'll leave it here for reference.

Also, echoing TooFewShoes: it would be great so see what you went with!
posted by sentient at 7:12 PM on February 9, 2010

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