Dress Report: Sweaterdresses & Belts For The Sweaterdress-&-Belt-Phobic

By | October 30, 2008

Every year I go through this. When temperatures start to fall here in Boston, I immediately start longing for a selection of delicious, well-fitting sweaterdresses to wear. Finding said sweaterdresses is rarely a problem. Wearing them, on the other hand, frequently poses a challenge. The sweaterdress most naturally benefits a body that is curvy in the traditional sense: a body with bust and hip measurements that are relatively proportional, and some kind of identifiable waist in between. However, I am not about to let the fact that I’ve got basically none of the above flag my enthusiasm. In fatshion, where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Since I’m not naturally built for sweaterdresses, I need to rebuild them for me if I’m going to wear them. I do this with belts. Specifically, I do this with belts belting the narrowest beltable bit of my body – a couple inches under my bustline.

HORRORS, I hear you exclaim. Yes, the underboob belt’s got a bad rap in recent years. Yes, the underboob belt’s been a little overused, a little played out, a little last-season. I hear you. I don’t care. It works for me.

Flouncey Sack from One Stop PlusFor example: Not long ago I ordered this dress from One Stop Plus. When it arrived, it was basically a sack. This is a common problem I run into with items from One Stop Plus: The Sack Effect. Even things that look fitted on the models are often, indeed, little more than a sack meant to be thrown over one’s fatness with no attempt at making them fit properly. Not long ago the sackness would have been a dealbreaker, and back it would have gone with its little highway-bloody-robbery $7 return label. But lo, today I have embraced the belt and it has saved me from sackdom.

In the interest of sharing the wealth (dare I say spreading the wealth around?) I’ve assembled a collection of sweaterdresses I’ve unearthed online, and belts that might help them fit and flatter even the most sweaterdress-unfriendly bodies.

So, the dresses:

Cableknit dress from Jessica LondonI have had generally positive experiences with Jessica London for both basic cardigans (my other wardrobe staple) and dresses. Their items tend to be fairly well made (with occasional exceptions) and with the plentiful coupons available all over the web (retailmenot.com, ahem) their prices are damn reasonable. Thus, I’ve been pondering the purchase of this cableknit cowl-neck dress myself; the big bonus here for me is clearly marked empire waist – I could totally put a belt right there. “But Lesley!” you might inquire, “Why bother with the belt? The dress looks fine as is!” It does, gentle reader, on the model. Unfortunately for me and anyone else with a particularly fat midsection, it would look less fine on my actual body. Note the absence of an a-line skirt there. That sucker is cut like a sausage casing, straight the heck down. On me, without a belt that dress would look like a plain old sweater some knitter just couldn’t stop knitting (and knitting! and knitting!). With a belt (and some tights, and some fabulous boots), it’ll look polished even on my belly-heavy shape. The only thing I don’t like about this cabled sweaterdress from Jessica London is the cap sleeves. Why cap sleeves on a sweater? It makes no sense to me.

Lane Bryant is currently stocking a fabulous sweater dress with an asymetrical neckline and an interesting button detail along the collar and down one sleeve. I actually happened to be in a Lane Bryant store (this happens maybe a dozen times a year) a week or two ago and saw it in person; the image on the website truly did not do it justice. It’s a gorgeous dress. I’d love to show it to you, I really would. Except the image is missing from Lane Bryant’s website. So you’ll have to take my word for it.

dolman.jpgDolman sleeves and wool. This is basically my dream sweaterdress. Shame the price isn’t more dreamy (and yes, I do have dreams about shopping and getting everything for free; don’t you?). What we’re looking at here is a Jones New York sweaterdress with oversized dolman sleeves and a wide banded neckline, in a delicious caramel-colored wool. Oh and look! It’s got a belt already! I didn’t just make this shit up! Of course, that teeny little bit o’ cording would not go far on me; I try to make sure my belts are appropriately in scale with the rest of my body. But it’s a step.

Take me to your leader. Yes, I can hear the incredulous laughter from here. This turtlenecked, bell-sleeved, “babydoll” sweater dress from Silhouettes is pretty hilarious in the catalog image. Like a big blonde space explorer from Planet Just-A-Bit-Chilly-Today who learned to emulate Earth fashions by watching John Waters movies. (This, itself, makes the dress great in my opinion.) I’d personally tamp down on the LOOK-IT’S-MOD aspects with a wide belt right at the empire line – assuming said empire line hits under my bust like it’s supposed to. It does look a little high on the model, now that I think about it. I would also go without the silver space boots, though I would like to keep them for other nefarious purposes unrelated to this particular outfit. Still, I am strangely drawn to this dress. I think it has a lot of potential, if I could only get my hands on one to style in my own way.

Cue the circus calliope music!Speaking of possibly-awful dresses to which I am irresistibly drawn as a steep Fatshion Challenge, let’s talk about Torrid. OH LET’S! Let’s talk about this dress, which I can’t get out of my head lately. There’s something about wide vertical stripes that freak me out in an apparel context. In my head, I usually think either “awning” or “clown outfit”. And for once, the copy on Torrid’s site is understated. This dress is so authentically of the 1980s aesthetic that it may well have been based on an actual vintage piece. I swear my mom had this dress – and I borrowed it – when I was but a wee fatling fatshionista. And yet, strangely, I want it. I want the heck out of it. I think this is a dress I could rock… steady… steady rockin’ all night long. Dare I speak even of rockin’ to the break of dawn?* Even the youthful among you catch my meaning if not my reference. This dress plus a big obnoxious shiny belt would be like so totally choice.

Before I lose my mind in public any further, I’ll move on to the belt portion of our show.

It’s been my experience that finding plus size belts can be a serious challenge, unless one is looking for belts of a certain type. That type would be belts-that-are-also-surrogate-corsets. Torrid is the de facto queen of super-wide cincher belts. They’ve always got at least a couple to choose from, and while Torrid’s more gothified/punkified belts do speak to a certain aesthetic, it’s not mine (uh, anymore – I ask you, where the hell was Torrid when I was painting my own Marilyn Manson t-shirts in 1993?).

SHINY! Igigi has a few wide cincher-style belts that do speak to me, however, like this intimidating multi-buckle beauty. This may go without saying, but in my opinion, the wider and more dramatic the belt, the simpler the dress it goes over should be. I personally have a very low tolerance for belt with patent (almost universally faux, these days) finishes, and will only wear them with garments that are practically funereal in their solemn simplicity. That’s just how I roll, though, and I encourage folks to wear their big crazy belts with whatever they like, since that’s how a person builds style in the first place.

I'm totally way more reserved. Igigi also has a wide cincher belt in bronze that’s a little less… dominating. This one’s a little more relaxed, and a little more in line with my style. I would blissfully pair this belt in particular with the Jones New York dress above, replacing that tiny bit of blinged-out rope they’re using as a belt at present. I also dig a textured belt like the croc-embossed version at Torrid, to add a little visual interest to an otherwise-dull monochromatic outfit – imagine the first dress above in black. Truth be told, Avenue has a version of a wide faux-croc belt I like better than Torrid’s, but because their site does not allow remote linking, I can’t share it with you.** Feel free to hunt it down yourself, however, as it’s lovely.

If you’re more in the market for a belt you can buy in a rainbow of colors for cheap, Curvy Girl Clothing can hook you up. Their ubiquitous pleather sash belt is currently on sale in four colors for just $2.99 each. The quality of some of Curvy Girl’s stuff is not always fantastic – I adore my original wrap dresses from them, but have been sorely disappointed with other stuff I’ve bought – but for $2.99 how can you really go wrong?

steel.jpgNow anyone who’s seen my oufit posts know the belts above have three strikes against them when trying to wear them myself: they’re wide, they’re stretchy, and they’re not real leather. I am not opposed to these things – heaven knows I’ve got belts in each and all of these catagories that I wear frequently – but I strongly prefer a good sturdy leather belt, even if it’s going to cost me, and even if it requires the patience of a saint and the persistence of a Red Sox fan to find them, since leather belts in 50″+ lengths are not easy to find. For this reason I am a huge fan of Steel Toe Studios; Erica, the brains (and brawn) behind the operation has made me several custom-sized belts with no complaints and no additional charge. I think this is so awesome I can barely stand it. That’s probably obvious given that I wear these belts several times a week, as seen in my Flickr parade o’ outfits. As a bonus, all my Steel Toe Studios belts have snaps that make them interchangable with various buckles, and who doesn’t like to play Transformers with their clothes? This is also useful since buckles themselves are not size-specific, so having a few custom-cut leather belts in my size means I can shop for different buckles all over creation, knowing I won’t be held back by not having a fitting belt to wear them with.

Checkers!And speaking of belts, if you’re after more elaborate leathers, Rad Cow on Etsy is a shop you’ll want to check out. I’ve not had any personal experience with them (yet) but their listings say they’ll make their belts in any size. A lot of their belts are both hand-dyed and hand-tooled, producing some incredibly unique and unexpected designs. Rosey!

Truth be told – and this is obvious by now – I’ll wear belts with most of my dresses if I feel the need. Does that dress feel a little baggy and unflattering today? Belt! Or is my outfit just plain boring and I don’t have time to get more creative with it? Belt! But the single most useful aspect of my discovery that Yes, Lesley, You Can Wear Belts Too was the fit flexibility it’s given me. Embracing the belt has meant that I can now wear certain things that, owing to cut and fit problems, I never even would have looked at twice before, because I was so sure that particular garments would never, ever be flattering on my shape, so matter what I did. Like sweaterdresses, which I studiously avoided for years, believing they’d never work. I’m always so happy to be wrong about these things.

*If I have to go purchase that song on iTunes as a result of this post, I’m going to be very disturbed.

**Yet another reason why Avenue and I are not on friendly terms at the moment. As if I needed more. NO LINKS FOR YOU, AVENUE.

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