First, a warning. Time and time again, my clients and our forum members ask which style of topper to wear over a sleeveless dress. The problem is that sleeveless dresses were meant to be worn without a topper, so more often than not look best that way. This is especially the case with dressy sleeveless dresses. As soon as you add a topper, you loose the cut, silhouette and wow-factor that makes the dress look sensational. Casual sleeveless dresses tend to be more conducive to a topper addition because the styles and fabrics lend themselves better to the relaxed, layered look. 

So it’s best not to purchase a sleeveless dress in the first place unless you’re comfortable exposing your arms. Prevention is better than cure.

All of that said, I frequently run into sleeveless dresses that need to be covered. Sometimes a client already owns the dress and doesn’t want to go to the expense of purchasing a sleeved option when an inexpensive topper is the alternative. Sometimes sleeved dresses are harder to find, making the sleeveless option a faster purchase. And sometimes the wearer is comfortable exposing her arms, but needs a topper when things cool down.

The Solutions 

Here are my favourite ways to top a sleeveless dress. They’re more interesting than the basic cardigan, pashmina or shrug. A straight, formfitting dress is usually easier to top than a fit-and-flare style. Generally, you’ll need a cropped topper for the latter, whereas just about any length works with a straight sheath.

  • Kimono Jacket: This topper works best over a straight sheath. You’re after a soft kimono jacket style with shorter sleeves for structure. Leave it open and flowing. 
  • Denim Jacket: A short denim jacket works over just about any style of sleeveless dress. Keep the fit tailored for a classic look, and a little oversized for a more fashionable rendition. Leave the jacket open and scrunch the sleeves for structure. Of course, this makes your outfit casual which won’t work for a dressy event. 
  • Cropped Moto Jacket: A cropped moto jacket, fitted or fluid, works well over most dresses, much like a denim jacket. 
  • Cropped Blazer or Chanel-esque Jacket: These toppers are trickier to get right because the jackets need to be short and “just so” in order to avoid looking frumpy. Also, the combination can look quite corporate, which is perfect for business formal but might not be what you’re after. Short fitted blazers work quite well, but short boxy jackets are more current. 
  • Drapey Cardigan: Short, fluid cardigans with lots of arty “waterfall” drape work well over straight and flared dresses. Long drapey cardigans work best over straight dresses. Leave them open and flowing. Choose a lightweight fabric that’s gauzy and quite sheer.
  • Trench Coat: A dressy trench coat made of a shiny dressy fabric is my personal best way to top a formal sleeveless straight dress. It works pretty well over a flared dress when the hem lengths are similar. 

Sometimes a dainty and short gold, silver or beaded cardigan can work over a formal sleeveless dress, but they are hard to find. Faux fur stoles are fun for dressier events and add a nice bit of retro drama. Shorter bomber jackets inject a bit of on trend Sporty Luxe to a sleeveless dress.