The Bare-Armed Elephant in the Room

Geren Ford phantom striped silk fishtail hem camisoleCan you have bare arms at work? Are shells and tanks acceptable to wear under jackets? As everyone’s layering for fall, this seems appropriate to discuss now, and Reader K brings up this age-old question…

I graduated law school in May, and am currently a federal law clerk. My mother, who is an attorney, my sister, a law student, and I have been debating whether sleeveless tops are appropriate work attire for attorneys. I have an ivory silk blouse/shell/tank that I love, but my mother feels is only appropriate if I never take off my suit jacket.

I wore it to chambers with a black skirt suit last week. Normally I wear my suit jacket throughout the day, but that day it was over 80 degrees in chambers…so naturally, I shed the jacket while working. The judge came to give me something while I had the jacket off and while I would have liked to have the jacket on when interacting with him, I shrugged it off considering his office was uncomfortably warm as well. What do you think of the top? Is it appropriate for work? With or without a jacket or sweater over it?

For the record, I prefer wearing sleeved shirts under jackets — in addition to sidestepping the “bare arms” conundrum, it also makes laundering easier by protecting the underarms of your jackets or sweaters.. But I’m really curious to hear what the readers say, so I thought we’d do some more polls to try to close in on what it might be that has historically made sleeveless tops so offensive. Is it strappiness/amount of bra showing? Is it a “this is underwear” vibe to simple camisoles? (Not on the poll:  lacy camisoles and skin-colored camisoles, both of which I’m against for anything but underwear (as in, kept underneath).  Whether worn by themselves or just as a layer to raise the neckline, they look too much like underwear for the office.)  There are other dimensions here also — looseness?  fabric?  What factors are you considering when you say something is or isn’t acceptable, other than a gut feeling (and the all-important caveat, know your own office!)

So I’ve picked four camisoles below in variations of strappy and blousy.  Remember, the question is which tops are acceptable to wear BY THEMSELVES, not just as a base layer….

Banana Republic Seamless Cami

1) Strappy, plain


2. Strappy, blousy (see also purple cami at top)

3. Thick-strapped, plain

4. Thick-strapped, blousy


For my $.02, #1 is the perfect camisole for layering under something — but does not look the best on its own. #2 looks great on the weekend, and I think there is probably where it should stay. Numbers 3 and 4 don’t look horrible, but to my eyes a sleeved version would just look better and more appropriate in both instances, and so the sleeved version is what I would advise readers to build your wardrobes around.

Readers, what are your thoughts re: being bare-armed in the office? What factors matter when deciding whether a top is acceptable (other than know your own office)?

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  1. I think again this is one of those “know your office” things. I go bare armed frequently – especially in the summer. I would not wear a cami, such as #1, but I would wear things along the lines of #4 and sleeveless dresses such as sheath dresses.

    • FLOTUS goes bare-armed all the time… She looks great.

      • FLOTUS, much as I love her, is not currently a “professional” woman.

        • Are you kidding me? Of course she is a professional! She’s working every day. I think her job is probably one of the hardest in the country.

          • In mamabear’s defense, FLOTUS in her non-professional but professional roles (cutting ribbons, giving speeches, accepting/giving awards, meeting with charity boards, talking to military families, digging in the white house garden … etc) can make plenty of clothing choices that your more typical professional woman (lawyer, etc) usually cannot. I think that’s all she meant.

          • karenpadi :

            I agree with anon–Michelle Obama can get away with clothing choices most women can’t.

        • Amelia Bedelia :

          I agree, Mamabear.
          While she works hard, she is not in a lower-level “professional” position. And she is arguably one of the most influential women in America and she catches a lot of flak for those bare arms. She is at the level in her game where she can disregard the naysayers . . . when I reach that level, perhaps I will sport the bare arms . . .

      • Regardless of the “is she a professional” argument – she’s in charge. If the woman senior partner who has paid her dues and is the best in the business wants to wear a pink tutu to work, it’s not going to undermine her credibility and expertise. But as a midlevel, I’m not going to wear a pink tutu just because she can.

  2. I’m just coming out of law school, but my instinct would be that 1 and 2 are inappropriate, but 3 and 4 would be ok, granted that they’re worn with an appropriate bottom. Also, I would probably wear 3 and 4 with a cardigan or jacket, but leave myself the option of taking it on and off as necessary.

  3. Anonymous :

    Picture a male lawyer wearing a tank top to work under any circumstances and you will have your answer.

    • a passion for fashion :

      this is silly. can you picture a male lawyer wearing a dress or skirt?

      • or worrying about nail polish colors or heel height?

        • Or putting on a tie and wondering if it’s too quirky a look for the office?

          • Heatheresq :

            Yes to this. Ties are definitely an accessory about which men often question the appropriateness. Many men judge other men by their tie choice.

            I agree with the first poster that a sheath dress is appropriate in most circumstances where its similarly strapped shirt cousin would not be. I would wear a sheath into the hallway without a cardi or jacket. I would likely not wear any sleeveless shirt into my biz formal office hallway (though if it were warm, I would wear it sitting at my desk).

          • I meant, to wear a tie at all. (Conservative for a man, a bolder move for a woman.) But you’re right, there are debates to be had about the prints or colors or sheens or widths of men’s ties.

    • I’m in agreement with the first poster in this thread. Bare arms are a casual and evening look, not a professional look for women.

      • I actually answered “None” as well–I was just disagreeing with the premise that dress standards are the same for men and women. I tried to clarify, but for some reason that comment is in moderation.

    • Men generally don’t wear tank tops in their free time either. Does that mean that tank tops aren’t appropriate for women’s weekend wear?

    • karenpadi :

      I don’t like this analogy at all. Men shouldn’t show any skin below the neckline. Women can. For example, some sleeved tops are perfectly appropriate for women like v-necks and boat-necks but are completely inappropriate for men.

  4. I often wear tanks and camis under suits or sweaters to work, but actually never take the overlayer off. If I think I might, I go with sleeves underneath, period. I think I wore a tank to the company picnic, but that was it.

  5. I would wear #3 or 4 under a jacket or cardigan, but I don’t see myself ever taking off the top layer. If it was a warmer day I would just choose a 3/4 sleeve cardigan of a light material and keep it on over top the tank all day.

  6. a passion for fashion :

    I wouldnt think twice about wearing 3 or 4 to the office — under a blazer or cardigan, but would take the top layer off if i felt like it.

    I would only wear 1 under something that wouldnt come off (like a v-neck top/dress).

    I’d only wear 2 on a weekend.

    And honestly, until I started reading this blog, i never thought it might not be appropriate to wear something sleeveless.

    • Really? I think that is def. the old standby. I’m only 26 but I grew up knowing no sleeveless to work environment. That said someone wore something like 4 to my office the other day and I definately registered it like “huh, sleeveless” but I didn’t think it looked bad or anything.

      I always go no sleeveless, and I have been trying to avoid buying sleeveless dresses so I don’t have to wear a sweater over them.

      • a passion for fashion :

        What can possibly be inappripriate about one’s arms? I dont get it. And a staple work attire is the sheeth dress, which is obvously sleeveless.

        • No I’m not saying it is inappropriate, it is just def. what I was always told. And almost never see women wearing the sheath dress without something over it or under it. (I have a lot so I would love to start wearing it by itself, I just almost never see it. In DC for what its worth)

          • Left coaster :

            To some extent I think this is regional. I used to work on the East Coast and rarely saw women in traditionally conservative professions wearing sleeveless sheaths or tops. Now I work in San Francisco, and see it all the time (weather permitting). In fact, just this morning in the elevator I was admiring a woman wearing an absolutely fabulous navy sheath dress with great detailing around the shoulders.

          • a passion for fashion :

            maybe it is a regional thing — not there now, but am from California

          • SF Bay Associate :

            +1 Left Coaster – sleeveless is fine out here, especially in shell or sheath dress form. I think anything thick-strapped is fine, though I do think #3 is too plain looking to stand on its own. It’s obviously supposed to be under something, which makes it look wrong to wear it alone. It’s too darn cold to wear anything sleeveless any more this year, but I do it regularly in the warmer months.

        • It’s not inappropriate so much as it’s casual. Plus, I just don’t think my boss should ever have to see my armpit.

          • a passion for fashion :

            I would style No. 3 (or something similar) the way they do, but I think it would look great tucked into a pencil skirt or trousers, with a cardigan or fitted blazer and a long strand (or few) of pearls. The top layer could come off if necessary during the day. FWIW, i’d style No. 4 the same way, sans the pearls.

            You could also do No. 3 with a nice pair of trousers, untucked with a cardigan over the top and a thin beltover the whole thing.

        • My understanding is that it is not the arm itself that could be offensive, but the underarm area that should remain unseen.

          • I agree with this sentiment, but shouldn’t that also eliminate cap sleeves as an option? They provide little to no armpit coverage.

        • It’s not the arms themselves that are inappropriate. It’s all the potential gappy-ness around the armholes, visible bra straps, etc. Think about how fitted (how un-fitted, actually) an equivalent weight shell or blouse is. If the sleeveless blouse is equally unfitted, then there is the gap problem. And if it is fitted, then you have combined fitted and bare skin, which is also not a good look in most professional settings.

        • It’s not the arms per se that are inappropriate, it’s the percentage of skin exposed. Not to mention the neckline that’s never very high on tank tops, the potential bra flashing at the underarms, the whole hair issue in the same place, the common fabric-too-light conundrum..
          That said, bare arms may be geographically/climatically appropriate in spots. But on the whole, not.

    • You not knowing something before coming to this website is not an argument against a valid piece of advice given on this website.

      That’s why I come here: to learn things I wasn’t already thinking of.

      • I didn’t read that statement as an “argument.” I thought she was just mentioning that she had never thought about it.

        That said, please don’t read anything I mention in a comment as an argument. Just another perspective.

  7. I am not opposed to sleeveless tops at the office, but #3 is too unstructured to wear without a jacket or sweater on top.
    #4 looks too pretty to hide under a blazer and the description calls it “glamorous” with “opulent luster” so probably not really office-appropriate. It looks more like a going-out shirt, of which I am in dire need for the upcoming party season. I can picture it with dark jeans and strappy heels.

  8. I’d definitely wear 4, 3 if the air conditioning broke. I’ll also wear a sleeveless shift w/o a sweater if I get too hot. But I’m very comfortable with showing my arms. Honestly I think my bare arms are a lot more professional than the strip of skin on my coworkers back that is always showing bc she rarely wears camisoles under her tops (and from the side you can see through her button ups, that often so short you can see her hips/stomach/back when she leans/moves).

    I actually think professional short sleeve tops are the most difficult to find….long sleeves and sleeveless are easy to find, but I’ve been on the hunt for professional, comfortable, flattering short sleeve work blouses forevs.

    • “I think my bare arms are a lot more professional than the strip of skin on my coworkers back that is always showing bc she rarely wears camisoles under her tops”

      Yes, definitely. Revealing skin that is supposed to be covered is always inappropriate – I can’t believe anyone wouldn’t check to make sure their back and stomach aren’t exposed when they move around!

      • Oh, there is no limit to what people don’t check. I work with a woman who will wear black knee highs with knee length skirts whenever she runs out of stockings, which actually happens frequently. It looks fine with her knee length skirt, but ONLY if she is standing perfectly still. The rest of the time she just has a creepy S&M vibe to her. It’s seriously awful, but yet there you go.

      • OMG, you should see what she wears. she always says “it doesn’t matter what you wear here.” while, technically, it doesn’t matter bc the boss isn’t going to say anything to you, but she’s not getting asked to to go important meetings and she’s not going to get any respect from outsiders. (i actually don’t dress professional for my boss/dept, but for my encounters with other organizations and depts). i may have to start posting her daily outfits. she’s out today and next week, but yesterday it was a shrunken, pilled polo (you could see the strip of skin when she moved), tight jean styled khakis, and cheap cloth ballet flats sans socks. oh and a messy bun. and she wonders why people always assume she’s so young!

    • I think I am confused – what strip of skin shows on one’s back when one doesn’t wear a camisole?

      • Basically, all her shirts are too short and too small. and she wears untucked button downs that don’t have a straight hem, so those are short on the side. almost every say i can see her lower back when she is sitting.

  9. I would wear #3 and #4 in a heartbeat, under a jacket and/or by itself. I wear sleeveless sheath dresses all the time and don’t feel conspicuous. I make sure my bra straps aren’t falling and/or showing. I usually bring along a sweater, cardigan, scarf to help with the A/C chill.

  10. #1 only under something to raise the front.
    #2 never at work but cute
    #3 looks like a shell that’s not designed to be worn alone – plus the deep scoop neck and material that would show bra lines, goosebumps, etc. so I’d put it in the same column as #1.
    #4 I wouldn’t wear – but I’d not think too much about someone else wearing it IF paired with a good more formal bottom.

    The middle ground here though is cap sleeves or those tops that aren’t actually cap but go all the way to the very edge of the shoulder. They are definitely short but the difference between shoulder showing and just over the shoulder covered is huge.

    I wish I had more tops/dresses with my preferred 3/4 sleeve but the tops are hard to find and 99% of the dresses that fit me are cap sleeved so I’ve learned to be ok with it.

    • This baffles me. Why are cap sleeves alright, but sleeveless (assuming it is something like #3 or #4) is not? The amount of extra coverage from a cap sleeve is minimal.

      • #4 looks like a going out top to me – that shiny material isn’t really an office fabric IMO.

        • That shiny material for #4 is silk. You don’t think silk is appropriate for the office?

          • I guess it depends on how shiny it is. That particular top looks like a going out top, but most silk blouses are more matte and are fine.

          • I saw the top in person yesterday at WHBM. It’s a “normal” silk, not shinier than most.

      • You are right – it’s minimal but it’s the difference between casual and not. I think in so many things the line between – for example sexy and slutty or formal and stuffy or flowy and baggy is small differences like this.

        It’s totally personal and depends on the overall look and style of the person – as I said – done right I wouldn’t blink at #4 – but for me not having the shoulder bones showing is that minor difference. On the flip side – I play this up at night and look specifically for shirts that show off my shoulders when I’m going out.

        not for nothing either – this kind of top won’t show bra straps – tanks so frequently do which – again – just me – I think is super tacky.

  11. Unless it’s dead winter and I can wear sweaters at work, I generally live in tops like #4, 90% of the time with a cardigan. I work at a nonprofit so don’t wear suits that much, but when I do, it’s still like #4 or a sleeveless button shirt. I just don’t like sleeved shirts, like Nicki G said, they’re hard to find! I have a bazillion shirts like #4 or this new one I’m wearing today that I scored in the Nordstroms sale:

    but again, I’m always wearing a cardigan unless it’s summer but sometimes still a cardi since it’s cold in the office. I have worn sleeveless dresses without a cardigan as well.

    • The shirt in your link has the “over the shoulders” type sleeves that I think are the difference between a true tank top like the ones above and a work appropriate covered shoulder.

    • So pretty! Lucky you

    • I love that blouse! Sadly, I ordered it and it does not love me back. Wear it well!

    • Gorgeous blouse. It would work by itself, or under a cardi or jacket, either black or brown. Good pick.

  12. Wouldn’t wear any of these to work– either to my biz casual former law firm or my super casual in-house gig.

    • Neither would I.

      I’m in a cold climate, so it’s almost never warm enough to wear sleeveless to work. Sheath dresses either need a layer under or over her. But I wouldn’t wear them anyway.

      When I lived in Miami, I didn’t wear sleeveless at the office either, unless I was in my own office, with my door closed. (I would carry my suit jacket in my car, and then put it on in the parking lot.) Others were more bold than me.

  13. I personally wouldn’t wear any of these to the office. One looks like underwear. Two and three are not shockingly inappropriate, but they just look way too casual for the office. Four is the opposite- too dressy looking. It looks like a going out top. (but I wouldn’t judge someone if I saw them wearing 4 in the office…as long as they had something appropriate on the bottom).
    I do, however, wear sleeveless sheaths, and in the summer I take my blazer off and walk around in the hallway with bare arms. I also wear a lot of cap sleeves and almost-but not quite caps, that go to the edge of the shoulder, but not over. Most of these are button ups or similarly high necks. I feel like it’s less a question of skin and more a question of appropriate material. Is it suit material? Did you have to iron/dry clean it? = prob good for work. Would you wear it on the weekend? = probs too cas for my office.

  14. I may wear four, definitely not any of the other ones.
    I HATE bra straps showing. Obviously not okay for work; even on the weekends it looks very sloppy. If any of those tops shifted a little, even four, there’s a decent change of straps peeking out.
    I also have a perhaps excessive dislike for the bit of fat between my arm and chest when my arms hang by my sides. I’m sure there’s a “muffin-top” esque name for this, but I can’t think of it. So I always wear sleeves.

    • Side boob? Wearing a full-coverage bra should smooth it out, but then I sometimes have the problem that my bra is actually visible because it comes up higher than the arm hole.

    • I’ve heard it called a “chicken cutlet” but I dislike referring to parts of my body as food, personally, so I hate the name.

    • Don’t people use “chicken cutlets” to refer to those silicon things you can put in your bra to enlarge your bust?

    • I believe the term coined on this site (or at least that’s where I heard it first!) was “underboob”! :)

  15. Anonymous :

    Is a sleeveless sweater shell, like this:, the same as number 3 or different.
    To my mind the lack of sheerness makes it more acceptable. What do you think?

    • MeliaraofTlanth :

      In my mind, yes, I think it’s more acceptable. It’s more substantial somehow. Also sleeveless button downs are fine. Just something with more heft or structure. I would wear 3 under a suit and take off the jacket if I was hot, but I probably wouldn’t intentionally wear it as a separate.

      • I *might* wear a sleeveless button down or a sheath dress in the summer (under a jacket, but then take the jacket off), but that is the extent of it. (and, in thinking about it further, I doubt that I would).

        I just don’t feel professional when I have bare arms. I can’t explain why I don’t think its appropriate or unprofessional, because arms in and of themselves are not scandalous. It just doesn’t feel like office-wear. I would feel weird talking to an older partner (male or female) with bare arms.

    • definitely better. both the material and the less scoopy neck.

    • Yeah – much higher neckline, broader shoulder coverage, not shiny. A-OK in my book.

  16. Tossing this into the mix … assuming your office culture/codes are OK with sleeveless, I still think there’s something to be said for the state of your arms, and whether you want to bare them or not! I know this is un-PC but some of us love our bare arms and some of us don’t … shape, size, tone, etc. If you’re going to go sleeveless, take care of your arms … and for goodness sakes, shave. No matter how great your office, sleeveless shirt, or arms are, there are certain things that nobody in an office should see, even by accident.

    Oh, and I’d wear #4 to work with my passable arms. 1-3, only underneath something.

    • I think there is a valid point to this. I think the same rule applies to the the stocking issue. Some legs just don’t startle you as “bare legs” and some do. I think your goals should always be to not startle anyone in your work environment.

      I also think that part of this depends on your office, your geography, and, importantly, the time of year. I think I would probably look very inappropriate in my NY office right now wearing top no. 4. But I would darn right blend in wearing that same top in mid-July. So context is really key here.

    • As someone who decidedly does NOT love my bare arms, I agree with this. My arms don’t make the shirt itself any more or less “appropriate,” but they definitely factor into whether I’d feel right wearing it to work.
      However, I have to protest the advice to “take care” of our arms…some things, like my batwings, only a surgeon could take care of. Some people have belly pooch or thunder thighs, I have lunch lady arms, and we all have Mother Nature to thank.

    • Are you talking about shaving the hair on top of your forearm? Does anyone do that? I shave underarm hair… do others shave arm hair on top?

      • i’m talking about what you’re talking about. :) i’ve never heard of anyone shaving hair on top, although i guess it’s possible …

        • I have a friend who shaves the top of her arms.. and only wears short sleeve shirts with shaved arms. Its all a bit much.

    • Accountress :

      I think the idea that a woman needs perfect arms in order to wear a sleeveless shirt is ridiculous. My arms are pale pink, freckled, and fat, and I will go sleeveless even if it made someone uncomfortable- honestly, depending on the situation, ESPECIALLY if it made someone uncomfortable.

      • I don’t think it’s about making other people uncomfortable, it’s about what you yourself are comfortable with other people seeing. I personally hatehatehate my upper arms, so I wouldn’t want to show them off in a work setting. If you’re comfortable with yours (and it sounds like you are, that’s awesome and I’m super jealous) and your office is more casual, then by all means, go sleeveless!

        • I don’t think arms… was saying “if you don’t want to show your arms, it’s ok to wear sleeves!” because that’s pretty obvious. He/she was definitely insinuating women without sufficiently “pretty” arms shouldn’t subject the world to them, to which I say, suck it up, world.

          • Seattleite :

            Actually, given the preceding sentence, I think she was saying “Shave! The world doesn’t need to see your hairy pits!” And I completely agree.

        • Rawr, I have to ask, are you a Ten?
          If not, my apolgies for the random-sounding question. :)

      • Well, hang on a minute. This blog is mainly how to dress professionally, not how to be free to be you and me. And “ESPECIALLY if it made someone uncomfortable” isn’t exactly all about how to dress to get ahead.

        • Yes. And whether it’s fair or not, our bodies do affect how something comes off. For instance, depending on your chest size, a shirt might look office appropriate or be a bit much. Same with arms. I don’t think anyone is saying you need perfect arms but it just looks less unusual when you have slimmer, not nec even slim, arms. Maybe it’s not fair, but life’s not fair. It just is what it is.

  17. I think Nos. 3 and 4 are fine for many business casual offices during the warmer months – I have a top like number four in a blue color that I usually wear tucked into a pencil skirt with a cardigan over top. I shed the cardigan when outside or around other associates but I do throw it on to go to a meeting or a partner’s office. For business formal offices, though, sleeveless is never appropriate. I also used to be a federal clerk and in the deep south, where it got pretty hot, and I always kept my suit jacket over a sleeveless top (or even a cap sleeved top) on if my judge or any other judges was around, or when wandering the courthouse hallways.

    • Locomotive :

      The (very few) women at my business casual trading workplace wear sheath and sleeveless dresses and tops all the time. More often than not, there is a cardigan or a blazer on top because it is freezing in the office but I would be comfortable wearing sleeveless clothing. I think it really has to do with the culture and dress code strictness of the firm (we are super young and very relaxed).

  18. Anonymous :

    Loose-fitting, blouse-y, sleeveless tops seem OK to me as long as they’re in a soft fabric like silk. (And because of the loose, soft fabric, watch out for your neckline when leaning over your desk.) Cotton sleeveless tops seem to look too casual or too much like under-suit tops to wear alone.

  19. Anonymous :

    I prefer sleeves for the reason that Kat mentions – to avoid sweating on my sweater or jacket. I also don’t tend to have very nice-looking armpits, and don’t want my colleagues to catch a glimpse if I have to reach for something on a high shelf. Having said that, I don’t think bare arms are per se inappropriate for a typical workday in your office, so long as your shoulders and every part of your bra are covered.

    I do think you should use judgment in deciding when to take off a jacket and reveal bare arms. I saw a video of Michele Bachmann wearing a sheath dress next to a male politician in a suit, shown waist-up only, and it sort of looked like she was ready to go clubbing and he was dressed for business. For that reason, I’d lean toward only non-shiny, unembellished sleeveless tops. In general, bare skin is more casual than covered skin. I think a good barometer is whether you can wear peep or open-toed shoes; if your toes must be covered, your arms probably should be too.

    • Gah – not anonymous, just forgot to fill in the Name field for my first comment of the day.

      • +1 for the mental image I now have of Michele Bachmann fist pumping with the cast of the Jersey Shore. Thanks for that!

  20. I would probably only wear number 4 to work… and I would probably only wear it under a cardigan. I would rather just be more covered up than worry about if I was being inappropriate or not.