Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Empire Waist

For many, many years, I thought empire-waist dresses made me look pregnant (when I am not, have never been, nor ever will be pregnant; no offense to those who are or wish to be pregnant, but the fact is, most women only want to look pregnant when they are actually carrying a fetus inside their womb).

The empire-waist-dress-makes-you-look-preggers concept was not just my fear, it is shared by many women, & when I started reading fashion blogs, I came across it again. Heck, look at these maternity dresses from Old Navy, you'll find a ton of empire waists! Perhaps there was some truth to the idea.

Especially being a plus-size gal, I was self-conscious of looking any bigger than I am, thus empire-waist dresses seemed like a big no-no. However ... a couple years ago, I found myself trying on some casual knit dresses at Target. Just some simple things to wear with leggings, perhaps ... and what's this? They all had empire-waist styling? And they looked pretty darn good. Bonus, these dresses were great for layering & mixing & matching. Surely this was an aberration, just some perfect magic fit dreamed up by Target's design mavens.

But no. I started trying on more empire-waist dresses from other stores. I realized something important: Every empire waist is not the same. A slight variation in exactly where the waist hits you will make a big difference, the fullness of the skirt matters a lot, & accessories can make or break the overall look.

Let me explain how I learned to stop worrying that I looked pregnant & instead love the empire-waist dress for how lovely & pretty it can be on this plus-size lady. Note that these tips are based on my experience as a 5'2" short, pear-shaped gal. Your mileage may vary, but if you've been hesitant to try empire-waist styles, follow this advice as a way to start...

1. Wear a good, supportive bra. OK, this should be a no-brainer, you need a good bra no matter what you're wearing. But this is crucial for an empire-waist gown. Those girls need to be hiked up into place! Any sagging, & your boobs may appear to meet your belly (especially on us plus-size women), which looks wrongity-wrong.

TMI: I've found that, as I get older, my bras need to be replaced more often. The elastic & nylon & other stuff they're made of just can't take the stress! Remember, it's not you, it's the garment, so buy new, buy better quality.

2. The waistline should not hit exactly under your bustline. This is most important if you have any amount of belly protruding -- if the dress waistline starts right under your boobs, it can utterly remove any waist you might actually have, & all the eye sees is round boob, round belly. Even in slimmer profiles, the very high waistline may shorten the torso unnaturally & can look weird (I'm talking about you, 1810s Jane Austen fashion!).

Dresses with a high waist & a wide band below this are going to be the most flattering & more proportional. Note: You can fake this effect easily with a wide belt!

3. Look for empire-waist dresses with A-line or straight skirts. The less fabric that's gathered around your waist, the less fullness is added, the less of a maternity look. Avoid "babydoll" dress styles completely, like the horrible plaid example pictured at the top of this post (ditto babydoll tops/tunics, yuck), & be wary of pleats at the waist (even what may appear to be just two small pleats -- that's gonna bulk you up in exactly the wrong spot; this placement is notorious on structured dresses & dresses with tulip skirts).
4. Try a V-neck or surplice/wrap-dress style. These can be cleavage-tastic (particularly on us larger gals), so you may want to layer the dress over a camisole or a T-shirt. But that "V" shape at the neck is elongating. Enhance it with an awesome statement necklace or a long scarf.

Don't bother with bandeau bust styles or spaghetti straps, as they won't emphasize anything positive on most shapes unless you're a flat-chested teenager. Scoop necks can be OK, but they border on maternity territory, so tread carefully. High necks such as cowls, turtlenecks, etc. add bulk & can look weird imnsho combined with an empire waist.

Be wary of dresses with a twist-front at the bust or a flowing knot right below the bust because this can add extra gathered fabric falling directly over your belly (causing the same problem outlined in tip #3).

5. Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize!  The more simple & basic the empire-waist dress, the more you need to add to it to make it look like something special. The style can emphasize your cleavage & your waist, particularly if you heed tips #2 and #4, but you still need accessories. A great necklace or earrings will do wonders (either big earrings & a delicate necklace or a big necklace & delicate earrings; don't go big on both).

You can add detail with your belt too -- add a flower rosette, get a belt with an interesting buckle, find a belt with corset detailing, or look for a belt in an attention-grabbing material like shiny patent or metallic. Just having a belt in a contrasting color is a good idea. A colored or print dress with a solid black belt defines the even waist more.

Also consider layering. A pretty camisole with lace edging looks great under empire-waist dresses, & in cooler temperatures, a thin, long-sleeved T-shirt adds interest, especially in a contrasting color or pattern. Throw on a cardigan over the dress, but make sure to leave it open so you don't lose the lovely "V" line (for this reason, I don't recommend jackets unless they're ones that look great hanging open). Leggings & boots can look good with empire-waist dresses, as do tights & pumps, depending on the outfit.

A few examples to buy right now:   

My examples: 

Some examples from other bloggers:


  1. Thanks for this post! I like a lot of empire styles, but I could never figure out how to get around the pregnant-look issue.

  2. great tips. especially the part about a good bra. I found that the push-up plunge bras from Lane Bryant are the only things that keep the girls from looking matronly. Now I want to go shopping.

    Lynn Brooks

  3. I have a short thick waist so I've long loved the empire waist. It flatters because it covers up the middle. And one can never feel confined in it.

  4. I have a short thick waist so I've long loved the empire waist. It flatters because it covers up the middle. And one can never feel confined in it.