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UP IN ARMS

As the temperature outside rises, the stores are filled with sleeveless dresses that only look good on those with toned upper arms. As the temperature outside rises, the stores are filled with sleeveless dresses that only look good on those with toned upper arms. (istockphoto (above); Photos by Jonathan wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / June 2, 2012
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 So Mitt Romney and President Obama want the women’s vote, do they? Gentlemen, it’s pretty straightforward. Sleeves — we want sleeves. We want them on cocktail dresses and evening gowns. We want them at weddings, we want them at anniverary parties. We want them at confirmation parties and bat mitzvahs. And yet, when we go dress shopping, we can find almost none.

Please, don’t point out that we can throw on a shrug or a bolero, that we can “do” a little Jackie O jacket or scarf, that pashminas are a nice option. That only distracts from the real issue: Why must women buy dresses with a problem so serious — sleevelessness — that it requires the purchase of a second item to cover it up?

Let me quickly address the minority of Americans who do not personally suffer from upper-arm issues, or live with or love an afflicted woman. A person can develop an arm monomania so intense that months before an event she becomes consumed with figuring out a stylish way to cover the offending limbs. The challenges are varied: There are flabby arms, flappy arms, crepey arms, aged-spotted arms, arms that would do well in a pair of stockings, if only that look were in style — but the cry is the same. “I hate my arms.”

With exposed-arm season upon us, someone, please, hear our pleas.

Listen to Marie O’Neill, 55, an accountant from Malden who suffers from learned helplessness.

“I scan the racks [for dresses with sleeves], and I scan and I scan,” she said. “But you could scan all day. I don’t even bother asking anymore. What’s the point of complaining?”

Hear the frustration of Lindsey Anderton, 21, a student at Massachusetts College of Art who prefers not to bare her arms. “You have to wear a cardigan,” she said, “but it’s hard to find a cardigan.”

Pity Elana Saenger, 35, an elementary school teacher in Boston. “Sleeveless accentuates my arms,” she said, “in the negative sense.”

Like many women, she's feels it’s her arms — not the dresses — that are at fault. “They’re made to fit a certain figure,” she said. “I’m in the minority.”

Shilpa Thacker, a business systems analyst from Sharon, also thinks she’s unique in her desire for a bit of upper-arm coverage. “I thought it was just me,” she said.

With age, studies tell us, many of life’s petty concerns melt away. But angst about showing one’s arms is not one of them. In fact, as age takes its toll, even on those who work out, it picks up.

“I've just given up looking [for a dress with sleeves],” said Victoria Arnold, a marketing consultant of a certain age. At dressy occasions, she’s the one wearing the fancy suit.

How dire is the situation? Sandy Gradman, a co-owner of The Studio clothing boutique in Brookline, says that in 33 years of doing business, she’s found “the single thing that most people hate are their arms.”

And yet, when she and her business partners go on merchandise-buying trips to New York, it’s a sleeveless-palooza. “We always say ‘Don’t you have anything that has a sleeve?’ They’ll show us one or two things, but that’s it,” Gradman says.

Can’t this problem be solved? We’re only talking about a few inches of material here. It was time to leave the suffering masses and go to the source: designers. Perhaps you’re familiar with Newbury Street’s Daniela Corte. Her summer party dresses are sexy and beautiful, and almost always sleeveless.

“I’ve tried to add [short sleeves],” she said, “but it looks really frumpy — like an addition on a house that’s been done wrong, or an after-thought.”

Given the choice between wearing a dress with a slightly frumpy vibe and displaying a naked arm, many women would jump at frump. But Corte issued a warning: “It looks like you’re trying to cover something.”

And yet, so many of Corte’s customers wanted sleeves that she took pity, and designed lacy “ballerina sleeves” — essentially a torso-less jacket. For a mere $250, your arms can have peace of mind.

Here’s a puzzle: In the shoe world, we get to choose among high heels, platforms, flats, and kitten heels. But when it comes to that little black dress, the middle ground poses a challenge for even seasoned designers like Denise Hajjar.

Her customers, too, crave coverage, she said, so she set to work making cap sleeves. But they’re trickier than a lay person would think. “Too long and it starts to look fuddy duddy,” said Hajjar, who has a shop at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. “At that point I’d rather do a sleeve sleeve.”

If the caps are too short, she explained, “it makes you look like you’re trying to look like a little girl.”

So true, and yet, no less a fashion icon than the Duchess of Cambridge has been spotted wearing beautiful silk short sleeve dresses. And the maid-of-honor dress that made famous the rear end of her sister Pippa Middleton had short sleeves (not that anyone was looking at her arms). What’s really going on?

Daniel Faucher, director of the apparel design program at the School of Fashion Design in Boston, and owner of a South End couture shop, sees darker forcesat work in denying women the sleeves they need.

Stores prefer sleeveless dresses because they’re so easy to tailor, he said, and because a sleeveless garment fits a wider range of figure types than the same dress with sleeves. And with few sleeved options available, it’s a seller’s market.

“Then they can merchandise a stole or sweater in addition,” Faucher said.

With months of bare arms looming, Faucher did offer one bright note: It’s really only the start of the event that’s hard on the arm conscious.

“Three hours into the party, you’ve normally had cocktails and people are much more relaxed,” he said. “The judging has been done and people have moved on.”

To your hips.

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

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