Is This a Dress or a Top?

Today’s post is from StyleBlueprint Louisville Editor Heidi Potter:


Look at these two items below and answer a question for me:

Is this a DRESS or a TOP?

This is from Free People.

Image credit: Free People


This by Annie Griffin.

Image credit: Annie Griffin


Stumped? I certainly am. For the sake of this conversation, here’s what I have to take into consideration when making decisions about a hemline:

  1. I’m tall.
  2. I’m curvy.
  3. I’m 40.

For those first two dresses shown above, I know automatically that I’m going to fill out every part and that they are possibly going to be shorter on me than on an average height gal. I also know that a woman of a certain age probably should not go too short. Nobody notices too short on a young girl. Everyone notices too short on a woman over 35.

In other words, those dresses, for me, are wearable as tops. Period. Get it? Got it. Good.

But wait, I’m confused. Even for these younger gals below, they are wearing short short pieces of clothing as dresses. I mean, gal on the right is just waiting for a slight breeze to moon the world. (And, yes, Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island in the middle, is wearing a garment that is undeniably a dress.)

These are from Nanette Lepore:


Image credit:

The girls on the left and the right look to be wearing something that I would wear with white jeans or possibly use as a swimsuit coverup. Maybe if I were 20, and not curvy or tall, I could get away with wearing these? Perhaps this is the acid test all women who are +35 need to use when determining if a dress is a dress or a top:

If you have to ask if a clothing item is a dress or a top, it is always a top.

Thank you, Tim Gun. Your words of wisdom, which I heard on Project Runway, have solved this perpetual problem for me.

A rose may always be a rose, but as for dresses? Well, that’s not always the case, especially if you’re shopping online. Take a look at these cute frocks from Milly (pictured below). Grey area, right? How are we to know if these are dresses or tops? Is what you see what you get? Meaning if you are buying online, can you go by the hemline measurement listed? Not always.

Image credit: New York Social Diary

Image credit: New York Social Diary

So let’s play with the numbers. We will introduce the dress and the hem length. Then I’ll tell you how tall the model is and what size the dress is. Compare that to your own measurements and start thinking how that would fit on your body. Here’s what I always keep in the back of my mind when looking at the dress: when I sit down, will I be sitting on my bare butt? If cheek will be touching the seat, it’s too short for me.

This is an average length dress at 41″ from Halston Heritage:


Halston Heritage Tie Shoulder Smocked Waist Dress available at

This is approximately 41″ long. Model is 5’8″ and wearing a size S. (i.e., I could wear this.)

Next, a 36″ dress from Forever 21. (Positively nun skirt length at this store)


Essential Polka Dot Shirtdress at Forever 21.

Measures 36″ from high point of shoulder to hem. This is a small. I do not have the height of the model, but I’m going to guess that they got the 36″ from measuring the back of the dress, not the front. (So this is a definite no for moi.)

What about something that is a little short? Not too short on her, but on me? This is the Tibi Violet Applique Dress.


Dress by Tibi.

This dress is approximately 33″ in length. Model is 5″10 and wearing a size 4. Verdict for me: I’d say if-y, and more than likely no as a dress on its own. With leggings, okay.

(Can we discuss how I need those shoes at a later date?)

Remember that number 33″ for a minute. The Tibi dress from above looks short, but not THAT short. Look below at this other 33″ length dress from Forever 21.


Tiered Georgette Dress from Forever 21.

Wait, hold up. If this young thing is wearing a 33″ dress with LEGGINGS (which look like a Lion King costume), does that mean it’s too short? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. Of course it’s too short.) This is a small and I do not have the model’s height. This looks a lot shorter than the previous Tibi dress.

So if 33″ warrants leggings sometimes (as seen above), this is what a 31″ dress looks like folks:


Tropical Print Dress from Forever 21.

Alright, that’s a shirt for sure, although at first glance, the photo is deceiving–she doesn’t look indecent in the least! But it’s a 31″ hem length and a size 4. Shirt, shirt, shirt.

For the finale: another shorty at 29″ by Max & Cleo.


This dress is 29″ length and the model is 5’9″, wearing a size 2. (Ergo, she is a ruler).

Might I add that this dress is gorgeous, and if I wouldn’t be sitting on my bare booty, I would seriously consider it for Oaks or Derby. However, this looks much longer than the peach dress or the white dress above. MUCH LONGER, but is a full 2″ shorter. But, this may be because the dress is strapless, and thus actually starts lower on the body. Ahhhh… it’s all so confusing, isn’t it?!

Here’s my point: You need to try these frocks on or know your measurements. 33″ is different on every body. As for the age factor, well, some say that minis are not acceptable after the age of 35. But, I’ve seen plenty of 50+ year old women rocking the mini. So, I believe that is a personal preference and the perfect length mini. An inch can make a huge difference. If you look good in it, and your friend that really does tell you the truth agrees with you, and you’ve got the legs, go for it.

Look at this 43 year old in her barely-there mini.


Image credit: Yahoo

 She does just fine, thank you.


Dress? Top? It all depends… Image credit: Harper’s Bazaar

Back to the question: Is it a dress or a top? I would deduce that if you have to ask, it is a top, like Tim Gunn recommends. But if you are confident that you can wear it as a dress, by all means, do it. Otherwise, invest in some great white jeans, cute cropped pants or great fitting bermuda shorts for the summer to wear with your dress/top. (Please no capri pants. Click here to see why.)

I’d love to hear your input on this, so please comment below.

Have a great weekend!