Faux Pas: The Empire Strikes Back

Jul 28, 2011

In 2003, the empire waist came back the retail fashion scene with a vengeance.  By 2006, the empire had basically taken over.  Now, when I walk down the street, one out of every four shirts I see is an empire waist.  

At some point, women became convinced that empire waist tops would conceal their middles, but this simply isn’t so.  Empire tops were made for pregnant women, women who just finished being pregnant, and no one else.  

Because like a denial just draws more attention to a political scandal, draping your middle in a loose drape of fabric just makes someone wonder what you’re hiding under that caftan-like top.

If you’re looking to conceal thickness in the torso or the paunch from an indulgent vacation, there are better ways to do it.  Wrap tops and dresses can be slimming.  Ruching, pleating and gathers can also be slimming.  This dress from Ralph Lauren is a good example of what I’m talking about.

Bottom line, empire waist tops are dated.  They’ve gone to the retail trend graveyard, and it’s time to start phasing them out of your wardrobe.  Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

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  1. MM says:

    Amen!!!

  2. Anna says:

    (looks down, realizes am wearing a very similar top) uh oh…. it's comfortable though! And I dressed it up with a fun scarf – that makes it better right?

  3. Hannah says:

    Have to agree! I am quite over the empire waist. I'm a big fan of natural waist, that way I'm highlighting my thinnest part instead of hiding everything. Ooh the mystery. I'm still not a fan of wrap anything though. Whenever I wear a wrap dress all I can think is “whoa cleavage!”

  4. sara says:

    would love to discreetly forward this post to many friends and coworkers…

  5. VA Gal says:

    All I have to say to this is “Amen, sister!” I hate hate and hate empire waist tops and they were trendy for way too long when I was in college. Another added negative to them: If you have much of anything up top, these blouses will make you look pregnant no matter what kind of shape you're in.

  6. LM says:

    I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one, Belle. As a classic apple shape, the empire waist silhouette is one of the few that actually looks decent on me. That's not to say any woman of my body shape should have a closet full of shirts like the example picture, but to have a couple in your closet isn't outdated, it's variety. Most of the things I own that are clearly empire waist are dresses and the majority of my “nicer” tops have the idea of the empire waist in the cut so that they flatter me when my “natural waist” isn't a part of my body I need to be highlighting,

  7. LT says:

    Ok, not that this is a pregnancy fashion blog, but for those who might be headed down that path: Don't toss these shirts! Especially the more structured blouse-like ones – as opposed to the t-shirts like the one in the pic. Put them in a box and save them for when you're newly-pregnant-but-not-telling-coworkers-yet. I would even suggest keeping them in very low rotation just so that when you do start wearing them it isn't a dead give-away that you're pregnant. This phase of pregnancy is not the time for wrap dresses/tops as they highlight the newly-pregnant belly (these are adorable a little later on, though). And when you wear the empire top, keep the cardigan you wear over it snug on your arms. By 12 weeks when you're telling people, the tops won't fit you anymore, but at least you'll have made it through. Also, you'll have something that fits you that ISN'T maternity when you head back to work after your leave.

    I'm kicking myself that I didn't save a couple of these types of tops for pregnancy #2, and I hate to go and spend money on them now.

  8. Belle says:

    LM-Just promise me that you'll choose better fabrics. An empire waist looks endlessly better in crisp poplin or chiffon than jersey.

    If you want to try creating a natural waist, I'd suggest a v-neck dress and a wide belt at the natural waist.

  9. S says:

    Hmm. I'm wearing an empire waist shirt today and I love it. And unlike acid wash jeans and scrunchies I don't feel like I'm offending anyone's sensibilities by wearing this shirt. Maybe I'm in a time warp, but as I just bought the shirt this season from BR, so I'm going to keep wearing it.

  10. Belle says:

    BR has been in a time warp for two years. Half my wardrobe used to be from there, now I walk in, see old trends and muted colors and walk out. They make good cheap jewelry and that;s about it.

  11. Rach says:

    Belle, here is my problem and I am inclined to disagree unless you can help me =)
    My natural waist is smaller, but I find that empire waists are more flattering because although my top half is very thin, I have some hips and a booty! So if I show off my thin waist, the bottom half looks twice as large as what it is. So rather than over-emphasize my smaller torso, I neutralize with an empire waist. Am I off base?

  12. Carrie says:

    Belle–

    I have to disagree here. As a woman who is high-waisted, short torso-ed, and has appendages that are unnaturally long for my height, the empire waist was essentially made for me. Now, I am not condoning the empire to a-line top that was clearly meant for the maternity section or someone attempting to dress as Baby Spice, but because 'natural waist' generally for me means 'hey we're going to accent below your waist where your stomach starts' I generally shy away from those options which leaves me mostly with princess seam and the empire waist. Perhaps I am the exception to the rule?

  13. Ms. C says:

    I have never disagreed with you, Belle…until now. I'm going to guess from this post that don't have a large chest. If you had a large chest, you might understand the appeal of a empire waist top in a nice fabric. You see, my measurements are great for a rap video or a Sir Mix-A-Lot song but bad for getting senior partners to take one seriously in a formal work environment. I spent two years looking like a square (the shape, not the idiom) before I discovered that “professional” is not synonymous with masculine and that figure flattering cuts actually made me look (and feel) much better. To that end, empire waist and wrap shirts have become a suit-layering favortie of mine.

    You are correct that an unstructured, jersey, empire waist top with an embellished neckline, like the one you featured, should be strictly reserved for Wet Seal (do those still exist?) and its patrons. However, a nice empire waist or wrap shirt of the proper length (not too long) in a blousy (not clingy) fabric can look feminine and professional. See, e.g., https://tinyurl.com/438bqrm. To make it work, ou must pay attention to cut, fit, and fabric but isn't that true of all sartorial decisions?

  14. Belle says:

    Rach-Pear shaped people like you, and me for that matter, should never wear empire. It makes you look a straw with a grape stuck in the middle because it will make your mid-section look as wide as your bottom section but you bust will still be small.

  15. Belle says:

    To the large chested women who disagree:

    While I am willing to admit that fabric and cut could make a difference, I think a large chested woman in a full empire blouse is even more likely to look pregnant than a small chested woman. I'm not saying it's impossible for it to look good, but you would probably look better in a wrap blouse or a properly-tailored v-neck.

  16. tiaracara says:

    I also have to disagree- I've got a big middle, its where I carry my weight… these shirts make it possible for me to wear pants without a muffin top blurbing out for all to see… Lately I have seen, and purchased, a number of tops that have scrunchy elastic or banded hems- which I love and also allow me to wear pants. But I would also love to hear what you think a good alternative may be for those of us who don't have a natural waist, struggle with muffin top, etc…

  17. tiaracara says:

    Oh- and PS- Thank you, Ms C… I now MUST have that Nanette blouse! LOVE!!

  18. Sarah says:

    I couldn't agree more. I've had this exact conversation with many friends.

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