Ask Laia: How Do I Find A Good Maxi Dress?

Everything you wanted to know about maxi dresses.

Jul 21, 2011 at 12:02pm | Leave a comment

Hi Laia!

I love the effortless, chic vibe of a good maxi dress (not to mention how great they are in this hot NYC summer), but I'm having trouble figuring out how to wear one with my body type. I'm 5'11" so most dresses I find don't seem long enough. I know there are cute maxi dresses out there that are only supposed to come to the lower calf, but they just end up looking like they're too short for my tall frame. Are they supposed to reach all the way to the ground? And if not, what's the best length for pairing a dress with heels or flats? I also feel like having nearly six feet of one color/print can be overwhelming to the eyes in a way that it isn't on a shorter woman - should I avoid them altogether?

Thanks!
Bethany

Ah, Bethany, seems like you've been bitten by the maxi dress bug just like I have. I totally understand your concern, the right length is so important! But before we continue I just want to say that I do not think your height is something that should stop you from wearing things you want, and although some items definitely inspire a bit of a "handle with care"-approach, maxi dresses are not in that list, so go long without fear! 

As for dress length vs. your height situation, unfortunately you might have to try them all on before you buy to decide if they work for you. All of the Gap-brands (Gap, Old Navy & Banana Republic) have a "Tall" category that should be worth exploring. I'm not sure that they always sell it in store, but if you buy online you can return at the store so that takes a bit of the hassle off. I looked at a bunch of dresses online and found that the longest lengths available in the "regular" market are in the 52- to 58-inch range. If you are buying things online I think a good idea would be to wear a long dress or long skirt that you like and measure the length from about the middle of your chest down to the hem so that you have a number to guide you in your purchases. 

But if you just need to make do with what you can find in the market, then here's the breakdown. [You can click to buy if you like the examples I used.]

The Mid-Calf: If this is the length you find most things, you can still make it work. Personally, I prefer things that hit at the mid-calf to be form-fitting or narrower in feet to avoid weirdo Elaine Benes-style (even though she's ALL the rage right now--the New York Times even wrote about it!), but you know, that's definitely not for everyone. With this length you can do flats or heels, but if you're doing flats I think something that doesn't cut across your ankle is best so that the lower half of your legs aren't chopped off awkwardly and the flow of you-the dress-shoes is more natural. Little sandals like the model is wearing in this picture are a good idea. In the fancier gown sections, this is called a "cocktail length" so you know it will be good with heels too, and I think it adds a nice retro flair.

The Ankle Length: This is a pretty popular length and one that you might also have a bit more luck wearing. You have about 4 inches above the ankle of freedom of where the dress can hit and still not look awkward. I think this looks better with flats, but a heel should be no problem. In terms of the cut of the dress, it can be narrow or more a-line, like this cute black dress with an asymmetrical hem I found in the Gap tall section. Dresses that are shorter in the front and longer in the back are also great because they don't constrict you when you walk, which is a problem with all the narrow fits. I'm only 5'6" and I always end up hiking dresses over my knees while I walk to the train because otherwise I freak out so I imagine this is something you might definitely incur in this as well! Just something to keep in mind while you shop.

The Mopping the Floor: The longest dresses seem like a good idea, but they always end up being a pain in the neck if you aren't wearing super-high heels and even then it's still a pain. True, you can wear them with flats and just drag the dress around so the hem will become all effed up, but then you're bringing all the city dirt in the house with you and that's annoying (although there's something kinda decadent about not caring that the hem of your dress is coming apart in four different places). 

I hope this guide helps you navigate the long lengths in your life, dresses by Topshop and T by Alexander Wang tend to be cut on the longer side in general, so that's something to consider. And yes, the Wang pieces can be a little pricey depending on your budget, but at the end of the season you will inevitably find them on sale which is when you can go in and snatch them all up. Good Luck!

Have a fashion conundrum? Let me at it! Send me all your queries to laia@janepratt.com