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The Closet

Note: With the 2011 website update, I thought about either pulling this article down or bringing it up to reflect more current clothing styles. But I decided to leave it just the way it was originally written several years ago, because the principles it explores remain true even though the specific styles may have changed. ~ Kathy

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Here’s the problem I have with concealed carry,” a friend confided to me one day. “I want to look like a girl, not like some guy wearing oversized baggy clothes with an untucked tee shirt and jeans four sizes too big. There just isn’t any way for a fashionable woman to carry on-body, is there?” Sometimes it seems so, I told my friend. Fortunately, the situation is not nearly as dire as it might seem at first. Women who want to dress attractively and still be prepared to defend themselves do have some good choices.

A good on-body concealment system requires four things:

Each of these four things is equally important, and together they make a complete carry system. Far too many people put too much emphasis on only one of these elements, neglecting the other three, and then are surprised when they cannot comfortably conceal the firearm. A great many people purchase successively smaller and smaller firearms, not realizing that the difficulty they are encountering is actually due to the poor holster types they’ve been choosing. Or they frantically purchase one holster after another, failing to understand that without a solidly secure way to attach the holster to the body (typically a stiff belt) even the best holster will be uncomfortable and fail to conceal the firearm adequately. Each element must work with the others to create a complete concealment system.

Banded hem tank top.
A simple, loose banded-hem tank top can be an effective cover garment for a firearm worn in a belt holster or a belly band.

And that brings us to a discussion of cover garments. On the range, an acceptable cover garment might be a ratty old oversized sweatshirt, or the baggy untucked tee shirt that so distressed my friend. But few people go through their day to day lives wearing nothing but country-casual clothes. Most of us go to an office, or out on the town, and we want to be attractive when we do. So what do everyday cover garments for women look like?

Better than you’d think! Surprisingly, women’s styles are actually more conducive to on-body concealed carry than men’s styles are … once you let go of your prejudices. For example, a quick thumb-through of the Spring 2009 catalogs as I write this shows me that this summer, many young women will be wearing baby-doll halter tops with empire waists. A lot of these styles have extra ruffles and flourishes, too. How nice! This means we’ll be able to wear a belt holster and slim jeans or shorts. The summery, flowing baby-doll halter top, which most people would consider “too revealing” for concealed carry, will actually be long enough and loose enough in the waist to function as the cover garment. That’s ideal for on the waist carry — and because the style is loose through the midsection, it works equally well with a belly band worn around the torso.

Similarly, a lot of the banded-hem blouses we’re seeing these days work great with a belly band or even a belt holster. The banded-hem style is snug across your hips to show off your figure, but loose through the body, making it ideal for concealing a firearm worn in a belly band that stretches around the torso. And if the blouse style is long enough (many are), it also pairs nicely with IWB belt carry.

Can a lacy-crocheted short-sleeved cardigan or vest make a good cover garment? Surprisingly, yes it can. Here’s how: layer it over a long, snug tank. The tank layer can be pulled down over the gun, covering it but leaving a visible lump. The see-through crocheted cardigan breaks up the covered outline beautifully, and the gun vanishes. Look ma, no printing!

Wideleg pants and slacks are bigger than ever this year. Thank goodness; that means that we’ll be able to easily and fashionably conceal an ankle rig even while wearing body-skimming tops that would never hide a holster. Not only that, but the draw from an ankle holster concealed by a flowing wideleg pant is relatively fast and easy, much smoother than the ankle draw from under a stiff pair of jeans.

What about those cute, boxy, short-waisted swing jackets? No good for concealed carry, you say? Hah! Try it with a shoulder holster worn snugged up under the arm. The look is sweet and sassy, and you can still show off your waist in your low-cut jeans. You can also toss that short little swing jacket — and the shoulder holster it conceals — over a figure-skimming dress for a summery evening out.

With these factors in mind, here’s a quick overview of on-body holster options women might want to consider.

Traditional Belt Holsters

Suit jacket and buttoned blouse.
Whether your personal style is classic …
Tight tee with loose lacy vest.
… or more modern, it is quite possible to fashionably conceal a firearm on the waist with just a little creativity.

It’s tempting for the fashionable woman to immediately discard the notion of carrying a firearm on the belt. And yet, belt carry offers so many significant advantages, and so few drawbacks, that unless it is ruled out by truly unusual circumstances, it should be the first choice. After all, belt carry is the single most common method of carry, and has been so for many years; there are good reasons for that. While looking for alternatives is understandable, do remember that alternative methods of carry are just that: secondary alternatives to the primary and preferred method.

With all carry methods, there are two important questions that must be answered. Question one is, “How well can I carry and conceal the firearm with this holster?” Question two — arguably more important — is, “How well can I access and use the firearm with this holster?” It does little good to merely have a gun nearby if you are attacked; you must be able to retrieve the firearm and get it into use quickly enough to save your own life. Since question one is our day-in, day-out reality, too often we tend to gloss over or discount question two. But without being able to actually use the gun quickly and efficiently under stress, we might as well leave that bulky and uncomfortable firearm home in the safe. While belt carry usually answers question one quite satisfactorily, answering question two is where belt carry really shines.

Before rushing out to reinvent the wheel yourself, and before exploring other options, take a moment to carefully consider belt carry. With the proper choice of a holster, this can be among the most comfortable and easily concealed of all on-body carry choices. Because it puts the weight of the gun near your hip, the weight of the firearm affects you least of any other carry options, meaning you can carry the heavier firearms which are typically more comfortable to shoot and easier to control. Firearm size is thus less critical with belt carry than with nearly any other carry choice, allowing most to carry a slightly larger firearm than they otherwise would. This style of carry allows an easy draw and quick access from a variety of positions. If you get bowled off your feet or tangled up by a tackle, you are more likely to be able to draw the gun from your belt than from any other location. Additionally, belt holsters are required for many firearms classes, and of all carry methods are most likely to be allowed on regular ranges. Because it is the most common carry method, there are more belt holsters available on the commercial market than any other type, making the holster search somewhat easier for this carry type than for most others. Unlike some of the alternatives, with a good holster design, belt carry is doable for every body type, including feminine figures. It’s unfortunately true that belt carry tends to be both more comfortable for men than it is for women, but with the proper holster it is quite possible for women to carry a firearm comfortably and well concealed on the belt. (See Straight Talk About Curves for more details about how to find a good belt holster which works well with a female body shape.) Best of all, belt carry is functional with a wide variety of clothing choices: whether your style is classic, flirtatious, traditional, or modern, it’s quite possible to conceal a belt holster with only minor changes.

Perhaps the most common objection many women have to on-the-belt carry is the belt itself. Since a sturdy belt is a truly integral part of the concealment system with this style of carry, it is more than worthwhile to purchase a belt designed to evenly distribute the weight of the gun. Yet many women complain that they “just can’t wear” a belt. Whenever I encounter such a woman, I tell her a golden little secret: try a contour-cut belt. Laid flat on the table, a standard belt is a straight line, while a contour-cut belt is a gentle “U” shape. On the body, the contour-cut belt conforms very comfortably to feminine curves, eliminating the back gap and the uncomfortable ‘pinch’ that many women find unendurable. If the width of a solid gun belt seems unnatural to you, consider purchasing a Galco CB3 “Concealable Contour Belt,” which tapers nicely in the front for a more professional and polished look.

Another little secret worth remembering is that if you have difficulty finding a pair of jeans that hug your curves but still allow enough room in the waistband to allow IWB carry, you might step over to the guy’s department and look for guy jeans. Guy jeans are cut proportionately bigger in the waistline and smaller in the rear, which is just what you need if you want to avoid that baggy-butt look so dreaded by fashion mavens.

To improve concealability, and thus fashionability, consider wearing an in-the-waistband (IWB) tuckable holster in the appendix position. With an IWB, your external clothing need not be very long in order to conceal well, and because it’s more flush to the body, an IWB demands less-sturdy cover fabrics than a comparable OWB design. In addition to improving belt-holster comfort for curvy women, a firearm worn over the appendix area does not interfere with your basic silhouette as seen from either front or rear, an important concealment issue. The tuckable feature allows maximum flexibility of cover garment choices. One holster worth a look: Galco‘s “Ultra Deep Cover” tuckable holster, which features a simple j-hook belt attachment that nearly disappears in use.

Oh, and about those cover garments: Please remember that a garment does not have to be ugly or out of style in order to conceal a firearm. Try a tunic-length empire-waist blouse; a ruffle-front halter top; a short vest over a long, loose oxford shirt; a tight tee under a sheer, lacy vest or cardigan; a multiple-layered “boyfriend” look; or patterned cardigan style vests, sweaters, and jackets. There’s really a whole world of very doable fashions for the woman determined to carry on her belt!

The Ankle Rig

Wideleg pants.
Worn to the office or on a date, wideleg pants allow discreet ankle carry regardless of the top half of the outfit.

Probably the nicest thing about an ankle holster is how discreetly it conceals the firearm. Under wideleg dress pants or bootcut jeans, the firearm really just disappears. Because it moves the firearm away from the main portion of the body, an ankle holster is the only method that allows on-body concealed carry while allowing a woman who has the figure for it to wear low-rise pants with a snug, belly baring top.

Despite its general utility, as with all carry methods, ankle carry has a few style considerations. Perhaps most difficult, the shoes worn with an ankle holster typically must allow you to wear socks rather than nylons or bare legs. That rules out a lot of women’s shoe designs, leaving only the flat-footed and sensible — but a smart woman interested in self-defense will avoid hobbling herself with spiky high heels in any case. The pant leg itself must be loose, and should not be too thin or of clingy material, or the firearm will ‘print’ through the fabric just as it would through any other too-flimsy cover garment when worn anywhere else on the body.

In addition to the style questions, ankle carry creates some important tactical limitations. Perhaps the most significant of these is the utter impossibility of drawing while moving away from the threat. You simply cannot draw from an ankle rig while moving. Even while stationary, drawing from an ankle rig can be difficult, particularly for those who are less flexible. Assuming the shooter is right-handed, the ankle holster is worn on the inside of the left ankle. Thus, the draw is accomplished by taking a huge step forward with the left foot (or dropping the right foot deeply to the rear), creating a stagger step that makes it easier to get into a deep crouch. From the crouch, the shooter grasps the hem of her left pant leg with her left hand, pulling it up as far as is practicable and simultaneously drawing with her right hand. You can shoot from the crouch — which is fastest — or stand to shoot. Unless you are safely behind cover, avoid kneeling: it can be fatally slow to get out of a kneel if you are overrun.

The ankle holster really shines in a seated environment, such as at a typical office desk or while behind the wheel of an automobile. The draw while seated or crouched behind cover is very fast and very intuitive. And for all-day wear while seated, the ankle holster is perhaps the most comfortable option of all.

One good source: Galco‘s Ankle Glove, which pairs a soft, Neoprene cuff with faux lambswool padding and an attached leather holster. A sold-separately Calf Strap counteracts any tendency the holster has to slide down the ankle. Those who prefer to wear boots (or who have thicker calves) can also purchase a Boot Extender, which allows the ankle holster to ride securely a bit higher on the leg.

The Belly Band

Ruffle tank.
Extra ruffles and flourishes can easily conceal a belly band.

Many years ago, when I was first beginning to carry, a gunwriter friend of mine commented that someday she was going to write a paean singing the praises of a belly band. At the time, I was somewhat puzzled why an experienced gun-toter who obviously had plenty of “real” holsters would love the belly band, but the longer I carry, the more I’ve come to see what drew my friend’s enthusiasm. The belly band may be the ultimately flexible on-body holster, making it possible to position the firearm nearly anywhere on your torso to suit the clothing you are wearing.

Especially nice for women wearing skirts or dress slacks without belt loops, the belly band allows you to position the gun high or low, toward the front or toward either side. My own favorite trick when wearing non-belted dress slacks is to position the firearm in exactly the same spot my belt holster would place it, for familiar comfort and ease of draw. With a dress, the firearm can be positioned just beneath the bosom to allow a draw from the neckline.

As with all soft, collapsible holsters, there are some valid safety concerns with belly bands. Most important: be very wary of muzzle direction while placing the firearm into the band, and take care that the firearm is securely placed within the band before proceeding with your day. While wearing the band, it is nearly, if not entirely, impossible to reholster the firearm without sweeping your own non-dominant hand, or even pointing the gun directly into the torso. Obviously, this would be a significant violation of the most basic firearms safety rules! For this reason, I recommend placing the firearm into the band before positioning the band on your body — and that you practice repeated drawstrokes (which include reholstering) only with a dummy gun, or with a Blade-Tech Training Barrel in place, or with a firearm that has been otherwise disabled to render it nonfunctional.

There are many different types of belly bands on the market. Personally, I’ve used Galco‘s UnderWrap for many years and have always found them entirely suited to the task. Be sure to accurately measure your torso before ordering (don’t guess!), as a wrap that is either too small or too large will be equally impossible to use.

The Shoulder Holster

Boxy jacket.
A short, boxy jacket can easily be paired with a shoulder holster.

For years I had a somewhat negative opinion of shoulder holsters, associating them with cranky old guys such as Detective Fish in the old “Barney Miller” TV series. Recently, though, I had a revelation: a good shoulder holster opens up a whole world of comfortable, fashionable concealment. (Yes, I’m a bit slow on the uptake.)

Using a vertical shoulder holster, even a slender woman can easily conceal a firearm under a boxy blazer or a flirty swing jacket. Those of us who are a little more well-endowed may be able to conceal using a more traditional horizontal holster. Most will find that a firearm with a short barrel is more concealable in a horizontal rig than is a firearm with a longer barrel.

There are two primary safety concerns with shoulder holsters. First, the holster itself must have a retention strap or other device to hold the gun very securely in place, as it will be subject to a lot of stresses that a standard belt holster simply doesn’t produce. Associated with this, the more securely the holster attaches to your body without flopping around, the more comfortable and the more concealable you will find this style of carry.

During the drawstroke it is very important to be aware of muzzle direction at all times. Typically, your brachial artery in the upper arm will be at risk during the draw, unless you consciously and deliberately lift your arm out of the way as you access the gun. This maneuver must be practiced repeatedly for smoothness and safety. (See How to Use a Shoulder Holster for a picture-based tutorial about shoulder holsters in use.)

Closely related to shoulder holsters are the newer undershirt holsters, especially those based on compression shirts. I’m not a great fan of the mesh-shirt based devices (which tend to allow the firearm to flop around too much for either comfort or concealment), but those based on compression shirts work very well. The A Better Holster shirt is one nice option, provided you have no objection to the high neck.

Conclusion

So there you have it. With all the functional and fashionable concealment options out there, why would any woman ever want to leave the house without the means to protect herself?