Although often an overlooked design detail, the way a sleeve is styled makes a huge impact on one’s overall look. After all, a dress with lightweight flutter sleeves has a completely different feel than gown featuring long-sleeves manufactured from heavily-embellished lace. Because sleeves can instantly change the look an entire ensemble, today we’ll be taking a look at the history of vintage sleeves in vintage apparel
and the most popular variations currently available.
A Brief History of Sleeves
While we don’t pay much attention to sleeves in the modern era, they were once a very important design detail. In the 18th
centuries, the length of one’s sleeve was indicative of their place within society - the longer the sleeve, the more money you were thought to have. For this reason, members of the upper-class wore garments with long, lavish sleeves that feature statement-making embellishments or ruffles at the cuffs that were impossible to ignore.
As time went on and society became a bit less modest, sleeves took a different shape. Sheer sleeves became appropriate for women’s apparel during the Edwardian Era, when rules surrounding “appropriate” clothing were relaxed. By the 1920s, it wasn’t uncommon for modern women to wear styles that featured cap sleeves, flutter sleeves, or no sleeves at all.
Popular Sleeve Styles in Vintage Apparel
Three-Quarter Length Sleeves
Long sleeves can be sophisticated and severe, while cap sleeves or sleeveless styles have a breezy appearance that is only appropriate for summer months. Three-Quarter length sleeves, however, provide you with the best of both worlds. Often streamlined in design, they are sophisticated enough for formal events but provide the wearer with a slightly more leisurely sense of style.
On sophisticated gowns from the Edwardian era, you’ll find closefitting sheer sleeves that extend just past the elbow. In the 1940s and 1950s, ¾ length sleeves were incorporated in more casual pieces of apparel. You’ll often find raglan sleeves or dolman sleeves - which are inherently relaxed in nature - with a length that extends just past the elbow.
Puff sleeves exaggerate the shape of your shoulder and effectively add drama to your overall look. Although strong, they have a more feminine feel than shoulder pads, for example. These types of sleeves often aren’t too over-the-top when it comes to their size. The goal is to emphasize the shoulder and make it appear just slightly more rounded.
Puff sleeves have been popular throughout the history of fashion. The idea of a puff sleeve first became popular during the Renaissance. In the years that preceded the Victorian Era, mutton sleeves (also known as gigot sleeves) came into style. These sleeves feature a gathering of fabric near the shoulder that tapers into tight fit from the elbow to the wrist. Mutton-style sleeves that were shorter re-emerged in the fashion world during the 1930s. Balloon sleeves or peasant sleeves are another slightly more bohemian take on this trend.
Just as the name suggests, flutter sleeves are made of a lightweight fabric. This inherently feminine sleeve just brushes the shoulder, often just adding a bit of extra coverage to styles that would otherwise be sleeveless. You’ll usually find this type of sleeve on elegant gowns or dresses designed for wear during summer months.
Short flutter sleeves made of a sheer lightweight fabric are the most popular variation of this trend. Flutter sleeves comprised of two pieces of fabric are known as “split flutter sleeves,” and have an even more feminine point of view. When a flutter is added to an extended sleeve it begins to resemble what is known as a flounce sleeve. Multi-layered flutter sleeves - known as “ruffle sleeves” - also became popular in women’s fashion during the mid-century.