Fashion History 101: Sleeves

An integral part of tops, jumpers and dresses, sleeves come in every shape, size and style imaginable! Due to the cyclical nature of fashion trends, different sleeve styles have had periods of growth and decline in popularity, which makes a definitive ‘sleeve history’ hard to put together. Instead, we’ve compile a list of some of the most recognisable (and our favourite!) sleeve styles that are still highly popular today.

Bishop Sleeves

A bishop sleeve is a sleeve that is full from the shoulder, narrows at the wrist and is cuffed at the bottom. Named after the sleeves seen on a traditional Bishop’s Rochet, it was first used in 6th century Byzantine dress but became more common at the dawn of the 19th century, with the full bishop sleeve being popular in the 1850s, and a smaller version being preferred in the 1890s. Since then, it has been seen recurrently throughout fashion history; it experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 1930s and 1940s in the fashion of Hollywood, and was popularised again in the 1960s and 70s with the hippie peasant dress. The bishop sleeve remains a prevalent style today, mainly used in in blouses and dresses to create a voluminous, statement look.

Image Credits: Vogue Pattern Book, 1969 and Etsy (dress by Mary Quant)

Bell Sleeves

Whilst also popularised in the 1960s and 1970s, the bell sleeve is almost the opposite to the bishop sleeve as it is fitted around the shoulder then widens and flares out to the wrist. Seen both in the more bohemian, floral hippie dresses of the psychedelic era and the colourful mini dresses that are emblematic of mod stylings, the current resurgence in popularity of the aesthetic of both of these eras has meant that the bell sleeve has also made a comeback today, again being largely seen in statement tops and dresses.

Image Credit: Ruby Sparrow

Want to add bishop or bell sleeves to one of your garments? Check out the Wide Hem Sleeve section in our Statement Sleeves eBook, available here.

Butterfly and Flutter Sleeves

A butterfly sleeve is similar to a bell sleeve in the way it flares out from the shoulder, however it normally stops before the elbow, sometimes higher. Butterfly sleeves often use an excess of fabric, pleated to create a voluminous look as it flares out. Flutter sleeves are a smaller version of butterfly sleeves, shorter and cut slightly wider to fall more loosely. Both butterfly and flutter sleeve styles were widely popular in the 1930s (with flutter sleeves often referred to as ‘capelet’ sleeves), both in day dresses and evening wear, often made using more sheer fabrics (such as chiffon) for a delicate, elegant look.

Image Credit: Lady Marlowe Patterns on Etsy and Giambattista Valli

Want to add flutter sleeves to one of your garments? Check out the Draped Sleeves section in our Statement Sleeves eBook, or our flutter sleeve hack for our Lucy Dress here. 

Puff Sleeves

Another favourite of the 1930s, puff sleeves have a gathered sleeve head and are often tightly cuffed at the top of the arm or elbow, creating a full, ‘puffed’ look in the middle. Intended to lengthen the shoulder line, the puff sleeve dates back to the Renaissance, however its revival in the 1930s made way for shoulder pads, which were first introduced by fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli in 1931 and popularised by actress Joan Crawford. In fact, a lot of puff sleeved dresses feature shoulder seams intended to fit the addition of a shoulder pad. Puff sleeves are still popular today, both in evening wear and daywear such as the very popular milkmaid style top, although most puff sleeves seen nowadays aren’t as dramatic as those seen in the 1930s. 

Image Credits: My Vintage Wish on Etsy and H&M

Want to add puff sleeves to one of your garments? Check out the Gathered Sleeve Head section in our Statement Sleeves eBook, available here.

Balloon Sleeves

Essentially a longer version of the puff sleeve, balloon sleeves are gathered at the shoulder, puffed out in the middle and then gathered again at the wrist. Like the puff sleeve, the balloon sleeve has been in and out of fashion throughout history (such as in the 1980s, for example), and is again experiencing a current renaissance, largely in statement crop tops, as well as 1970s inspired tiered dresses and voluminous knitted sweaters jumpers.

Image Credits: H&M and Topshop

Want to add puff sleeves to one of your garments? Check out the Gathered Top and Bottom section in our Statement Sleeves eBook, available here.

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