The Arms Race

Why are fashion designers suddenly obsessed with sleeves?

A dress by Junya Watanabe. Click image to expand
A dress by Junya Watanabe

Observers of fashion have watched hemlines rise and fall for decades. And when hemlines aren’t news, attention often shifts to an eye-catching bust. But as fall fashions begin arriving in stores this month, be on the lookout for remarkable sleeves. Designers have not focused on sleeves with such intensity since Helmut Lang cut them extra-skinny in the early ‘90s and Consuela Castiglioni reacted a decade later with an extra-loose fit for Marni. But the most important designers showing in Paris in February shifted attention from breasts and legs to wings. Women’s arms—yes, arms—are the new body part of choice.

Nicolas Ghesquiere, designing for Balenciaga, cut barely-there sleeves that revealed the shoulder. At Lanvin, Albert Elbaz made ballooning sleeves from yards and yards of silk ribbon. Alexander McQueen made gargantuan, romantic sleeves. Marc Jacobs’ collection for Louis Vuitton took the overbuilt shoulder of the early ‘80s and deflated it. Stephano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent offered leotard-tight sleeves under Robin Hood-style tabards. Jun Takahashi made free-flying sleeves slashed to the wrist, and Junya Watanabe did away with sleeves altogether: His cocoon dresses bound the arms to the body.

Why the sudden obsession? Some observers hold that all changes in fashion are ultimately about sex. Historian James Laver once famously argued that designers respond primarily to the shifting erogenous zones in the Freudian recesses of men’s minds, raising skirts to keep up with their fantasies. It’s a plausible explanation for changing hemlines, but it’s hard to see how the theory applies to the cloth women cover their arms with.    

Others contend that fashion trends correspond to the economy: In the 1920s, when hemlines rose to the midcalf, analysts pegged the show of legs to exuberance about the booming economy and have seen shorts skirts as a positive indicator ever since. Unfortunately for economic forecasters, the advent of extravagant sleeves has not really indicated overstuffed coffers since the Renaissance.

A dress by Lanvin. Click image to expand
A dress by Lanvin

Whatever sleeves represent to the casual observer, they represent something else to the designer: virtuosity. Setting a sleeve—dressmaker parlance for sewing the sleeve to the armhole—vies for position as the zenith of the craft with the hand-done pleating of a plissé dress. Some designers, most notably the late Yves Saint Laurent, even built their reputations, in part, on their definitive sleeves. To say a designer has executed a “Saint Laurent sleeve”—shoulders raised and broadened, stopping just this side of exaggeration; armhole shaped through the back to allow for movement and the perfect drop of the sleeve to the wrist—remains one of the ultimate compliments in dressmaking.

The sleeve as we know it has been around for more than 600 years.  The armhole is an invention of the Late Middle Ages, when men’s and women’s clothing first became distinct and tailoring and dressmaking were born. Previously, everyone in the West—man, woman, king, gruel carrier—wore essentially the same tunic, which was made of two pieces of cloth cut in a T-shape, the loose sleeves and body all-in-one. Once dressmakers learned to control the armhole at the joint, they could cut closer to the torso as well, and the fitted bodice appeared.

Freed from the tunic, dressmakers began to experiment. In late-15th-century court dress, sleeves screamed wealth: They became outrageously long, sometimes trailing precious fabric and fur trim behind the wearer like a train. Such vulgarity was condemned by the clergy as ungodly. During the Renaissance, when skirts became fixed over cone-shaped petticoats and could only be decorated, sleeves became a spectacle, elaborately cut with heraldic-looking slashes. In the 18th century, when heaving, corseted bosoms and voluminous, Watteau-back gowns became sexually alluring, sleeves became short and simple to balance the grand silhouette, maintaining a lady’s dignity with a sweet ruffle of lace above her elbow. Today, the Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion defines 32 varieties of sleeve, with “rhumba” and “kimono” among the most familiar, and “bagpipe” and “imbecile” among the most obscure.

Why, then, did designers take up sleeves this season? Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, quickly dismisses the sex theory. “Heterosexual men always like the same things on a woman: breasts, hips, legs,” says Steele. “There is no evidence that men who like breasts get tired of breasts. I think it’s total bunk to look at this as shifting erogenous zones.” Steele suggests that the reason designers played with sleeves is, in fact, about the economy—or, at least, the marketplace: In this era of fast fashion, when budget companies like Zara reproduce runway looks within weeks of the shows, complicated sleeves are hard to knock off. (It’s one thing to get a factory in Whereverstan to churn out a simple trapeze dress; it’s another to make a good copy of Elbaz’s ribbon sleeves on the cheap.) Essentially, Steele says, designers are attempting to distinguish themselves by presenting consumers with feats of dressmaking. It’s true that designers may simply have grown tired of skirts, which they’ve been toying with for several seasons. But the profusion of sleeves may, at heart, be a defensive move.

I think Steele is right, for the most part. But there’s still an element of courtship here. Fashion’s first seduction takes place in the dressing room, when clients go to shop. That’s where the virtuoso work of a designer who is likely miles away first takes hold of a woman with a credit card in hand. Which is why the surfeit of sleeves is good news for retailers. In front of a hundred department store mirrors this summer, women will fall in love with clothes they hope to fall in love in. Paris has delivered the card up its sleeve.