It’s imprinted in the minds of generations of girls: the scene in Anne of Green Gables where the redheaded heroine revels in receiving a fashionable puff-sleeved dress. Anne would be thrilled with the state of style in 2023, from the swooping silhouettes of Kika Vargas’ voluminous dresses to Cecilie Bahnsen’s and Simone Rocha’s pumped-up sleeves that turn arms into clouds of saccharine fabric. In fact, so influential is the motif in today’s fashion landscape that the Museum at FIT is opening a dedicated exhibition, “Statement Sleeves,” on January 24. The show includes everything from a Madame Grès evening gown circa 1980 to an extreme puff-sleeved dress from LaQuan Smith—as well as options from Schiaparelli, Carolina Herrera, Rudi Gernreich, and costume designer Adrian. “I wasn’t looking for any particular designer,” says curator Colleen Hill. “I was just looking for great sleeves.”
While puff sleeves are truly everywhere, today’s statement sleeves don’t always rely solely on ultrafeminine tropes. Look at Luar’s revved-up play on power dressing for fall 2023, which transformed sleeves into architectural wonders; the large, streamlined, balloon-like options at Schiaparelli; or Gucci’s sporty, deconstructed take, below.
“Big sleeves, with their transparency and form, show the beauty and the intricacy of the fabric in the most delicate way,” says Bahnsen from her Copenhagen atelier. In recent years, the motif has become synonymous with her brand, as seen on pieces like the Danita dress, finished with a bow on the left arm, or the heavy Uma dress, crafted from textured cotton. Elsewhere, British designer Matty Bovan has made a habit of creating historical sleeve shapes using recycled materials. “I was trying to take something from the past and make it extremely modern and actually wearable,” he says, “while still being able to alter the silhouette and line of the body.”
A social media dive into how we present ourselves speaks volumes about how standout sleeves have become such an influential part of our modern wardrobes. Says Hill, “I wonder if it’s partly due to seeing so many people on screens over the past few years. How do you make a statement from the waist up?” Certainly, in an era when people are becoming more and more expressive with their personal style, a sleeve is also an incredibly easy way to signal your aesthetic from a mile away. Brooklyn designer Ulla Johnson has a deep affinity for all parts of the clothing she designs, including sleeves. “There is something effortless I want to impart in each piece, something you can wear anywhere and everywhere,” she says. “And that empowerment makes you feel like the truest version of yourself.”
Even more interesting is the sleeve’s role in fashion history. “Sleeve lengths during the 19th century were one of the factors that determined a garment’s formality,” Hill says. A sleeve used to reveal what time of day the item could be worn, and for what purpose. Fashion historians have long used sleeves to date clothing, sometimes down to the specific year. And unlike hemlines, sleeves throughout history have typically been left unaltered.
There’s something unapologetic about a wild sleeve. It takes up space, and it’s not shy. And maybe there’s even a little ostentatiousness baked into it, too. “Renaissance sleeves were often about status,” Hill says. “Fabric was very expensive.” Once upon a time, hemlines, collars, and waistlines dominated the style narrative. But now, fashion is clearly wearing its heart on its sleeve.
This story appears in the November 2023 issue of ELLE.
Kristen Bateman is a contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Her first fashion article was published in Vogue Italia during her junior year of high school. Since then, she has interned and contributed to WWD, Glamour, Lucky, i-D, Marie Claire and more. She created and writes the #ChicEats column and covers fashion and culture for Bazaar. When not writing, she follows the latest runway collections, dyes her hair to match her mood, and practices her Italian in hopes of scoring 90% off Prada at the Tuscan outlets. She loves vintage shopping, dessert and cats.