What do Elisabeth I, Snow White, lady Di, a random Baroness and my drunk best friend have in common? They all know/knew the power of sleeves when it comes to put on a seriously impressive one-woman-show!
I was never one for puff sleeves. I found them weirdly unpractical and they reminded me of the eighties style fiasco I am lucky enough to have escaped. (Because for me, it was basically PJ’s all day for the two years I lived in that particular decade.) Until one of my best friends showed up at a wedding party, rocking a baby pink mini dress with huge balloon sleeves. She looked like candy and I don’t know whether it is the candy association or the fact that she got madly drunk and floated through the room like a tipsy bonbon, gripping people and telling them sugar-sweet tales, bouncing back like a giant Bubble Shooter ball every time she collided with other guests (to be fair, I may have added this detail to the memory myself), but ever since that moment, puff sleeves have grown on me. And I’m not the only one, as lately designers can’t stop bringing some good old power poof to their fashion game.
Why oh why?!
London-based Korean designer Rejina Pyo scored a massive hit a few seasons ago with an over-the-top dress that looked like each arm was celebrating a birthday of its own, Cecilie Bahnsen and Rotate by Birger Christensen prove the Scandinavian cliché of normcore wrong with phenomenal statement sleeves and about every instacouture brand I know, like Belgian Maison Elise, seems to live by the “go big or go home” credo these days. The catwalk too has been submerged, with Mother of Pearl, Sportmax, Bottega Veneta and Fendi, to name a few, offering their own version of cloud-like sleeves.
It’s no secret that fashion has always reflected the mindset of its wearer and in fact, of the society as a whole, so I’m wondering: why are we blowing up sleeves again? Why do we feel the need to put even more weight on our shoulders in these trying times? Isn’t it crazy to try to look like bonbons when we should practically wear a protective armor and gas mask to keep safe -although one must admit, huge balloon sleeves are very social-distance-enhancing…
I did some digging:
First of all, it’s nòt weird to like big round stuff. Humankind’s preference for round shapes goes back to prehistory, when most of nature’s gifts came in circles: the sun, the moon, the planets, a mother’s belly and fruit. It is a fascination that sticked with us all into the 21st century -in fact, researchers still find test audiences to react better to round infographics and logos rather than square ones. Angular shapes have never enjoyed much popularity on the other hand, as they recall the sting of wild animal’s teeth, hard rocks and deadly weapons. A world away from the soft safety of loops and thus the Homo sapiens likes to come full circle – something we’ve proven time and time again.
Serious peacocking business
Who then, came up with the idea to add some roundness to shoulders in particular? Tracing down the origins of the puff sleeve, we dive straight into the Renaissance and Tudor monarchy, which has had an enormous impact on the way Europeans dressed in the 16th century. One figure in particular, Henry VIII, was basically thé top influencer of his time. Don’t be fooled by the famous painting portraying a portly man in his forties, as the English monarch was recognized by his contemporaries as one of the handsomest and best dressed men in the world. His ego certainly lived up to those standards and he liked to enhance his formidable looks with clever wardrobe tricks. His manhood was literally put in the spotlight as he kept dressing it with a shiny codpiece -a piece of material attached to the crotch to make one’s genitals appear larger. (True story, google his fighting armor and you’ll see this guy meant serious business when it came to peacocking -no pun intended- and promoting his virility). Equally, he liked to accentuate his broad frame by wearing fitted jackets with stuffed shoulder pads. This style became fashionable all through the Western world and when his daughter, the almighty Queen Elisabeth I, took hold of the throne she was set on upstaging her father on every level -including beating him at his own fashion game.
Being every inch the queen she was, she grew her own balls and put those on her shoulders -gladly trading the questionable codpiece look for larger than life sleeves. After she famously defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, she had an eponymous portrait made to depict her unprecedented power and influence over the world -her attire consisting of an extreme wasp waist, a boatload of pearls, too many bows to handle and one pair of seriously intimidating leg-of-mutton sleeves. Fun fact: the latter were called so because their shape reminded of sheep legs, while they were in fact often stuffed with horse hair to keep them full and stiff. Comfort clearly was not an issue for the world’s earliest fashion victim, who for sure didn’t invent said style, but definitely made it a big hit all across the then-modern world.
Up and down and up and down
After the Renaissance, the popularity of the puff sleeve would wane, only to resurface in full force during the Victorian and Edwardian era, late 19th- and early 20th century. The extreme S-silhouette came in fashion and puff sleeves proved to be a welcome trick to visually decrease the waist, as well as discretely express its wearer’s growing awareness on emancipation. It went to extremes and by the mid 1890s, a woman had only to cock her head sideways to have an afternoon nap on the huge piles of fabric resting on her shoulders. Funnily enough, said emancipation also caused women to drop everything -hemlines and shoulders alike- during the roaring twenties in order to favor a more boyish, slender and carefree silhouette. Hardship bounced back and so did big shoulders in the 1930s, following the great crash of Wall Street and the looming threat of war. Women ditched their provocative attire and went back to soft and safe (remember the virtues of round shapes) yet strong femininity, with Scarlett O-Hara and Snow White marching in as the embodiment of female perfection. It actually made for some great power dressing too: in the following decades, designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Cristobal Balenciaga gradually pumped up the volume and enhanced shoulders became synonym with a big fat attitude.
May I invite you to reflect over this Sound of Music (1965) scene, where a kick-ass Baroness, weaponed with extra brilliant tulle puff, makes Fraulein M and her goody good bell sleeves blush (and consequently flee back to the convent) in front of the moldable Von Trapp girls, all dressed up in mini puffs. That’s right: the bigger, the bad-asser!
This idea exploded in the eighties as women were flooding the work floor and used a tailored look with traditional feminine elements such as ruffles and taffeta to stand their ground. Show like Dynasty and Dallas added even more drama to the style, and so did a certain completely overpowering wedding dress that looked like it would eat Diana Spencer alive. The princess and her sleeves, each one big enough to host an entire beehive, set the trend for the next decade. Then came the nineties and everything went back to the bare minimum.
The new Power Puff Girls
Today’s relapse into everything big and puffy is to be seen in a different light. As many observers note, the trend resurfaced on social media first, in the feeds of a growing number of quirky style stars and independent, sustainable designers such as Maison Cleo, Aurore Van Milhem or Maison Elise. Established designers have followed suit of course. At its core this trend seems to indicate not only a new form of individuality and creativity, but also of authority. Adding some volume to a sleeve is indeed a great way to give existing clothing a make-over: upcycling and vintage are championed as a the new, sustainable luxury, expressing the mind and moral standard of its wearer and thàt is what influence is all about these days. Not a ridiculously small waist (although, let’s be honest, it ìs a very flattering design), not proving your worth over your male coworkers, not bitching on a fellow sister, but rather indicating that you are standing head ànd shoulders above all that.
That, and the fact that you’re weaponed with good morale and strikingly beautiful ethics to handle the big, scary world out there.