Puff Sleeves: History’s ‘biggest’ trend

In L. M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley dreams of owning a puff-sleeved dress. Set in the late 1800s, puff sleeves were the height of fashion and Anne’s longing for a puff sleeved dress speaks to her desire to fit in with all the other girls. Much to her disappointment, Marilla gives her plain dresses. A practical woman, Marilla isn’t interested in trends and regards puff sleeves as a waste of fabric. Unable to see Anne disappointed, it isn’t long before Matthew buys her a puff sleeved dress…

Here we are in 2021 and we can appreciate Anne’s love for a puff-sleeve. They’ve been everywhere over the last few years – on the run way, in the high street and, even in the sewing world, there’s no shortage of puff sleeved patterns.

What is it about the puff sleeve we can’t resist?

For me, the puff sleeve is both a bold statement and a delicate feature at the same time. It’s an expression of femininity that isn’t shy, perfect for the fashion conscious woman who wants her clothes to be seen. I know that there are some people who don’t care for the trend, some of which have even called it ‘silly’, but I guess when you’re invested in your own style, you don’t care. That’s the thing about making conscious fashion decisions – and as sewists we make more decisions about our clothes than anyone else; it’s liberating.

A lot of what I wear is rooted in my love of history, of styles that have been reinvented over and over again through the decades and centuries.  I love a whimsical piece.

The puff sleeve in history

Women have enjoyed big sleeves for centuries. You’ll find them in portraiture from as early as the 15th century.

During the Renaissance period, sleeves were big business; they were a statement feature and were often designed as detachable to allow for more variation. They were a typical sixteenth-century wedding gift for new brides from their husbands. Mothers would also have passed them down as heirlooms to their daughters.

In France, during the reign of the ‘Sun King’, King Louis XIV, power dressing was in vogue. The whole purpose of fashion was to show the world just how important you were and what better to do that than wear large, voluminous sleeves?

The puff sleeve continued to dominate fashion during the English Victorian period. Queen Victoria was an “influencer” long before Instagram came on the scene. The nobility set the trends and Victoria, on her wedding day (much like a royal wedding today) debuted not one but two trends.

She wore a white dress with mutton sleeves, which was largely unseen at that time. The staple white dress of today’s wedding culture is testament to the staying power of her fashion choice. [As an aside, they were called leg-of-mutton sleeves if they were huge near the shoulder but tapered from the elbows to the wrists.] 

Balloon-sized sleeves were a popular trend in the 1980s: think Princess Diana’s wedding dress which was the springboard for wedding gowns throughout the decade.

Eighties’ fashion was a bit ‘extra’ anyhow – shoulder pads essential – but the sleeves of her gown were a dramatic symbol of the ‘happily ever after’ fairy tale (not that it worked out that way).

Today, the puff sleeve is back in fashion. Most of the versions I’ve seen and would wear are much softer than many of the historical manifestations of the trend. But what I love about them is how diverse a look you can create, depending not only on the size of the sleeve but also the fabric you decide to use; you can experiment with texture and prints and make amazing contrasts between the sleeves and the main body of the garment.

Sewing Patterns

Fibre Mood, Mabel Jumper

If you’re new to puff sleeves and not sure it it’s the trend for you, try theMabel jumper. It gives you that trend without being too overwhelming. It really is a wardrobe staple piece.

Fibre Mood, Norma Blouse

If you get on well with Mabel, Norma would be a good place to go next – this is one of my next projects on my to-make list

Fibre Mood, Mindy Dress

This is another pattern that is high on my list of garments to make for summer (it’s currently pouring down and blowing a gale so my eyes are rolling); the Balkan inspired dress is beautifully designed so it could be as subtle or as loud as you want, depending on the fabric you choose to use.

Charm Patterns, Skipper Bodysuit and Dress (Patreon Exclusive Pattern)

The Skipper bodysuit comes with the option of elasticized puff sleeves or cap sleeves – no prizes for guessing which one I always choose?

Kosedo Studio, Lima Dress

This was the pattern that launched my love of the puff sleeves; with a gathered skirt and princess seams, this is a classic. I’ve made both long puff sleeves for winter and short sleeved versions for summer.

Strawberry Skies, Sylph Puff Sleeve Dress

I have only recently discovered Strawberry Skies but this dress gives me real Disney princess vibes. If ethereal whimsy is your thing, check them out.

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