Every season a stylistic meme will sweep through fashion like wildfire and this year it’s the statement sleeve. That functional, plain-talking tubular part of the garment, cut to cover the arms with uniform propriety, finds itself the centre of a dramatic “blow-up”. Designers are exaggerating its proportions, playing with historical cuts like the leg of mutton, the bishop sleeve and the 1980s New Romantics “puff” and breathing new life into generic pieces such as the trench coat, striped city shirt and blouse.
At this spring’s fashion weeks, editors and tastemakers wore the new trophy sleeve with panache. Cotton styles with slim, ruched waists and billowing arms (£518) by young French designer Simon Porte Jacquemus jostled for space with Céline’s short puff-sleeved high-neck shirtdresses (€1,600), Balenciaga’s and choir-boy silk shirts (£1,125) with intricately gathered sleeves, Saint Laurent’s retro glam 1980s balloon numbers (£3,940) and Simone Rocha’s poetic hybrids (from £426). “I work hard on the silhouette and a dominant, voluminous sleeve is a way of turning masculine tailoring feminine instantly,” says Simone Rocha. One of the top picks from her collection is a romantic reinterpretation (£1,550) of the smart city trench coat that mixes Prince of Wales check with a delightful Juliet sleeve – a long sleeve with a puffed top that takes its name from the heroine of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Sleeves deliver. They attract attention, take up physical space with a puff of air or the fanciful ruffles that ran around Burberry’s cape-sleeve dresses (£3,495). “Big sleeves are decadent, desirable, and if you expose the shoulder it creates a feminine, poetic neckline,” says designer Serafina Sima, who is behind the label Isa Arfen. She points out that most women are very happy with attention on the shoulder – and at every age.
There are many shapes (raglan, kimono, flute, dolman, pagoda, rumba, bishop) to explore as a host of designers and brands battle it out to create a different and identifiable signature. Some are poetic, others are historical or theatrical – a genre in which Alessandro Michele at Gucci excels. Dazzlers in his Renaissance/1980s fantasia included a one-shoulder sapphire-blue cocktail dress (£3,230) with a single ruffle-trimmed sleeve and a pink Lurex dinner shirt (£2,030) with a pleat-front chest and a fan of fabric spiralling down the arm. There’s also a taste for abstract architectural shapes. Stella McCartney’s statement is a geometric sleeve that stands out from the shoulder line and ends flatteringly at the elbow. She used it as a feature on stretch-cotton corset-waisted jackets (from £1,195) and a button-through dress (£785) that brought a touch of glamour to workwear.
Designers drew upon their national heritages to create distinctive shapes and details. Jacquemus looked to folk figures (bohemians, cooks, shepherds, lavender gatherers) of his native south of France in his collection entitled Les Santons de Provence. Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, inspired by the wedding rituals of the Shetland Islands, delivered a delightful dose of the bucolic with leg‑of-mutton sleeves and flounced hems on spriggy flower-print organza maxi dresses (price on request).
In Madrid, Josep Font, creative director of Delpozo, channelled his training as an architect into striking pret‑à-porter silhouettes. One of the trophy coats of the season is his bright cyclamen-pink collared coat (£1,900) with lantern sleeves, which he showed worn with collarbone grazing drop crystal earrings (price on request) over a polar‑white poplin tailored shirt (£650).
“The DNA of the brand has always been about volume, silhouette and a unique sense of colour,” he says. “From the beginning, I wanted to make this vision something personal and adapt it to today. Thanks to my architecture training, I gained insight into proportion, shape and volume, which I apply continuously throughout my designs. I feel that is a way of looking at fashion.”
A desire to coin a signature silhouette was a defining feature of 20th-century fashion and sleeves spoke volumes when propriety meant hemlines could not. Mastering the language of the sleeve was, and remains, a technical as well as an aesthetic feat requiring complex pattern-cutting and an understanding of proportion and movement.
“Advances in technology and construction techniques allowed designers to manipulate and extend the look of the sleeve,” says fashion historian and consultant Tony Glenville. “Coco Chanel worked her entire career on the perfect armhole, ripping out the sleeves again and again. Schiaparelli in the 1930s embraced the power of the shoulder and the sleeve as a statement on a pared-down silhouette. In the late 1940s Christian Dior brought in the New Look, with nipped waist, neat shoulders and threequarter-length sleeves; while in the 1950s Cristóbal Balenciaga explored the organic curved line of the cocoon silhouette.” With the 1970s and 1980s came postmodernism and a stylistic sampling that criss-crossed history, street and pop culture. Saint Laurent’s exclamatory “puff”, Mugler’s horizontal padded architectural lines and Gianfranco Ferré’s operatic blouses gave shape to the era of sex, money, power and glamour that adored overstatement. Demna Gvasalia’s revisit of the power shoulder in the shape of boxy trench coats (£1,525) with linebacker shoulders at Balenciaga is a statement about our empowerment-hungry times.
At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld articulates new shapes with a sense of effortless ease. The tweed jacket (£17,115) finds itself remastered with sleeves flaring to the knuckle bone and with tab fastenings as opposed to buttons. When it was worn with tweed and lambskin driving gloves (£615) on the catwalk the effect was to elongate the arm. In real life, the cuff can be flipped up or down at will. Fendi’s theme was techno-rococo and that translated into the prettiest scallop trimmed organza blouses (£870) and a striped crepe de Chine version (£1,190) with generously gathered sleeves. This is the kind of investment that for all its delicacy will bring a magic touch to denims or tailored trousers when all the attention is above the table or indeed the conference podium.
On the hanger, these exaggerated sleeves might look tricky to wear. But they are surprisingly versatile. “There is sense of drama to embracing a big sleeve, you can make a statement while remaining quite simple with the rest of your outfit. You don’t have to worry about your body shape as a voluminous or larger sleeve does actually suit everyone,” says Natalie Kingham, womenswear buying director at Matchesfashion.com. “You do need to consider your proportions in comparison to the rest of your outfit as you can’t often get away with lots happening volume-wise with your pants and your sleeves,” she advises. Big sleeves also “trick the eye” – they can make your waist look smaller, which is always a boon.
Above all, the current fascination with the statement sleeve is fuelled by a desire to create something special in a sea of sameness. Colombian designer Johanna Ortiz, known for her flamboyant, flirtatious designs, has upped the ante on expression by inserting wires in the vivacious ruffles that adorn her sunny party dresses ($1,550) and blouses ($494) and voluptuous ruffles running down tailored jackets ($1,995). “It allows for freedom, playfulness and being able to adjust the ruffles to suit your neck and face,” says Ortiz.
All this attention on sleeves begs one final question. What to wear on top? The best solution to accommodate the volumes is a cape or generous cocoon coat. But when the sun shines, the statement sleeve deserves to be shown off at every opportunity. Even when we are glued to small screen devices, it’s there to do the talking.