A batwing dress is a woman’s garment with a sleeve that has a loose, deep armhole. The sleeve isn’t fitted at the shoulder like more tailored garments often are but flows freely from the seam where the sleeve and the body of the garment meet, creating a “wing” effect when the arms are held away from the body. The sleeve also can be cut as one piece with the rest of the garment instead of separate pieces sewn to the body of the dress. This makes the batwing dress very quick and easy to sew in comparison to a pattern with many pieces to cut and fit.
A version of the batwing dress with long sleeves often will taper to be tightly fitted in a band at the wrist. The sleeves on a short-sleeved style usually will hang loosely to about elbow-length with no tapering effect. The dress length itself can vary from a mini dress to a maxi dress or any length in between. The distinctive flowing sleeve is what defines the batwing dress, not the hem length.
The batwing–style sleeve is sometimes referred to as a “dolman” sleeve. The batwing dress actually is a variant of the dolman style that includes larger, more voluminous sleeves. The terms often are used interchangeably.
The style has been around since the Middle Ages, when citizens of Turkey wore a garment called a “dolman” that had long, loose sleeves created by the folds of the fabric. When the fashion and entertainment industries became fascinated with the Far East in the early 1900s, the sleeve was incorporated into many designs and went through a period of popularity that lasted a few decades. The flowing fabric was considered both elegant and comfortable. The trend faded, however, during the fabric shortages of WWII. As shortages improved, the flowing sleeve enjoyed a brief revival.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the trend returned full-force and was renamed the “batwing sleeve.” It was found on everything from formal wear to casual sportswear. Part of its popularity was because the billowy sleeves make the wearer’s waist appear small by comparison. The batwing silhouette also was seen in the 1980s-fashion revival that occurred during the early 2000s. It was especially popular with V-neck sweater styles.