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What is a Bell Sleeve?

By Harriette Halepis
Updated Feb 19, 2024
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A bell sleeve is a type of sleeve that hangs from the wrist area onward. Even though bell sleeves look a lot like poet sleeves, the main difference is that bell sleeves hardly every have ruffles, while ruffles are a common addition to poet sleeves. While most garments today have some type of sleeve, this wasn't always the case.

Prior to the invention of the sleeve, most articles of clothing did not contain any sleeves at all. While the name of the person who designed the first sleeve is unknown, it is known that a sleeve was originally intended to serve as a kind of handkerchief. For the sake of convenience, sleeves were attached to garments in order to allow a person easy access to a handkerchief when needed. The practice of using one's sleeve as handkerchief quickly fell out of fashion, though sleeves remained a large part of fashion history thence forth.

Throughout history, many cultures used sleeves as pockets. Later, the term "up one's sleeve" was created as a result of using one's sleeve as a holder for various objects. The bell sleeve was particularly useful for carrying larger weapons, since these sleeves doubled as excellent hiding places. Garments that have withstood the test of time indicate that sleeves were extremely important on judicial and academic robes, and some historians believe that the length of a person's sleeves indicated a certain social status.

There are many different types of sleeves worthy of note, including the bell sleeve, the Juliette sleeve, the Virago sleeve and the Raglan sleeve. As previously mentioned, the bell sleeve is a long sleeve that was often used to hide various objects. The Juliette sleeve was popular during the 1820s, and it was fashioned after sleeves that were puffed near the shoulder area during the Italian Renaissance.

The Virago sleeve is not a contemporary type of sleeve, though it was at the height of sophistication during the 1620s and 1630s. These large billowing sleeves were created from strips of fabric, and were tied at the elbow with larger ribbons. The Raglan sleeve is, perhaps, the most popular type of sleeve today, since most modern sleeves that are connected from the neckline to the wrist are Raglan sleeves.

Sleeves have changed drastically throughout history, and they are constantly changing today. While the bell sleeve is still quite popular, it is rare to see modern garments that have a Virago or Juliette sleeve. Nonetheless, fashion is forever shifting, which means that some old-fashioned sleeves may very well become popular once again.

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