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What is a Puff Sleeve?

G. Melanson
G. Melanson

The popularity of the puff sleeve has waxed and waned throughout the centuries. At certain points in history, puffed sleeves were deemed the height of femininity, while at others, they were considered overkill, and best kept on costumes. Often associated with Disney princesses and Shakespearean heroines, the puffed sleeve has undergone many transformations in size and shape over the years.

During the late 1700s to early 1800s, the puff sleeve was a diminutive design often featured on dresses with empire waists, such as the Regency gown. From the 1820s to about 1840, the volume of the puff sleeve varied at different points along the arm, and was held up with elaborate materials such as hoops, stuffing, and whalebone. Some styles of puffed sleeves billowed most at the upper arm, while others billowed out at the elbow, or even puffed out from the shoulder and tapered all the way to the wrist – a style dubbed the “gigot sleeve.” At one point during the 1800s, the fullness of the puff sleeve was so extravagant that it was named the “imbecile sleeve.” The style was even parodied in cartoon publications of the nineteenth century, which depicted women unable to fit through doorways due to their sleeves.

Woman shopping
Woman shopping

In the 1980s, puffed sleeves made a comeback in formal fashion thanks to such shows as Dynasty and Dallas, which popularized the look. Also during this time, the puff sleeve was a popular feature on many wedding dresses, bridesmaid’s dresses, and prom dresses, in both long and short sleeve lengths. With the exception of children’s clothing, the puff sleeve disappeared from fashion for most of the 1990s, and the term “puffy sleeves” took on a negative connotation indicting that something was out of style or passe.

During the late 2000s, puffed sleeves once again made a comeback, but this time, were not limited to ball gowns and other formal wear. Button-up shirts, cardigans, and even t-shirts features detailing such as pleating and ruching, which puckers the fabric at the shoulder and creates a small puff sleeve. The popularity of the film, Pirates of the Caribbean during the early 2000s also contributed to a resurgence of interest in the puff sleeve, which is tapered at various points along the arm to achieve the pirate look.

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