Pump up the volume: why massive sleeves are this year's biggest trend

Hannah Marriott

Oversized sleeves shouldn’t be a viable trend. They come stuffed with social and logistical questions. Such as: is it possible to hug those you love while wearing a top that resembles giant arm bands? And: how can you possibly squeeze a pair of huge sleeves into the arms of your coat? (Answers: no; and you can’t.) And yet the big sleevification of fashion is in full swing regardless.

Last week’s Milan catwalks were full of sleeves the diameter of dinner plates. Elongated puffs of fabric covered the arms, like the trunk of a squid, at Fendi. At MaxMara, dresses came with drop-shouldered puff sleeves and bomber jackets with multilayered frills that recalled sea anemones.

There were elbow-grazing accordion sleeves on black jumpsuits and giant batwings on beige macintoshes at Bottega Veneta. At Sportmax, a shirt with pie-crust collar came with extended, pointed shoulders that ruffled down the upper arm like angel wings.

Bella Hadid models dropped-shoulder puff sleeves for MaxMara, Milan fashion week AW20/21. Photograph: Stefania D’Alessandro/Getty Images

There were eccentric scenes at London fashion week, where Shrimps and Regino Pyo did leg-of-mutton chic while the shadow self of Lady Diana’s wedding dress appeared on the Richard Quinn catwalk.

This is not just a runway trend, however. If anything, it came from the internet and the high street first. Instagram-savvy brands such as Ganni have made puff sleeves happen for a couple of years. Zara’s puff-sleeved creations, meanwhile – such as the sell-out £60 top with bubblegum pink sleeves as buoyant as airbags, now on eBay for about £80 – owned party season. This year’s awards-season red carpets were puff-tastic, too, with Beyoncé, Sandra Oh and Florence Pugh partaking in the big sleeve-off.

Beyoncé at the Golden Globes. Photograph: HFPA/EPA

That brands are still banking on what might at first have looked like a flash-in-the-pan trend, for autumn/winter 2020, with their Milan fashion week incarnation in coats even negating some of the practical challenges, suggests that giant sleeves might go the distance.

Jumbo sleeves are very 1680s, says the fashion historian Amber Butchart, with Fendi’s pieces reminiscent of those worn during Louis XIV’s reign by courtiers such as Henrietta of England. Power dressing was an extreme sport in the sun king’s court, she explains, with sumptuary laws allowing courtiers to dress in extravagant ways “as a way of bestowing privilege”. Whopping sleeves, she says, “like any volume throughout the history of dress, are about money and status. We have lost any sense of this today, because of fast fashion, but before the industrial revolution, textiles were one of the most valuable things you could own.”

Elizabeth I was an epic sleeve-wearer, too, and Tudor sleeves were often “padded with horse hair to hold the shape in a very specific way,” says Butchart. In the “Ditchley” portrait, for example, Elizabeth I’s golden sleeves “scream status,” says Butchart. “Everything about that says: ‘I’m the most important woman in the country.’”

Giant sleeves in Dynasty, 1986. Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Sleeves had a giant moment in the 1980s, when Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington was an archetype for shoulderpads and colossal arm covers. Then, as now, says Carolyn Mair, author of the Psychology of Fashion, they were about “taking up space – a way for women to make their presence felt”. They allowed women to claim space with frills and ruffles – traditionally “feminine” designs – rather than “imitating masculine styles”, MaxMara’s creative director, Ian Griffiths, agrees that big sleeves are a modern shoulderpad alternative: “A way of creating volume – a way of creating drama and silhouette – without necessarily using shoulder pads.”

Outerwear issues aside, Mair believes they can be inclusive and practical. Elephantine sleeves make insecurities about biceps and triceps irrelevant, and can create an exaggerated hourglass silhouette because proportionally they “make the other aspects of the body look smaller”. While flattering, they are not about the male gaze, Butchart adds, because they do not present “obvious sexual signifiers”.

Mair – herself the proud owner of a frill-sleeved jumper – believes that their current popularity may even have a sustainable angle. The fact that they are on catwalks after enjoying high-street success, she says, “is perhaps another initiative from designers who say we can’t keep making new trends [every season] when we have to be showing some sustainability”. Certainly, Mother of Pearl, which might just be the most chic sustainable fashion brand there is, and which centres on design that is built to last, is full of brilliant sleeves. Incarnations from the 1980s are ripe for the picking from vintage shops.

Even more thriftily, says Mair, adding a ruffle, or a puff, at the sleeve, can also be a way of adapting an existing garment: “a good way of using resources and making them very current”. The Colville presentation at Milan fashion week proved this point: the label showed puffy sleeves, like a bolero’s, upcycled from vintage 80s shell suits and yellow puffa jackets from the 90s. The sleeves, says the Colville co-founder Lucinda Chambers, “create a new silhouette that is cool and individual” and could be layered over other pieces.

Wearing a big sleeve, says Mair, also signifies your allegiance to a tribe. “Everybody wants to belong – and most people who are interested in fashion want to be fashionable. There are so many variations that you can stand out as well as belong, which is what fashion always wants us to do,” she says.

Certainly, the big sleeve is a statement – and not one that everyone will want to make. But it is big – and it’s getting bigger.