The History of Vintage Sleeves with Alicia Vellante

So we love an over the top sleeve here at The Octopus Garden! But where did it all begin? We chat with the incredible Alicia about the history of sleeves!

Hi Alicia! So when did over the top sleeves become a thing?

Well, sleeves have had many ‘big’ moments throughout history. Examples of exaggerated sleeves span thousands of years and across hundreds of cultures. From the wide, layered robe sleeves of Japan’s Heian period to the excessively long, flowing sleeves of the middle ages, in 12th century Europe and beyond. 

        (Japanese Layered Robe Sleeves)         (Sleeve depiction from the Middle Ages)   

I’ll highlight some of my favorite sleeves throughout pre-20th century history, as they are what influenced the amazing sleeves from the 1960s and 1970s that we know and love. I’ll focus on Western fashion, as that is the scholarship on which I am most informed!

The Renaissance, particularly the 16th century, gave a vast variety of extravagant sleeves. In Europe, these differed from country to country and decade to decade. Garments could feature enormous sleeves in a leg-of-mutton style, fitted below the elbow with a dramatic puff beginning at the shoulder, or voluminous paned or ‘finestrella’ sleeves, which had different layers of fabric and slits through which the under layers were pulled through. The Tudors wore large funnel-shaped over-sleeves with a separate piece called a fore-sleeve that peaked out from underneath. The Elizabethan era and the turn of the century welcomed several interesting styles, including the Spanish sleeve, which sometimes included boning to maintain its massive shape, as well as detachable sleeves, bishop sleeves, and shoulder puffs. 

Left Picture ('Finestrella' sleeves from the Italian Renaissance) Right Picture (Engageantes Sleeves)

18th century France gave us another type of false sleeve known as engageantes, which were typically flared at the elbow in ruffles. Mameluke/marie sleeves, long sleeves banded into multiple puffed sections, were the standout sleeves of the early 19th century. 1830s fashion celebrated Romanticism by reviving massive leg-of-mutton sleeves, also called ‘gigot’, which sat off the shoulder and were sometimes supported with down pillows. Following, bishop sleeves and bell sleeves had moments throughout the 19th century, until the 1870s. Inflated leg-of-mutton sleeves came back around again in the 1890s, this time extending past the shoulder line upwards as well as outwards.

Were they a sign of wealth or power?

Absolutely! Historically, sumptuary laws could dictate how individuals were supposed to dress based on their wealth and social status. As such, sleeves could represent the grandeur of the monarchy itself, with signifying features like metallic threading, embroidery, gold brocading, furs, and even the excess of fabric itself. The aforementioned slashing on paned sleeves was actually meant to reveal the more precious fabrics found underneath, as well. The famous Hardwick Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, shows Gloriana with sleeves seemingly encrusted with precious gems, like diamonds and pearls. This showcasing of wealth and power via sleeves continued for centuries. In 18th century France, for instance, a tiered style of sleeve featuring expensive lace was reserved only for Court, which itself was exclusive to mainly the nobility. 

Can you run us through some of the types of sleeves we see on our 60s and 70s vintage clothing? 

Some popular sleeve styles of the 60s and 70s are: angel sleeves, bishop sleeves, juliet sleeves, mameluke/marie sleeves, and puff sleeves — all friends from the past!

(From left to right: Bishop Sleeves, Puff Sleeves and Bell Sleeves)

Why did bell sleeves become so popular in the 60s and 70s?

Fashion is forever cyclical. With the rise of youthquake, social progression, and alternative music, fashion reflected and celebrated the break from tradition, rebelling against the rigidness of decades prior. Young people began romantically looking to the more distant past for inspiration in their outward expression. This was further fueled by their rejection of consumerism, making way for shopping vintage and thrifting and experimenting with fashion. 

Bygone eras incited nostalgia in the rising generation, who revived and reimagined a range of styles, including medieval, which inspired big, flowy bell sleeves and an unconventional, ethereal flair to the silhouette. 

As revivals are never exact replicas, we can see how certain historical references were reworked into contemporary styles that still felt very 60s and 70s. This neo-medievalism became synonymous with psychedelic expression, romantic spiritualism, and subgenres of folk rock - think The Fool and The Apple Boutique, Sunforest, Donovan, Karl Ferris, etc. We can see a blending of medieval inspired aspects with those contemporary to the 60s and 70s. For example, a mini-length velvet dress with brocading, a square neckline and, most importantly, huge, draping bell sleeves! 

What is your favourite type of sleeve?!

A beautiful billowy bishop sleeve will always have my heart! The 60s-70s Art Deco revival (which was my dissertation topic 🙂) had designers like Ossie Clark and Biba reimagining styles from the 1920s and 1930s, creating Old Hollywood-esque gowns in crepe with button fronts, sash-waists, and most notably for me, gorgeous flowing bishop sleeves. I think sleeves are a wonderful tool of expression when it comes to fashion. Over-the-top sleeves create a statement silhouette and the extra space inspires beautiful embellishments.

(Biba satin gown with Bishop Sleeves as modelled by Twiggy)

Thank you so much Alicia for sharing your incredible knowledge with us! Check out our top picks from the website when it comes to sleeves!


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