A New Exhibition at The Museum at FIT Explores the Secret History of the Sleeve

Whether striking or stifling, sacred or unsightly, the statement sleeve has endured countless incarnations—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

A green afternoon dress ith large sleeves
Afternoon dress, circa 1830, England. Courtesy The Museum at FIT

“Statement Sleeves,” the new exhibit at The Museum at FIT, comes at an apt time. Curated by Colleen Hill, curator of costume and accessories at The Museum, it opened in tandem with the Spring/ Summer ’24 couture shows and, more specifically, John Galliano’s breathtaking, will-go-down-in-history Maison Margiela Artisanal collection. A magnificent feat of sartorial illusions, the collection rekindled a sense of magic in the industry and made a shatterproof case for exquisite, commanding craftsmanship. The moment feels ripe, in other words, for a spotlight on fashion’s more indulgent creations.

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The words “statement sleeves” likely conjure images of voluminous, sizable sleeves. Puffed-up silhouettes that may, in turn, engender a puffed-up sense of self. It’s a line of reasoning that’s endured over centuries—the clothes, as they say, make the man—but few have made such a show of capitalizing on the self-aggrandizing power of clothes like the monarchs of the Renaissance era. The proof is in the portraiture: in Hans Holbein’s renowned portrait of King Henry VIII, for instance, the king appears to wear clothes that have been padded, stuffed, and layered to comical heights, while Elizabeth I in the Armada portraits wears an opulent, black velvet gown with cream satin sleeves so outrageously inflated they could easily hide two infants each. Naturally, these depictions were all part of the royal court’s calculated attempts to assert themselves over civilians—so much so that they’ve been labeled by many as propaganda.

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The effect is certainly imposing; one can only imagine feeling just a smidge intimidated when faced with either of these outfitted figures in real life. And yet it’s hard not to let the mind drift to the suffocating, cumbersome effect such clothes—and prodigious, bulky sleeves—must have had on the wearers. Indeed, this did not go unnoticed; women, as 17th-century English composer Thomas Mace observed in 1676, were “so pent up by the straightness, and stiffness of the gown-shoulder-sleeves, that they could not so much as scratch their heads…nor elevate their arms scarcely to feed themselves.”

In a study of the discrepancy in portraiture between the sitter’s constricting garments and the air of graceful ease their posture, body language and countenance evoked, Anne Hollander writes, “The phenomenal accomplishments of nineteenth-century women were carried on in cumbersome layers of skirts and confining stays.” Oddly, however, such clothes “appear to have encumbered and confined their activities not at all.”

Then again, perhaps wearing debilitating garments was the point, as American sociologist Thorstein Veblen argues in The Theory of The Leisure Class (1899). As a rule, he writes, the clothing of elite women must be “conspicuously expensive and inconvenient.” The ultimate goal being to dress in such a way that flaunts not only your wealth but also your very incompatibility with any type of work. That, he argues, is the ultimate form of “conspicuous leisure.”

While none of the silhouettes on display at “Statement Sleeves” hold a candle to the gargantuan silhouettes depicted in those Renaissance-era portraits, there are a handful of items on view that nod to the faithful, if antiquated, truth that Veblen so brilliantly articulated over three centuries later: the more uncomfortable the clothes, the more wealth you must necessarily have. As it happens, this was a notion the elite fully embraced into the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries.

Take the green silk-satin gown (circa 1830) in the “Opening Statements” section, whose sleeves exemplify the leg-of-mutton (or gigot) style that came back into fashion in the first half of the 19th Century—and were themselves inspired by those worn by affluent women in Renaissance paintings. Marked by a puffed upper arm that tapers into a tightly fitted forearm, the traditional style is often described today as having preposterous dimensions—so much so that, according to Anna Reynolds of the Royal Collection Trust, they easily impeded the artist’s craft when they reached “their largest circumference” in the 19th Century.

In her exploration of American portrait artist John Singer Sargent, Reynolds writes that such sleeves “had the potential to overpower the wearer,” and thus presented a clear “challenge” to Sargent, which is apparently why he insisted on having “complete authority over the final choice of [his sitter’s] dress.” And in the unfortunate instances when his sitter did wear those outsized gigots—Madame Flora Reyntiens and Mrs. William Shakespeare, to name two—he made sure to keep the composition “cropped tightly” (and those sleeves cropped out).

Two outfits with large sleeves, one red and one black, displayed on mannequins
A vermilion red, bolero-style jacket with statement sleeves by Rive Gauche (1992). Courtesy The Museum at FIT

Next to the green gown in the same section is a cream cotton corseted top (circa 1830) whose short sleeves are punctuated by two swollen, spherical puffs. Yet unlike the billowing puff sleeves of later years, these are gorged with rigid down. Known as “sleeve supports,” such constructions were common during the early 19th Century and surely contributed to the stifled, immobile look that was all the rage those days. After all, “gain in reputability,” Veblen writes, comes with “her visibly increased expensiveness and infirmity.”

It should go without saying that sleeves need not be impractical or uncomfortable to make a statement. Yet free-flowing, easier-to-move-in silhouettes were so rare that by the time they began to emerge in the late 19th Century, they were thought of as a rather revolutionary movement. The Rational Dress Society, as this movement was dubbed, was founded in London in 1881 to advocate for more practical women’s clothing—a reasonable demand for a time when women were being given more rights, and thus more opportunities to work.

The movement gave way to both new sleeve shapes and modern spins on traditionally stifling designs. By the mid-20th Century, designers were still turning out over-the-top pieces, as a 1935-era Harper’s Bazaar quote in the exhibit makes clear. Itemizing the manifold methods used to create extravagant sleeves, it reads, “Lumps and bumps and pads; fins and points and pinches; epaulettes, shelves and trays; sausages and legs of mutton; knots and bows; frills and ruffles.” The only difference was now, these extravagant sleeves came imbued with a refreshing, liberating fluidity.

Among the more striking examples on display is a sumptuous velvet, rich ruby red gown (circa 1935) with indulgently oversized bishop sleeves bearing large, concentric circles of stitching for a lightly structured, spellbinding effect. There are also a few welcome updates to the much-bemoaned leg-of-mutton: on the jacket of a Lurex-woven, mahogany red Schiaparelli skirt suit (1935) and on a cropped, vermilion red, bolero-style jacket by Rive Gauche (1992)—the latter one half of a pantsuit which, at that time, was considered a feminist statement alone.

A shiny spacey white dress displayed on a mannequin
A piece by Thierry Mugler. Courtesy The Museum at FIT

It would be remiss to talk about ‘liberating’ clothes without mentioning some of the industry’s foremost players in this movement. “Statement Sleeves” pays tribute to two such talents, Alber Elbaz, the former creative director of Lanvin, and Thierry mugler. Elbaz, who passed in 2021, was a master of effortless, unbridled elegance and his acute grasp of the female form was evident in everything he touched. Quietly captivating with an artfully draped, cape-like bodice that gently “hugs” the figure, the silk-blend magenta frock on display from Lanvin’s Spring / Summer 2009 collection is a case in point—and a lesson in sublime simplicity.

Further on, in the “Tucks & Ruffles” section, stands a silver metallic, meticulously pleated lamé Mugler gown that commands instant attention and evokes an armor-like strength. Edgy and futuristic with sharp-shouldered sleeves sculpted for a serrated effect, the piece is from his iconic Spirale Futuriste Fall / Winter ‘79 collection—and encapsulates his specific ilk of female empowerment.

Of course, fashion’s power to uplift or shape identity all depends on context. Wearing that silver Mugler dress on the red carpet, for instance, would arguably be an unequivocal serve; wearing it to Shabbat dinner at your boyfriend’s mother’s house would…hit different. Varied dispositions can also lead to drastically different outcomes. The same audacious piece that gives a self-styled extrovert a confidence boost could just as easily reduce an agoraphobe to a vulnerable, cowering pulp.

Louise Bourgeois was certainly tuned in to the transformative power of clothes. To her, they were vestiges of cherished lives, haunted with the emotional and sensorial traces of those who inhabited them. In her 1978 installation “Confrontation,” she demonstrated how clothes can leave you feeling raw and exposed or, just as easily, forge connections. To illustrate the latter, she wrapped participants in white fabric so that it protruded into bulbous, amorphous lumps. Now clothed in these bulging forms, the participants were thus left in closer proximity to each other and, in turn, connected more intimately. The performance art piece, titled A Banquet: A Fashion Show of Body Parts, evokes an emotional current that’s been lost in fashion in recent years as gimmicky, spectacle-like cult items have been continuously validated with undue attention. And yet, after the Maison Margiela couture show, it feels as if this current has finally been resuscitated.

The details of the Margiela clothes—a moonlit-inspired palette, for instance, prints that appear illuminated as if by a water’s reflection at night, or tulle miraculously made to look like a Kees Van Dongen painting—are enough to elicit tears and, according to Cathy Hoyrn, a “thunderous” applause from the audience with “feet pounding on the floors for at least five minutes.”  Still, the collection was notably minimal, stripped back and far from loud. Perhaps, these days, that makes for the most compelling fashion statement of all.

Statement Sleeves” is on view at The Museum at FIT through August 25.

A New Exhibition at The Museum at FIT Explores the Secret History of the Sleeve