Statement sleeves: Why slouch is the new structured

Say what you may about their impracticality, knuckle-grazing sleeves are taking the street style crowd by storm. But why are millennials opting for extra-long instead of extra-large?

One’s an incident, two’s a coincidence, three’s a trend. Spotting a trend across three or more major catwalks — or seasons, even — might just be the fashion equivalent of bingo. Except, instead of geriatric players with a port and shandy, think millennials scrolling through Instagram on their rose gold iPhone 6s. Spring/summer 2017 saw a wave of look-at-me sleeves, with the likes of Balenciaga, Gucci, and Vetements leading the pack.

At Gucci, where the set was doused in an LSD-infused atmosphere, sleeves were similarly brought to new heights in the forms of ruffled tulle, sequinned fringe, and ballooned drapery. Over at Balenciaga, they were boxy and angular; think 80s power dressing multiplied by ten. On the streets, style mavens are flaunting their sleeves in every thinkable permutation — leg-o’-mutton, ruffled, flared, sculptural – the list is endless.

But sleeve focus isn’t new. Dating as far back as the 14th century, sleeves were seen in a variety of styles spanning a multitude of cultures — from Henry the Eighth’s voluminous sleeves to the floor-grazing sleeves of traditional Chinese Hanfus of the Han Dynasty. In the Victorian era alone, sleeves fluctuated from fitted to full. “Sleeves have always been experimented with,” says leading British stylist Zoe Lem. “I think the idea of a play on traditional silhouette is a good thing.”

There does, however, seem to be a shift from the deliberately ornate. A surprising exception on the Balenciaga catwalk, was a floor-length raincoat with sleeves of matched length. At Vetements, they were hyperextended, almost hitting the knee — a move borrowed from their past seasons. At Marques’Almeida, long sleeves ran the gamut of textiles from their signature raw denim to sheer mesh to beach-chair stripes.

Now, it seems to be all about the slouch and a nonchalant disregard for fit. Sleeves are elongated to new lengths, falling way beyond the wrists, hiding the hands. “I feel like it’s an extension of shirting, and it’s a cut and style that so many different brands can adopt,” says British fashion journalist and presenter Antonia O’Brien. “It’s something that Balenciaga could do but also Zara, so it’s not something that only the top tier brands can do. It’s really easy for high end brands to knock off.” But what came before the extra-long sleeve?

That’s right, extra-large. The 1980s were perhaps the decade that embraced big sleeves the most. In 1981, we saw both the romance in Princess Diana’s iconic puff-sleeved wedding dress, and the rebellion in the bishop sleeves of Vivienne Westwood’s Pirate collection. Two seasons ago, we saw JW Anderson pay homage to Westwood’s Keith Haring-printed leg-o’-mutton sleeves. The 1980s bug was clear — Anderson’s sleeves were reminiscent of the New Romantics, who embraced frilly shirts as a gender-bending statement.

And thanks to the rise of power dressing in the mid-1980s, sleeves — and shoulder pads — didn’t shy away from size, either. Reaching the size of dinner plates by the end of the era, the power suit became a tool for women to dress for success. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was one of the first to popularise power dressing as a 1980s symbol. Channelling authority wasn’t common for women back then, and the stature of wide shoulders transformed the way women were perceived in the workplace.

So why this, why now? Vetements is arguably the one who proliferated the extra-long sleeve. Its cult-like following by the street style crowd has paved the way for ludicrously long sleeves. The Vetements effect is an interesting one to consider. With its blatantly sacrilegious approach — capitalising on pedestrian pieces with sky-high prices — the move from structured to slouch may be a pledge of allegiance at work. An allegiance to anti-establishment, that is. Vetements skeptics have dubbed their hype as faddish, but if long-time powerhouses Gucci and Céline are on board, doesn’t that signal some staying power?

Lem is doubtful. “I think the elongated sleeve is merely a silhouette edition for the youth and the catwalk. It has no practical element,” she says. “You’ve got the shoulders that often add a certain power, then you’ve got the extra-long sleeve which conveys a certain slumminess, almost zombie-like.”

Be it slouch or structure, both seem to be function as armoury (or arm-ery, if you will) for breaking the glass ceiling. In the 1980s they sought to assert girl boss status; today, they epitomise youth lethargy in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world. Let’s just hope these sleeves don’t get in the way of getting our hands dirty.