The Challenge of the Poofy Sleeves

afternoon dress, c. 1835, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

As a fashion historian, sometimes I look at a garment and marvel at the way it is mounted on a mannequin. Like the afternoon dress above from the Met, I see those sleeves and wonder what the mount maker used to get them so bouffant-like. You see, every mount maker has their own tricks of the trade, and I’m eager to learn them all.

detail of afternoon dress, c. 1835, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

But then I stop and remember that someone actually wore this garment — and that someone was not a stationary mannequin. So how on earth did the living, breathing woman who wore this dress keep her sleeves so full and puffed out?

And was that something other women gossiped about? “Did you see Mary’s sleeves tonight?” “I did, they are simply the most voluminous I’ve ever seen!” Or, “Helen’s sleeves are so sad and droopy tonight.” “Oh poor dear, she is really letting herself go.” Can you imagine?

sleeve puff, c. 1830, from Victoria & Albert Museum

Well the answer to my question (not those gossipy, imaginary ladies), was that some women wore sleeve puffs made of cotton and down stuffing. Basically they wore pillow-like underwear tied around their arms inside their sleeves. How funny is that?! Imagine trying to keep those in place in a ladylike manner. I still am a bit baffled about how they did it.

spring 2010 Alexander McQueen Armadillo shoes, photo by Don Ashby & Olivier Claisse, from

Of course, I’m sure 200 years in the future some fashion historian will be looking at Alexander McQueen’s Armadillo shoes laughing and wondering how on earth women walked in them. Let’s just hope Gaga is keeping some kind of journal about that.


  1. Amanda says:

    I really like the poofy sleeves on a mannequin, but I wonder how they would look in real life.Curiously, the main alteration I did to my wedding dress was to make the sleeves flatter (less pleated) as I felt they made me look like an american football player or like I was wearing one of those 80’s suits with shoulder pads.
    And I am sure people in the future will wonder how women could ever be comfortable in Lady Gaga’s outfits. I guess they will know they were mostly only worn by people in the showbiz? Like Madonna’s pointy corsets?

    • jacqueline says:

      I would imagine in real life they would sag a little and wouldn’t be quite so full. Another challenge of mounting historic garments — do you mount them the way they were idealized or the way they looked in real life? Most museums go the idealized way.

  2. Sandra says:

    How WOULD you keep those in place with the off-the-shoulder sleeve? I just assumed that they used some form of interfacing to keep them poofed out.

    Thinking of class issues, even such a relatively simpler form of dress would still separate the haves from the have nots as the lower classes wouldn’t be able to afford the amount of fabric for such a sleeve nor the sleeve puff itself.

    • jacqueline says:

      Absolutely the sleeves could be seen as a class issue. Not only would the fabric and sleeve puffs be too expensive for those that are of a lower class, they are also extremely impractical for a woman who has to work and/or take care of children. You can’t do any kind of manual labor in those things!

  3. Brenna says:

    Have you seen the BBC miniseries of ‘Wives and Daughters’? Francesca Annis and Keeley Hawes’s wardrobes are wonderful illustrations of the idealized sleeves. And it brings in the class issues, too. Annis’s character starts out as a poor widowed governess, then becomes the wife of the village doctor and her sleeves go from moderate to so poofy you wonder how she gets through doors.

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