Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Made Those Big Sleeves Big, 1830s

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Susan reports:

While my first fashion-love will always be 18th c gowns, I've recently developed a guilty-pleasure-relationship with the extravagant clothes of the 1820s. This is, of course, entirely due to Loretta, and to the lovely images like the ones yesterday.

Also thanks to Loretta, I know what inflated those extravagant sleeves: sleeve puffs, or plumpers. These were pillow-like constructions of linen stuffed with eiderdown or feathers that slipped over the upper arm. Ribbons or linen ties then connected to the wearer's corset to keep the puffs in place. The goal was to continue the exaggerated line of the sloping shoulders, and also visually to narrow the waist by comparison to the voluminous sleeve.  There are many surviving variations, and doubtless each seamstress created her own version to fit specific gowns. (See right for another pair of the puffs, tied in place to a corset and worn with a petticoat of the era.)

I'd seen pictures of sleeve puffs, but I hadn't seen an actual example in all its puffy glory until my recent visit to Winterthur.  There it sat, above, looking more like a drab linen pudding than a stylish fashion necessity, but how important they must have been to modish ladies of the time!

It's easy to look at this humble sleeve puff and think only of its foolishness. But I've two words to offer in (admittedly dubious) defense: shoulder pads. Those of you who can remember back to the 1980s will recall the fashion for linebacker-esque broad shoulders. While 'power suits' had their own sewn-in shoulder pads, many women also owned removable ones to wear beneath any blouse or sweater. These were saddle-shaped constructions of natural-colored fabric and padding that fastened onto lingerie straps with Velcro strips, with the aim of visually narrowing the waist and hips by comparison. Hmm....

Above: Sleeve puffs, American, 1820s-30s, linen and goose feathers. Winterthur, Gift of Margaret Wilcox.
Below: Sleeve plumpers, linen with down fill; Corset, quilted cotton sateen; Chemise, linen; Petticoat, cotton; Shoes, silk satin & leather: all English, 1830-1835. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Suzanne A. Saperstein & Michel and Ellen Michelson, with addition funding from the Costume Council the Edgerton Foundation, Gail & Gerald Oppenheimer, Maureen H. Shapiro, Grace Tsao, and Lenore & Richard Wayne.

12 comments:

Fanny said...

Interesting, I had no idea!

Rebecca said...

Love those puffy sleeves too.
So, do you think that someday Winterthur will have a manequin with shoulder pads on it out for exhibit. ...Just food for thought, maybe it will look like Collins the actress. I hate to admit it I liked the shoulder pads. It help hold my purse on my shoulders.

MrsC said...

Gosh and in the '80's, when we weren't wearing shoulder pads chances are there were some ginormous puffy sleeves supported with tulle! So, nothing has changed much! :)

The Lady Ship said...

Which side of the puff do we see above? The part that's being attached to the shoulder or the other one? Or do both look the same?
I liked the 80s shoulder pads too, they gave such a dramatic look. ^^

Miss Meadows said...

I love these "behind the scenes" - or rather "underneath the dress" - stories! How each dress was built up from the inside. The history of lingerie is a dense subject. And a very interesting too! :)

Isobel Carr said...

I always include these when I give a costume workshop because they’re just soooo ridiculous (and many authors I know are now leaking over into the 1830s as they write follow up books in long series). I’ve seen them made of horse-hair stiffened fabric too, kind of like tiny arm hoops.

gio said...

I had always wondered about that, and now I know! Thanks for this very interesting post.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Lady Ship - In the picture, we're looking down at the top of the sleeve puff, the part that's nearest to the shoulder. The plain, wide strap would go on the underside of the arm, with the puff facing out.

beadlizard said...

It would have been so much easier with elastic! The things we take for granted nowadays... I modified a blouse to have mutton chop sleeves when I was in middle school (in the 70's). Added a frill down the front placket, too. Looked awful, but oh how I loved it! Big sleeves can be great fun to wear.

Tracey said...

I bet those sleeve poofers were really hot! I do see a resemblance to the favorite "poofer" of the 80's, I loved those shoulder pads! AND while we're on the subject of fashion...BRING BACK HIGH WAISTED PANTS!! I'm so tired of the "muffin top"!!

paulagrnsy said...

I always wondered how they were really worn. At Conner Prairie, we just safety pin them to the dress. However, I'd like to note that it's really hard to stuff a sleeve puff through the armhole into a sleeve. It would be harder if it was fastened to the corset. Has anyone ever seen a dress with strings in the armhole?

Paula Guernssey

LorettaChase said...

paulagrnsy, there's a drawing of a dress with strings in the armhole on p. 156 of Nancy Bradfield's Costume in Detail 1730-1930. The drawing is of a dress in the Snowshill Collection. There's also a photo on p. 81 of Fabric of Society showing the lining of a bodice. Tapes are attached to the armhole.

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