Customer Watch: When Long Sleeves Are Not Right

Bracelet-length or three-quarters sleeves have been popular over the last few seasons, and for good reason. They allow the wearer to keep her upper arms covered and still highlight a set of graceful wrists, a beautiful bracelet or two or a wonderful wristwatch. For women whose upper arms are where they carry their weight or, at the other extreme, where their upper arms are very thin or sinewy, sleeves can help the eye skim over the area and bring the focus elsewhere.


Two separate instances of pronouncements about the length of sleeves prompts this posting. First was an episode of “Time Gunn’s Guide to Style,” which advised Gunn’s curvy client JeAnne, after “an extreme weight loss,” that three-quarters sleeves on one of her “before” dresses made her look stumpy and dumpy. (More on this below.)


Second was an article in the October 2008 issue of Vogue by Plum Sykes, who bemoaned the fact that she could so seldom find a close-fitting long sleeve on a garment. “I am very specific about what kind of sleeve counts as chic,” she writes, stating that the sleeve cannot be loose or “flappy.” “The perfect sleeve sits in a tiny armhole, thereby making one’s shoulder look smaller, and hugs the entire length of the arm like a glove.”  


Sykes references “the great sleeve-wearers of the last century,” citing the Duchess of Windsor in her severely trim Mainbocher couture, Marlene Dietrich for her love of Dior’s post-war New Look, and designer Carolina Herrera. Herrera, Sykes notes, “both designs and wears dresses with sleeves.” Well yes, Herrera does wear sleeves, but she wears those sleeves pushed up to three-quarters length. Consistently. And she evens designs bridal gowns with the same pushed-up sleeves. This is not the arm-hugging style of sleeves that Sykes prefers. This is the style that Tim Gunn advised his client against. 


Above: Three looks of Carolina Herrera. Below: A Carolina Herrera-designed bridal gown. 


One contemporary style icon for long, tight sleeves is Diane Keaton, who rarely exposes any portion of her arms. Other fashion icons remembered for wearing long, slim sleeves are Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Audrey Hepburn. The style of “superslim” sleeves Sykes favors, not surprisingly, is a style that is best worn by super-slender individuals like herself. This is not a style that favors the vast majority of women.


Which gets me back to Tim Gunn’s comment. He wanted to put his curvy client into clothing with long sleeves. With all due respect, I beg to differ with his advice. Indeed, if you watch the episode closely, you see JeAnne emerge from the fitting room with one of the sleeves of a dress brought up to three-quarters length. It is not clear whether that dress was selected and, if so, if the sleeves were shortened. The fashions JeAnne ultimately selected were largely sleeveless halter styles.


For whom does the three-quarters sleeve work? This bracelet-length sleeve length works well for just about everyone (even the superslim) and especially well for curvy women. It takes the potential for a wide horizontal emphasis at the level of the thighs, and moves those horizontal sleeve hems up, to hit nearer the level of the waist. The result is emphasis at the waist, not at the thighs. Shortening the sleeves can take a dress from dumpy to chic.


In a moment of editorial serendipity, the Sykes article is immediately followed by a feature on the pair of women designers of the Parisian fashion line Heimstone (seen above). They are pictured in current designs from the line that feature, yes, relaxed three-quarter length sleeves, shown with multiple bracelets. I think the dresses would be much less interesting with tight, full-length sleeves and the lost opportunity to enjoy some beautiful bracelets.

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