‘Poor Things’ and the Power of Mega Sleeves

Estimated read time 7 min read

When Holly Waddington, the costume designer for “Poor Things,” Yorgos Lanthimos’s much heralded phantasmagorical film about a young women’s psychological and sexual awakening that opened on Friday, began thinking about what her heroine would wear, she said she was thinking “skinny arms and these kind of straight skirts with the big bustle.”

The film, which is based on a 1992 book by Alasdair Gray and stars Emma Stone, is set in an unidentified time period that is sort of like the 1880s — if the 1880s took place in an alternate dimension in which time folded in on itself, so the past was also the future. In part, that’s why Ms. Waddington was drawn to a silhouette that was slim on top and exaggerated at the bottom.

Also, it’s “quite phallic,” she said, “and that felt right.” Mr. Lanthimos had other ideas.

“He said, ‘It’s about the sleeve,’” Ms. Waddington recalled. And so, indeed, it is.

Puffed, ruffled and ruched to bulbous extremes, the sleeves worn by Ms. Stone’s character, Bella Baxter, are impossible to ignore. About 15.5-inches wide, they bounce across the screen in every scene like giant hot air balloons or supersize mammaries, bigger than her head, absurd and weirdly alluring, dainty and dominant. They are “vast,” Ms. Waddington said. “Huge.”

But monumental as they are, they are also utterly on trend. “There’s something in the air,” Ms. Waddington said. “Yorgos was very tuned into that.” It’s not the marketing tsunami that was Barbie pink; it’s merely one of those cosmic moments when fashion and culture collide.

Forget the power shoulder: 2023 was the year of the power sleeve. No matter the exact style — puffed, bishop, fluted, belled, leg o’ mutton, statement, mega, dramatic — all that really mattered was that it was big. Off screen as well as on.

We have, said Daniel Roseberry, the creative director of Schiaparelli, “hit peak sleeve.”

Style watchers began talking about a sleeve sweep at the end of 2022. “Forget what you knew about the statement sleeve,” the influential Italian boutique Luisa Via Roma proclaimed on its website. “This season, the style is more dramatic and bolder than ever.” The fall ready-to-wear shows were filled with sleeves — brushing the floor at Balenciaga and Rodarte; bowling ball-size at Thom Browne; rounded and sculptural at Schiaparelli.

By Oscar time, sleeve mania had migrated onto the red carpet thanks to Florence Pugh, who wore a palatial puff-sleeve Valentino taffeta robe atop shorts; Jessie Buckley, in a Shakespearean-sleeve black-lace gown by Rodarte; and Mindy Kaling, whose white Vera Wang dress had detachable gauntlets-cum-sleeves.

At the Met Gala in May, Kendall Jenner wore a sequined Marc Jacobs look in which the designer seemed to have taken all the fabric from what would have been the pants and transferred it to the sleeves. (Also joining the statement sleeve set: Michelle Yeoh, Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne.)

Then Vogue put Carey Mulligan on its November cover in a peachy gown from the Louis Vuitton 2024 resort collection that had such complicated sleeves it looked as if she’d stuck her arms elbow-deep into two giant cream puffs. And then came “Poor Things” with what Ms. Waddington called its “commitment to sleeves.”

Little wonder that in January, the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology will kick off its 2024 programming with “Statement Sleeves,” an exhibition of almost 80 pieces from the permanent collection that will focus on how sleeves serve as “signifiers of status, taste and personality,” according to a news release. And though they cycle in and out of fashion, so it has always been.

Big sleeves have been a part of dress for almost as long as there has been dress. Colleen Hill, the curator of costume and accessories at FIT, who is behind the museum’s sleeves show, said the world’s oldest woven garment — a V-neck linen shirt from the fourth millennium B.C., now in the collection of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London — includes knife-pleated sleeves. During the Renaissance, sleeves were often the most elaborate part of a dress, as well as detachable; grooms often gave sleeves to their new brides.

Sleeves became even more prominent in the Elizabethan, Victorian and Edwardian eras. By the 1830s there were so many different sleeve shapes and names, Ms. Hill said, that a woman’s sewing guide from the period stated, in effect, “we’re not going to give you all the styles of sleeves because it is impossible.”

Ms. Waddington said that when she was researching these periods for “Poor Things,” she went into fashion archives and discovered sleeves so extreme they were almost unbelievable. “This is the thing that fascinates me about historical dress,” she said. “The shapes are wild.” What looks like science fiction, she added, actually comes from “a 19th-century pattern.”

Sleeves got big again in the 1940s thanks to designers like Adrian, the Hollywood couturier whose giant ruffled sleeves were a favorite of a young Joan Crawford and a precursor to the equally giant shoulder pads of World War II. And sleeves made a famous return in the 1980s, thanks in part to Princess Diana and the enormous fairy-tale-on-steroids sleeves of her wedding gown.

It’s probably not an accident that the episodes of “The Crown” that focus on Diana, including the recreation of her wedding dress, have coincided with the return of big sleeves. Simon Porte Jacquemus specifically name-checked Diana as the inspiration for his fall 2023 show, which featured inflated sleeves. He said he was obsessed with her “dramatic round puffy sleeves.”

“It shaped her silhouette in a sensuous way, but still with a poetic and naïve ’80s touch,” he said.

At first it may have seemed that pandemic lockdowns and the ascension of comfort clothing would kill the big sleeve. But the way that altered reality shrank our interactions to the size of a computer monitor may actually have turbocharged the trend.

“We’re so often seen onscreen these days from the waist up, and sleeves are a way to stand out,” Ms. Hill said.

Ms. Waddington said much the same, noting that the torso “is what the camera sees most of the time, so the information needs to be happening between the waist and the head.” And how much better when it is conveyed at volume. Or, rather, in volumes.

Indeed, Mr. Roseberry said, sleeves “draw the attention upward to the face and the person wearing the garment.”

No matter what, Mr. Lanthimos said, “they really make an impression.” Sleeves are inclusive: They can be worn by myriad bodies in myriad ways and exist at myriad prices. They are theatrical. (Forget talking with your hands; talking with your arms is much more effective.) And they can be resonant of sexuality, safety and strength.

That makes sleeves the rare design element that is equally showy and swaddling. Simone Rocha, whose balloon sleeves walk a fine line between childlike and sensuous and have become something of a design signature, said she was drawn to the way “the proportion sculpts around the body almost like a cocoon, creating a sense of security.” Also: big, puffy sleeves are old-fashioned and contemporary at the same time, speaking to history and, she said, “the pragmatic feeling of a work-wear bomber.”

Whatever the association, however, the result is universal: “In an upside-down world, emphasizing your physicality in space, taking up room, is a way of asserting yourself,” Mr. Roseberry said. “Of giving yourself importance.”

Ms. Waddington agreed. “I think that they’re about empowerment,” she said. Which is, in the end, the hero’s journey of “Poor Things,” and the heart of its emotional appeal.

“I feel like I’d quite like to wear big sleeves now,” Ms. Waddington said.

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