Why the Long Sleeves Trend Isn’t Going Anywhere Anytime Soon
As the sleeves-to-the-knees trend stretches into its third straight fashion season, it’s time to delve into what it’s all about. The sleeves in question vary from the tiered Mameluke sleeves at Off-White—a sort of avalanche of puffs down the arms that Napoleonic soldiers inherited from Egyptian horsemen—to the gorilla-sleeved hoodies at Vetements. At Jacquemus, sleeves are puffed, squiggly, slashed, voluminous and gathered. What they are not is short. At J.W. Anderson, they are batwinged to excess. On Anderson’s leather blouson, they are rippled and ruched down to the fingertips, protecting the back of the hands like the jacket of a Renaissance swordsman.
In short, the long and short of the sleeve trend is that there is no short of it. Nor is there any shortage of it. And it will be a long while before we see our hands again. According to Frances McSherry, fashion historian at Boston’s Northeastern University, there are many historical precedents for the extra-long sleeve. “The 12th- and 13th-century kirtles, cotes and surcotes had long sleeves that signified the wearers were of higher status because they could afford more fabric and a better tailor,” she says.
Yet it doesn’t seem like Vetements is projecting posh despite Demna Gvasalia’s tailoring talent and the abundant yardage of fabric. While McSherry’s reading holds true for medieval times, in today’s neo-medieval times, Vetements’ intentions are ambivalent. Its jumpsuits, jackets and bombers are deliberately ill fitting: The shoulders crumple pathetically; sleeves hang a foot past the fingertips. The status of the Vetements label derives from its association with wealth but even more so from its association with the opposite of wealth: dearth. It is the fashionableness of being marginal; the edginess of living on the edge. Overly long sleeves connote poverty, cold and insanity. More acutely at Vetements than any other label pushing long sleeves, the models—especially the boys—are urchins. Their clothes are too big, and their long sleeves look like they are meant to fend off inclement weather.
In 1992, Martin Margiela, Gvasalia’s erstwhile employer, showed his clothes in a Salvation Army depot in Paris. Favouring venues like abandoned lots, derelict hospitals and disused supermarkets, Margiela was a designer whose eye was permanently trained on the marginal. And, not surprisingly, his sleeves were habitually and inordinately long. Miguel Adrover, a designer who is now forgotten, shared a similar preoccupation. In his brief comeback from bankruptcy in 2012, he produced a grey turtleneck sweater overhung with stuffed cats and equipped with elongated sleeves. It appeared to be a comment on homelessness—something that Adrover, whose brand had been abandoned by backers, was all too familiar with.
Though they hint at destitution, excessive sleeves also convey its opposite, which is the hands-free existence of the ultra-leisured class. The very well heeled have never opened their own doors or carried their own shopping bags, so what does it matter if they cannot? But there is a more pernicious and, dare I say, even sinister interpretation of the trend for those who do use their hands on occasion: It hobbles the wearer. Oversized clothes and sleeves turn a person into a child. One burrows into clothes that are too big; one hides in them. Long sleeves conceal multitudes from the public eye: a knife, a con artist’s ace of spades, a self-harmer’s scars. And prolonged sleeves, which are buckled together like a straitjacket, signify helplessness—the utmost loss of control.
We are in the midst of turmoil, and fashion is not signalling us to roll up our sleeves and get to work; rather, it is enticing us to, as the French say, baisser les bras, which means, literally, to lower one’s arms, to give up. Perhaps that is reading too much into it. But whether we are talking about sleeves or the greater things that ail us, there is no end in sight.
From the Spring 2017 runway to street style, check out the gallery below to see the best takes of the long-sleeves trend.