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In praise of the sleeve

As a teenager who loved to sew, I would chop sleeves off my dresses to create a less fussy silhouette, but over the years I’ve started to appreciate that sleeves can be a good thing.

Sleeves cover our arms, protect our skin and come in many lengths and styles to enhance the shape and functionality of what we wear.

They can range from the tiniest ‘extended shoulder sleeve’ (which isn’t really a sleeve at all, but became popular in the 40s due to wartime fabric rationing), to the excesses of the 70s ultra-full bishop sleeve, gathered into a gloriously deep cuff and finished with a row of small buttons: the hem tucked into high-waisted hot pants or flares.

Some sleeves are wide and square, like the kimono or dolman, and some have a low and loose underarm (armscye) with a fitted body and lower sleeve, like a batwing worn cinched into a wide belt and pencil skirt – last seen in the 80s.

In the 50s they featured small diamond gussets for increased movement and in the 30s they were puffed at the top of the sleeve, with small pads called sleeve headers, to hold a dramatic shape and emphasise a small waist.

Sometimes sleeves can be tight and unforgiving, preventing 60s dolly birds from swinging their arms to the music, or loose and fluttery in rich silks for sashaying stars of the silver screen.

More and more in our sunny land they’re entirely absent – a cost-saving for the manufacturing industry? A trend for leaner and sleeker lines? This can be great news if you’re young or have gym-toned arms but many of us look at these styles and wish for something different.

What to do when what you want to wear is not in vogue?

Adding sleeves to a garment that lacks them is easy – you can either sew new sleeves into the openings (or ask someone nicely): choose perhaps a contrasting colour or sheer texture like stretch net or lace. Prints are nice too. This way, your new sleeves offer an opportunity to be creative, to personalise your style.

The other option is to wear sleeves that are already part of something else: a jacket, shrug or cardigan or perhaps a shawl or stole will provide that additional coverage – or you could wear a T-shirt or top underneath, ala 90s style – and the sleeveless style now becomes a sort of pinafore.

Style is Eternal by Nicole Jenkins, published by MUP, is available now, RRP $44.99, mup.com.au.

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