In 2016 Melania Trump wore a dress with exaggerated and puffed “bell sleeves” and in 2017, the bell sleeve continues its popularity, showing up in high-end clothing to low-end detailing in mass-market clothes for women.
Above, we see a model in her bell sleeves (also called flared sleeves for obvious reasons), and her bell-bottomed pants. Everything about this image is droopy and helpless, except for the assurance that a rigid thigh gap exists. Fringe of hair and leather and blouse ties, droops of hat and sleeves and pants. Fingers curled up just so, making clear she’s a helpless little ole’ thing, so slight the weight of her supposedly-full handbag throws her off-kilter just so.
The modern bell sleeve has its roots in a style period that celebrated privilege, aristocracy, and wealth: the baroque and rococo periods in Europe — especially France. We are in the 1700s before the French Revolution, and for the aristocracy, it was a grand time until it all ended with the middle classes and peasants revolting.
The bell sleeve in 2016 and 2017 is clearly related to the flared sleeve of men’s jackets popular at the time. Looking very busy at his desk, here is Cesar duc Praslin, in his portrait from 1762 from Sweden’s Nationalmuseum. I love his, “Oh! Are you here? What a surprise — why, you catch me in the middle of all this work, so much important work, you see” look. He’s caught on a working day at his desk in full regalia. The sleeve is set in at the shoulder, meaning the top edge of the sleeve isn’t at the “normal” outer edge of the shoulder line but nips up towards the neck. Inspiration? First, his jacket might look military-ish but truly it’s not. It’s decorative-military. And that bell sleeve is far more about tea and coffee than practical military service. By the 1730s European countries had set up national and private corporations to export tea from China and other parts of the East, and a fad for all things “oriental” swept Europe. Chinese decorative arts, fabrics, and motifs and designs were extremely popular. His sleeve line bears the sweeping gesture of that western-eastern vibe. The purple-blue robe below is from the National Museums Scotland collection and dates from around the same era. The image to the left show similar robes with a bit more sleeve action.
A fashion plate of women’s designs from roughly the same decade gives a sense of this. Sleeves were angled longer in the back, and the lacy flow of inset linen looks graceful and is practical, since it is a lot easier to switch out new droopy cuffs than to replace the entire sleeve.
Three real-life women wearing their bell sleeves with pride. Each has a slightly inset sleeve, sleeves that fit closely to the arm but with some room, and the sleeves end just below the elbow in a scoop of bell curve. The woman in the middle has a sleeve that ends in a horizontal cuff and extra blue fabric appears to have been attached to give her the bell swoop behind her arm; the others have fabric cut long behind the elbow with no joining.
Guess the American! That’s right, the slightly stodgy and practical gal in the yellow silk on the right, in a portrait about a decade after the other two portraits. She looks laughably ready to milk a cow, entertain guests, or perhaps foment a rebellion. Her sleeves look far less eleganza-sashay-away than her French counterparts to the left, and more Rosie-the-Riveter ready. Colonial America was in step with European fashion and ever so slightly out of touch — and this is a good example of that in clothing style. A wee lag in current fashion and then, slight adjustments to the style that reveal the growing cultural distinctions between the colonies and the countries across the Atlantic.
The nineteenth century, with its constant drive for novelty, resurrected the bell sleeve, now finessed with the dash and daring of the military-style jackets of European renegades (see Feminine Princelings for more about this style). The woman in the middle, with her wide skirt (girl, that circumference has got to be wider than you are tall!), stands with her full bell sleeves ornamented with soutache (braided trim used on military jackets) rosettes. Frankly, it’s a miracle more than two gals with those hoops could be in the same room at the same time — the joys of line illustrations over real life.
In the 1970s, about one hundred years later, the bell sleeve makes a reappearance with other novelty sleeves. Camelot, the musical, and the fad of King Arthur’s court had much to do with this. Mod designers like Pierre Cardin picked up on the bell sleeve shapes; bell bottoms need balancing, and in these sewing patterns you can see the flares working top to bottom.
Melania Trump favors the bell sleeve. Bizarrely, her white dress, bought online and worn by other prominent women in 2016, is a near match for the Simplicity 7914 dress sewing pattern from 1967. Trump favors design styles derivative of earlier eras, usually the Camelot-era of the late 1960s. These sleeve designs, though, are also channeling France pre-Revolutionary period, and that era is all about excess, power tied to inherited wealth, kings with mistresses accorded political power but rarely legitimacy, and because I’m doom and gloom, pre-revolutionary France is about inequity of money, food, shelter, and life.
So this Milly top, off of the Saks Fifth Avenue website and ready for purchase at just under $300.00, doesn’t look modern to me. Aside from the fact that depending on one’s workplace and friends, if you wear this top be ready to fend off this comment:
(First published in 1957, by the way, and by a seriously sharp political critic who spent his time writing and illustrating children’s books, and drawing some of the harshest political cartoons ever.).
The Milly top, with its elongated and impractical sleeves with a distinct bell shape, is a strangely suitable style for 2017. As the wealth gap has widened, and especially given the choice in November to shift political power towards politicians who will move resources, money, and power towards those already gifted with all of these riches — and away from voters without money, education, income, and so on — the styles of women’s clothing are going to reflect this. But in odd ways. So Melania’s dresses are impractical, old-fashioned, retro designs barely updated for the 2010s. Designer clothing will split between defensive postures (long layers, heavier-soled shoes, tough detailing like metal trims, cut-out slashes, and odd necklines) and the cringing and apparently weak (like the Milly top here, which despite its brave stripes is a pullover to hide out in, curling one’s wee little fingers up into the cuffs). Be prepared for wispy shapes and fabrics, a return to the tottering and big-headed starlet, and pastels; and buckle down for the close-fitting, heavy-soled glamazons from the 1980s, wrought into 2017 styles. I’m guessing, of course, but this is going be to a rough fashion ride, especially in the mid-level downmarket world of designers like Milly, The Row, and so on.