Why Victorian sleeves are the reigning fashion monarch. (Year 2)

1st year fashion piece with a brief of being for The Guardian

Why Victorian sleeves are the reigning fashion monarch.

The new season silhouette that is more Horrible Histories than it is Haute Couture.

Every season it seems as though fashion has flicked through the history books once again. With the idea of Britain ever being so great a nostalgic memory for us in times of uncertainty, it seems fashion is yet to let us forget.

As Mary Poppins soon returns to our silver screens providing us with memories of chimney sweeps and a historic London, the Victorian ‘leg of mutton’ sleeve follows suit. The voluminous, avant-garde sleeves thankfully appear more like something from a royal portrait than an 80s wedding dress. The puffed shoulder shapes “give a powerful look, which are very regal and strong.” says Integrated Master Fashion Management student, Olivia Hammond. 

Last month at fashion week, John Galliano sent the sleeves down the runway in white with a straw hat, all ready for a picnic at hanging rock. Material cut off at the elbow in pastel yellow shades at Alexander McQueen. Prints of flowers against a clear sky were placed upon the sleeves at Peter Pilloto. The versatility of this historic shape is what fashion stylist Ihunna Eberendu says is the key to their success; “with large out there sizes or more subtle silhouettes of this sleeve, each one creates a different look in itself.” Fashion has come full circle and the Victorian sleeves were very much at the forefront of fashions favourite houses. 

The sleeve itself dates back to the Victorian era and was as compulsory to the fashionable Victorian woman as a little black dress is to the modern woman. “This sleeve was fashionable from about 1890 to 1897 and worn by just about anyone who was able to afford a basic wardrobe.” Says costume designer Julia Nonn. “The size was most extreme around 1894 and 1895, that style needs a lot of fabric and is most likely something only wealthier women could afford.” The ‘leg of mutton’ shape was often created in blouse form and paired with skirts as sports gained popularity among Victorian women. The sporty look was labelled the “Gibson Girl Style” which Nonn says is “similar to what we call ivy league- or preppy- style today” 

So why has fashion taken a liking to one of Britain’s most notorious royal reigns? In a time of political uncertainty, is the Victorian era and everything that comes with it a security blanket to us as a time that we are sure of? Perhaps we all need a touch of Victoriana in our lives. 

The Victorian era saw Alexander Bell invent the telephone, primary school made compulsory and even the introduction of ice cream. These years were defined by change in both politics and technology- sounds familiar? With the seemingly dim future of the United Kingdom’s seemingly hanging in the balance of ongoing Brexit negotiations, looking back at fashion’s bright past lays a calming hand on our fidgeting-with-nerves knee.  

Perhaps fashion week’s obsession with the regal era is a nod of the hat to the stateside woman who sparked a nations infatuation with our monarchs yet again. Adoration for the royal family is at an all-time high after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s summer nuptials and announcement that they were expecting their first child and so fashions flashback to British monarch heyday comes as no surprise.  

But why ‘leg of mutton’ sleeves? What about these extravagant sleeves does fashion seem to love so much? Eberendu says “I think they add an eye-catching shape to outfits which could otherwise be plain. They create a bold look but can be made subtle. It’s super powerful.” 

When it comes to actually wearing the sleeves, Hammond advises that “keeping away from traditional royal colours, like purple or red, and updating and modernising the silhouette by using patterns or a more form fitting body” will help to avoid appearing more cosplaying than runway ready. 

For outfit inspiration, Eberendu says “Balance is key. Pairing the sleeves with muted colours and casual bottoms like jeans modernises it. Accessories like a chunky belt can also help balance an otherwise top-heavy look.” 

From the first underground railway to the 24-hour night tube, the first Sainsburys open on Drury Lane to online shopping and the first public electric lighting to solar panels. We’ve come a long way from Britain’s Victorian past. But whether it’s Bell or McQueen, Victorian history has a place in modern day- show it through your sleeves. 

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