People tend to throw around the word “iconic” these days, but puff sleeves are one of the few styles worthy of the accolade. Throughout history, heads of state and fashion icons from Queen Elizabeth I to Elizabeth Taylor have rocked the trend, which reached its apogee in Princess Diana’s unforgettable wedding dress — the designs for which were locked in a safe to keep any details from leaking to the press.
That royal wedding day may have been puff sleeves’ finest moment, but the look has been around since at least the 16th century. Once known as “leg-of-mutton” sleeves (or “gigot” sleeves, which derives from the French term for “leg of lamb”) because their shape resembled a sheep’s hind leg, they were destined to make a comeback time and time again.
Princess Diana Archive via Getty Images
In the 1820s and ’30s, gigot sleeves helped create the “ideal” female silhouette: an absurdly exaggerated hourglass figure. By the 1890s, they required one to two yards of fabric and complex support systems of whalebone to keep them from deflating.
More recently, in the 1970s, Bianca Jagger was flaunting puff sleeves on the dance floor at Studio 54. In the 1980s, the wardrobes of Joan Collins in “Dynasty” and none other than Oprah herself helped define “power shoulders.”
Today, it feels like every designer is sending puff sleeves down the runway. From Batsheva’s Oregon Trail-esque dresses to Chanel’s arresting red tweed jacket, the look has fully infiltrated fashion, from indie labels to haute couture.
The style has enduring appeal because it’s powerful, said stylist Emily Bobb: “[Puff sleeves] assert a level of feminine masculinity,” especially when women want to “reclaim a sense of boss-ness and attract attention.”
Absolutely anyone can wear these statement sleeves, said stylist Stephanie Thomas, who’s made a career out of dressing people with disabilities since 2000. “I love styling my clients with seated body types in bold, opulent, unapologetically fashionable puffy sleeves,” she told HuffPost. “This ultra-feminine look screams, ‘Yes, look at me, I’m not afraid to be seen.’”
Puff sleeves are at the top of Thomas’ popular Instagram feed, worn by clients who are influencers in their own right: motivational speaker, activist and model Tamara Mena, and model and actor Lauren “Lolo” Spencer — to name just two.
Thomas’ and Bobb’s clients are just the latest in a long parade of women who brazenly wear clothes that invite attention. “A simple dress is much more difficult to wear than one with ruffles and flowers and big sleeves,” Carolina Hererra told The Independent in 2013. Read backward, what that means is: Big sleeves are easy. And that’s why we’re embracing them now and — if history is any guide — probably forever.
Ready to pull off the puff sleeve look yourself? Bobb and Thomas helped create this list of 10 looks that anyone can wear.
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