Generally speaking there are three very basic sleeve styles, but the possible variations among these styles are only limited by the imagination. There are two elements common to all three styles. First, the greatest amount of fullness is usually at the elbow. Second, the sleeves are set into the armscye in a manner that creates the smoothest line possible, further extending the shoulder line. Both of these elements also help to enhance the appearance of a small waist.
White or very light colored undersleeves or detachable cuffs should usually be worn with all sleeve styles, at least with “better” dresses. On a dress worn for work they very likely would be more trouble than they are worth. As with the dress sleeves, undersleeves tend to be fullest at the elbow. The fullness of the undersleeve would depend on the style of sleeve with which they were worn.
A very common sleeve style seen in period photographs is the “coat” sleeve. This style is so named since it is similar to the style of sleeve most commonly used on men’s frock coats, etc. These sleeves were often two pieces which are similar in shape. The inner seam curving slightly, following the inner curve of the arm. The outer seam swells out significantly at the elbow then rapidly tapers down to a somewhat fitted wrist. The wrist opening is frequently finely piped in self-fabric to minimize wear. This style of sleeve goes particularly well with a darted bodice. Narrow undersleeves or cuffs attached inside the sleeve are appropriate under this style sleeve. This sleeve style appears to be quite common for work dresses, perhaps because it uses the least amount of fabric of the various styles. It the wrist opening is fitted right, the sleeve can be pushed up for messy work projects.
Another very common style is the gathered or 'bishop' sleeve. This is basically a one piece rectangular sleeve, gathered at the top, set into the armscye, then gathered at the wrist and set into a cuff or band. This style sleeve works well with any bodice style, but especially the gathered bodices. Slightly fuller under- sleeves were often worn with this style of sleeve. These undersleeves not only served to help keep the dress clean, but also help keep the sleeves fashionably full. Detachable cuffs basted to the inside edge of the sleeves were also worn.
The third style is the pagoda sleeve. (see photo above) This sleeve first came into fashion in the 1850’s, but remained fashionable well into the 1860’s. This style lends itself to the widest range of variations in fullness, cut, length, trim, etc. In its most basic form this sleeve style flares out into a full bell shape and ending somewhere along the length of the forearm. Fabric was expensive so the extra fabric required for pagoda sleeves kept this style in the “best dress” category of a lady’s wardrobe. That is, if she could even afford the style at all. Because of the openness of these sleeves, undersleeves are a requirement. As a rule of thumb, the fuller the sleeve, the fuller the undersleeves should be. Also, the fancier the dress, the finer, more delicate the fabric should be for the undersleeves. Silk, the finest of light wool or other very fine fabrics should be used for this style.
A common sleeve variation is the sleeve cap, jockey, or epaulette, to mention a few of the names used. This is a short piece set in the armscye and extending out a few inches or so over the upper sleeve. (see photo above.) This not only adds interest to the sleeve, but it further extends the shoulder line, thereby making the waist look smaller in comparison.
There is yet another, far less common style of sleeve worn in the period. It is one with a single or double puff of fabric at the upper portion of the sleeve, with the lower 2/3rds or so of the sleeve comparatively narrow. Even though this sleeve is not full at the elbow, this is balanced out by the extra fullness at the upper arm, which still adds to the illusion of a narrow waist compared to the shoulders; the goal of most fashion elements of this era.
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Updated 9 March 2002 (a)