Thursday, 14 June 2018

I'm giving sleeves the cold shoulder

It all dropped into place as I was watching the film “Hidden Figures”. As Taraji P Henson’s character, real-life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, climbs a ladder and raises her arm to begin writing on a huge blackboard, her dress just... stays put. The hem doesn’t lift awkwardly, the fabric of the bodice doesn’t bunch around her shoulders and neck. She looks focussed and poised, her dress an eye-catching flash of bright colour amid a sea of grey as she formulates the safe return of a person from space. 

The success of a dress can hang on its sleeves, and, once again, fast fashion is letting us down. 

As a woman in my mid 30s, the perceived wisdom is that I should be desperate for clothes with sleeves (presumably to cover my unsightly upper arms and armpits in case they are *gasp* sweaty or *double gasp* hairy). In fact the exact opposite has happened, and you will rarely find me sporting a sleeve. While I may not have the perfectly toned arms of an A-List star in a red carpet gown, I see no reason why my completely average arms should be a source of shame. If you are bothered by my (mostly shaved, but sometimes stubbly) armpits, perhaps worry about something else instead of policing women’s bodies? 

But I’m not just going sleeveless as a gesture of defiance against oppressive beauty norms, I’m not wearing sleeves because they just don’t fit properly. If you’re wearing a non-stretchy fitted top or dress, lift your arms above your head. Does the whole garment follow you? Does it stay rucked up when you lower your arms? Doesn’t that annoy you? Sleeves have become a complicated part of a garment, and fast fashion just doesn’t seem to be getting them right. 

I don’t blame pattern cutters; I’ve had trouble with sleeves ever since I drafted my first (terrible) sleeve pattern in my first term at uni. I’ve had years to practice drafting sleeves of every shape and size, and my initial pattern almost always needs tweaking. The difference between my pattern cutting experience and that of someone who sends their patterns off to a factory is that I have to take into consideration any requests from actors or private customers for better freedom of movement, and I usually have the luxury of time (or at least more time than the few seconds a factory worker would be given to sew a sleeve). 

The “factory method” is to machine the armhole with the garment lying flat first, then machine the sleeve seam and side seam all in one. This means there is very little ease in the sleeve head, not so much of a problem for people with a flatter chest, but not ideal for those with a full bust. The method I use for a couture garment is very different; I machine the side seams first, place the garment on the stand and then “balance” my sleeve, pinning it in place to check that it hangs correctly. I don’t always line up my sleeve seam and my side seam; sometimes setting the sleeve seam a bit further forwards can give some extra ease for a larger bust (this ease can help to prevent gaping on a button-down shirt. So can proper button placement, but that’s a rant for another time). I sometimes add a (historically inaccurate) grown-on gusset to certain styles of historical costume (or modern clothing) to allow for more underarm movement, but there are plenty of examples of historical sleeves where this simply wasn’t a problem. 

Up until the 19th Century, men’s shirt patterns were a simple series of squares and rectangles, with a diamond shaped gusset under the arm to allow plenty of movement. The creative pattern cutting of post-war mid-century fashion revisited this idea.  Despite its ubiquity in fashion photography, many women weren’t fans of the ultra-feminine New Look. After experiencing the freedoms afforded by paid work and practical uniforms during the Second World War, they were reluctant to go back to restrictive clothing. 

I found some great examples of the compromises made by enterprising dressmakers in the ladieswear department of the costume house in London where I work. These smart dresses all have cleverly constructed sleeves or underarm gussets to allow for movement in an otherwise fitted and demure dress. Compared to my high-street fitted dress with sleeves, the waist seam on these vintage dresses barely shifts when I raise my arms and I didn’t feel nearly as uncomfortable in a 70-year-old dress as I did in a modern one. 

We look at historical clothing in museum collections and marvel at how restrictive it must have been. But unless we are wearing stretch fabrics, our modern clothing isn’t much better. As the cost-cutting measures that enable fast fashion’s artificially low prices restrict the amount of time spent adjusting patterns and stitching garments, we are literally restricting ourselves in poorly thought-out clothes.

In this day and age, we pride ourselves of finding creative solutions to improve efficiency (even when, sometimes, these solutions were there all along). Maybe we need to take a more creative approach to pattern cutting and garment construction to provide the freedom we expect (and need) from modern clothing.

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