Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Sleeves: Decoding what the designers are saying

'Yes, of course we know that middle aged women want to cover up their arms, but that is not our problem. For the past few years we have been designing sleeveless dresses because that is what is we want to design. The fact that many women can't wear these dresses is of no consequence. We do not wish to sell to these women because we do not want them to wear our clothes. We realise that we are losing a huge revenue from this clientele, but although we are financially on the brink of ruin, we are artists not business people. We prefer not to make a profit and go under rather than compromise our artistic vision and make dresses with sleeves. No sleeves. Sorry. We are not really sorry. We just don't care what you want. We are directional people, you should want what we tell you to want and if you can't wear it, well, you are not our market.

'For Spring/Summer 09 we are introducing jackets without sleeves. Autumn/Winter 09, shoes without soles. '


Toby Wollin said...

Or, in other words - women over the age of 30 (or women who wish to cover their arms..whichever)have no value to us and you should just go off and shoot yourselves. There. Stupid gits.

Deja Pseu said...

Personally, I think it's also partly because it's *easier* to do sleeveless designs. One less element to worry about, and satisfies that desire for everything to look as vertical as possible.

Marian D said...

Well, we've already had shoes (high) without heels, by Antonio Berardi. And all these toeless shoe-boots, which we can only assume are for autumn-winter...
Untoned arms, goosebumps and frozen toes. Accessorised with crutches after we've fallen off our killer non-heels.
Great look at any age.

Marti said...

Over here we have a program called "Project Runway." This week's challenge was to design an outfit for a new college graduate. However the firt "clients" the designers saw were the girl's mothers. When the designer's thought that the clients were the moms they made comment's were fairly insulting to anyone over 30. Yes, these comments were broadcast over national TV.

lagatta à montréal said...

Not to mention that there are university graduates over 30, and even over 40 or 50. People who go back to studies after years working, or finish their degree part-time while working, should be applauded.

Another category of women who might want formal or semi-formal dresses, other than mature students, awards-winners or business and professional women attending an event, are mature brides - married the second time - or the first, if they've never actually "made it legal" in younger years. A friend, married not long ago at 47, found a lovely berry-red dress that covered her shoulders, but once again it wasn't easy.

Are these design students, or professional designers?

Anonymous said...

Alternatively just wear something polyester, go play bingo and wave your upper arm udders to your hearts content...

greying pixie said...

Getting fashion students to consider sleeves is not easy. When you teach them to be creative by draping fabric on the dummy they forget the arm completely. Added to this the past ten years or so has definitely seen a tendancy to show as much flesh as possible, so students are bound to be influenced. But I've always tried to make my students remember the arms and integrate them into the design - not just stick a couple of sleeves on at the end!

There are so few designers today that I can refer them to for inspiration however, and I usually end up giving them the old list, ie. 1960s Valentino, Givenchy, YSL, 1950s Dior, Balenciaga, Balmain, 1980s onwards Japanese designers.

I could make this into a rant on the standards of design education today, but I don't want to spoil your evening!

~TessaScoffs said...

I think designers should further classify themselves as either "artsy" or "functional" and then we'll know who not to bother with.

Anonymous said...

This attitude is exactly why, at the age of 51, I'm trying to learn how to sew for the umpteenth time. (This may remain a dream, but I'm trying.)

I'm taking evening courses at one of the top design schools in America and it's very demanding. I don't look my age and you cannot imagine the comments I hear made about older people.* I once asked a student about her design ideas for women of a certain age and weight, and she said that it was really impossible to make anyone larger than a Size 6 (I think that would an American commercial size 2) look good.

I'm petite, short, usually between 99 and and 103 pounds, and curvy and I can't find anything that fits me. I feel like an elephant. When something does fit, it's too short and makes me look like I've had a growth spurt or just hits at an unflattering spot. I'm fed up. There seems to be no middle ground between looking like mutton-dressed-like-lamb and terminal matronhood.

As someone who has studied a bit of fashion design, I do have a healthy respect for design and fitting problems -- people's bodies are so different -- but sleeves shouldn't be that big a deal.

When I was young, it never occurred to me that older women had these problems. Maybe because there were lots of styles with sleeves back then. Or perhaps I just didn't notice?

I don't have a problem with my arms yet, but I'm definitely going to start doing some dumbbell work.

A small part of me thinks that women should start showing their bouncy, dimply arms -- screw 'em!

*Some decades ago, I thought the idea of concealing one's age was ridiculous. That was before I encountered ageism. I'm not a very naturally talented sewing student (and also lack experience) and I guess I'd prefer the judgmental, of which there are many, to think I'm slow, as opposed to being on the brink of senility.

phyllis said...

Deja pesu - you are so right. Just look at what the designers on Project Runway crank out. Sleeveless garments are easier to sew and manufacture as well. Coco Chanel spent her entire career in pursuit of the prefect sleeve, and by her own estimation she never achieved it.

Geraldine said...

Hilarious post! I'd add tights without feet only they've already been done loads of times.

Marti said...

A question: Do dressmaker's dummies have arms?

Not that it should matter.

california dreamer said...

To answer lagatta a montreal:

The "Project: Runway: competitors are all called "designers". Some are recent graduates, some have fledgling design businesses/shops, some work for major designers, last year was notable for the designer whose experience was over-the-top costumes for drag queens. I suspect they are selected if they show sufficient talent and look like they'll help keep the show interesting.

The designers themselves range from barely out of their teens to mid-forties.

And while we're on the topic of sleeves and other discreet dress features:

I have taken to clipping photos of women at awards shows who have found something suitable to wear that looks fabulous. Unfortunately, these cost thousands of dollars/pounds/what-have-you. But it's nice to find inspiration, or at least something to wave in the faces of the oblivious shop staff.

Nadine said...

Sleeves are hard to fit. The perfect sleeve is like the perfect pair of pants. I think this is why wedding dresses have become almost universally strapless.

Kai Jones said...

Apparently fat women like me can have sleeves! This Tadashi cocktail dress is gorgeous; formal wear in pewter/silver or steel plus wine or black jersey are all floor-length formal wear.

Belle de Ville said...

As far as I'm concerned designers with this attitude don't deserve the business of the clients of the demographic that they do not respect.
Every woman of a certain age should have a quality dressmaker or tailor who can create clothes that are chic fit the clients figure and budget.
Why give any business at all, clothes, handbags or other accessories to designers who won't create anything for women who aren't 20 years old.

greying pixie said...

belle de ville, I agree with you, but alas those days are over. There is no such thing as a 'little dressmaker round the corner' anymore at least not in the UK. Even in Italy they are increasingly expensive to hire at a resonable cost - they have to make a living too I suppose.

Marti, there are differing styles of dressmaker's dummies, some with shoulders, some with detachable arms, the cheapest being with no arms or shoulders. That is, unfortunately, the style that is prevalent in design colleges. However you can get dummies in all shapes and sizes, and even have them made to your exact measurements if you so wish, although that would cost you as much as a couture dress anyway!

But I think there is a big issue here regarding the difference between designing and dressmaking. They are not synonymous by any means which is why it actually takes a life time to become a good designer, just as an artist often produces his/her best work in the second half of life. So don't be too hard on today's bright young things. It's the quality of their training that will manifest itself in years to come.

Linda Grant said...

I'd like to agree strongly here with greying pixie. Designer and dressmaker are not the same thing. Here in London I know no-one who has a dressmaker and I would certainly not go to a tailor to design me an evening dress. Because the design is the key element. You need someone who is gifted, who understands your shape, who has an in-depth understanding of how a fabric falls or drapes, and has imagination and flair. All of these are more than just sewing skills.

On the subject of Tadashi, my sister pointed out his site last week. He makes lovely evening dresses but I emailed their office in LA and alas, they have no British stockists. Same with Kay Unger. America is way ahead of us in this respect.

What surprises me is how little eveningwear there is in the shops, how expensive it is and few of the dresses have sleeves. I rang a company which rents evening dresses and asked for the brands that they stock, but they only have well-known brands in sample size because, I imagine, she's buying her stock in sample sales. The stuff they had online that I could rent was covered with sequins beads, chiffon. No simple draped dresses like Donna Karan.

phyllis said...

Marti: yes actually - professional dress forms are available with removable arms.

A custom dress form can also be a DYI project. They're made with duct tape applied over a snug fitting turtleneck and you need a friend to help you. A sewing instructor named Jean Haas has made several videos on the technique.

Anonymous said...

Marti and Phyllis:

As someone else noted, most dress forms of the kind that you find in fashion design schools do not have sleeves. If you need to make a sleeve, you consult a sheet with the standard measurements for the size mannequin you're working with, draft the appropriate sleeve sloper, and start from there.

If you were to make something for a woman with other than mannequin proportions, you'd have to take all her measurements, plus adapt the design to her particular proportions (or so I assume from the little bit of pattern making I've done).

I've seen the DYI duct tape idea several times. But whenever I've talked to people at the Parsons School of Design and F.I.T. or folks with similar training, they either didn't know what I was talking about or thought the idea was hilarious.

If I continue to pursue this, I think I'll buy a kit I've read about that's a more sophisticated version of the duct tape model -- you create a plaster model on your body, fill it with foam and then cover it. (My Twin).

The point about the difference between designing and sewing is well-taken. But as a beginning sewer who has no ambition to enter the industry, I'm often struck by the number of young or youngish fashion students who think that all they need to be able to do is design. It's unlikely that they're going to be put in charge of a design team the day after graduation. They may not be in a position to hire someone to make samples.

Besides, a lot of them have websites on which they post their work -- it's got to be beautifully constructed.

Anonymous said...

Again, although I don't disagree that pattern making, construction, and designing are different skills, I hate to see the lack of love for the two former areas. They're very demanding.

I'm convinced that at least one reason for the lack of respect their practitioners receive is that they are fields that were, or still are, dominated by women and immigrants.

Duchesse said...

Sleeveless may be easy to design and sew, but not to fit. If I wear sleeveless (being of the screw 'em persuasion of which Anonymous speaks), the armhole either gapes, folds, or is too high cut on the shoulder, requiring the agony of a strapless bra. The only way it fits is by alteration, usually adding or moving bust darts.

Anonymous said...

Duchesse wrote:

"Sleeveless may be easy to design and sew, but not to fit."

No kidding. The armscyes (if they still use that term) are always too low and too deep on my dresses. A while back, I was reading Claire Schaeffer's Couture Sewing Techniques and she described a garment for which the designer made a special slip or vest that concealed the wearer's bra.

Although a lot of couture seems overly fussy to me (which is convenient as it will always be beyond my means), details like that really set a garment apart.

I'm so used to things not fitting that I no longer know what good fit is. (I actually Googled it.)

I had hit upon the idea of going to a designer and asking him to make me a pattern based on a very simple sheath dress, but then it occurred to me that he might laugh at my idea of a decent fit.

Anonymous said...

A photo of dress forms from the Fashion Institute of Technology's website. Not an arm in sight.

A teacher told me that the school planned ultimately to introduce more consistency by making most of the dress forms Size 6. Although dress forms theoretically are the same size, they differ from year to year and from manufacturer to manufacturer. Students were moving dress forms from the classrooms to which they were assigned in order to work on them after hours and apparently it was thought that at least if they were all Size 6s there would be less incentive to do that.

N.B., this is an industry Size 6. In American commercial sizes, we're talking 2 to 0 or smaller. I weigh 100 pounds, more or less, and I can just squeeze into an industry Size 8, depending on the design.*

I would not count on the fashion industry changing anytime soon.

*There are courses offered in design for larger sizes, but I have yet to meet anyone who expressed an interest in that market. So far, it's been "prestige" women's design, men's wear, and accessories.

Pray for the future of computer-based pattern making and custom design.

phyllis said...

Well, I can say from my own sewing expertise (and I have a lot) that pattern drafting and pattern alteration are really two different things. I can take just about any commercial pattern produced for the home sewing market and make it fit just about anybody. I can also take a commercial pattern and grade it up or down to the next size with a good degree of accuracy. But drafting a pattern from scratch based upon a designer's sketch is totally outside my skill set.

Also, duct tape dress forms are a home sewing market item, professionals have no need for such a thing.

Anonymous said...

"[I]t actually takes a life time to become a good designer, just as an artist often produces his/her best work in the second half of life."

True (at least some of the time), but as with many fields, there's increasingly more pressure to succeed early and big. This past summer, I spoke to a young Parsons student and he told me that ever since someone bought the entire thesis project of two students, everyone wants to be an instant success.

The project was by the students who went on to form Proenza Schouler.

Anonymous said...

"[D]uct tape dress forms are a home sewing market item, professionals have no need for such a thing."

Yes, they draft for a standard size mannequin/sample model. If you're talking about women with "normal" proportions, you either have to drape on the woman or alter a dress form to reflect her body.

I wasn't surprised that they didn't use a duct tape mannequin, so much as that they'd never heard of it. The fact that they found it such a funny idea made me think it might not be worth doing.

Linda Grant said...

Belinda Earl, the CEO of Jaeger told me that they were the only company to use a size 12 (US size 8) fitting model, and more significantly, the fitting model they use is around 38, because the body of a size 12 teenager and the body of a 38 year old who has had children are not the same. This I why I shop at Jaeger. Their clothes fit me.

gp said...

But beware, a size 12 dummy is the equivalent of a UK retail size 10. (This is the size we use in design colleges in the UK.) And a retail size 10 is a European (French) size 38.

Kim H said...

As a UK 'little dressmaker round the corner' I will concede that we are a rare breed but not totally extinct.
Having clothes made to individual requirements is always going to be more expensive than off the peg because there is no economy of scale involved (and it takes a fair length of time to make something worth having) but you are most unlikely to meet someone at a function who has had exactly the same idea as you.
The main problem I have as a dressmaker is sourcing fabrics as so many of the old fabric shops are no more.
If you find a dressmaker you like and get on with treat her well and she will be a very loyal asset.

phyllis said...

"The fact that they found it such a funny idea made me think it might not be worth doing."

Oh I wouldn’t say that at all; most home sewers I know of who have made a duct tape dress form were happy they did. For women who are a plus size, or bigger than a B cup, or if you have a condition such scoliosis or a high hip they can be really helpful because you have a dress form that truly conforms to your own body. The downside is that if you gain or lose weight you can't translate that change onto a duct tape form. Also, as we get older our bodies change in subtle ways even if one’s weight stays the same (and a good dressmaker knows this and will re-take your measurements about every two years.)

For this reason, in the end I just went out and bought a processional dress form (padded surface, skirt cage, collapsible shoulders, and foot pedal) and I’ll just pad it out.

Marian D said...

Today's Sunday Times "Style" supplement has a feature entitled 'What your sleeve says about you. Three-quarters, long or none at all? Sleeves are the new hemlines - Claudia Croft demystifies the politics".
It's about sleeves in the workplace (where Claudia says they're only for women with "toned alpha arms", eg Anna Wintour). So no evening wear. But it does indicate that sleeves are on at least one fashion writer's radar (I think Claudia once mentioned that sleeves – or the lack of them – are the most frequent topic in her "Wardrobe Mistress" readers' questions postbag).
Anyway there are plenty of sleeves around on day dresses, tops, cocktail dresses, jackets, coats... so some designers are clearly managing to create and fit them. And if they can do so for cocktail dresses, why not for long? Similar materials, surely?

Anonymous said...


Maybe I will try the duct tape mannequin idea sometime. The kit I was talking about was recommended by a former Threads magazine senior editor, David Page Coffin, in his book, "Shirtmaking." (Unfortunately, my reading about sewing far exceeds my execution of any sewing techniques.)

Unless huge numbers of women protest, nothing is going to change in the fashion industry.

I've tried to do my little bit. I've said occasionally to fashion students, "That's very nice, but you know that there aren't that many women who can wear that?"

Or, "Have you ever considered 'feminist' fashion? I don't mean dowdy and serviceable, but interesting, comfortable, well-made clothes that women can wear year after year? A lot of women would pay good money for that kind of style."

They don't care.

Ultimately, it comes down to incentives. The students feel they aren't going to get jobs if the work they show isn't cutting edge, and they certainly know the field better than I do.

Anonymous said...

As a woman of a certain age and certain figure, I have learned to re-invent the way I dress. I have a collection of beautiful cashmere sweaters in various lengths and glorious colors. Also, I have a wonderful collection of necklaces which I pair with the sweaters dressing up or down. I have six long skirts to match for evening which I wear with vintage Chanel glass. Looks great and frees me from worry.....

Judy-Sue said...

Last year, my daughter got married and we both had our dresses designed and made by someone who I consider both a dressmaker and designer who looked, listened and listened again. Both dresses were fab and drew universal acclaim,mine with its sleeves just below the elbow.

Anonymous said...

Have you considered contacting leading fashion design schools and asking them to put you in touch with students who specialize in evening wear? It might be that one of them could design and sew a set of sleeves to go with your green dress.

I know enough about sewing not to say it would be easy: They'd have to draft a sloper, test some sleeves, and then insert and sew a delicate or slippery fabric (gauze? lace?), but if the sleeves are simple, maybe with just a little gathering at the top of the armhole and/or the bottom, it might be doable.

I'm going to have to make sure to return and see how things worked out.

Linda Grant said...

The dress has two shoulder straps, so I doubt that that would work, but thanks for suggesting.

Duchesse said...

Joan/Anonymous: I love your description of your choice, so beautiful and graceful.

Anonymous said...

Sorry the sleeve idea won't work. Here's one of my favorite features from the the American website "Coverlies."

Jezebel has posted many discussions about women's clothing and I've come to the conclusion that it's virtually impossible for any woman, young, old, tall, short, flat-chested, bosomy, working, SAHM, to find reliable, attractive, reasonably priced clothing.

Something to do with being a woman.

Anonymous said...

I thought you were kidding about shoes without soles until I saw