One Woman’s Journey Through the (Allegedly) Fashionable World of Puff Sleeves

Why does everyone want me to dress like Anne of Green Gables?

StyleWear & Tear
One Woman’s Journey Through the (Allegedly) Fashionable World of Puff Sleeves

There are two things that Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s winsome and nerdy ginger orphan, and I have in common: a tendency towards hyperbole, and a weakness for things that are beautiful. In a particularly memorable scene from the first book, Anne manages to warm the heart of Matthew, brother of Marilla, and he buys her a dress with the puffiest sleeves he could find—the height of fashion then, and, unfortunately, now.

The puff sleeves were memorialized by the 1985 television adaptation and, though the dress is clearly a costume, if you stripped away some of the lace on the bodice and kept the sleeves, this dress is basically on the racks at your favorite fast-fashion retailer, as 2019’s prairie dress craze mutates into something that resembles cottagecore with a hint of ‘80s Dynasty-era glam. And I’m afraid that I must firmly disagree with Anne and apparently every retailer in America: these sleeves are too much.

The Nap Dress, the sleeper hit of the first part of the pandemic, didn’t start the sleeve problem, but it’s certainly one of the earlier iterations. Soft and floaty with a smocked top cut straight across and sleeves that range from frilly straps to full-on puffballs, the Nap Dress has the same costume-like feel as the new crop of clothes with dramatic puff sleeves. Then too there are brands like Batsheva, which sells high-end Little House on the Prairie-adjacent frocks and is probably also part of the problem. Derivatives of this specific style of dress—high-necked, frilly across the chest, and deliberately old-fashioned—are everywhere, taunting me on TikTok, particularly this viral dress with gingham print and sleeves puffy enough to feel like Anne Shirley cosplay.

My aspirational dress is a dress from Farm Rio. Imagine my horror when I discovered that my idol had betrayed me; this page, which gathers all of their “bold sleeves” in one handy location, is full of garments I would love to put on my body but won’t because I cannot abide the thought of that much fabric flopping around my undefined triceps. This item, which looks like a Parrothead’s formalwear, is perfect to me except for the off-the-shoulder neckline and the enormous sleeves.

If this is a dress that appeals to you, then you are in luck, because it’s trickled down to big box stores. On a quick visit to the medium-good H&M, I did a rapid lap of two floors, before alighting upon the sale section, finding dresses with sleeves crammed in among discounted sweater dresses and pants with complicated waistbands. Armed with a few options, I stepped into the most spacious dressing room I’ve been in, which was equipped with the most flattering mirrors—thank god, really, because the clothing I tried on was all objectively ugly.

The air conditioning inside this dressing room was sublime. Photo:Megan Reynolds

The dress on the left feels like a Reformation knockoff but the material was scratchy in a way that I did not think would breathe. Miraculously, the part of the dress that dictates where my breasts should go was just about right, but the sleeves sat on my shoulders like lilac gingham grapefruits and would not really stay, no matter how much I fussed. The outfit on the right, however, is an unmitigated disaster. Excusing the skirt, which was also plucked off the sale rack so that I could pair the top with something other than my underpants, there is nothing that really redeems this top. My generous interpretation of this is that it is a reimagining of the Seinfeld puffy shirt, but less pirate and more Bridgerton, minus the pancaked breasts of Regency-era bodices.

Still, I persisted.

The arm is to show the sleeves. Photo:Megan Reynolds

God love a floral print that looks like it belongs on a tea cosy or some fussy pillows, but everything about this item is appalling. The sleeves on the dress on the left could’ve accommodated one of my thighs, and the print distracts from the rows of ruffles running across my chest. The yellow dress, which I plucked from the sale section at Old Navy, is somehow the least egregious of these options. The sleeves were puffy, but not so puffy that I felt ridiculous, but the dress made me feel feminine in a way that I am decidedly not—girly, precious, and twee, when I would rather be perceived as slightly dangerous or not at all. Curiously, the yellow dress is the one that I almost bought, in an attempt to take a fashion risk or at least step outside of the relatively small box that makes me the most comfortable.

None of these dresses made it home with me, but two others—one leopard print, one floral, and both with thin straps and no fuss—did. It’s nice to try to be a different person every now and again—and maybe Anne of Green Gables could be one of those people but not today. Sorry, Matthew.

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