Replacing Your Sleeves to Update Your Dress (and Sometimes Widen Your Shoulders)

This post started with sleeve patterns as its subject, but it grew into one about the widening of shoulders in the 1930’s…. If that’s your interest, just scroll down to 1930’s Sleeve Patterns.

Sleeve pattern 5113 from Delineator, Butterick, March 1924.

Butterick periodically offered sleeve patterns as a way to give your dress a new look without much expense.

Renew your old coat with new sleeves or collars; Butterick patterns from Delineator, October 1933.

Changing the sleeves on an old garment doesn’t make any sense to me, because you would rarely have enough of the original dress material left over to make a pair of long sleeves…. Nevertheless, here is an assortment of sleeve patterns from 1917 to 1933:

1910’s Sleeve Patterns

Butterick sleeve pattern 9220, June 1917; Delineator.

“Design 9220 is a splendid set which will quite transform a dress that is slightly worn.” Unfortunately, I didn’t photograph the whole paragraph.

Butterick sleeve pattern 8954 from February 1917. There is a little visible gathering at the sleeve head — probably to be sure it would fit an existing armhole.

Here are some fashions from 1917 and 1918; would changing the sleeves have made much of a difference?

Summer fashions from Butterick, Delineator, February 1917.

Butterick patterns, July 1918. The sleeves are varied, including some that are wide at the cuffs, and one version (top right) is slit.

Butterick patterns from July 1918. The green blouse has sleeves that partly cover the hand, like those in the “update your sleeves” pattern 9220 from 1917.

1920’s Sleeve Patterns

Sleeves in the 1920’s were usually simple, fitted without fullness at the shoulder and close to the arm. However, some sleeves were sheer from the wrist to below the elbow, some widened, and some were split.

These dresses from 1926 have attention-getting sleeves. Delineator, July 1926.

Butterick sleeve pattern 5113, April 1924. Adding these to a dress from the early Twenties would update it — but by 1926, shortening the dress would update it more effectively!

Sleeve pattern 6544 from Butterick; Delineator, January 1926.

1930’s Sleeve Patterns: The Silhouette Begins to Change

Sleeves from the early 1930’s were often long but simple:

These dresses from February of 1931 have narrow, fitted sleeves. Delineator.

This 1931 pattern included some fluttery “capelet” sleeves, which really were a coming fashion. Delineator, April 1931. However, these sleeves start high on the natural shoulder, and don’t exaggerate its width.

A sheer evening jacket, Delineator, April 1933.

Ruffles created a wider shoulder on many evening dresses after 1932. This ad for Lux laundry soap appeared in Delineator, June 1934. (Blame the fad for ruffles on the 1932 movie Letty Lynton.)

This writer saw a connection between smaller hats and bigger sleeves:

Article from Delineator, November, 1931. This pre-dates Adrian’s designs for Letty Lynton.

However, back in 1931, this article noted that as hat styles changed, they looked better with “period clothes, clothes such as were worn with them originally. Period styles have appeared, but they are mostly evening dresses. Something else happened, however, to make the new clothes look right with the new hats… wide sleeves and puffed sleeves.”

Sleeve variations, reported by Marian Corey in Delineator, Nov. 1931. “The puffs may occur anywhere on your arm — at the shoulder, at the elbow, at the wrist….But … There are still more frocks with straight sleeves than frocks with puffed sleeves.” [A ratio of 12:1.]

We can trace a slow increase in shoulder width from the 1930’s to 1940, but from my small sample it appears that wide shoulders and gathered sleeves (except for the frilly ones on formal dresses) were a gradual style change between 1931 and 1937, starting with evening and outerwear.

Delineator reported the return of the Gibson Girl sleeve as early as April 1933, pg. 73.

Also in 1933, coats and jackets with fur accents or extensions at the shoulders were being featured, and not necessarily to accomodate fuller sleeves on dresses:

Winter coats with extended shoulders or sleeve heads. Delineator, September 1933.

Winter coats with wider sleeves, Delineator, September 1933. “Pillowcase” sleeves at bottom.

1933 coat pattern 5347 has wide shoulders and a modified, droopy leg-o-mutton sleeve.

Butterick coat pattern 5347 from Oct. 1933. If you didn’t want to make an entire coat, you could make new sleeves (right) or a new collar (left) from pattern 5351.

Butterick 5351 included sleeves and collars. Delineator, Oct. 1933.

These 1933 jackets also show the “Gibson girl” influence:

Big sleeves on short coats from Butterick, Delineator, Oct. 1933.

By 1935, even dresses appear to have wider shoulders — it would be hard to get this silhouette without using shoulder pads:

Two Butterick dress patterns from February, 1935.

A selection of Butterick dress patterns from February, 1936; Delineator. Shoulders are definitely broader, at least as illustrated.

By 1937, exaggerated shoulders with sleeves that are full at the top are standard features, as these patterns from a Butterick store flyer illustrate.

Dress patterns from Butterick News Flyer, December 1937. These sleeves are not droopy, but probably supported from the inside with a pad or ruffle.

Shoulders, 1940:

Very wide shoulders, achieved with shoulder pads rather than “Gibson girl” puffed sleeves. Butterick Fashion News, Feb. 1940.

The natural shoulder of the 1920’s and early 1930’s is completely out of style.

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8 Comments

Filed under 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, 1930s-1940s, Accessory Patterns, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Vintage patterns

8 responses to “Replacing Your Sleeves to Update Your Dress (and Sometimes Widen Your Shoulders)

  1. Those linebacker sleeves didn’t look good on anyone, not then, and not in the 80s. I had never heard of sleeve patterns. Those floaty 1926 ones would have been dipped in gravy far too often…..
    bonnie in provence

  2. Isi from Germany

    Very interesting overview! I love seeing these fashions change, especially when I mentally compare that to change nowadays, both from year to year and over a decade… Especially fascinating to see the thirty-year cycle of nostalgia popping up even then!
    One note on exchangeable sleeves: I suspect that, in a time when remaking your clothes to fit new fashions instead of buying new was so common, seamstresses might buy extra of their fabric to have some leftover for new sleeves or mending, or even to make it over for a new wearer.

    • I also suspect that the sleeve patterns were bought to use with new dress patterns, too — especially when you were having the dress custom made anyway: I want this bodice but those sleeves and that skirt…..It’s also interesting how fashion borrows bits and pieces from the past, like the 1920’s flavor of many 1960’s dresses — two eras emphasizing youth and rebellion.

  3. RE: changing sleeves. I wonder whether home sewists at the time would have been buying fabric by the bolt rather than in smaller yardages like we do today? If they were making most of their clothing at home, it would be more efficient, particularly in the garments of the 1910s which featured a lot of white with solid contrast colors (and big yardages). I also wonder whether sleeve swapping would have been done in a contrast fabric or some kind of coordinating solid if there wasn’t enough of the original dress fabric left. I suppose it is also possible that the sleeve patterns were used to give sewists more options on a basic dress or suit pattern.

    Lots to think about here! Great post, as usual.

  4. Hi there! This is great research, especially all the illustrations and descriptions. I agree with you that changing the sleeves doesn’t make any sense. New fabric will look newer than the fabric on the dress. It will never be a great match since there’s no way to find similar or even same fabrics from the same dye lot after a certain amount of time goes by.

  5. JLC of Perth

    I agree with the comments about practical problems with replacing sleeves, but it seems that it was done. More than one of these sleeve patterns was published, and the pattern companies must have thought they could sell those patterns.
    Simplicity recently published a copy of one of those vintage sleeve patterns. It is 5806, a replica of a pattern published in the 1930s:
    https://www.simplicity.com/simplicity-pattern-8506-misses-vintage-set-of-sleeves/S8506.html
    Interestingly, some of the sleeves do not require recutting the armscye. The sleeve is stitched on top of the existing armscye and shoulder. Theoretically, you could replace sleeves multiple times without recutting the armscye.

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