Thursday, September 29 2022
Wide ribbing at the Rick Owens Fall/Winter 2022-23 show © Getty

In 1899, economist and social thinker Thorstein Veblen wrote a book that examined the tastes of late 19th century society, The Leisure Class Theory. Alongside the oft-used phrase “conspicuous consumption”, one of its key ideas was its counterpart, “conspicuous leisure” – “cannot work, need not work” as an expression of wealth. To illustrate both ideas, he said nothing more appropriate than the dress.

“A detailed examination of what is happening in the popular apprehension for elegant clothes will show that they are designed at all times to give the impression that the wearer habitually exerts no useful effort,” Veblen wrote.

Ouch. He applied his ideas to both men’s and women’s clothing, although he said the latter took the idea to extremes. “The essential reason for our tenacious attachment to the skirt is precisely this; it is expensive and hinders the wearer at every turn and prevents him from making any useful effort. Veblen had lived through the vast domed excesses of the 1860s crinoline – which at its widest reached about 18 feet in circumference, preventing all but the most essential activity.

Although now considered past by many, Veblen’s ideas drift through my mind a lot when I watch fashion shows. Especially this fall/winter 2022 season, where great efforts (literally) seemed to have been taken to favor leisure, once again via excess fabric. The crinoline of our time? These are sleeves cut to exceed the usual wrist limit – sometimes tickling the fingertips, more often falling to fully cover the hands.

They were there in London, Milan and Paris, where catwalk models looked mutilated, as if their hands had been expertly severed at the wrist. Missoni showed off bathrobe coats that extended beyond the fingertips; Rick Owens and Burberry dangled the wide sleeves of ironically named workwear styles so low that the most mundane of activities – filing a fingernail, or even biting one – would prove tedious.

At The Row, the brand of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, sheer sleeves have been pulled towards Slender Man attenuation, with sweaters and shirt cuffs falling a good foot past a length of reasonable wrist. Sometimes it looked elegant, often a little silly, like when the models cradled presumably expensive handbags in the crook of their arm and the alien sleeve seemed to give each member a second elbow. You’ve fought the urge to reach out and scrunch everyone up on the forearm, so the models can go about their business unhindered.

A model wears a yellow and blue striped coat style like a bathrobe with too long sleeves

Missoni showed off bathrobe-style coats with sleeves that covered fingertips. . .

A model stands on a catwalk.  She is holding a bag and wearing a beige jacket over a pleated knee length skirt

. . . while Burberry had cuffs hanging over their hands © Filippo Fior/

But maybe that was the point. Attacking the inherent practicality of sleeves has a whiff of the deepest perversion. To quote Veblen, these trailing cuffs seemed to bear witness to “the wearer’s exemption or incapacity for any vulgarly productive employment.” Sleeves are, after all, pragmatic coverings, hinged to move with the body, allowing essential movement – which is why, along with shoes, they are among the first things to be shrunk or puffed up in line with Veblen’s theory. about the luxury inherent in stillness.

They were one of the first things Coco Chanel tackled when she revolutionized women’s dress in the 1920s, cutting high, U-shaped armholes to flatter the figure while allowing complete freedom. In contrast, by the 16th century, Elizabeth I and her courtiers had sleeves so heavily padded, puffy, and encrusted with gems that they had to squeeze their fingers in front to support their weight.

A woman wears a long dark coat with sleeves that fully cover her hands

Sheer sleeves have been stretched to the limit at The Row. . .

On a catwalk, a model walks towards the camera wearing a skirt with the hem flowing to the floor and a white shirt with sleeves that go down below her knees

. . . and flowing hems and sleeves at Rick Owens © Valerio Mezzanotti

In the 17th and 18th centuries, gentlemen wore trailing lace frills and “bucket” cuffs deep enough to prevent bending at the elbow; in the late 1800s, women’s sleeves alternately strangled their arms or swelled them to gargantuan proportions, restricting or outright prohibiting movement.

How we poke fun at those shortcomings – then look at the equally full puff sleeves and ubiquitous wedge-shaped shoulder pads of the 1980s and realize it’s not so deeply confined to the annals of history.

So we can see today’s fashion taste – let’s call this clutch the “low hanger” – as simply the latest in a long line of luxurious hurdles. And it’s actually an idea that has veered off course many times – infuriatingly – over the past half-decade.

There’s often a teenage feel evoked by low hangers, youngsters in oversized clothes designed for them to grow in, sleeves falling over their hands like a toddler in an adult sweatshirt. It also ties into all that Hollywood woman-child stuff: tiny hands outlined by XXL Starbucks cups, sloppy diapers serving counterintuitively to emphasize rather than mask the slimness of the aerobic body that inhabits them.

Bottega Veneta has been cutting its skinny and long sweaters for a few seasons; Balenciaga coats and sweatshirts let their cuffs fold down. Often these ideas look great on paper – or look great in stills or on the catwalk. Step into real life and these seemingly stylish outfits quickly become a crop: I’ve attended dinner parties where the cuffs have trailed on plates, drenched in soup.

Those handcuffs belonged to others – I’m only reporting on that, observing, not approving. It’s actually anathema to my personal style, where I have a marked propensity to roll up my sleeves, ruining the line of many tailored jackets. I don’t wear jewelry or a watch, because I think it’s the same impulse – which, if I go all to Veblen, may be a reflection of a working-class upbringing, but may also be due to the fact that I have short arms.

Miuccia Prada – who was a communist in her youth in the 1970s (although she thinks everyone was one back then) – has a penchant for turning overcoat lapels upside down, which I subconsciously imitate (the fact that one of the most elegant people in the world does it too, it gives me a degree of validation, I admit). As opposed to the idleness of a low hanger, a rolled up sleeve gives a smashing boost to work, spreading your sleeves out and getting to work.

Of course, in the age of Covid-19, a covered hand may mean more than a Veblenesque renunciation of productive work. Long sleeves no longer evoke inaction so much as protection, caution; there’s even a weird practicality to them. Low hangers give you something to wrap around your hand when you open a door, to cover your fingertip when pressing a button. They certainly seem less archaic and forced than a pair of gloves: the cotton ones spell Jackie O cosplay for women, caterer-waiter for men; latex have Julianne Moore level paranoia undertones in Safe. And with facial and voice recognition software increasingly making the touchpad obsolete, maybe we don’t need our fingers so much after all.

On the other hand – no pun intended – as we leave Covid, we’ll probably all want to cut our wrists, grab, cuddle and hug again. To return to Veblen: “The dominant fashion is felt to be beautiful. This is partly due to the relief it provides to be different from what came before it. Fortunately, it’s easy to shorten the sleeves.

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