The turn of the 15th century in Europe brought a spate of extravagant fashions into popularity. Among them, the deep bag sleeve has proven to be one of the more ornery patterns to recreate.1
When we see it in the art, it’s magnificent — men and women swanning about in their finery, looking impressive with their superfluous sleeve fabric. Let’s peruse a few, shall we?
Note the fellow in the black hat — his coat is tailored with a grande assiette sleeve, as signaled by the sleeve gores on his back. More about that later.
I love those dags on the sleeve – it makes “ostentatious” sound like an understatement. More on those dags later, too.
The bag-sleeved coat on the right has pleats at the shoulder. And yet more on that later as well!
Sometimes when bag sleeves translate to our modern recreations, they can appear… well… like a rooster wattle; a deflated sort of dangling that does not fall from the arm in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
Here I am, with my sleeve wattles, in January of 2004. (Credit to Charlotte Wurtzel Johnson for ‘shopping out my red dress at the neckline; I was looking like a hussy according to le Menagiér de Paris!)2
But we don’t see the wattle effect in the figural art of the turn of the 15th century. Aside from the idea that artists weren’t usually tasked with portraying clothing working badly on well-dressed people, there are other reasons why we don’t see it. The most obvious is that many of these gowns in their time were lined with fur, sleeves and all. This thick lining would create a fullness and weight to the sleeve which prevented the wattle from occurring. We modern folks don’t tend to make these garments with a lining capable of filling out and stiffening the bags in the sleeves.
A reason less obvious to most modern-day recreators of this style is the tailoring choice of an under-arm seam as opposed to a back-of-arm seam on the sleeve pattern. In case any readers are unfamiliar with these terms, I’ll review quickly: an underarm seam is one where the sleeve cap looks like a half circle, more or less. See this rather simplified diagram for a visual:
A back-of-arm seam runs down the back of the arm, along the line where the elbow juts out. The sleeve cap usually resembles a sine wave, or has a somewhat pointed dip about 3/4 of the way across it. See this diagram for a visual:
When we use the underarm seam on a sleeve with a baggy shape, we get a simpler pattern shape and an easier method of insertion into the armhole, certainly, but it’s prone to producing the wattle look. Here’s how such a pattern might appear drawn out as a diagram:
This produces the wattle look because we don’t typically bend our elbows in the same plane as the underarm seam. This seam faces straight down to the surface we stand on. Our arms and elbows, however, move more often in a plane which extends at a 45 to 90 degree angle from the ground. The falling shape of the curved bag should extend from the plane most used by the arm, but in this case it doesn’t.
I propose two ways to fix or mitigate the wattle effect in bag sleeves, aside from lining them with fur or a fur substitute. The first is the easiest, in my opinion, and similar to the same design suggested by Adrien Harmand in his influential work, Jeanne d’Arc, Ses costumes, son armure, published in 1929. His example portrays a version of the s-curve sleeve cap, which causes the curve of the bag to fall from the back of the arm, rather than underneath it. The exaggeration of the s-curve in the example below, however, is not strictly necessary. I recommend a more balanced and shallow version as shown in Figure 6 above.3
This method is certainly documentable for sleeves with a much shallower bag shape during this time period — my examination of the coat armour at Chartres’ Musée des beaux arts revealed a back-of-arm seam on that garment’s sleeves. This is common sense, as the location of the seam places the deepest pocket of the bag directly in line with the plane on which the elbow bends, where the room is needed most.
The second method may seem conceptually easier if the drafting of an s-curve seam intimidates you (it can drive people crazy; it is known!). It starts out as the symmetrical pattern that uses the underarm seam sleeve cap. The bag portion of the pattern is then elongated on one side, and shortened on the other by the same amount.
The end result is similar to the s-curve back-of-arm solution above, the only difference being that the seam originates under the arm before moving to the back:
There you have it; two ways to minimize the wattle effect in your bag sleeves. If only I’d used the back-of-arm seam when making the green dress in the photo above. I recall the idea occurring to me, but I opted for the easiest method because I was pregnant and tired.
If your fabric is really limp and drapey, you may also want to consider interlining it with a stiffer or thicker fabric that will give the sleeve fullness and weight. The fur option is always there too, if you want to invest in the costly pelts, learn how to take a fur coat apart and resew it in the shape needed, or work with fake fur.
So now let’s talk a bit about the figural sources shown above and some of the knowledge they impart on the topic of bag sleeves. In Figure 1, we see a two-toned coat with bag sleeves where the miniaturist took pains to paint the seam lines of sleeve gores on the back of the garment. This is unequivocal evidence for grande assiette tailoring, which works best with a back-of-arm seam. So, even without the painting of the seam line on the bag sleeve, we know where the seam goes.
In Figure 2, the dags provide another deductive example for the back-of-arm seam. This style is created by sewing the dags into the seam itself, and in this case, we see the dags heading straight to the outside of the wearer’s wrist, which is a strong vote for the back-of arm seam. Additionally, the pink fabric appears to the left of the dags at the bottom of the bag, which suggests that the seam line is offset to the outside, another vote for the back-of-arm seam.
Finally, in Figure 3, the sleeve cap shows pleating into the armhole on the black coat. This was likely done on the portion of the sleeve cap that traverses the top of the shoulder, so in order to translate that to a pattern piece, elongate the curve that sits at the top of the shoulder by a factor of three — a simple knife pleat takes three times the fabric. It’s worth nothing that this image richly demonstrates the lushness of fur-lined garments.
1. Thanks to Ian LaSpina for making me think about bag sleeve tailoring again.
2. Le Menagiér de Paris states, “And before you leave your chamber or house, see you first that the collar of your shift, and your blanchet, your robe, or your surcoat, straggle not forth one upon the other, as befalleth with certain drunken, foolish, or ignorant women, who have no regards for their honour, nor for the honesty of their estate or of their husbands, and go with roving eyes and head horribly reared up like unto a lion, their hair straying out of their wimples and the collars of their shifts and robes one upon the other, and walk mannishly and bear themselves uncouthly before folk without shame.” – translation by Eileen Power from The Goodman of Paris, A Treatise on Moral and Domestic Economy by a Citizen of Paris, c. 1393, Boydell Press, 2006.
3. Harmand’s version of the s-curve is probably a reflection of the tailoring of his time period, rather than medieval tailoring. I haven’t seen evidence yet for that type of curve in extant clothes, but that’s not proof of non-existence, necessary, given our small extant sampling. I recommend the shallower version because it’s easier to draft and documentable to the time period based on extant clothing examples.