What do a witch, a Medieval princess, a hippie, and the early 2000s all have in common? If you answered "um, those flowy sleeves things?" you're a brilliant fashion critic. Those flowy sleeve things are formally known as bell sleeves, flared sleeves, or butterfly sleeves, and they're basically the bellbottoms of the arms: tight from the shoulder to the elbow, then flaring into fluttery, uncontrollable glory and ending somewhere around the wrists.
What can you do with a bell sleeve? You can croon into a microphone. You can gesticulate violently. You can take really great silhouette photos. You can hide a really bad manicure. You can "put something up your sleeve" — literally. The only limitation to bell sleeves is your imagination and the amount of authentic '90s gear you can find at your local thrift store.
Bell sleeves seem incredibly early 2000s now, but the sleeve has been around for much, much longer than a decade or two. Suffice it to say that sleeves used to be a much BIGGER deal than they are today. Here are eight highlights of this most mystical of sleeves.
1. Japanese kimono sleeves.
Japanese women have been rocking the flared sleeve since the Heian period (794-1192). This sleeve makes our modern polyester H&M versions look incredibly noncommittal.
2. Royal medieval sleeves.
If you were a princess in the medieval period, your sleeves had to be bigger and better and more bell-like than anyone else's. Check out Anne of Brittany, the queen of France, casually receiving gifts in her fabulous fur-lined sleeves circa 1508.
A few decades later, Elizabeth I posed for a portrait in huge crimson bell sleeves with false brocade sleeves and cuffs peeking out from underneath. Fitted sleeves were for peasants.
3. "Hanging sleeves" of the 13th-17th centuries.
These "hanging sleeves" were cut large to reveal another sleeve beneath. They were seriously coy, and sort of like a bell sleeve/cape hybrid. Can we bring these back?
4. 1871 Harper's Bazaar bell sleeves.
These just might be the greatest bell sleeves of all time. Note the fringe, and the fact that these are large enough to hide a small pet. You want to be friends with these women and their truly enormous sleeves, but you're not sure you're cool enough.
5. The witchy sleeves of Stevie Nicks.
Stevie Nicks was the 1970s mistress of all things flowing, withy, and wild, and bell sleeves were a huge part of her on-stage style. If anything was a direct forefather of the bell sleeves of the 1990s, it was Stevie Nicks, who wore these sleeves long past their '70s heyday (this photo is actually from 2011, but you'd almost never guess).
6. The inexplicable bell sleeves of the early 2000s
Kelly Clarkson immortalized the bell sleeve further on the cover of her debut album, when she paired a flared crochet sweater with chunky highlights. Flawless.
Here's another example of bell sleeves from the '00s — as you can see, they don't really understand that it's not 1970 anymore, but they also don't really care.
And if you really want to see the beauty of bell sleeves in action, you have to watch a young American Idol-era Clarkson flaunting her vocal chords and her massive sleeves during Motown Night.
7. This one poster for Crossroads
Crop top, bell-bottoms, and MASSIVE, MASSIVE BELL SLEEVES. Early 2000s perfection.
Today's bell sleeve is a bit more tailored and doesn't quite have the attitude of past bell sleeves. If you want to be modern royalty, you know what you need to do: Make them bigger, make them better, and wear a second sleeve beneath.