It's a little retro. A touch boho. And decidedly feminine. The bell sleeve is a fun shape that can transform the vibe of a garment. This sleeve style garnered its name because it mimics the shape of a bell -- narrow (fitted) at the shoulder and flaring out at the hem.
This dramatic sleeve is one of my fave versions -- I can't remember the designer, but I photographed this at Liberty London. So elegant.
Here's one from pre-Fall 2015 by Alexander McQueen. This is just stunning. The sleeves are narrow until just above the elbow, at which point a flare piece is added.
Here's another Alexander McQueen design, this one from AW15. I love this, especially the angled hems, which add so much interest to the sleeve design.
Bell sleeves are versatile because the amount of flare can range from slight to very full; the sleeve length can be short or long; and the flare can be drafted into the sleeve pattern or can be a separate piece that is attached to the main sleeve. Below are two versions from A.P.C. that have a more relaxed vibe than the styles above.
One of my first designs incorporating a bell sleeve was this retro-inspired cropped swing jacket, made in wool crepe and leather. It looks like a capelet because of the flared jacket body combined with the bell sleeve shape.
In developing this design, I played around with different sleeve lengths and flare amounts to see what would work best with the jacket body. This test muslin shows the jacket with two different sleeve lengths. The shorter length seemed to feel more balanced -- the long one was dramatic, but felt a bit too overwhelming for the cropped length of the jacket.
For those of you who are interested in pattern drafting, here's a rough working pattern of the sleeve that shows the added flares to create the bell shape. Notice how the sleeve cap is fitted and flares are inserted to widen the hem. All of the ease at the cap can be removed because the added flares give enough ease to accommodate the bicep width. It's difficult to tell how the flares in a given fabric will look, so there's a lot of trial and error that is needed to get the perfect bell sleeve shape. Also, because the flared hem naturally has a curve to it, a facing is the neatest way to finish the hem.
For my current collection, I designed the Curvy Coat with a slight bell sleeve -- nothing dramatic, just a bit of extra fullness to give it a nice shape and the flexibility to accommodate a full sleeve. The elbow-length is a fun option for showing off a blouse with a cool print or an amazing cuff bracelet -- check out our earlier journal post for more ideas on styling an elbow-length coat.