The Dress that Launched a Thousand Sleeves

Lovers of old movies and followers of fashion history will recognize the image above as Joan Crawford in the famous dress from Letty Lynton, from 1932. The clothes were designed by the designer at M-G-M, Gilbert Adrian. So much has been written about this dress (with one of the best analyses coming from friend Susan at Witness2Fashion) that I really don’t have much new to say about it. But while looking through my 1934 Butterick pattern catalog I could not help but notice how influential were the sleeves on this dress.

Throughout the late 1920s and into the 30s, fashionable hips were impossibly slim. One way to give the illusion of leaner hips is to widen the shoulders. That’s what Adrian did with these spectacular ruffled sleeves. It didn’t take women long to realize the trick that worked for Crawford might do them some good as well.  Clothing manufacturers rushed copies of the dress into production, and it was a huge hit.

Two years later, the ruffled sleeve was a standard in women’s clothing. While most women would not wear the over-the-top version from the movie, ruffled sleeves were available from very full to barely there.  Even sleeves that were cut relatively straight often had a pleat at the top of the sleeve cap that gave a fluttery effect.

Even though there were all sorts of ruffled sleeves, the one thing all the dresses has in common were the very straight, very slim skirt.

The bateau neckline and the extensions over the shoulders tend to further elongate the shoulders.

Here are ruffles in a slightly more tailored look.

As much as people love fashion and looking stylish, it’s doubtful that most women across America could have pulled off a full-blown Lynton look. Most of the actual dresses from this era that I’ve seen have ruffles more like the dress pictured above. In fact, this look is quite commonly found on the vintage market.


Filed under Proper Clothing, Sewing

10 responses to “The Dress that Launched a Thousand Sleeves

  1. Reba Worth


    Liked by 1 person

  2. seweverythingblog

    Thanks for sharing your Butterick catalog pictures! Love it. In May 2017, I wrote about the Letty Lynton dress, its impact, and the fate of the film it was featured in. If anyone is interested follow this link:
    I apologize if this seems self promotion, but I thought readers of your post might be also interested in some further words about the Letty Lynton. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dee

    I’ve often wished there were clearer images available of the Letty Lynton dress. It was an interesting moment in fashion, film, and depression-era history. I noticed that many of the pattern illustrations appear to have flounces rather than ruffles, and have a softer effect. I suppose they would have been a little bit easier to wear.


    • Alice

      I always wondered if the original dress still exists–I can’t recall seeing it in any of the major Hollywood Costume exhibits and you’d think it would be featured, being such an influential dress. Maybe I’ve just missed it though.


  4. The interesting thing about the skirts on those dresses (at least in pattern form) is that the actual pattern pieces are more a-line than straight, which cannot possibly produce the straight slim shape on the pattern line image.


  5. Gilbert Adrian was always one of my favorite and, well I do love a great sleeve.Thanks for gabbing that pattern book and sharing it with us.


  6. jacq staubs

    Wonder what the under slip was made of? fabric appears to be organdy / organza ? What a beautiful dress. Adrian knew how to soften up Crawford. he used white sheer crisp fabrics like sculpture .


  7. I’m going to start looking for those sleeve in 1930s pictures!


  8. Pingback: Reunited – A 1930s Pajama Set | The Vintage Traveler

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