I’m not sure when or how I became a sleeve truther. But once I started noticing that so many tops are displayed or designed to be worn with their sleeves rolled up—that models frolic on e-commerce sites with their sleeves scrunched to effortless perfection—it started to drive me a little crazy. To the point where I want to slap a warning label on every long-sleeved shirt masquerading as a shorter-sleeved shirt on the Internet or in real life: “I AM A BLOUSE OF LIES.”
As you’re no doubt aware if you’ve shopped for women’s clothes lately, men’s-style button-down shirts are everywhere and have been for a few seasons now: some standard oxford work shirts, some in kicky silky fabrics, some in hipster plaid and chambray. In pictures and on mannequins, many of them look three-quarter-sleeved, but if you click around to see other angles or read a description (in online shopping, always read the fine print) or take one to the dressing room, you’ll discover that they’re actually long-sleeved. It’s your job, as the wearer, to roll those sleeves up just so. Women must perform this fanciful origami before they even put on their shirts. It’s not like it takes no effort to get the rolls even, to avoid bunch-up around the elbow, to get the look right. Fashion has found yet another way to make us wonder why we don’t look as good as the models on Everlane or Anthropologie: Our sleeve-rolling game is weak.
Fashion insiders are less inclined to see anything insidious in sleeve rolling. Roxanne Hauldren, a New York stylist who runs a personal shopping business, noticed the trend in the Hamptons this year. “Never in a million years would I wear a long-sleeved rolled denim shirt to the beach,” she says, “but that’s what I wore this summer. That’s what everybody wore.” Of the so-called three-quarter sleeve, she adds, “Honestly, it’s probably one of the most flattering sleeve lengths because it makes your waist look a little narrower and also kind of elongates your arm a bit.”
“The pushed-up sleeve is coming from an attempt to look more relaxed, a little undone, and more accessible,” says Katie Quinn, a stylist based in San Francisco. “Fashion has become a little less serious,” agrees Beverly Osemwenkhae, another New York stylist. “I roll up my own personal sleeves.”
There’s a fine line between doing this because you’re uncomfortable or hot and doing it to be cool. “It has to look like a choice,” Hauldren confirms. “Sometimes people roll up their sleeves and not even know that they’re rolling them up,” Osemwenkhae says. “But a lot of people that are into fashion, we do it because it looks good.” Which is why the people who do photo shoots for stores’ websites seem to have all gotten together and said, Hey, when we’re taking pictures of models in our clothes, let’s really scrunch up their sleeves.
But what about those of us who aren’t personally styled, who have to roll our own sleeves? It’s not just button-down shirts, mind you. Like many conspiracy theorists before me, I started a pinboard of my findings and filled it with sweaters, sweatshirts, cardigans, basic long-sleeved T’s, even blazers and jackets that are intended to be worn sleeves-up. (I stopped just short of using MS Paint to annotate my crazy ramblings.) As I rattle off these examples to Hauldren over the phone, she remembers an item in her own closet. “I’m looking in particular at a dress I bought last year at Banana Republic. It’s a denim chambray dress and it’s supposed to be rolled up, very cute, kind of like a Rosie the Riveter look. But you’re right, if you don’t roll it right, it looks sloppy.”
If you’re asking, “So what?” right about now, I hear you. Why should it matter that so many shirts look three-quarter-sleeved but are actually long-sleeved, and that it’s cool to roll or scrunch your sleeves up now? People have always rolled up their sleeves, haven’t they?
We could blame tall people. “I’m really tall, and I have really long arms, so this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Hauldren says. “Literally all of my coats are always about two inches too short because I’m tall and lanky. So anybody that has long arms is embracing this for sure.” But I think this plot is bigger than tall people. Tall people are patsies.
What’s insane is that sleeve-roll mania has implicated so many people without them even noticing it. Look at your sleeves right now. Are they rolled? Are the sleeves of the person next to you? MY GOD, is no one immune? If you’ll allow me to speak truth to sleeve power for a moment, some real talk: At the most basic level, it’s just not logical. You put on a jacket, an extra layer to keep yourself warm—and then roll the sleeves up, negating the warmth. Huh? If shirts are supposed to be three-quarter-sleeved, why not skip the added fuss of extra fabric—why not just produce them that length to begin with?
And yet, and yet—I have just as much ill will toward the fast-fashion adaptation of this trend that manufactures shirts designed to optical-illusorily look like their sleeves are rolled up but actually don’t roll down at all, which is like some kind of sartorial double negative. Don’t you want to live in a world where things are what they appear to be?
This season’s shirts were designed to be worn sleeves-up, so their dimensions and measurements differ ever so slightly from all the long-sleeved shirts you owned before this rolling madness took hold. Meaning you probably bought new shirts in order to fit in with this trend. It’s planned obsolescence. And what of all the inches of fabric, multiplied by many thousands of shirts, that we’re wasting in the name of not covering our forearms? And all the time we’ve spent trying to perfect our sleeve rolls? Somewhere Mugatu from Zoolander is sitting behind a giant desk laughing at us. When the moment is right, he will play Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax,” our programming will kick in, and we will roll our sleeves so tightly that our circulation will be cut off and we will all need to amputate our arms at the elbow. (Mugatu cuffed. But he never rolled.)
Hauldren doesn’t buy my doom scenario, but she allows that the trend certainly goes against many people’s usual dressing instincts, which is to buy things that come ready-to-wear. “It has been an adjustment for a lot of women,” she says. “Sometimes menswear influence isn’t always the easiest, because it’s the exact opposite of what you’re used to.” Quinn said rolling your sleeves up is ideal when going for the “effortless” look: “They might have spent $3,000 and three days organizing their wardrobe, but they want it to look like, ‘Oh, I just threw this in a suitcase last night, last-minute’ type of thing.”
“It’s absolutely, entirely confusing,” she adds. “It’s why I have a job.”