The way clothes change from fashion to fashion directly effects the way we feel and behave in our clothes, which in turn affects our productivity.
Fashion is also a reaction to politics and economy, but adages about markets and hem lines are oversimplifications in my eyes. Fashion fluctuations are as common within an era as are fluctuations in the stock market, and often fashion too has to 'correct' itself (this is what Retro crazes are).
Styles and cuts going in and out of fashion quickly is not a modern thing. If anything, clothing was changing more rapidly in the first half of the 20th century than just about any other time, due in part to the introduction of synthetic fabrics and the industrialization of the clothing trade. It is silly to ascribe one look to a decade. Forgive me then, because I think I have to do just that. I will also have to blab about hemlines and GDPs, but lets look specifically at the ways in which society, economy and women's roles within them effect our topic: puffy puffy sleeves.
Puffy shoulders always indicate a social stress on femininity and domesticity. Many women felt that they had lost their mystique in the '20s and sought to cover up and soften their look, creating curves and shapes with their tailoring if they had none of their own. The sleeve shapes of this period are varied and the puff can be found very high on a short sleeve and nearer the elbow of the longer sleeve.
In the early 1930s shoulders (and everything else) reflected the market crash of 1929. In some cases shoulders drooped and silhouettes followed. As a result, many early puffs fell below the sleeve head. This gives a softer look, and women became softer themselves. A Nostalgic craze, common in periods of economic downturn, brought back the leg o'mutton sleeve, but this too had a deflated look when compared to its 1890s heyday.
There was, however another style of puff designed purely to lengthen the shoulder line. These puffs were supported first by Schiaperelli's new fangled shoulderpads; soft triangles worn to fill out the extra length of the sleeve head. Expect a full history and tutorial on these and other types of shoulder padding.
The atmosphere of uncertainty that bookended this decade left women portraying a soap opera classic; good twin, bad twin. The day looks were sweet and domesticated, no nonsense and handmade. The night looks were clingy, silky, decadent and exotic, and so fashion became romantic but strong as women attempted to take on the same duality.
Gone were the boyish frames of the carefree 1920s flapper, their truly basic clothing and immature feel. This meant that the home knitter had to improve her skills. For the first time since the early 1900s knitters had to contend with complicated in-pattern shaping and finishing techniques. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sleeve, where for many years shoulder shaping had followed traditional northern shaping; boxy and dropped shouldered shapes, whether centuries old circular knitting and steeking techniques were used or not.
Although the 1930s woman was a grown up, fashion still dictated a slim line. This time the widened, rounded, and draped sleeve, along with a new bust line, served to skinny the waist down. More of an upside-down triangle, rather than an hourglass was achieved. The rectangle of the previous decade was gone.
The shoulders that launched a thousand puffs. Joan Crawford wearing Adrian in Letty Lynton, 1932
Emphasizing the shoulder has a slimming effect and often capes were worn over sweaters to stress this ratio even more. This was a good option for less skilled handknitters (indeed, Chanel gave the Schiap a hard time for this trick and for her padded shoulders; Schiaparelli lacked Chanel's tailoring expertise).
The broader squared shoulders as the decade progressed and the Depression gave way to the threat of war are easy to interpret. Still, the main goal was a widening of the shoulder line. While this effect always emphasizes a small waist (think Scarlett O'Hara), it also makes women look more impressive physically, and certainly more capable (think Power Suit). Women found themselves in the workplace and demonstrated their difficult duality in their knitting.
Granny at her first job, in mid 1930s Glasgow. (The date noted is inncorrect) Her hand-knit sweater is lacy and feminine with a simple line. It is a complicated and finicky pattern, showing off her skill. Over her shoulder hangs a calendar with a glamourously gowned lady with massive puff sleeves. This photo really illustrates the two roles women played in this era.
It is due to the Depression that we have such a bevy of innovative knits from this period. Chanel's collections of jersey and cotton also helped to elevate knitwear so that the sweater could be seen as a viable fashion item, making hand knitting much more attractive to young women. In this way handknitting became a practical way to recreate high fashion. As in the decades to follow, knitting for oneself became a way of displaying quite publicly a woman's domestic skill and eligibility, but also a way of exploring self expression under the guise of woman's work.
It also became simple to try out trends. As society reexamined class and gender roles, fashion and street fashion revisited styles and silhouettes from the past...even fictional ones. This tends to happen in revolutionary periods. Often, when young people are in the drivers seat of change, the images they draw upon are ones from their childhood. A fairytale trend emerged, encouraged by the otherworldliness of Hollywood. Princesses and Evil Queens really do have the best outfits, as whimsical patterns from the 1930s attest. Thank you Snow White!