As best as I can tell, the puff-sleeve onslaught began in 2018. The clothing designer Batsheva Hay’s eponymous brand was barely two years old, but her high-necked, ruffle-trimmed, elbow-covering dresses in dense florals and upholstery prints—bizarro-world reimaginings of the conservative frocks favored by Hasidic Jewish women and the Amish—had developed a cult following among weird New York fashion-and-art girls. Almost all of her early designs featured some kind of huge, puffy sleeve; according to a lengthy profile in The New Yorker published that September, the custom-made dress that inspired Hay’s line had enough space in the shoulders to store a few tennis balls.
Batsheva dresses aren’t for everyone. They can cost more than $400, first of all, and more important, they’re weird: When paired with Jordans and decontextualized on a 20-something Instagram babe, the clothes of religious fundamentalism become purposefully unsettling. But as described in that cerulean-sweater scene from The Devil Wears Prada, what happens at the tip-top of the fashion hierarchy rains down on the rest of us. So it went with the puff sleeve. Batsheva and a handful of other influential indie designers adopted the puff around the same time, and the J.Crews and ASOSes and Old Navys of the world took notice. Puff sleeves filtered down the price tiers, in one form or another, just like a zillion trends have before—streamlined for industrial-grade reproduction and attached to a litany of dresses and shirts that don’t require a model’s body or an heiress’s bank account. And then, unlike most trends, it stuck around.
Four years later, the puff sleeve still has its boot firmly on the neck of the American apparel market. If you have tried to buy any women’s clothes this year, you already knew that—the sleeves are everywhere, at every size and price level, most of them stripped of the weirdness that made the originals compelling and ready to make you look like a milkmaid in the most boring way imaginable. At a time when most fashion trends have gotten more ephemeral and less universal because of constant product churn, some manage to achieve the opposite: a ubiquity that feels disconnected from perceptible demand. Right now it’s puff sleeves, but we’ve also seen cold shoulders, peplums, crop tops, pussybows, fanny packs, and shackets—a host of looks that have generated their own aesthetic feedback loops, iterated until the buying public can’t stand them anymore. Americans now have more consumer choice than ever, at least going by the sheer volume of available products, but so much of the clothing that ends up in stores looks uncannily the same.
When you take creative decisions out of the hands of actual humans, some funny stuff starts to happen. For most of the 20th century, designing clothes for mass consumption was still dependent in large part on the ideas and creative instincts of individuals, according to Shawn Grain Carter, a professor of fashion business management at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a former retail buyer and product developer. Even most budget-minded clothing retailers had fashion offices that sent people out into the world to see what was going on, both within the industry and in the culture at large, and find compelling ideas that could be alchemized into products for consumers. One of these employees might see some weirdo dressed like a frontier bride at a bar in the East Village and later say in a meeting, “What if we did a couple of pieces with puff sleeves?” Development and design work still involved plenty of unglamorous business concerns—sell-through rates, product mix, seasonal sales projections—but the process relied on human taste and judgment. Designers were more likely to be able to take calculated risks.
At the end of the 1990s, things in fashion started to change. Conglomeration accelerated within the industry, and companies that had once been independent businesses with creative autonomy began to consolidate, gaining scale while sanding off many of their quirks. Computers and the internet were becoming more central to the work, even on the creative side. Trend-forecasting agencies, long a part of the product-development process for the largest American retailers, began to create more sophisticated data aggregation and analysis techniques, and their services gained wider popularity and deeper influence. As clothing design and trendspotting became more centralized and data-reliant, the liberalization of the global garment trade allowed cheap clothing made in developing countries to pour into the American retail market in unlimited quantities for the first time. That allowed European fast-fashion companies to take a shot at the American consumer market, and in 2000, the Swedish clothing behemoth H&M arrived on the country’s shores.
Fast fashion overhauled American shopping and dressing habits in short order. The business model uses cheap materials, low foreign wages, and fast turnaround times to bombard customers with huge numbers of new products, gobbling up market share from slower, more expensive retailers with the promise of constant wardrobe novelty for a nominal fee. Traditional brands, which would commonly plan new collections and develop products for more than a year in advance, couldn’t keep up with competitors that digested trend and sales data and regurgitated new designs in a matter of weeks.
Fast fashion has only gotten faster. Shein, a Chinese company that has existed in its current form since 2012, has grown at breakneck speed by marketing the wares of domestic garment factories directly to Western consumers, and by turning around new clothing in just a few days. A 2021 investigation by Rest of World found that, over the course of a month, Shein added an average of more than 7,000 new items to its website every day. The company’s success, like that of Spain-based Zara before it, is built on taking the guesswork out of trends: By constantly creating and test-marketing new products, it can measure consumers’ immediate reactions and quickly resupply what sells. That is to say, it can just trawl the internet for anything that shoppers already find vaguely compelling, make a bunch of versions on the cheap, and track responses to them in real time.
Doing exactly that has made Shein very successful. The company generates new garments to capitalize on whatever is happening on the internet at any given moment, turning out pastoral frocks to maximize #cottagecore’s TikTok virality or cadging the work of independent artists and designers, as the company has repeatedly been accused of doing. To stay afloat, traditional retailers have had to become more like their fast-fashion competition, relying more on data and the advice of large consulting firms and less on the creativity and expertise of their staff. “The days of the designer saying, Look, this is what I’ve done, and this is your choice or forget about it—those days have gone,” Grain Carter told me.
When enough brands and retailers begin using these inventory tactics and trend-prediction methods, the results homogenize over time. At the top of the food chain, a designer has an interesting idea, and bigger, more efficient retailers don’t just copy it—they copy one another’s copies. The sameness persists on multiple levels—not only do lots of companies end up making garments that look very much alike, but for efficiency’s sake, they’re also often the same garments those companies made in past seasons, gussied up with new details. That these trend feedback loops often center on sleeves or necklines or trim is no coincidence, according to Grain Carter. Changing a dress’s flutter sleeve to a puff or a blouse’s collar to a pussybow is unlikely to affect the garment’s fit or sizing. Those kinds of changes appeal to customers who want certain parts of their bodies concealed, making the trends marketable to the largest possible audience, across size, age, and income level.
Bringing back old garments with new details is among the oldest tricks in the apparel book. But when you optimize that trick to wring every last dollar from it—and do so at the expense of trying out new, unproven ideas—you get a perpetual-motion machine, generating dress after dress that is difficult to distinguish from the ones that came before. Even clothes from different brands will look almost exactly the same; in fact, they might actually be the same. As supply chains have become more dispersed and complicated, multiple brands can end up buying inventories of the same garment, from the same supplier, and putting their own labels in them. You, too, can sometimes buy (and then resell) wholesale quantities of that same garment on AliExpress, a website that aggregates stock from Asian factories for sale to international buyers.
The unglamorous realities of production have long been hidden from the public in order to preserve the magic of mass-market consumption. A century ago, this was achieved largely through cathedral-like department stores, but now the sleight of hand is a little different—lavish ad campaigns and sponsorship deals with celebrities and social-media influencers help elevate the vibes of largely dreadful clothing. That’s not just because shopping for clothes has become an ever more internet-centric pursuit. The garments in question, most of which don’t exactly jump off the hanger in person and fit poorly once tried on, benefit from careful photography and liberal photo editing—and from requiring shoppers to pay up front. Not only does this create an extra step between buyers and the realities of modern clothing design and production, but it opens a chasm between buyers and the clothes themselves. At a certain point, you are not really paying for a product, but for the hopeful experience of buying something new. Whatever dress eventually shows up at your house is largely incidental to the momentary rush of acquiring it.
For the average shopper, this opacity can magnify the sense that a particular style has become inescapable overnight, largely unbidden. Who asked for all these tops with holes in the sleeves? Were people’s shoulders getting too hot? An idea that would have been moderately popular a few decades ago, before petering out naturally, now sticks around in an endless present, like an unattended record that has begun to skip. Shoppers may encounter the farcical limits of algorithmic selling on a regular basis, but those limits are more plain when Amazon is trying to sell you a second new kitchen faucet, after interpreting your DIY repairs as an indicator of a potential general interest in plumbing fixtures. With clothes, the technology is less obviously stupid, and more insidious. We know you love these shirts, because you’ve already bought three like them. Can we interest you in another? Frequently enough—which may be just one in every 100,000 people who see the product—the answer is yes, and the record skips on.
This problem is not limited to fashion. As creative industries become more consolidated and more beholden to producing ever-expanding profits for their shareholders, companies stop taking even calculated risks. You get theaters full of comic-book adaptations and remakes of past hits instead of movies about adults, for adults. Streaming services fill their libraries with shows meant to play in the background while you scroll your phone. Stores stock up on stuff you might not love, but which the data predict you won’t absolutely hate. “You have too many fashion companies, both on the retail side and the manufacturing side, being driven by empty suits,” Grain Carter said. Consumable products are everywhere, and maybe the most we can hope for is that their persistent joylessness will eventually doom the corporations that foist them upon us.