Fashion Moments – Bishop Sleeve

Fashion Moments by Deborah SweeneyWelcome to my weekly fashion blog post. Each week I will discuss a female garment, fashion trend or influencer from the age of photography (1840s through the 20th century). My goal is to educate family researchers and genealogists about the clothing worn by our ancestors. Dating photographs is an issue we all struggle with as family archivists. Additionally, anyone who writes about their family’s history should be aware of the environment in which their ancestors lived. Period clothing is an important part of that environment from how it affects a person’s movement to their overall lifestyle. This week I introduce you to the bishop sleeve.

 Bishop Sleeve

Simply defined, the bishop sleeve is a wide sleeve that narrows at the wrist, typically into a cuff. This particular fashion comes and goes with regularity, so it can not be used solely to date a garment. Other fashion clues must be utilized. Examples of the bishop sleeve can be found throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, including the blossoming sleeves of the 1960s hippie peasant dress and the glamorous gowns of the 1930s Hollywood starlet.

During the Civil War years, the bishop sleeve enjoyed popularity along with the pagoda sleeve (the subject for another blog post). However, the bishop sleeve was the more practical of the two. It was much easier to “roll up” a bishop sleeve when there was work to be done. It was possibly more popular with the middle and working classes, but since few of these garments exist today, there is sketchy evidence to support this assertion.

Pleating or smocking was often used to control the fullness at the top of the sleeve and the cuffs, but simple gathering can be found as well. The shoulder seam of a 1860s bodice did not land on the shoulder, but rather on the upper arm (often horizontal to the armpit). The fullness of a bishop sleeve makes its appearance at the upper arm (and not the shoulder!).

Civil War Era woman - LOC #4

Woman with smocking at shoulder cap, 1860-1869

Existing Garments

Further Reading

Miss Ashley’s Attic, a company which markets to re-enactors, wrote this piece on Civil War fashion.

A wonderful book by Priscilla Harris Dalyrmple American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs was published in 1991. Still in print, It is available for purchase through Amazon. For extended free sampling, the book can also be found on Google Books. The  book is arranged by decade from the 1840s through the 1890s.


The photographs of the three unidentified women can be found in the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Online Catalog: LOT 6286, p. 12 (LC-DIG-ppmsca-32291); LOT 286, p. 10 (LC-DIG-ppmsca-32287); LOT 6286, p. 3 (LC-DIG-ppmsca-32244). The women in the first two photographs are believed to have been nurses during the Civil War.

The photograph of the woman with smocked sleeves can be found in the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Online Catalog: LOT 6286, p. 49 (LC-DIG-ppmsca-32397).

The two existing garments can be found on the Metropolitan Museum Art’s Costume Collection online:  1981.49.4a, b and C.I.60.11.1.

©2015 Deborah Sweeney
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10 thoughts on “Fashion Moments – Bishop Sleeve

  1. davidmadison1942

    I second the comments of others voiced here, namely, I’m learning a lot from these posts.

    What role did individual seamstresses play in some of the innovations, such as the smocking at the shoulder? Or do these all come from designers?

    1. Genealogy Lady Post author

      I think haute couture played a very small roll in the actual execution of the fashions. Women were a lot more skilled in the needle arts in the 19th century. The sewing machine was not a common household item in the 1860s. Smocking was a way for a seamstress to show off her skills and make her garment unique.

    1. Genealogy Lady Post author

      The dropped shoulder seam was restrictive. Typically one wouldn’t have been able to raise the arms above the shoulders, especially with a fitted and boned bodice.
      Thank you for posting. I really appreciate the feedback. 😀

  2. Luanne @ TFK

    These all seem to have a dropped shoulder line? Is that a defining feature of this type of sleeve? I remember when these were briefly in style in the SEVENTIES, too, but they were not a hit.

    1. Genealogy Lady Post author

      The dropped shoulder is specific to the 1860s, not the bishop sleeve. All sleeves from the 1860s are going to have a dropped shoulder, whether they are a bishop or a pagoda, etc.


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