Anne took the dress and looked at it in reverent silence. Oh, how pretty it was–a lovely soft brown gloria with all the gloss of silk; a skirt with dainty frills and shirrings; a waist elaborately pintucked in the most fashionable way, with a little ruffle of filmy lace at the neck. But the sleeves–they were the crowning glory! Long elbow cuffs, and above them two beautiful puffs divided by rows of shirring and bows of brown-silk ribbon.Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery
L. M. Montgomery’s classic book Anne of Green Gables has wonderful descriptions of clothing – dresses, hats, even jewelry. The simple homespun dress that is too small and which Anne arrives in Avonlea in is probably the most famous outfit Anne illustrations commemorate, but the costume that most captured my imagination and that many people seem to remember the most fondly is Anne’s puffed sleeve Christmas dress from Matthew.
This dress is likely most remembered because Anne makes such a big deal about the impractical sleeves and because it’s acquisition (no matter what version you are familiar with) tends to be memorable. In the book, the dress is made by Rachel Lynde after Matthew fails to buy one at a store. Matthew then presents it to a rapturous Anne for Christmas and later she wears it to a fundraising concert with Diana.
“Puffs? Of course. You needn’t worry a speck more about it, Matthew. I’ll make it up in the very latest fashion,” said Mrs. Lynde. To herself she added when Matthew was gone: “It’ll be a real satisfaction to see that poor child wearing something decent for once. The way Marilla dresses her is positively ridiculous, that’s what, and I’ve ached to tell her so plainly a dozen times. I’ve held my tongue though, for I can see Marilla doesn’t want advice…”Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery
Puffed sleeves were very fashionable in the 1890s and often got to ridiculous proportions. It was not unheard of for each puffed sleeve to be as large as the wearer’s torso, and fashion illustrations (which exaggerated the smallness of a woman’s waist) often showed them even larger still – two balloons each larger than the wearer’s entire torso, which is thus lost in between!
In the story, Marilla is not pleased with Anne wanting fashions like puffed sleeves. She does not consider it practical. And Marilla was on to something with that. Those sleeves generally had to be stuffed to keep their shape (fabric pleating alone won’t keep that much material puffed out nicely for any length of time) and the stuffing and shapes often meant that woman wearing them had severely restricted arm movement. It would not have been at all practical for working around the house or on the farm at Green Gables, and likely no more practical for school. Nevertheless, it was very fashionable and even Matthew notices that the other girls all have such sleeves when Anne doesn’t.
“Well, I hope she’ll be satisfied at last, for I know she’s been hankering after those silly sleeves ever since they came in, although she never said a word after the first. The puffs have been getting bigger and more ridiculous right along; they’re as big as balloons now. Next year anybody who wears them will have to go through a door sideways.”Marilla from Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery
The movies and illustrated versions often vary from the description in the book, most often in color. While the book lovingly describes the brown fabric that Rachel Lynde uses and how she even provides a brown hair bow to match, the dress most often does not appear brown in illustrations and adaptations. Illustrations and costume versions also often drop the double-puff that is described in the book in favor of a more flattering single puff. It’s most famous version, in fact, is the baby blue dress with almost arm-long giant puffs that Megan Follows wore in the 1985 miniseries version of Anne of Green Gables. Notably, Diana has much more practically sized puffed sleeves in that version!
Throughout the series Anne longs to be fashionable, which is often at odds with the practicality that Marilla stresses heavily. Still, she is always described as stylish after this episode, so perhaps Matthew’s indulgence is the first material expression of Anne’s flair for fashion!