Gigot or leg of mutton sleeves were first seen in the sixteenth century. They became fashionable again in the late 1820s and early 1830s (approximately 1824 to 1836) and then once again in the 1890s. Gigot is French for an animal’s leg, particularly a sheep or a lamb, and as that was what the sleeve resembled it acquired that name and when translated into English became leg of mutton or leg o’ mutton.
Part of the reason for the introduction of these flamboyantly large sleeves was that between 1820 and 1825 fashions were transitioning from the Empire style to the romantic dress styles. This also resulted in waistlines moving downward so that by 1825 the waist of a dress was just a few inches above a woman’s natural waistline. Changing the waistline also brought other changes that included the development of larger sleeves.
The sleeve would continue to grow as the gored skirts that accompanied them became wider and shorter. One description of the romantic style by historian Karen Halttunen helps to further explain the huge puffed sleeves:
“Whereas classical dress had focused attention of the body of the wearer, romantic dress disguised the body with tight lacing, padding, and whalebone supports, and called attention largely to the costume itself. The romantic woman was a distracting profusion of ribbons, froth, and superfluous movement: with her tiny waist and shortened skirt, her enormous sleeves and nodding plumes, she gave ‘a general air of great activity and constant skipping motion.’ Because her clothes seemed too large for her tiny figure and because she bounced rather than glided, she seemed like ‘a small girl wearing her mother’s dress.’ Like a little girl playing dress-up, the romantic woman was fussy, busy, and excessively ornamented. And like a little girl imitating her mother, she gave off an air of perfect self-assurance. The style of the romantic woman was exuberant and ‘carelessly rapturous.’”
Gigot or leg of mutton sleeves also created the appearance of a women pining for her lover. The sleeve began near the top of the arm and created a sloped shoulder look having been formed with a gentle diagonal that extended to the wrist. The gigot or leg of mutton sleeves came in two variations, the gigot and demi-gigot, which are described as follows:
“[B]oth were extremely full and puffed at the shoulder. The gigot sleeve … gradually tapered to a fitted cuff. The demi-gigot was very full from the shoulder to the elbow and became fitted at the elbow and down to the wrist.”
Halttunen notes that such balloon-like sleeves became the most prominent and creative aspects of fashion at the time:
“The most striking and imaginative feature of the romantic dress was the immense sleeves that began to appear by the mid-1820s. Demi-gigot and gigot … Donna Maria and Marmeluke sleeves, and ‘imbecile’ sleeves* (inspired by the straitjacket of the lunatic) — though different in detail of form, all were immense and balloon like.”
As the gig or leg of mutton sleeves increased and became bigger, they needed help to retain their huge puffy shape. Halttunen reports that this resulted in either some sort of padding added to them or various things sewn into them:
“By 1829, the apparent size of the upper arm was double that of the waist, and many sleeves required down-stuffed pads, linings of stiff book-muslin or buckram, or even whalebone hoops to maintain their shape.”
Although the gigot or leg of mutton sleeves were eye catching, the bigger they became the more impractical women found them. It became difficult for those who embraced the fashion to use their arms because the armholes were tiny and tightness of the lower portion restricted movement. In addition, sometimes the sleeves were so large women could not enter or exit through doorways without turning sideways.
Despite the impracticality, during the 1820s and 1830s, such sleeves could be found on nearly every item a woman wore. For instance, seaside costumes, promenade dresses, walking ensembles, riding habits, mourning wear, and evening gowns all had them, and the most fashionable women embraced this sloped shoulder look. If you were in America you might see the sleeves embraced by the young American socialite Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson (the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother, Jérôme Bonaparte) or by Maria D. Mayo (wife to the American military commander and political candidate, Winfield Scott).
Women in England and Europe embraced them too. For example, people that might be seen wearing the sleeves included the French socialite Madame Récamier, the English mathematician who was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Bryon, or the Princess Sophie of Sweden. In fact, the princess was captured wearing the gigot or leg of mutton sleeves as shown in the 1831 portrait below painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.
By 1837, when Queen Victoria ascended the throne, the gigot or leg of mutton sleeves had completely disappeared. They remained out of fashion for some fifty years before the fad reasserted itself. This time they were fashionable in the 1890s. Women adopted the fashion during this time because the hourglass figure was in style and the gigot or leg of mutton sleeves were good at helping women achieve the hourglass look because it widened their shoulders, which then tended to make their waists look narrower and smaller.
One description of the sleeves at this time was reported in the Blackburn Standard in April of 1890:
“The gigot sleeve is at its zenith of popularity — everyone wears it, whether it suits them or not … and it seems to be growing longer, as it often reaches quite to the wrist, and occasionally — but this is, as yet, the acme of fashion, and not generally taken up — lies in a point on the back of the hand. These gigot sleeves are usually so tight below the elbow that the require to be buttoned up.”
In July of 1893 the American women’s magazine the Delineator founded by the Butterick Publishing Company noted of the fashionable sleeves:
“A stylish leg-o’-mutton sleeve is close fitting below the elbow and very full near the shoulder. It is to be hoped that women with broad shoulders will choose a more moderate form of gigot sleeve. Quite in accordance with the amplified, stiffened skirts are the drooping, puffed sleeves, which are likewise a revival of the same period [the 1830s]. In those days of quaint modes, dress shoulders sloped abnormally below the shoulder-line, and this condition was emphasized by the dropping sleeves. The fashionable woman of today protests vehemently against a return of the exaggerated length of the shoulder, and is content to adopt only the drooping sleeve, which is far more graceful and picturesque.”
Unfortunately, no matter what period the sleeves were in fashion, there were always critics beginning in the 1820s and 1830s. For instance, one person looking back on those times declared the big sleeves to be “freaks of fashion” and then stated:
“[T]he gigot sleeve … was a positive deformity, inasmuch as it gave an unnatural width to the shoulders. This defect which was further increased by the large collars which fell over the sleeves, was a violation of one of the first principles of beauty in the female form, which demands that part of the body be narrow – breadth of shoulder being one of the distinguishing characteristics of the stronger sex. … When a person of low stature, wearing sleeves of this description was covered with one of the long cloaks which were made wide at the shoulder to admit the sleeves, and to which was appended a deep and very full cape, the effect was ridiculous, and the outline of the whole resembled that of a haycock with a head on the top. One absurdity generally leads to another; to balance the wide shoulders, the bonnets and caps were made of enormous dimensions, and were decorated with a profusion of ribbons and flowers. So absurd with the whole combination that when we meet with a portrait of this period we can only look on it in the light of a caricature, and wonder that such should ever have been so universal as to be adopted at last by all who wished to avoid singularity. The transition from the broad shoulders and gigot sleeves to the tight sleeves and graceful black scarf was quite referencing to a tasteful eye.”
There were also humorous remarks about the sleeves. For instance, in 1832, there was the following parody published based on “Those Evening Bells” titled “Those Gigot Sleeves!”:
- “Those gigot sleeves! those gigot sleeves
- How many an eye their size relieves
- Of arms grown red before their time,
- Or shapeless with the fat of prime!
- Those artless hours have passed away
- When these balloons were not thought gay,
- Nor ‘till of every charm bereaved,
- Was woman’s arm o’er gigot-sleeved!
- Bus so ‘twill he when I am gone,
- These puffed-out sacks will still sweep on,
- ‘Till woman’s whim their fall achieves,
- And she’ll not laugh – in gigot sleeves!”
Another rather funny characterization of the gigot or leg of mutton sleeves in 1834 stated:
“The capacious sleeves which are worn by all our most amiable and lovely young ladies are unquestionably amazingly genteel and set off their graceful persons to the utmost advantage: the tout-ensemble of a fair beauty is no doubt completed when to a height of five feet she had added a latitude of five feet six.”
There were also critics in the 1890s. One opponent thought of them humorously and decided there might be a better use for them because “if they were properly inflated with gas, … wearers [could] make an aerial trail trip to the north pole and get back again before King Oscar’s expeditions** [started].” Perhaps the idea of using them for something different prompted one woman named Ealine Kennedy to decide to turn her sleeves into a handbag for shoplifting in 1895. The Boston Globe reported, “The sleeve in question was slit just above the elbow and in such a way that articles could be shoved into the balloon apartment on the shoulder.” Although critics might have pointed out that using the sleeves for crime was another reason to give up the awful fashion that was not necessarily why another critic argued for their discontinuance:
“The balloon sleeve was invented by some spinster that wanted to cover up deficiencies. The sleeve no doubt, gives to some stripling girl a haughty look and a go, particularly if the neck is thin and long. But slim women with short necks and large balloon sleeves look like turtles.”
Just like the sleeves had been popular for a short time years earlier, the enormous gigot or leg of mutton shapes of the 1890s didn’t last long. Sleeves transitioned to puffs and then to even sleeker, smaller forms. Popular sleeve lengths continued to vary at this time from full-length to elbow-length to short, depending on the occasion, season, and dress style. Additionally, wide shoulders became fashionable and horizontally decorated bodices emerged that exaggerated the broad shoulder effect. Thus, as the 1890s rolled into the 1900s, the gigot or leg of mutton sleeves deflated and soon they were no more.
*Imbecile sleeves (or idiot sleeves) were different from gigot sleeves that were full at the shoulder and gradually decreased in size ending in a fitted cuff. Imbecile sleeves instead remained full from the shoulder to wrist where they were gathered into a fitted cuff.
**King Oscar of Sweden was a generous sponsor of the sciences and personally funded various expeditions, including the famous Vega Expedition of 1878–1880 and the unsuccessful Andrée Arctic balloon expedition of 1897 attempting to reach the North Pole.
-  K. Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 75.
-  J. Condra, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History: 1801 to the present (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008), p. 46.
-  K. Halttunen. 1982, p. 74–75.
-  K. Halttunen. 1982, p. 75.
-  Blackburn Standard, “Fashion & Household,” April 12, 1890, p. 2.
-  J.L. Severa, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900, (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1995), p. 458.
- ] The West-end Gazette of Gentlemens Fashions (London: Kent and Company, 1870), p. 7.
-  Exeter Flying Post, “Literary Notices,” November 1, 1832, p. 4.
-  South Devon Monthly Museum v. 3 (Plymouth: G. and J. Hearder, 1834), p. 53.
-  The Boston Globe, “Editorial Points,” June 18, 1895, p. 6.
-  The Boston Globe, “Balloon Sleeves,” March 18, 1895, p. 5.
-  The Boston Globe, “Telltale Shoulders,” April 7, 1895, p. 32.