Now, when I was wee child in the Dark Ages, our Australian butchers carried lamb and mutton.These days, everything ovine is labelled as lamb. And yet we still have beef and veal. And this observation has nothing to do with today’s topic … Leg O’Mutton sleeves.They were given that name because they resembled the shape of a roast leg of mutton or lamb.
Puffed sleeves, also known as Gigot sleeves or leg o’mutton sleeves, came into fashion in the 1830s, and were part of the Victorian era fashion spiral until the 1890s. In the 1830s, gigot sleeves did not start where the sleeve and shoulder of the dress met. Instead, gigot sleeves began at the top of the arm, helping to create a fashionable sloped shoulder look. The term ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ is first found in print in the journal of social gossip that Mrs Frances Calvert compiled in 1811. One can’t help but wonder if the term inspired the name of the sleeves.
In L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, the protagonist Anne longs for sleeve puffs. Her beloved Matthew supplies her with a pretty dress with puffed sleeves for Christmas.
“I don’t see how I’m going to eat breakfast,” said Anne rapturously. “Breakfast seems so commonplace at such an exciting moment. I’d rather feast my eyes on that dress. I’m so glad that puffed sleeves are still fashionable. It did seem to me that I’d never get over it if they went out before I had a dress with them. I’d never have felt quite satisfied, you see. It was lovely of Mrs. Lynde to give me the ribbon too. I feel that I ought to be a very good girl indeed. It’s at times like this I’m sorry I’m not a model little girl; and I always resolve that I will be in future. But somehow it’s hard to carry out your resolutions when irresistible temptations come. Still, I really will make an extra effort after this.”
From the middles of the 1890s until the middle of the 1900s, leg o’mutton sleeves were again highly fashionable. However, they now started at the shoulder seam proper. They were the equivalent of the 1980’s, redefining the silhouette with broader shoulders and imparting a more ‘athletic’ look for women.
This style reflected the change in both dress reforms and in women’s social status.The Gibson Girl – who was a popular emblem of femininity in America during the late Victorian era and the Edwardian era – epitomised these new, more athletic shaped women. A Gibson Girl could be found cycling or playing tennis, often exercised, and was emancipated to the extent that she could enter the workplace.
As well as sleeve puffs, the truly fashionable would have had to have worn sleeve plumpers or puff-stuffers. The excessively voluminous sleeves would require a pair of extra support underwear, worn to help hold out the sleeves. Women could also use a stiff or starched lining on the inside of the sleeves to help pump up the volume.
As a writer, I find the idea of using lamb/mutton metaphors, with the leg o’mutton sleeves as the signifier, quite tempting. I didn’t even realise that leg o’mutton sleeves needed their own undergarments until I started researching them. The possibility of hiding something important in the puffs intrigues me.