What is the Gigot Sleeve?

One of the most distinctive elements of 1800s fashion is the gigot sleeve. These puffy sleeves might look preposterous today, but at the time they were all the rage.

The 1820s to the 1830s paved the way for the distinctive gigot sleeves. They were also referred to as “leg of mutton” sleeves because the word “gigot” is a French word for “leg of mutton,” or the back leg of a lamb or sheep.

Gigot sleeves were part of women’s gowns with large full conical skirts and narrow waists. They started slightly off the shoulder and puffed out before diminishing towards the lower part of the arm, smoothly fitting the wrist. When combined with a V-neck dress and a full skirt, gigot sleeves made the waist look narrower than it really was.

Lady with gigot sleeves
The early version of the gigot sleeve

The gigot sleeve made a comeback in the 1890s, but it took a slightly different shape. Unlike the 1890s gigot sleeve, the 1820s to 1830s gigot sleeve did not start directly where the sleeve and the shoulder of the dress met. Instead, the earlier gigot sleeve started at the top of the arm, giving the wearer an illusion of the sloped shoulders, which were some of the most desirable physical traits in women way back then.

Well, the most beautiful lady at the time would have shoulders not extending in a straight, horizontal line starting from the base of the neck, but gently sloping down to her arms. This ideal was strongly connected with the Romanticism movement that flourished during the 19th century, making a lady look as though she was pining for a lost love.

Well, if you ask us, puffed-up gigot sleeves may be stylish and showy – but like many other forms of fashion, the gigot sleeves were not practical. The wearer really had to mind the sleeves all the time while she was wearing a dress with these features. She had to keep each of the sleeve’s volume up. In 1827, the upper portion of the sleeve was sometimes used with a whalebone frame (sewn into the sleeve) to distend it and make it bigger. Other ways to make the upper sleeve look plumper include a stiff lining on the inside of the sleeve to help maintain the volume. For an even bigger sleeve, padding and even hoops were used to maintain the shape and the size of the gigot sleeve.

A woman holding a parasol
A woman wearing a dress with the 1895 version of the gigot sleeve

As a result, all these “enhancements” made it difficult for women to move or use their arms. The ballooned-up sleeves made it even harder for these poor ladies to enter narrow doorways. Little wonder that gigot sleeves became a subject of ridicule from fashion critics at the time, who nicknamed them “imbecile sleeves.” Despite the criticism and mockery, the gigot sleeves persisted for a longer time. Even little boys and girls wore dresses and tops with miniature versions of the gigot sleeves.