When you ask just about anybody what Lizzie looked like, most will mention her pale, penetrating eyes, heavy lower jowl- and those leg o’ mutton sleeves ! Perhaps it is because the only photo of Lizzie facing the camera was taken on the porch of the Covell house on Farewell Street in Newport after the acquittal.. She has a certain relieved and self-satisfied expression as she gazes right at you, and that Mona Lisa smile is flanked by two enormous leg o’ mutton sleeves.
Actresses who are asked to portray Lizzie are always pressed to give the 1893 Lizzie look, complete with leg o’ mutton or gigot sleeves. Surely Lizzie marched on with the trends of the times, and by her demise in 1927, had probably tried out the cloche hat, narrow, shorter skirts, sacque dress and flapper bandeau. For students of costume history, one thing emerges quickly when comparing trends from decade to decade- if the skirt is simple and plain, the bodice and sleeve will be elaborate.
By 1892, the bustle had come and gone twice, the soft bustle of the early1870s, and the rigid and ridiculous second bustle period of 1883-89 – a bustle so wide a small dog could perch on it. 1884 1875 & 76 http://www.fashion-era.com/bustles.htm (drawings from the Costumer’s Manifesto)
With all the emphasis on the skirt and bustle, elaborate draping of the layers, and passementerie, or trims, the bodice and sleeves were kept plain. This is sometimes referred to as The Upholstered Age in ladies’ fashion. By 1890 things would change again as skirts became smoothly fitted over the hips and wide at the bottoms- made possible by many gores, sometimes as many as 9. These were called bell or morning glory skirts and were a joy to more athletic girls who liked a rousing walk in the country. To offset the plain skirts, the top part of the sleeve of the basque or jacket or waist (term for blouse) started to grow and grow into the leg o’ mutton monstrosity of 1896, and then it died a merciful death in fashion. Lizzie kept up-to-date with her expanding leg o’ muttons at the trial, and probably was always aware of fashion’s fickle fancy. It has been said by some who knew Lizzie Borden later in life that she kept to darker shades, quality tailoring, and the luxurious fabrics which money could buy.
“Monster Muttons of 1896“(click on thumbnails for larger images)