BBC One’s new historical drama, Gentleman Jack, is set in the 19th century and features extravagant costumes with elaborate sleeves. Our Assistant Curator of Dress and Textiles, Vanessa Jones, gives context to these costumes and explores similar items in the Leeds Museums & Galleries collection.

The 19th century is often associated with unusual fashion trends and Gentleman Jack’s costume design is without exception. Several of the characters are dressed in extravagant dresses with large balloon shaped sleeves. These sleeves are not exaggerated by the producers or costume makers, but are incredibly accurate representations of garments that a wealthy woman may well have worn.

Taken from the French word ‘gigot’, this ‘leg of mutton’ sleeve was popular from around 1825 to 1835. This perfectly coincides with the timeline of Gentleman Jack. The sleeve itself is formed by additional material gathered at the top of the shoulder, which becomes tighter towards the wrist. This style was short lived and by 1837 was no longer in vogue.

The Leeds Museums & Galleries dress collection holds numerous objects from this period which perfectly capture the voluminous gigot sleeve, seen in BBC series. Often made in silk or fine cotton lawn, the sleeve itself in some instances was exaggerated in length protruding past the wearers hands. We also have examples of children’s clothing with the same sleeve pattern, suggesting that it was not just for wealthy women, but wealthy girls too.

Sleeves played a vital role in establishing and defining a person’s social status. Cloth to make a garment would have been expensive to buy. If a person was purchasing additional quantities of cloth to create gigot sleeves it was clear the wearer was considerably wealthy, as the additional cost of textile had no utilitarian value. In fact, just to hold the garment in place would have created a further expense, something that characters like Miss Walker could certainly afford.

In the dress and textile collection, we are fortunate enough to have sleeve supports which would have been purchased separately to the gown. The support was worn underneath the dress and would have formed part of a series of undergarments to shape the wearer’s outerwear.

The impracticalities of wearing a dress with such large sleeves are demonstrated in Gentleman Jack too. A woman is seated and her sleeves are not quite right… I am sure this would have been a concern of women of the period! During this period dresses would have been made to measure and so often dresses were not symmetrical. These garments were supported by removable pads too, so it’s reasonable to assume that they moved a little unexpectedly on the body.

One of the challenges of being assistant curator is to mount garments accurately on mannequins. This is sometimes hard to achieve when you are working with a solid motionless mannequin! Such accurate recreations of garments, like those in Gentleman Jack, are useful when carrying out research to see how a garment would have moved on a person.

We see how the sleeves in Gentleman Jack embody the realities of life for a wealthy woman around the 1830’s. It also highlights some wonderful examples from our own collections here in Leeds.

By  Vanessa Jones, Assistant Curator of Dress and Textiles, Leeds Museums & Galleries.

Find out more about our Dress and Textiles collection.

Find out more about Gentleman Jack and see some examples of how these sleeves are recreated in the series on the BBC One website.