Wearing The Garden

Wearing the Garden; A post by Althea Mackenzie, Curator of Costume for the Charles Paget Wade Costume Collection

The history of the waistcoat goes back to the period of the Restoration when Charles II introduced it as part of ‘correct dress’. The style was derived from the Persian vests and in 1666 John Evelyn wrote: “To Court, it being the first time his Majesty put himself solemnly into the Eastern fashion of vest changing doublet, stiff collar, bands and cloak, into a comely dress after the Persian mode.” It is not known why the term ‘vest’ was replaced by the term ‘waistcoat’.  One idea was that the waistcoat was made from the remaining ‘waste’ pieces when tailoring a two piece suit! The waistcoats on display show how they changed in shape and style during the Georgian period (1692-1837), the period when the four Georges were on the throne.  In the early part of the century the waistcoat was long, with the emphasis on elaborate and striking decoration.  This was concentrated on the centre front and the pocket flaps.  It created a powerful sense of authority and status.  By the end of the 18th century the emphasis had changed and it was the waistcoat was very much a ‘uniform’.  The style was much shorter and the decoration lighter and delicate.

These changes in fashion reflected the social change that occurred during this period.  At the beginning of the century the aristocracy was still very much based on inherited position, they were confident and very much using their costume to represent their superior position within society.  As the century evolved the power of the aristocracy was increasingly challenged by a successful and aspiring middle class who made their money through trade and commerce.  This new ‘middle class’ wanted to emulate the fashion of the aristocracy and had the money to do so.  It became more and more difficult for the landed aristocracy to maintain their position and as more people became part of a wage based economy they had increasing opportunities to buy a wider range of fashionable goods.  One of the many laments of the period was that it was increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the master and the servant or mistress and maid.

The earliest waistcoats in the collection come from 1740-1750.  They are heavily embroidered with gilt lace and would have been highly expensive items.  They would have been made in a workshop.  The design would have been pricked and pounced onto fabric stretched on a frame.  This would then have been drawn out for the various young girls to embroider.  When finished the waistcoat would be made up to fit the client by the tailor. Later on in the period it became more possible to buy ready made items. Drizzling was the practice of pulling out gold and silver threads from brocades to sell back to the silver and gold lace maker for pin money.  It became all the rage of the ton – the fashionable set – not so much for the money as for the amusement it provided. It is said that Prince Leopold spent most of his leisure hours in drizzling using the drizzling tools that belonged to his wife.

Goldwork was originally developed in Asia and has been used for at least 2000 years. Its use reached a remarkable level of skill in the Middle Ages when a style called Opus Anglicanum was developed in England and used extensively in church vestments and hangings.  In the 18th century it was often used in decorating waistcoats, particularly those of the early part of the century.

Velvet is a material that immediately denotes wealth.  Its production was very labour intensive and skilled, a velvet weaver could take many weeks to set up the loom for a complex weave. Some of the most exquisite velvets are found in the 18th century from Italy and France and are created by combining cut and uncut velvet to produce sophisticated and vibrant designs.

The technique of tambouring was developed on the Indian sub-continent and was transported by the various European East India Trading companies to Europe.  The fabric to be embroidered is stretched over a frame and then embroidered from below using a tambour hook which creates a running chain stitch.  The effects were very popular in the 18th century and it was an activity done by many young ladies who could reveal the elegance of their hands whist tambouring.

The printing of textiles from engraved copperplates was first practiced in the United Kingdom by Thomas Bell in 1770.  The presses first used were of the ordinary letterpress type, the engraved plate being fixed in the place of the type. Later the cylinder press was employed – the plate was inked mechanically and cleaned off by passing under a sharp blade of steel; and the cloth, instead of being laid on the plate, was passed round the pressure cylinder. The plate was raised into frictional contact with the cylinder and in passing under it transferred its ink to the cloth.

The waistcoat above is cream silk embroidered with flowers in multicoloured silks with spangles interspersed. The foreparts are edged with gold and silver braids and black velvet and spangles, each surrounded with a ring of vellum. The pockets and collar are edged with gold and silver braids. It appears to be an earlier garment adapted to the changing fashion of the late 18th century.


Wearing the Garden‘ will be on display until 30th June. The next exhibition, ‘Big Bottoms & Small Waists‘ will be on display at Berrington Hall July 1st – August 31st.     


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Simon Kingston says:

    I did attend and thought it absolutely wonderful. If ever you lecture or write on the subject, I’d love to know.
    The Georgian costume exhibition at the Museum of Costume in Bath was woefully neglectful of male clothing.


    1. Hi Simon, thank you so much for your kind words. Althea Mackenzie, Costume Curator for the Snowshill costume collection based at Berrington Hall, does talks on the collection. I still need to get to Bath to see the Georgian exhibition 🙂


      1. Simon Kingston says:

        Dear HW,

        I look forward to your further exhibitions. Thanks for all you’re doing.


  2. Patricia Stuart says:

    Looks like a wonderful exhibit. Thank you for putting photos and information on line for all to see and read that can’t attend.


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