1750 - 60 Gold Silk Damask Waistcoat, 'Wearing the Garden' exhibition at Berrington Hall until June 30th. Snowshill Costume Collection.
18th Century Waistcoats

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.     

Embroidery and button detail,1780-90 waistcoat
18th Century Waistcoats

The Incredible and Incroyables!

Whilst showing my friend Kimberley images of the waistcoats below she exclaimed ‘these were worn by men? They’re very girly!’

Indeed the rich embroideries, jewelled and sequinned designs of eighteenth century waistcoats would most certainly be considered appropriate for the sartorial predilection of the raffish dandy today, but certainly not every man.

Althea Mackenzie writes in her book, Embroideries, that an eighteenth century gentleman of style might have as many as 300 waistcoats in his wardrobe, all richly embellished with decorative motifs and sparkle. The incredible designs would have likely to have been produced either by an embroidery workshop or by the ladies and/or servants of the house.

As I mentioned in my last post these waistcoats were often worn with coats of similar design, cut to expose the craftsmanship of the waistcoat. In France during the very last years of the eighteenth century the cut of a coat affected the wearers gait by forcing the wearer to stand unnaturally erect, with his chest thrust forward. This affect was achieved by stitching the shoulders unnaturally close together. By adding waistcoats and cravats this accentuated the desired silhouette the wearer was trying to achieve.

Coat, vest and breeches, 1790-95

Coat, vest and breeches, 1790-95

In the closing years of the eighteenth century, French fashion extremists who adopted this mode of dress were given the moniker incroyables. It was viewed in this context as a subversive reaction to the understated modes of dress adopted by the surviving aristocracy after the zenith of the French Revolution.

In her essay, Fashioning (and refashioning) European Fashion, Kimberley Chrisman-Campbell states: ‘[waistcoats] were sartorial vehicles for personal expression and identity’

Some fabulous examples of this can be seen in the late eighteenth century waistcoats from the Snowshill collection that invite you to imagine the flamboyance, and wealth, of its wearer.

I have included the detail from the accompanying conservation records below.

The front of this waistcoat is made of cream, finely ribbed silk. Both the reverse and lining material comprise of cream silk twill. The interior lining also has a cream linen back.

In the conservation record the cut of the waistcoat is described as follows;

Date: 1780-90

Cut: Foreparts skirt cut back; ovelapping side vents. Single-breasted; buttonholes and possibly buttons from neck to point of divergence; 2 sets of tapes sewn on back; shaped and scalloped pocket flaps. Pierced on shoulders.

Trimmings: Embroidered all over with silk in a design of flowers and scales in lilac and sky green; foreparts and pockets in matching round with braid.

Fastenings: Only two original buttons remain, both on left pocket (1 missing); 3 buttons missing from right pocket. The 5 metal buttons with Alpha-type shanks are later additions. 11 buttonholes, of which two are uncut. The original buttons are silk covered and embroidered.

Note the neckband of the following two garments below have had the neckband altered in a way which could suggest more than one owner, or more likely, the wearer putting on weight.

Date: 1775-85

Front: Ivory fancy ribbed sink

Back: Cream linen

Cut: Skirts diverge at waistline; overlapping side vents, buttons and holes from 4″/10.2cm below neck to point of divergence; horizontal pocket flaps, 2.5″/6.4 cm collar, stepped. 3 pairs of tapes across back.

Trimmings: Sprays of flowers and leaves embroidered in multicoloured silks and silver purls and sequins on leading edges and pocket flaps; single flowers embroidered overall

Fastenings: 11 fabric-covered buttons, embroidered with silk in a sunburst design

Alterations: Neckband has been let out

Cut: Skirts diverge at midline; overlapping side vents, Buttons and holes from 2.5″/6.4cm below neck to point of divergence; 2 3/4 or 7cm high collar; horizontal pocket flaps, pocket slit is straight and not curved; 2 pairs of tapes across centre back

Trimmings: Running sprays of leaves on running edges, pocket collar flaps and collar embroidered with silks in browns, gold and creams; also flowers embroidered overall

Fastenings: 8 buttons (2 missing), silk covered and embroidered, (1 uncovered in pocket and made of bone)

Date: 1775-80

Front: Silver Lamè fabric (silk)

Back: Cotton

Lining: foreparts only silk twill

Cut: Skirts diverge from below waist; overlapping side vents; buttons and holes neck point to point of divergence; 13/4/4.5cm high collar. Stepped pocket flap, curved at top. Pair of tapes across back at waist level

Trimmings: Running sprays of leaves in gold purl, passing and sequins on leading edges and round and on pockets; also sprays of rosebuds and leaves embroidered with silk; silk embroidered leaves overall

Fastenings: 12 + 3 buttons on each pocket. Silk embroidered with sequins on silver lamè fabric

Date: 1780-90

Fabric Front: Cream silk tabby

Back: Cream linen

Lining: Silk twill facings; linen lining “Mrs Vansitart” written in ink on right back

Cut: Skirts diverge at waistline; slightly overlapping side vents; buttons and holes neck to point of divergence (top buttonhole uncut); horizontal pocket flaps; 2 1/4″ / 5.7cm collar, stepped. 2 sets tapes across back

Trimmings: Embroidered with silk in a design of oak leaves and acorns (in greens and browns) down leading edges, collar and pocket flaps. Also green/brown spots embroidered overall

Fastenings: 12 fabric covered, embroidered buttons (inferior quality)


Ashelford, Jane. The Art of Dress: clothes through history, 1500 – 1900. London: The National Trust, 1996.

Chrisman-Campbell, Kimberley. Fashioning Fashion; European Dress in Detail, 1700-1795. DelMonico Books, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2011.

Mackenzie, Althea. Embroideries, London, The National Trust, 2004.

Detail of paste glass and coiled metal button decoration 1770-80, Court Waistcoat, Snowshill Costume Collection
18th Century Waistcoats

Gorgeous Georgians…The Court Waistcoat

It was not until the 1750’s and 60’s that sleeves on waistcoats were abandoned by the upper classes. The lower orders continued wearing the sleeved waistcoat as a jacket until the end of the 1700s. Stand collars started appearing from the 1760s and by the 1790s waistcoats finished at the hip (‘square cut’) as opposed to the thigh skimming A-line of previous decades.

For the aristocracy the most sublime garments arrived in the form of court dress. Court or formal dress were garments worn for important or royal occasions and not worn day to day.

In the Snowshill collection some fabulous examples of court dress have survived in the most incredible condition. Look at the images below; the colours and sparkle are just as vivid as they were over 300 years ago. Just look at the craftsmanship, and sheer labour, that has gone into the construction of these incredible items. Exquisite!!!

The conservation record that accompanies this incredible 1770-80 court waistcoat describes the garment as follows:

Front material: Ribbed, cream silk

Back material: Linen

Lining: Linen, with cream ribbed silk facing to foreparts

Cut: With straight front line, slanting away below waist, overlapping back stepped stand collar, two pockets with curved flaps, laced back

Trimmings: Extensive embroidery with flowers and leaves in multi-colour silk, silver threads, sequins and paste glass jewels. Whole surface scattered with sequins. Three false buttons on each pocket (one missing)

The eighteenth century preoccupation with the natural world is evident in the elaborate decorative schemes of this waistcoat. Such beautiful garments were designed to reflect the wealth and status of its wearer. From the 1730s onwards we begin to see the cut of mens coats alter to form a curvilinear line from the chest to expose and display beautifully made waistcoats (see matching court coat below).

The fastenings of the waistcoat above is detailed in the conservation record as follows; Fastenings: 11 embroidered buttons, 10 button-holes, front fastening

As if the waistcoats were not spectacular enough the wearer would almost certainly have worn a coat just as ornately embellished, although not necessarily always ‘matching’ in the modern sense with completely identical colour and/or pattern.

The coat that accompanies the beautiful Snowshill waistcoat is just as spectacularly decorated and does have a matching embroidery scheme. Notice the curved line of the coat, designed to reveal the wearers waistcoat to optimum effect.

The woven corded silk is striped with silver threads. Jane Ashelford writes in her book, The Art of Dress: clothes through history, 1500 – 1900, when garments such as these went out of fashion gold and silver wire was extracted from the clothes and resold to the laceman to be reused. The cost of the recycled wire depended on its weight.

Fabric: Woven corded silk, striped with silvery/grey. Cuffs cream ribbed silk. Sable brown.

Lining: Cream twilled silk, plain silk in sleeves.

Cut: Close-fitting, knee-length. Curved front line, edge-to-edge, back vent. Triple pleats at side vent, partially stitched. Stepped, stand-up collar. Narrow fitted sleeves, with deep-open cuffs. Pocket each side with deep scalloped cuff and 3 false buttons. Inner flap of lining fabric for fastening.

Trimmings: Extensive embroidery with flowers and leaves in multicolour silk, silver threads, sequins and paste jewels. Embroidered strip applied to sleeves and back. Whole surface scattered with sequins. Whole surface scattered with sequins (many now missing). 3 false buttons on cuff. Hip buttons.

Fastenings: 10 large buttons with 3 button holes above waist. Buttons and silver thread pastes and sequins.

Alterations: Applied strips of embroidery, possibly added for extra decoration.


Ashelford, Jane. The Art of Dress: clothes through history, 1500 – 1900. London: The National Trust, 1996.

Bradfield, Nancy. Costume in Detail, women’s dress 1730 – 1930.London, Eric Dobby publishing, 1968.

Cunnington, Phillis. Your Book of Seventeenth and Eighteenth century costume. London: Faber and Faber, 1970.

Mackenzie, Althea. The National Trust, Berrington Hall, July 2013.