In late 18th century French fashion magazines a word turns up that just like the English “handkerchief” of the same time period is fundamentally confusing to modern readers: the “corset”.
I love 18th century embroidered waistcoats. Whenever I see one – be it in a museum, an auction catalogue, or on an reenactor – I want them all. Or at least one.
Now this is a kind of men’s item and I am not a man. And I am short and have a chest and hips which is a pretty antithetical to the fashionable men’s silhouette of any time period.
But then I got an invite to a reenactment event that was supposed to take place in 1783…
And in the 1780s there wasn’t just a trend for riding habits that looked like military uniforms. But also one for big buttons, lapels, collars and the visible vests/waistcoats that looked like menswear in general.
Obviously the next step of that fashion wouldn’t be just wearing plain waistcoats but embroidered waistcoats. And there are indeed three extant examples that can be kind of dated into the 1780s. One in the Decorative Arts museum in Lyon, France, two others in the V&A in London.
The one in Lyon is multi-colored and goes over the hips. But the whole ensemble contains a jacket that has been clearly altered with a very non-18th century dart. Obviously this is noted in the museum’s description, however it is worded without making a distinction between jacket and vest. So it is possible that the waistcoat itself is subject to a 19th century alteration. The worst case would be that it is a men’s waistcoat, altered for women’s wear. It doesn’t seem like it to me though. It’s clearly not professional embroidery work (the chain stitch is way too irregular for that) and the whole pattern is very unlike a men’s waistcoat (especially the button/buttonhole placement and the overal shape of the garment).
The waistcoat in the V&A shown on the left doesn’t have hip flaps and it’s monochrome. And even though the shape says 1780s, the museum insists it’s 1790 on the dot. I call shenanigans. The one on the right is embroidered with gold and blue floral vines and also dated to around 1790.
Finally, there is also a mention of an gold-embroidered “manns-gillet” (men’s vest) in the June 1787 edition of “Journal des Luxus und der Moden”.
Arguably, this is not the greatest proof that my waistcoat would have made this way for a lady. But it’s enough to rationalize it as possible.
Having found the excuse to do a waistcoat for me, I started to look at the embroidery on a lot of 18th century waistcoats in close-up detail.
The usual look of men’s waistcoats is characterized by extremely even, generous and clean stitching, implying seasoned professionals at work.
Unless the whole suit is done in chain stitch/point de Beauvais, these waistcoats are usually all done in satin stitch and stem stitch. (There are a few waistcoats that show the long-and-short satin stitch, but mostly color shading is done by satin stitching small area with small color variations.)
The embroidery is also very decisive and once the embroiderer decided that rose leaf #4 is to be stitched from southeast to northwest, then all other rose leaves#4 on that side of the waistcoat will also be stitched from southeast to northwest. And while that sounds pedantic, it’s effective. In the process of making the waistcoat work for my sewing pattern I stretched and bend my embroidery pattern for the flower border a bit. These flowers were not that even, not even on paper. But stitched in the same direction, they look actually more alike than they did on paper.
Now I went into the project with a similar mindset as I had with the quilted petticoat – I am not doing this again, so I better to the best waistcoat I can make. I splurged on expensive silk satin, proper silk embroidery floss and a proper large embroidery frame. And I didn’t go for an easy embroidery pattern, but one I really liked.
My embroidery pattern came from the V&A. They have a collection of 1780s watercolors that are embroidery designs for waistcoats. They were made by Jean Pillement and Charles-German de Saint-Aubin. The advantage of using these was that I am not competiting with an extant garment but am still pretty close to using a historically correct design.
The design I liked best had no pocket flap, so I I just stole a pocket flap from a similar design. I also took the small flower pattern that is all over the waistcoat from a third design but altered it so heavily that you cannot really tell its origin.
I also had to adjust the design of the hip flap since its front edge was not meeting in the middle like my waistcoat pattern would need to. I filled the remains out by replicating a few elements from the other side of the flap. Also the design is not in the best condition so I had to guess a few times what to draw in.
I printed the pattern on a transparent paper, turned on my light table (which is a regular glass table under which I put a very bright lamp) and a podcast and spend a long time transferring the pattern. I used a very sharp pencil because I need clear lines for small details and it needed to stay for all of the embroidery process. (Pencil was further justified by a barely embroidered waistcoat panel in the Rijksmuseum in which you can still something that resembles a penciled outline.)
After that, I started to embroider and that’s really the long and short of it. I am not quite sure how much time I spend embroidering, I wager it’s between 100 and 120 hours. In this time I managed to watch the entirety of Stranger Things four times which sounds weird but actually not needing to watch while watching television is really helpful. Embroidery is also repetitive and not intellectually challenging but unlike quilting your eyes need to be on the embroidery all the time.
It was surprising that what took most time was the all over pattern. It looks like nothing but it contains five different colors and I didn’t connect threads between the flowers. So I made a little knot on my thread, embroidered, made a small knot at the end of the embroidery, cut it off and then rinse and repeat for 200 duotoned/tricolored flowers.
That took time and was incredibly annoying. I completely underestimated that part. I also underestimated that doing the border would be intense. Just doing the border of one pocket flap took 1.5 hours.
Being too pedantic with color was a bit of an issue since I didn’t calculate the final effect. I rejected a light blue because it had a slight green tinge and used it more sparingly elsewhere. On the final garment I cannot tell the green-tinged blue and the other blue apart. On the roll some colors look fairly garish and intense. When there is only half a square inch of it in the middle of white satin, it loses some of that intensity.
All in all, I used 26 different colors. 6 greens, 2 browns, 2 yellows, 1 black, 1 white, 5 blues, 5 pinks, 6 purples. The color I used most was the light blue for the border.
I had to actually map out where which color would go and in which direction it had to be stitched because switching between elements made it hard to keep track of:
After finishing the embroidery I let the embroidery hang out for two days, hoping it would stretch out all creases. It did.
Then I cut it apart and started on the “Tailoring for dummies” part of making this waistcoat.
I had researched this a bit and it was obvious that the material needed interfacing for stability. I decided to err on the stability side: the pocket flaps were underlined with a layer of cotton coutil, then two layers of stiff linen canvas interfacing and were lined with white silk taffeta.
The waistcoat itself was underlined with a firm cotton duck, the hip flaps and front were interfaced with one layer of the stiff linen canvas. The lapels were interlined and padstitched to one layer of cotton coutil. The whole waistcoat was backed with a vintage/antique fine linen chintz.
Then I made the buttonholes, the buttons and a plain linen back that laces up for adjustment.
Just making the buttons took three hours. That was the point where I grew very tired of this project.
Now I only needed a matching 1780s riding habit….
I actually needed a new 1780s hat for my new 1780s riding habit (as much as you need any 1780s hat anyway) and from observing the fashionable imagery of the 1780s, it became quite clear that I needed a hat with a high crown and wide brim rather than decorating my fifth bergere hat.
I finished the court gown. And yes, I ended up adding a small train.I was out of my original fabric (which I knew from the very beginning) so I just used a gold-colored silk taffeta. I kept it short so it could be actually worn in public without causing accidents, leaving it to drag on the ground a little (it was lined) but not by much. So in the end, it did end up being a grand habit de cour.
The gown that inspired me, is described by its museum as “the apogee of the form [of the robe à la française].”
That description alone made this gown such an ambitious project. It intimidated me and it still does. But it also challenged me. I am doing a court gown out of lampas silk for the same reason – if I spend so much time on a project… why not go all out?
So how was it made….
2016 was a really productive year, so…
Lace bows were pretty popular in the 18th century. And as it happen my current projects requires one of these multi-layered bows that resemble a flower more than the resemble a traditional bow.
So how to make one:
Okay, fun fact: I have done a lot of stuff recently that I didn’t document making all that well.
These three things are really special though because it’s basically three times of “that pattern wasn’t quite right.”
The Ikea Swallowtail Jacket
I made this with an Ikea Ljusöga pillowcase based on the Swallowtail Jacket at Colonial Williamsburg, using the pattern from Costume Close-Up. It was supposed to be a quick and dirty project. Which became kind of funny when I realized that I had made this one for +6′ tall person and had to alter everything to fit my smaller frame.
One key element was that I wanted the lacing in the front and I wanted that lacing to be functional. But I didn’t wanted the functional lacing to go through the fashion fabric. So I put the lacing holes into an extra linen strip directly under the open sides of the front. That means though that I have to pin the fashion fabric to the strip after lacing, otherwise the lacing holes would show because the fashion fabric layer just doesn’t lay flat.
The stomacher is lined in red, which means I can turn it around, change the lacing to a white silk and get a whole new look. (I have not done this, despite wearing the jacket at one event twice.)
I also made a red petticoat that was supposed to allow some rough handling. It did handle mud okay. But it doesn’t dry very quickly which is not good.
A Riding Habit (ugh)
I basically went for the first worsted wool fabric that looked okay-ish and that was a mistake. I ended up with a really heavy fabric whose feel I didn’t like.
So when I messed up the pattern and ended up missing about 4 inches at my waist, I made the choice (wrong one, obviously) to not undo that and add another fabric piece at the side sesams but rather leaving it open, only held together in the middle of the chest area. (I wanted to be done with that jacket. (Again: mistake.) This meant that I had to make a vest and shirt for sure (instead of cheating), line the jacket’s lapels in light blue silk and alter it further and further.
So this is my vest and shirt on my dummy double (without the buttons and the buttonholes):
And these are these things worn by me:
And I love them.
Unfortunately, this is the riding habit itself:
And I hate it.
It makes my waist look as large as my boobs which is actually ridiculous, it sits awkwardly on my hips, the sleeves look like they will tear themselves out of their armholes when I actually wear it and it weighs 5+ pounds. (Not awesome if you’re travelling.)
I actually stuffed it in the bottom of my closet. (Anyone wants an ugly, heavy riding habit?)
Ironically I was actually assured that this worsted wool fabric will last forever. The worsted news.
A hand-printed cotton Anglaise
I also made a Robe à l’Anglaise out of handprinted Indian cotton (which used plant-based dyes) which is so historically correct that I felt I should have worn a sign that said as much along with it.
The funny thing about this dress was finished so quickly that I failed to document much of the process.
The thing was that the cotton was very thin, so I lined the entire robe. (Linen in the bodice, thin cotton for the rest.)
I added the elbow sleeve thingies because I made the sleeves a bit too short. Unfortunately I was so out of fabric that it was all pieced. (That’s why the petticoat is a cheat petticoat that only used the fabric where it showed.) To cover up the pieced-ness of the elbow things I added a bit of ruffle which was even more pieced.
Me wearing it (I fixed the small gap since then.)
I started looking at a lot of caps and my favorite was the combination of silk lampas and gold lace. I have found none of these in aristocratic portraits of adult women, so this cap is fabulously unsuited to go with, like, 95 percent of my 18th century wardrobe. But the heart wants what it wants, right?
The pattern was an alteration of a Duran Textiles cap pattern that I further altered on the cap itself after the one corner looked way too harsh.
I flatlined the three pieces individually with a firm cotton (I had ran out of linen):
And then I sewed everything together with small backstitches. For some reason this took me 3 hours. (Addmittedly, I watched tv while doing this which never helps.)
Then I applied the vintage gold lace by sewing both the inner and outer edge of the lace to the cap.
And that was it:
And to give you an idea of its dimensions; that’s what it looks like when it’s worn:
For some reason I really love 18th century regional caps. More than I actually love the white linen/cotton/silk caps. I blame childhood trauma caused by a truly ugly costume cap my sister owned but that’s a different story.
Those 18th regional caps are usually made of very nice material: silk lampas, silk damask, silk velvet, embroidered silk, silk with lace… you see where this goes. Apparently the laws on who was allowed to wear what material was really lax when it came to head coverings. And those caps didn’t really need a lot of fabric.
Since I have never done one of these, I didn’t wanted to start making one out of silk lampas, so I made one out of plain silk. This was obviously inspired by this particular painting:
My interpretation of that painting is that she is wearing a white cap under her silk cap instead of merely attaching the lace to silk cap. This would allow her to clean one and not the other.
I used the pattern from Duran Textiles. I lined the back of cap with heavy cotton. I interlined the cap brim with a heavy cotton and then lined it in linen. Then I attached the brim to the back:
I decided to distribute the pleats more even around the brim instead of pleating it solely at the back.
Then I carefully attached a piece of antique Valenciennes lace I had in my stash over the brim. The piece had exactly the length that was needed. I didn’t have to hide or stretch or cut anything. The thing about Valenciennes lace is that it’s only type of lace where 19th and 18th century styles are pretty hard to distinguish so it looks pretty accurate although my guess is that’s late 19th century Valenciennes.
Under that cap I put a white cotton/linen cap.
It was a fun project, so I already gathered the materials for my next cap project: