Unlike the more conservative style of contemporary men's fashion, the 18th century gentleman dressed for display with their sumptuous fabrics and trimmings often outshining those worn by women. Embroidered decoration, as seen on this waistcoat, contributed greatly to the general effect of the male costume. Natural themes were a strong focus in European art of the 1700s and the waistcoat has been intricately hand-embroidered with masses of flowers, possibly with designs taken from pattern books. Embroidery is worked as a floral trail down the front openings and around the front of the collar, with separate, smaller motifs worked in vertical bands over the front breast.
Until the late 18th century most outer garments for men in Europe were made of woollen cloth or silk. During the 1780s and 1790s linen, which was lighter and more informal, began to increase in popularity. Silk clothing continued to be worn, however was generally restricted to members of the middle and upper classes and, due to its delicacy and cost, was usually worn on more formal occasions. To make, workshops would often provide customers with a selection of pre-embroidered fabric from which to choose, with floral decoration woven onto a square piece of fabric in the shape of two waistcoat fronts and pocket flaps. The material was then be cut and sewn into position. It is likely that this waistcoat was manufactured in this way.
This waistcoat is an excellent example of men's fashion during the late 18th century and can be used to illustrate important changes and processes in the design, fabrication, function and cultural meaning of men's fashions. It demonstrates the influence that printing and the production of embroidery pattern books had on the dissemination of information, enabling the multiple production and wider distribution of embroidery designs. It also demonstrates the changing role of the 'gentlemen' in society, such luxurious and impractical clothing reflecting the leisured lifestyle of the 18th century gentleman, contrasting with the sobriety and practicality of the 19th and 20th century men's costume. The waistcoat provides context for changes occurring in the production of men's costume from one-off, hand embroidered and constructed clothing to mass produced, machine embroidered and constructed garments. Its fine embroidery and mint condition give it further significance, and it remains a significant item within the Museum's textile collection. In addition, the embroidery featured on this waistcoat highlights the plight of the 18th century needlewoman who often worked long hours for poor wages to produce such work.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/eudr/hd_eudr.htm
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Druesedow, Jean L, 'In Style: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Costume Institute', The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987
Waugh, Norah, 'The Cut of Men's Clothes 1600-1900', Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 1964