With winter on the way, a gentleman of the past would want to make sure he had a stout great coat to defy the elements. Great coats were considered an investment, a practical necessity rather than a fashion statement, and few remain in museum collections simply because they were worn until they wore out. Much like banyans, great coats were garments that men liked wearing. Numerous 18th c. Englishmen had their portraits painted in their great coats, such as shipbuilder and philanthropist Thomas Coram, left (last seen on this blog as the driving force behind the creation of the London Foundling Hospital.)
While great coats often turn up in fiction - especially on adventurous gentlemen who go striding off into the mist and across the moor – but we'll admit we were a little hazy about the finer details of what made a great coat, well, so great.
Fortunately, Tailor Mark Hutter of Colonial Williamsburg obliged us by showing us his handsome great coat, typical of styles from 1740-1770. Working from extant 18th c. examples as well as portraits, Mark made this double-breasted coat, right, from grey wool beaver cloth, a dense, fulled (think felted) fabric that is napped and pressed to resemble beaver fur. The cloth was thick to be wind-proof, and rain and snow would find it a challenge as well. Because this is an overcoat, the body is unlined. The buttons are covered with the same cloth, and the buttonholes are welted.
The wide collar is lined with velvet in a contrasting velvet, both for style and purpose. In the back view, left, Mark has buttoned the collar up high in front to protect his face. That wide collar, pointed in the back, is designed to tuck up beneath a gentleman's hat - quite an efficient way of keeping out the the wind around his ears, much like a modern parka's hood. Because this is such a loose-fitting garment, the pleats at the back of the neck are a stylish, functional way of absorbing all the necessary yardage.
The last photo, right, shows one of the more interesting (at least to us!) features of the coat. Those deep, buttoned cuffs aren't entirely for decoration. On a very cold night, they could be folded down over the hands for extra protection. Gentlemen riding in an unheated carriage could request their servants to go one step further, and button one cuff securely over the other, as Mark demonstrates here. The effect would be the same as an 18th c. lady's muff, and probably just as warm, too.
Many thanks to Mark Hutter, for his expertise and suggestions!
Top: detail of Captain Thomas Coram by William Hogarth, 1740, London Foundling Museum.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.