Sunday, April 7, 2013

More About Buckskin Breeches

Sunday, April 7, 2013
Isabella reporting,

One of our more popular clothing posts was A Perfect Pair of Gentleman's Buckskin Breeches. Breeches like these were worn by men of every class from the 18th-early 19th c., as any reader of Georgette Heyer can attest. During my last visit to Colonial Williamsburg, I learned a bit more about these breeches from apprentice tailor Michael McCarty, left. Even better, Michael was wearing a pair himself, which made him able to answer from experience my nerdy-history-girl questions.

Despite their name, buckskin breeches weren't all necessarily made from the skin of buck (male) deer. Not only were some made of doeskin (from the female deer), but there are also references to skins of sheep, elk, caribou, and even beaver fashioned into the popular breeches. The 18th c. wasn't above a bit of fashion-marketing, however, and it was evidently much more agreeable to cut a dashing figure before the ladies in a pair of new buckskins than a pair of (baa!) sheepskins.

The breeches were sold ready-made, and were also custom-made for more discerning gentlemen. They were popular for riding and for work, since they were both comfortable and long-wearing. While they are most often seen in 18th c. paintings of gentlemen as country-wear, they were also adopted by young bucks about town, as well as by sporting gentlemen.

Most breeches were pale, both from fashionable choice and from making use of the naturally creamy white color of the skins.  Others were smoked to achieve a grey color, while the skins could also be surface-dyed, with the same processes used to dye leather for shoes.

Michael's breeches are in fact sheepskin, and were made by journeyman saddler Jay Howlett, also of Colonial Williamsburg. Like everything else made through CW's historic trades programs, the breeches were cut and sewn entirely by hand,  using 18th c. tailoring techniques.

How comfortable are the breeches to wear? Michael reports that they're as soft and comfortable as a pair of worn jeans, and says that the skins make the breeches have natural stretch and give (no Lycra!), with sufficient "memory" that they return to shape; it's clear that buckskin breeches could be very close-fitting indeed, without the potential of seam-splitting disasters. As an 18th c. tailor, Michael sits cross-legged in the traditional posture for work, right, and his breeches didn't seem any the worse for it.

And do you recognize Michael's striped waistcoat? It's the stable jacket we last saw here, doing double-duty as an extra layer for fashionable warmth.

Photographs copyright 2013 Susan Holloway Scott.

14 comments:

Lisa Palone said...

These are awesome! They should make a comeback - maybe in pleather though. :/ I'm vegan.

Crafts4others said...

things for the interesting post, never knew that much about breeches before.

Jan Power said...

Thanks for this, it is fascinating. What puzzles me is how they could stay clean for more than thirty minutes.

notsodistantpast.com said...

You've answered, or gotten Michael to answer, a question that's always plagued me about buckskin breeches: Could they possibly be, at all, comfortable? I think my imagination gummed up at the words "skin of buck" and assumed the pants would be heavy and/or stiff. Mystery solved, thank you!

Kelly said...

Lisa Palone, pleather breeches would not be safe for anyone who is near to, or responsible for keeping a fire going, as they'd be highly flamable. They would also not have the same fexable qualities as leather breeches would, they'd be more like any cloth breeches. If I was going after the same look but wanted to keep with my sensibilities, there are many nice wools out there that would give a similar look, and have great flexability.

I'd be interested to see how they are constructed, and the pattern of them compared to cut cloth breeches. Someday, I'd like to make a pair!

Karen said...

Wouldn't these be really hot in summer? I was in Williamsburg during a heat wave last June, and I couldn't imagine surviving that weather in 18th-century clothing.

Jane Pease said...

Williamsburg in June IS a heat wave, Karen! Seriously, though, perhaps leather is more breathable than it would seem to be. Friends who have them swear by them.

For those interested in making a pair, workshops are occasionally offered by Jay or other knowledgable folks. Bring your bandages--they are tough sewing, I hear.

Lori said...

How are they cleaned is what I'd like to know.

Sharlene said...

Thanks! Great information!

Heather said...

Buckskin breeches were the 'jeans' of the day. They would have been the working man's dress(although I'm sure upper class men would have worn them also). They were and are highly durable. Very soft and supple.
As for cleaning- you would just have to brush off the surface dirt. Getting them wet would result in shrinkage!
Most working men of the late 18th century wore their buckskins daily until they may have been unwearable- they do stretch out. They may have also worn a large over-shirt that would cover the buckskins and/or a leather apron. Both of these would have helped to protect the buckskin breeches.

Gerri Bowen said...

Very interesting post. I never realized how form fitting and comfortable buckskin breeches are.

LenoreJ said...

Hubba hubba. I think rock stars should seriously consider buckskin breeches. I still go all fluttery thinking of Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans....

CynthiaZ said...

I wear leather full-seat (the part that touches the saddle) riding breeches regularly. Nowadays they can be washed with a product developed to wash leather products. These contain glycerine soap sometimes, I don't know how common that was in the past. They do shrink a little and get stiff when washed but can be worked and worn until soft again.
They also are a little too warm for summertime, when I wear "ultra suede" full-seat breeches (or fancy segmented and perforated leather ones). I think the temperatures during the Georgian and Regency periods were cooler in general as it was the end of the Little Ice Age.
The buckskin breeches might have been as ideal at the time for everyday wear as denim is now, but the best made ones would generally have been more expensive then, as they are now.

Heather said...

Daniel Day Lewis is in a breech clout and leather leggings in Last of the Mohicans- ( athletic thighs visible!) Even better on the eyes!!

 
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