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.
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.