Sunday, June 28, 2009

Further Unbuttoning

Sunday, June 28, 2009
Susan reports:
A few more thoughts about these knitted breeches from Colonial Williamsburg....

I knit and sew, so I not only looked at those elegant black knitted breeches with Loretta, but I considered them in a more practical light. Yes, the knitted fabric stretched, the way an old-fashioned cotton sock stretches. But the stretch would come from the stockinette stitch alone, not the fiber (which I think was either Breeches-knit cotton or linen thread.) Neither linen nor cotton has any natural recovery -- a fancy way of saying that once they stretch, they don't return to their previous shape unless they're washed, and even then it can be iffy. Think again of those old socks from high school gym class, and how sad and loose they soon became. (This is why modern fabrics often incorporate small amounts of Lycra blended in, the super-stretchy stuff with enough recovery to pull the other fiber along with it.) Which, of course, explains why if you were a gentleman who liked his breeches fashionably tight, you'd request your tailor to cut them with so much negative ease, that three-inches-too-small that Loretta mentions.

But what must those breeches have looked like after a long day lounging in a gentleman's club, sitting behind a desk, or riding in the park? How droopy did the knees and backside become? Did the truly fashion-forward gentleman only wear his breeches so long as they were taut, and change into fresh ones when they began to sag, the way that dandies like Beau Brummel changed their linen shirts several times a day? Was this one more way a peacock-male displayed his impeccable attention to sartorial detail? Or was the droopiness just an accepted part of the style for most men, the way bagged-out-jeans are today?

Another question to ponder: men's shirts at this time were still voluminously cut much wider than the body, with tails that could reach the knees, depending on personal taste. Where exactly did they tuck all that excess fabric into those narrow cut breeches?


Karen said...

There's a similar machine-knit pair of breeches at the Victoria & Albert Museum; see

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