Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Two Coats, Two Gentlemen, Two Centuries

Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Susan reports:
While we've written recently about historic dress and keeping warm in the past, we've only addressed the ladies. Today we'll rectify that, and offer two splendid winter coats, worn by two very different gentlemen of the past.

Held by Colonial Williamsburg tailor Mark Hutter, left, is a copy of a greatcoat worn by statesman, president, and all-around-18th c.-Renaissance-man Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826.) The replica coat was made by the CW tailors, and is based stitch-for-stitch on the original.

Jefferson was serving as America's Minister to France and living in Paris when he bespoke this dark blue greatcoat in the 1780s. Cut from woolen broadcloth with a collar of silk velvet, the coat is noteworthy for the embroidered silver vine that edges the wide cape. Though the original coat now has dark buttons (and thus so does the replica), at one time it likely had polished silver buttons to match the embroidery. In the most sophisticated and fashion-conscious city in the world, Jefferson was determined to represent himself as a gentleman of style, and also to show that the rest of the world should take the fledgling American States seriously. Image the 6'2" Jefferson with his red hair, striding down the steps of his house on the Champs-Elysees in this coat with the sun glinting on the silver: an imposing sight indeed.

The second coat, right, is imposing in quite a different way. This impeccably tailored formal overcoat belonged to Edward VIII of England, later Duke of Windsor (1894-1972). Thanks to the most skilled tailors in Great Britain, His Highness was famous for being the best-dressed gentleman in the land (among a great many other things!)

This coat is a beautiful example from Simpson & London Ltd., fashioned from subtle navy tweed wool and lined with fur, with an elegant black Astrakhan collar. The double-breasted coat is cut with flaring skirts and a slightly raised waist, designed to give an elongating line as well as a military air. While Thomas Jefferson was very tall, the Duke of Windsor was very short – only 5'5" – and it's a great tribute to his tailors that he never appeared that way.

"I was in fact produced as a leader of fashion," the Duke once remarked, "with the clothiers as my showmen and the world as my audience." Certainly this coat would hold its own on any stage, in any era.

The original of Thomas Jefferson's great coat is now in the collection of the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. Special thanks to tailor Neal Hurst of Colonial Williamsburg for his help with this post.

Click here to read more about the Duke of Windsor's wardrobe.


Vanessa Kelly said...

I had no idea the Duke of Windsor was so short! Thanks for posting the NYT article about his clothing - interesting to know that he was the real fashion forward stylist, and not the Duchess.

Albany said...

Why don't men wear long overcoats like these anymore? Even the most dressed-up man today only wears a rumpled trenchcoat, and most men wear shapeless puffers, hoodies, or barn jackets, even over a business suit. These coats would be such an improvement, and probably a lot wamer, too.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Vanessa, you're welcome! I had no idea he was so short, either. His tailors did an excellent job--and I wonder if royal photographers were careful not to shoot him in the company of taller men.

Albany, I don't know why men don't wear longer coats, either. In more formal cities, you do see well-dressed men in dark wool or camel's hair topcoats, but not many. OTOH, you don't see many women in longer dress coats any more, either. I suspect part of it is the nuisance factor -- warm or not, it's a lot more effort to wrangle a long coat in and out of cars -- plus casual office attire, that nemesis to every kind of fashionable dress. More and more Americans dress only for comfort, not for style. Not much room in that world for bespoke topcoats...

Mme.Tresbeau said...

These are handsome coats, and both would make the wearers all the more handsome, too. Also, thank you for the link to the story on the Duke's wardrobe. Very informative.

LorettaChase said...

I love both, and it's interesting that the Duke of Windsor's style consciousness seems so rare in our age, yet would have been quite common in, say Brummell's time.

Keith said...

A bit late for me, but I do love early to mid 18th century clothing. My wife recently made me a Frock coat. I love it!
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