Friday, October 29, 2010

A Perfect Pair of Gentleman's Buckskin Breeches

Friday, October 29, 2010
Susan reporting:

One of our very first posts here at the TNHG involved Loretta's encounter with a pair of black stockinette breeches. It was also one of our most popular posts – which is why we were particularly pleased to discover this pair of white buckskin breeches, as worn by the Spruce Sportsman, lower right, beautifully replicated by the tailors of Colonial Williamsburg using traditional 18th c. techniques.

Buckskin breeches are another masculine style that had a long fashion-life (much like cocked beaver hats.) The Spruce Sportsman is shown wearing buckskins in 1777, and yet this singing swain by Gillray, right, is shown wearing virtually the same breeches nearly thirty years later, and they also appear on the heroes of countless Regency romances. Buckskins remained in fashion for good reasons: they were comfortable, durable, and looked quite dashing. Preferred for riding and country wear as a sporting look, they were so popular that they were also often seen about London as well.

Buckskins were in fact cut and stitched from the skins of deer, both bucks and does, with hides imported in great quantities from America to England (though George Washington preferred to have his made from elk skin.) Buckskin breeches were most usually white or pale tan, and not lined. Unlike most modern leather clothing, buckskins were washable to a point, though if they finally became too worn and stained over time and hard wear, they could be dyed a darker color. If this pair is typical, they were also incredibly soft, like the most velvety, comfortable pair of old jeans you've ever worn. We completely understand why gentlemen became so attached to them.

The view, above, shows the self-covered buttons on the leg openings, and the cuff tabs that would have fastened with buckles beneath the knee and over stockings.  That white half-wafer lying on the breeches is a buffball (and, alternately, also a breeches ball, yellow ball, and yellow boys), a cake made of compressed ochre and kaolin clay suspended in glue and soap that was used for emergency touch-ups. The buffball didn't remove dirt or soil, but it did effectively cover the spot.

The detail, left, shows not only the decorative stitching and metallic buttons on the fall (the front flap), but also the fob, or watch pocket (wrist watches still being a far-distant invention.) A gentleman would take care to keep his fall buttoned, not only for propriety's sake, but also to protect his valuable pocket-watch from thieves. But if he were not a gentleman, but, say, a jockey or other professionally sporting fellow, he might choose to saunter about with the fall half-open like this with rakish nonchalance. Sporting indeed!

Many thanks to Neal Hurst of the Margaret Hunter Shop, Colonial Williamsburg, for the information in this post.

Top illustration: detail from Harmony Before Matrimony, by James Gillray, 1805.
Lower illustration: detail from The Spruce Sportsman, or Beauty the best shot, by Carrington Bowles, 1777.


Anne Elizabeth said...

Oh, I so want to make a pair for my husband once I can afford to get proper buckskins!
So it is immensely helpful of you to post these close-up pictures. <3

Chris Woodyard said...

Such beautiful work!

I wonder if breeches like these evolved into lederhosen, which also have the front fall?

KuriosityKat said...

Your'e right that about every hero in Georgette Heyer wears buck-skins, but I always thought they'd be heavy and stiff, like leather pants. These sound comfy, and I bet on the right guy, they were sexy-hot, too. Thanks for the explanation!

Anne Elizabeth said...

@Chris: Yep, Bavarian lederhosen stem directly from that time. I think I've even seen the term "culotte a la bavaroise" for fall-front breeches before, so I'm not even quite sure if lederhosen come from the fall-front breeches or the fall front breeches come from the lederhosen.

Munich women's Tracht stems from 18th century as well, although not as nicely obvious as Provence dress.

Greetings from Munich!

Anonymous said...

Any suggestions as to where to purchase buckskin these days? This looks like exceptionally high quality (i.e., not for frontier costumes.)

nightsmusic said...

To heck with the guys! I want a pair!

The handwork is so detailed. I can't imagine though, regardless of how soft the skins were, being able to sew for any length for time without taking breaks. Even the sharpest needles would meet with much more resistance here than with fabric. I hand-sewed my clothing when I was young because we had no machine and even with material, after awhile, your hands cramp up.

They're beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Point of order, the cleaning agent is known as Buffball,Breeches ball,Yellow ball or even Yellow Boys.It is Kaolin clay and ochre suspended in hide glue and soap.
For Anonomous the skins for the adult breeches where purchased for Hagels Tannery in Kalispell MT,you will need to ask for light smoke and surface.
I sewed 6-8 hours in a stretch while making those breeches and put in perhaps 50 hours. The small boys breeches took perhaps 12 hours to complete, Breechesmaker

Lexi Best said...

Has anyone seen the movie about Beau Brummel and how he brought into fashion what many of us consider the quintessential Regency rake look of the buckskins, boots, fancy neckcloth and tight short jacket?
I watched it on YouTube last week.
Worth a look.
The 18th century styled men called him a dandy in the street and he retorted with fop, but none of them were sissies.

Lexi Best said...

Anonymous/Breechesmaker you really did a wonderful job.
Do you think 50 hours would have be par for the course for these types of garments or would someone used to making them day in and day out produce them much more quickly?

I ask because I am wondering about the relative cost of a pair of buckskins. Would they be like buying a $100 pair of pants or a $1000 or what?

Anonymous said...

I suspect from prices I have seen in an account book that a professional at the time was spending maybe half the time I do.But we know that leather breeches were available in a range of quailitys and prices.My feeling is it was comparable to buying a leather jacket today.It is a signifigant purchase but anyone who wants one can find something they can afford . I think the value range you gave #100-$1,000 is on target

Abbie said...

They look similar to the pants worn by football players. lol

Charles Bazalgette said...

Anonymous Breechesmaker - do you sew these entirely by hand? If you've seen my blogs at
you'll see not only the prices that were being charged in London in the 1780's to make a pair, but also how they made breeches at the time. So I'm very interested in how long it takes to make a pair for a variety of reasons. I have to admire your dedication and hard work!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Many thanks to the Anonymous Breechesmaker for noting my inadvertent error regarding the buffball - and which, as you'll see, I have now corrected above.

I also wish to identify him by name: Jay Howlett. He is a journeyman saddler, another of the excellent and knowledgeable skilled tradespeople of Colonial Williamsburg. Working with the CW tailors, he did in fact make both the buckskin breeches and the black cocked hat that are featured in "The Spruce Sportsman" project. He also made the boy's leather breeches that are lying on the counter beneath the buckskin pair. Beautiful work!

Charles said...

I'd like to have a dialogue with Jay and ask him a few questions about his method of working. If you can put me in touch I'd like that. My email is bazalgette(at)

Anonymous said...

@Charles, you can contact me at

Charles Bazalgette said...

Thanks! I will do.

The Dreamstress said...

How fabulous! Suddenly I'm really excited about men's clothes!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an interesting post. Great pictures of the breeches. I know they are all different, but the detail of this particular pair is wonderful. I can just imagine all the hand stitching involved.

Anonymous said...

Jay Howlett taught a leather breeches workshop in January and Neal Hurst will be teaching one in August on hunting shirts through History Hands On, There may be another leather breeches workshop in 2013.

Guy said...

I have the leather, I have the pattern, I just need to summon up the courage to start cutting and stitching.

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