Sunday, November 14, 2010

Keeping Warm in an 18th c. Gentleman's Great Coat

Sunday, November 14, 2010
Susan reporting:

With winter on the way, a gentleman of the past would want to make sure he had a stout great coat to defy the elements. Great coats were considered an investment, a practical necessity rather than a fashion statement, and few remain in museum collections simply because they were worn until they wore out. Much like banyans, great coats were garments that men liked wearing. Numerous 18th c. Englishmen had their portraits painted in their great coats, such as shipbuilder and philanthropist Thomas Coram, left (last seen on this blog as the driving force behind the creation of the London Foundling Hospital.)

While great coats often turn up in fiction - especially on adventurous gentlemen who go striding off into the mist and across the moor – but we'll admit we were a little hazy about the finer details of what made a great coat, well, so great.

Fortunately, Tailor Mark Hutter of Colonial Williamsburg obliged us by showing us his handsome great coat, typical of styles from 1740-1770. Working from extant 18th c. examples as well as portraits, Mark made this double-breasted coat, right, from grey wool beaver cloth, a dense, fulled (think felted) fabric that is napped and pressed to resemble beaver fur. The cloth was thick to be wind-proof, and rain and snow would find it a challenge as well. Because this is an overcoat, the body is unlined. The buttons are covered with the same cloth, and the buttonholes are welted.

The wide collar is lined with velvet in a contrasting velvet, both for style and purpose. In the back view, left, Mark has buttoned the collar up high in front to protect his face. That wide collar, pointed in the back, is designed to tuck up beneath a gentleman's hat - quite an efficient way of keeping out the the wind around his ears, much like a modern parka's hood. Because this is such a loose-fitting garment, the pleats at the back of the neck are a stylish, functional way of absorbing all the necessary yardage.

The last photo, right, shows one of the more interesting (at least to us!) features of the coat. Those deep, buttoned cuffs aren't entirely for decoration. On a very cold night, they could be folded down over the hands for extra protection. Gentlemen riding in an unheated carriage could request their servants to go one step further, and button one cuff securely over the other, as Mark demonstrates here. The effect would be the same as an 18th c. lady's muff, and probably just as warm, too.

Many thanks to Mark Hutter, for his expertise and suggestions!

Top: detail of Captain Thomas Coram by William Hogarth, 1740, London Foundling Museum.


Emma J said...

I always think of these as "pirate coats." Am I right?

Jan said...

Love that portrait of Thomas Coram--got to see it up close and personal when I took a British painting class in London 20 years ago. Great job by Hogarth of both showing the character of his sitter and cocking a snook at some of the conventions of "great man" portraiture.

Colleen said...

Thank you for these pictures! There are lots of images of men's court dress on the internet for this period, but little in the way of everyday clothing. I'd venture that the wide velvet collar must be the ancestor of black velvet collars on Chesterfield style dress overcoats today.

Anonymous said...

Job well done, Mr. Hutter.

Charles Bazalgette said...

Emma J, you might mean a 'pilot coat' or paletot, but that wasn't a greatcoat. Just guessing.

The mention of beaver is interesting. I assumed that a beaver coat would have some beaver in it, though it couldn't be all beaver since that was too stiff, which is why it made good hats. What this is saying is that it was actually wool or a mixture, felted to look like a beaver texture. Perhaps Mr. Hutter could confirm this?

Keith said...

Excellent post, thank you.
Regards, Le Loup.

nightsmusic said...

I love a greatcoat and you're right, we rarely get to really see them. Thank you to Mr. Hutter for his modeling and information :)

I've been wearing the contemporary lady's equivalent for a long time now in an ankle length double breasted thick wool coat. I can understand why the greatcoat was so popular. They really are the warmest things.

Jane O said...

It doesn't just look cozy, it looks so practical! I want a coat like that.

Kate Dolan said...

I made a simple greatcoat for my husband based on the diagrams in Beth Gilgum's Tidings from the 18th Century. It was actually a fairly simple project and I am not a good seamstress by any means. The one I made doesn't look as nice of course but has the same properties. But I never thought about turning the cuffs down even though they naturally fall down a bit because the fabric is heavy and soft. Good to know! Of course, my husband never wears it - we only go to reeanctments once or twice a year and he just throws it on the bed as an extra blanket. Oh well...

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Emma J, I'm guessing you're thinking of pirate coats as in Capt. Jack Sparrow and the N.C.Wyeth illustrations - romanticized pirates. :) If so, yes, they do seem to wear great coat-like garments like this:

Jan, I love the Coram portrait, too. Hogarth's portraits are wonderful - much more revealing than fashionably flattering. You can tell that old Coram is a self-made man, and proud of it!

Colleen, you're welcome. I don't know for sure, but your guess about the velvet collar developing into a Chesterfield-style dresscoat sounds like a good one to me.

Anonymous, I agree - Mr. Hutter does beautiful work!

Charles, my notes say that the beaver cloth was all wool, brushed to look like beaver-fur. I also checked ever-reliable Florence Montgomery's "Textiles", and she, too, says beaver cloth is a woolen. Anyone else out there have a different opinion?

LeLoup, thank you!

Theo and Jane O, I completely agree that this would make a splendid, cozy coat for ladies, too.

Kate, it's one thing to look at pictures of historic clothes, but sometime actually seeing them worn is a real revelation. I hadn't realized the extra potential of those deep cuffs until Mark demonstrated, either. Now if you can just get your husband to wear it more so he can demonstrate, too....*g*

Unknown said...

Dear Loretta and Susan,
Great blog site. I love history too. I had to post a comment when I saw Mark Hutter's name. He is amazing. His work on the George Washington figures will be included in my new book titled The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon. I have a lot of respect for all those who reproduce historical clothing.

Carla Killough McClafferty

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

More on the wool beaver cloth - here's a link to the modern version of the fabric used for this great coat. Thank you, Angela, for bringing it to our attention!

Carla, always glad to hear from another author who sings the praises of Mark's talent and scholarship. :)

Charles said...

I went to the Burnley & Trowbridge FB and main site and they are very informative. Just wish I was close enough to attend the workshops! I discovered from the website what my gggggfr meant in his account when he wrote "dthead buttons" - I puzzled over this for ages but then I saw the term "Death Head Buttons", those rounded cloth-covered jobbies. Eureka!

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