Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Accessories: Head to Toe": Buckles & Buttons for an 18th c. Gentleman, plus Shoemaker Secrets

Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Susan reporting:

More from Accessories: Head to Toe, a symposium hosted by Colonial Williamsburg March 12-16, 2011.

Mark Hutter, journeyman tailor, CW, is a familiar face here at the TNHG (we last saw him wearing a gentleman's great coat), and we're always eager to hear what he has to say. With an intriguing topic -Dressed to the Hilt: The Production & Consumption of Men's Accessories in the 18th Century - Mark and fellow-speaker Erik Goldstein, curator, mechanical arts & numismatics, CW, quickly jumped right in by comparing the contents of a modern man's pockets with those of an 18th c. gentleman. They were surprisingly similar, too. As our Georgian representative, Mark emptied his pockets of keys, coins, gloves, handkerchief, wallet, pocket day-book, spectacles, clasp knife, corkscrew, and snuffbox (well, almost the same.)

But in addition to all these small, portable objects, an 18th c. gentleman's accessories included his hat, stockings, shoes, walking stick, stock, wig, fob, and sword. Also in this category were the fastenings to his clothes, the buckles and buttons that made major fashion-statements in their own right. While we modern folk tend to focus on the handmade aspects of Georgian dress, Mark and Erik stressed that 18th c. fashion was already reflecting a global economy, with raw materials and complicated manufactures crossing back and forth between North America, Europe, and Asia.

Georgian fashion also inspired the development of new technology. A pair of gentleman's velvet breeches like the ones top left could have fifteen buttons, while the matching coat and waistcoat could have forty more. (Be sure to click on the images to enlarge them and see the tiny flowers printed on the velvet.) Style demanded that the buttons be elaborately designed and reflective, and new machines were invented that would stamp, cut, polish, and otherwise produce fancy buttons like the ones lower left. Included here are buttons made of steel, copper, brass, fused silverplate, pewter, white metal, mother of pearl, paste stones, and gilding. The buckles with paste stones that fastened the bands at the knee of the breeches, middle left, also required more invention, as did the ornate ribbon on the tab, woven of metallic threads: an elegant, glittering male made possible by the Industrial Revolution.

Changes in technology were also much of the message from D.A.Saguto, master boot and shoemaker, CW, whose topic was From Medieval to Machine Age – A Revolution in Shoemaking. For hundreds of years, shoemaking has been a trade where division of labor flourished, with even small shops employing multiple workers to complete specialized steps in the construction process. When fashion demanded changes like higher heels or buckle closures, shoemakers were forced to meet the double challenge of creating new styles that could be produced as quickly and cheaply as possible.

One fascinating example: before the 17th c., shoes were made with a left and right shoe. Straight last shoes (both shoes in the pair being the same) were part of the movement towards classical symmetry in fashion. But they also reflected a cost-cutting measure for the shoemakers. Varying heel heights were coming into fashion, with each kind of heel requiring a different wooden last (the form the shoe was created upon.) Straight last shoes required only one new wooden last rather than a pair, and at once the shoemaker's expense was cut in half – or at least until the 1790s, when left and right shoes returned to style.

But the biggest shift in technology came in the 19th c. with the advent of sewing machines able to stitch through shoe leather. The shoemaker's skill-set dramatically switched from an artisan's to those of a machine operator, with shoes made by the million in factories in England and America. But even that technological pride has been (relatively) short lived. Al Sagudo ended his talk with a most sobering statistic: fewer than 1% of the shoes sold in America today are actually made here. The globalization of fashion, indeed.

Read here for more about traditional shoemaking at Colonial Williamsburg.

Top & middle: Men's Breeches to a Three-Piece Suit, England or Europe, worn in Virginia, 1760-80, silk velvet, linen, linen/cotton, and leather linings, silver metallic buttons & knee bands.
Lower left: Nine Men's Suit Buttons, England & Europe, 1750-1800
Lower right: Women's Shoes, England, 1730-1750, silk brocaded with silver gilt, lined with linen & silk, leather soles, wooden heels. Shoe Buckles, England, 1745-1775, Silver, paste, steel.
All above from the collections of Colonial Williamsburg.


Anonymous said...

So glad you are having a great time. I can't imagine how you decide what to post on, there much be so much information to take in and items to see. My head would be spinning for sure.
I do thank you for the shoe picture and info. I love the shoes of the period.

Vic said...

I am so sad to be missing this symposium, as it is relatively close to home. But, I am enjoying it vicariously through your blog! Thanks for the info. Vic

Anonymous said...

Everyone always wants to know where the pockets were in the garments. I have had people argue vehemently that there are no pockets in breches.
Thanks for these wonderful reports.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Rebecca, it's EXTREMELY hard to digest the talks - so much information! I could blog for weeks on this symposium (though don't worry, I won't :)

Vic, I was wondering if you'd be here. Perhaps we'll meet one another on some future visit.

Anonymous, since this is a question that's often asked, I asked Mark Hutter your question earlier today. Easier to answer with a photo - so I'm going to put up a mini-post about breeches shortly. Stay tuned....

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful capsule of time these clothes reflect. It does not take much to see the person or persons who they might have been made for The Buttons are truly fabulous. Are they all salvaged or can buttons like these be bought?

Anonymous said...

It looks like you got a GW mourning button. Check out this link:


Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

It does indeed look like the GW mourning button in your look. Good eyes! (and I'm so glad that readers actually DO click on the photos to enlarge them!)

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