Tuesday, August 14, 2018

An 18thc Man's Waistcoat Becomes a 1950s Woman's Vest

Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Susan reporting,

In our time of fast-fashion and clothing that's made to be disposable, the exquisite clothing of the upper classes in 18thc Europe and America seems stunningly beautiful. Embroidery, embellishment with sequins and faux pearls, silk damasks so artfully woven that they defy modern reproductions: the Georgian era is one big delicious candy-box of precious textiles.

I'm not the only one to think this way, either. These textiles and clothes were so valued that they often had many lives, first being updated and remodeled repeatedly to fit the original owner, and then again by future generations as well. The amount of fabric and the construction (which could easily be unpicked) of most 18thc gowns made them ripe for refashioning. I've written about several of these recycled gowns before, including here, here, and here.

The clothing of 18thc gentlemen, while just as lavish as that worn by the ladies, seldom received the same treatment. This is not only because the men's coats, waistcoats, and breeches were fitted and tailored, providing little fabric for a new project, but also because after 1800 or so, men's clothing took a decidedly more somber turn. There was little interest among men in the 19thc or 20thc to refurbish a spangled pink velvet court suit (except, perhaps, by Liberace.)

But there's an exception to every rule, and the vest shown, left,  is the glorious proof.  It's currently on display in Fashion Unraveled, a wonderful exhibition at the Museum at FIT through November 17, 2018.

The vest began its clothing-life looking much like the men's waistcoat, right. Made in second half of the 18thc, both waistcoats feature professionally worked embroidery, placed to accentuate the wearer's taste and form. Sometime around 1950, however, a clever seamstress took one of these 18thc men's waistcoats, adapted it to a woman's figure, and created the vest.  Preserving the impact of the original embroidery, but shortening the length and adding the darts to create the close-fitting silhouette characteristic of the late 1940s-1950s, the vest would likely have been worn with a full skirt.

Don't know about you, but I'd wear either one (or both!) of these waistcoats now....

Left: Woman's Vest, remodeled c1950 in America, from an 18thc man's waistcoat. Museum at FIT. Photograph ©2018 Susan Holloway Scott.
Right: Man's Waistcoat, c1760-70. Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Cynthia Lambert said...

I'm too much of a purist to take apart a perfectly good 18th century garment. Horrors! But, since the woman who fashioned this vest did it, I have to admit that it is a beautiful thing. She must have looked wonderful in it, with a full skirt. A pity that style didn't last long enough for it to have gotten a lot of wear, but at least it still exists now, and I would totally rock a vest like that if I had it.

Regencyresearcher said...

Beautiful. I think that we have fewer men's clothes because the men wore them out or passed tem down to sons. Probably not the first time that a man's vest was repurposed for a female .
I think it marvelous that we have any garments of the past at all.

cheryl doyle said...

Any chance of these exhibits coming to Sarasota FL?

kay Moser said...

Truly appalling that anyone in the 1950's would cut up such a valuable heirloom! After all, unlike the people who re-purposed fabric in earlier centuries, this seamstress had access to thousands of bolts of embroidered fabric. I own an 18th century waistcoat and have taken every precaution to guarantee that future generations will be able to admire it and learn from it.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Kay Moser ~ I agree 100%!

But until quite recently, historical clothing wasn't recognized and appreciated as it is now. Even the most respected museums and collections would permit people to try on original garments "for fun," and there are numerous photo shoots of 20thc debutantes preening and posing in now-almost-priceless 18thc and 19thc gowns.

Although it makes me (and likely you) weep to consider it, 18thc clothing was routinely sold to 20thc decorators who would cut gowns and coats apart to make pillows and upholstery. This vest would date to around that period, and considering how so many other garments were completely destroyed, this is comparatively mild abuse. To me, the seamstress - and likely the woman who commissioned the vest - appreciated the workmanship in the original waistcoat, and tried to highlight it in their new version.

See this blog post about an 18thc dress that wasn't as fortunate: http://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/2016/11/the-tragedy-of-ex-dress-settee-c1760-80.html

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