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March 26, 2008

Gilded Gentry

Posted in: Ensembles

Coat and Waistcoat

Coat and Waistcoat, ca. 1730. Probably British. Coat: red wool broadcloth with gilt thread and sequin embroidery; waistcoat: white silk satin with gilt thread and sequin embroidery. Isabel Shults Fund, 2004 (2004.411a, b).

In the eighteenth century men’s formal and court attire expressed, in forms only slightly less constrained than the womenswear of the period, a lavishness that was notable for the elegance of its finish and the finesse of its application of artisanal techniques. The elite of Western Europe and the Americas emulated styles originating in France since the time of Louis XIV. This coat, with its flaring peplum, or skirt, is a persistent silhouette favored at the end of the Sun King’s reign that continued in modified form until the last years of Louis XV.

It is likely that the ensemble’s breeches, which have not survived, would have matched the coat. The use of red wool broadcloth for such a formal ensemble is unusual but indicates the provenance as British. From the mid-eighteenth century, wool became symbolic of British civility and freedom and was adopted as a fashionable fabric by such notable Anglophiles as Voltaire.

The coat’s elaborate gilt and spangled embroidery in a scrolling plume pattern is repeated, though scaled down, on the satin waistcoat’s front. The embroidery is done à la disposition—on the panel of fabric before it is cut. The feather motif reappears much later in the Napoleonic era executed in dense gold bullion embroidery on formal military dress.

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