Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Documentation and Reconstruction of a Hybrid Style Double Breasted Waistcoat in Striped Calamanco

I'm collaborating with a fine tailor, Patrick Eckelmann, on a new 18th century waistcoat project. What I have in mind is a hybrid waistcoat that features both single and double breasted elements. It will feature a wonderful historic textile known as striped calamanco that is virtually unrepresented in the reenacting community, and the garment when finished will be suitable for several 1760s-1770s impressions.

While double breasted waistcoats fully came into their own after 1780, they were by no means unknown in prior decades. Examination of NJ runaway descriptions from period newspapers in the decade between between 1768 and 1777 reveals quite a number of individuals who wore double breasted jackets, waistcoats and vests in a variety of fabrics, as the following excerpts illustrate:

“ [1768] a double breasted swanskin jacket with black spots, and brown mohair buttons”
“[1769] two striped jackets, one of which is double breasted, without sleeves”
“[1769] a blue and white homespun striped double breasted under jacket without sleeves”
“[1770] blue double breasted [jacket], without sleeves, or lining, metal buttons”
“[1771] two snuff coloured cloth jackets, the under one short, double breasted”
“[1772] a blue double breasted vest”
“[1772] a striped Bengal jacket, double breasted”
“[1772] a cotton and worsted double breasted jacket”
“[1773] lincey Woolsey [vest] , double breasted, of a reddish colour”
“[1773] a red vest without sleeves, double breasted”
“[1775] a light coloured new double breasted under jacket, of fulled lincey”
“[1777] a blue double breasted jacket”

Occasionally such descriptions also contain references to a distinctive cut or construction:

“[1773] double breasted [jacket] , the fore parts red nap, the back parts striped lincey”
“[1773] a short lightish double breasted under jacket with metal buttons and no skirts”
“[1774] a red frize waistcoat double breasted, with pewter buttons on one side and none on the other”

There are also references to waistcoats and jackets made with calamanco, including “a striped calamanco jacket” and “a calimancoe striped waistcoat, with a number of small buttons”: both worn by Irish servant runaways in 1773. Another runaway in 1776 wore "a sleeveless jacket, with the fore parts of red serge, the back parts calamanco”

During the second half of the 18th century, calamanco was a thin worsted fabric, often striped in multiple colors but sometimes also checked, damasked, or with a satin weave. Norwich, England was famous for it.

The striped calamanco cloth that I have located for this reconstruction is a 17" by 60" bolt of fabric made by Eaton Hill Textile Works, and is closely matched to an 18th century example. It has stripes in several widths and arrangements and features an astonishing eight colors, including red, pink, yellow, two shades of green, light brown, black and white.

There is considerable variation in style, construction and fabric in contemporary runaway descriptions to support a choice of striped calamanco for this waistcoat reconstruction, and also for utilizing a different fabric for the back parts if there is not enough calamanco material for the entire waistcoat. Likewise, while small buttons covered in the same fabric as the front waistcoat panels are an appropriate choice, there is enough variation in the button descriptions in these runaway descriptions to support other options.

Regarding the pattern of the waistcoat itself, while general trends in double breasted waistcoat construction are discernible from 1750 to 1780, there is far more variety in the available documentation than might at first be suspected, and there are still exceptions to every rule. One of the earliest contemporary images of a sailor wearing a double breasted waistcoat, for example is the sketch (at left) held in the collections of the National Maritime Museum (UK). The central figure is a Scottish Captain whose underjacket appears to have no skirts and has a narrow distance between the paired rows of buttons. This is thought quite typical of such waistcoats from the 1780s onward, yet this sketch is thought to date from about 1750.

A second portrait from the same time period (below, at left) shows a gentleman in hunting dress wearing a double breasted striped waistcoat. The subject was a Welshman and President of the Society of Sea Sergeants. His collared double breasted waistcoat with flap pockets and cutaway skirts has small self covered buttons, with a single, third button in the center to close the two bottom halves and perhaps one as well at the collar. The stripes in this case are lateral.

Gwynne’s waistcoat is an early example of a variation of the double breasted style dating from at least the 1750s. It is actually a hybrid with both single and double breasted elements. Typically one or more of the bottom buttons on such waistcoats were single breasted, with those above arranged in two, widely spaced double rows. This button configuration is similar to those found on regimental coats of the 1750s but usually these waistcoats are without lapels.

The hybrid waistcoat style seems to have been popular with

sporting gentlemen like Gwynne based on surviving portraits of the period, but there is variation even among these examples, with skirts of different cuts and lengths and different numbers of single buttons below the double rows. The example at right depicting a gentleman named Francis Burdett dates from 1762-1763 and is one of a series of portraits made of fellow members of the Markeaton Hunt during this time by portrait painter Joseph Wright of Derby. Burdett's waistcoat is typical of the rest worn by his hunting companions: a hybrid with long skirts that are either squared in the typical 1750s style or just slightly cutaway. It is unlined, with two self covered buttons that close the bottom of the waistcoat and a wide double row of small buttons above.

There is actually a surviving example of a hybrid waistcoat from the collections of Snowhill Manor in Gloucestershire that dates from the 1760s.

It is made of red, yellow, cream and blue silk, lined with natural linen, and fastens with small flat self covered buttons. The fore parts are striped while the back parts are solid. The skirts are shorter and appear to be more cut away in the fashion that became popular in the 1770s. The pocket flaps lack button closures.

Although the images below may be reversed, it appears that this double breasted waistcoat was designed to fasten over the left row of buttons rather than the right. The rows also curve slightly inward as they rise toward the center and then curve out again as the approach the shoulders. There are four small buttons that close the bottom, single breasted portion of the waistcoat, and one that closes the neck. It has false side vents and a true back vent.

This waistcoat provides the template for the major design elements of our hybrid waistcoat reconstruction:

· - The front panels will be vertically striped calamanco, while the back panels may be white
· - It will have two rows of 9 or 10 rather than 11 small self covered or thread covered
    buttons per row, arranged in a slight curve.
· - It will have at least three small buttons that close the bottom of the jacket front.
· - It will have short cutaway skirts
· - It will have two scalloped pockets without buttons and no collar.

Unlike this surviving example, the reconstructed hybrid waistcoat will be unlined, and it may either lack or include the top button to close the neck at the tailor’s discretion. Instead of silk and linen, it will be constructed of worsted calamanco and serge. It will not be reversible; that is, it will only button on one side, and it will button on the right rather than on the left.

When it is finished, this striped calamanco and serge hybrid waistcoat ought to work nicely for several of my historical impressions, including that of a 1760-1780 American merchant seaman, among whom striped waistcoats were a popular choice. I could see it working as part of my 1758 New Jersey Provincial Regiment impression as well, for no waistcoats were issued to this unit in that year and soldiers who had them would have likely worn civilian ones. It might likewise do for an early Revolutionary War American militia or even Continental Army impression, especially those units where a wide array of civilian coats were collected and distributed to soldiers. The greatest challenge may not be finding an appropriate, documented use for this 18th century garment, but reconciling its bold stripes and array of colors with the fashion sensibilities of our own era.

When it is ready, I will of course post pictures. I hope to have it available for this year's Boston Massacre. If so, look for me among the angry sailors.

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