An eighteenth century woman’s waistcoat of American origin from the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia is described in this paper, with a scaled diagram of its cut and construction, and an attempt is made to place it in its proper context.
The subject of eighteenth century women’s upper body garments is one of the most vexing for costume historians and replicators. Part of the difficulty is that of semantics and categories. The distinction between underwear and outerwear as it is understood today had no meaning in the eighteenth century. At the lowest levels of society, a working woman might shed her "outer layer", her gown or jacket, while doing heavy work, and work in her shift, stays and petticoat, permitting her stays, which we would consider "underwear", to be seen as the outermost layer.1 At the highest levels of society, European women’s court costume featured a fully boned corset bodice, the habit de cour2, worn as the outermost visible layer. Eighteenth century society perceived no incongruity in either case, as these garments were not thought of as "underwear" in our terms. What was "permissible in public" depended on the woman’s social status, what activity she was engaged in, what kind of "public" space she was in, and by whom she expected to be seen, among other parameters.
The term "waistcoat", as used in period sources in reference to women’s clothing, indicates a garment which is usually but not necessarily sleeveless, has basques below the waist, is worn under a gown but is not a support garment. These waistcoats, at least the surviving examples, were generally quilted and sometimes highly decorative, but probably were not seen by others except in intimate privacy.
This verse, written by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1716, captures the spirit of the kind of intimate moment in which a woman’s quilted waistcoat might be visible.
English and Anglo-American women wore such waistcoats throughout the eighteenth century, although surviving extant examples tend to be early eighteenth century in date. Anne Buck illustrated a white silk quilted waistcoat with concealed front lacing in Dress in Eighteenth Century England, although regrettably she gave no date nor provenance for it.5
In the exhibit An Elegant Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an example was shown (#62), which was described as "English, circa 1700-1710". It was of white linen with corded quilting.6
The Revolution in Fashion exhibit at the Kyoto Museum included two waistcoats, both referred to as "jumps". They were both described as English and "early eighteenth century". One is of white linen with polychrome silk embroidery, the other of quilted white linen. This second one is very similar to the Atwater Kent example described in this paper, except that it has ties at the shoulder.7
The Snowshill collection contains one example, described by Nancy Bradfield as "eighteenth century…an early example". It is white linen quilted in white silk thread with cording in the quilting.8
Colonial Williamsburg owns an example of a related garment. It is described as "Europe, first half of eighteenth century".9 Fine white cotton with corded quilting, it appears to be a quilted waistcoat like the ones described above. However it differs in significant ways. The Williamsburg piece has light boning, like a pair of jumps. It also has eyelet holes at the armscyes, suggesting it once had detachable sleeves, and at the waistline, which has been altered, it has something between basques and tabs.
While examples of eighteenth century women’s waistcoats survive, contemporary pictorial images of them, in engravings and paintings, do not. This is perhaps due to their function as garments worn occasionally for warmth, but probably more due to their nature as garments glimpsed briefly or in privacy. Among the rare images which depict eighteenth century women’s waistcoats are a few by the French artist Jean Baptiste Greuze. He painted a series of idealized, lush young women in various stages of undress. The garments they are wearing are not always clearly delineated, however one painting in particular, "Girl in Underwear" circa 1775, from a private collection10, shows a young woman in an unboned sleeveless white body garment strongly suggesting a quilted waistcoat. It is worn suggestively too tight, but as much as can be seen in a painting, it appears to be quilted, cut with basques, and tied in front with three or four pairs of tape ties. In short, it appears to very much resemble the Atwater Kent waistcoat.
The Atwater Kent Museum’s example of a woman’s quilted waistcoat is depicted below as a graphed pattern. It was acquired as part of a large lot of textile objects donated by the Friends Historical Association. The Atwater Kent Museum was founded in 1931 as a Philadelphia history museum. The museum collects objects related to or made in Philadelphia from the past 300 years. Its costume collection contains over 3,000 articles of clothing and accessories from as early as the mid eighteenth century, with approximately 1,000 from the Friends Historical Association. The Atwater Kent collection depends on objects donated by the public and therefore represents the life of the ordinary people of Philadelphia.
The Friends Historical Association was founded in Philadelphia in 1873, with its primary focus on archival and documentary material relating to the history of Quakers in the greater Philadelphia area. However in 1907, the noted Quaker costume historian Amelia Gummere published a request in the Bulletin of the Friends Historical Association soliciting donations of examples of early needlework. The clothing and textile collection is believed to have grown from that request and represents family pieces donated by members of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. This collection was deposited at the Atwater Kent Museum for custodial care in 1941 and was formally acquired by the museum in 1987. The Friends Historical Association continues to solicit objects, which become part of the Atwater Kent collection.
Although no owner’s name remains connected with this woman’s waistcoat, based on the nature of the collection of which it is part, it may be assumed to have been worn by a Quaker woman of the greater Philadelphia area. Stylistically, it is datable only by the floral motifs in the quilting design, which resemble those of dated mid eighteenth century quilted petticoats11, so it may therefore be assigned to a date range circa 1740-80.
Even in the absence of a provenance or owner history, this garment can tell us some things about itself by an examination of its construction methods. It is made from an off white linen twill, woven two-over-two at 62 threads per inch, lined in the same fabric. It is quilted in white linen thread in pineapple and floral motifs, with the background quilted in parallel diagonal lines roughly 1/4" apart, stitched in running stitches at nine or ten stitches to the inch. Its wadding or batting layer cannot be seen and remains an unidentified fiber. After the quilting was completed, the side and center back seams were sewn and all edges bound with off white linen twill tape 3/8" wide. This tape extends at the center front neckline to form ties. Other ties made of 1/4" wide twill tape are attached along the center front edges.
A close examination of its construction reveals by the extra width in the seam allowances that after the waistcoat was quilted, its fit was adjusted before the tape binding was put on to finish it. Men’s embroidered waistcoats and other embellished garments were often worked by a professional needleworker as a flat panel which was then sold, the purchaser having the garment sized to fit by the tailor or seamstress.12 It is possible that this garment was similarly professionally quilted, sold, and made up to fit its destined wearer. However, despite the quality of the workmanship, the unsophisticated nature of the quilting motifs suggests that it is more likely that this piece was the work of an amateur.
Another interpretation is that the garment was once larger and has been remade to fit a smaller figure. This is unlikely, as the tape used to bind it is all of one kind and shows none of the telltale signs of having been unpicked and reused. There are also no traces of earlier stitching at the side and center back seams to suggest that they have been redone.
The most likely interpretation is that in the drafting of the quilting design, allowance was made for the uncertainties of how much the quilting process would pull in the fabric. More ease was built in than proved to be necessary, and the extra amount was incorporated into the seam allowances.
This quilted waistcoat was, as already stated, neither underwear nor outerwear but something in between. It was probably never intended to be seen in public; its quilting was done for strength and warmth rather than for show. The decorative elements, quilted in white on white, are subtle, almost invisible, intended probably more to gratify the wearer than to be admired by others. With regard to both its dating and its use, all conclusions remain provisional, as no in-depth study of these garments has yet been undertaken and further research is obviously needed. However, given the collecting history of the Friends Historical Association which originally acquired it, this garment may be safely assumed to be American, of Quaker provenance, and from the mid-Atlantic region.
This waistcoat is a surviving example of a once common garment. It belongs to a class of eighteenth century garments for which we have no modern analog, mundane and practical on the one hand, but intimate and vaguely erotic on the other. Due precisely to the double meaning they carried, these mundane but intimate objects were poorly documented in eighteenth century pictorial and literary sources. Thus we are left with little information on which to base an understanding of how these garments were thought of and how and when they were worn. The Atwater Kent Museum woman’s waistcoat, probably homemade, held a meaning for its maker and wearer about which we can only speculate. The intimate association these waistcoats appear to have held is the very thing that remains elusive to us today. The attitudes toward, and settings for, wearing such a garment remain a subject for debate. The object however survives as evidence of the making and wearing of quilted waistcoats by American women. It remains now, as it was then, a practical garment with an elusive suggestion of intimacy.
3. For a discussion of the display/concealment of women’s pockets, see Van de Krol, Yolanda, "Ty’ed About My Middle Next To My Smock, Women’s 18th Century Pockets", presented at Tidy’s Symposium, Eighteenth Century Women’s Working Dress", University of Delaware, April 5, 1997, published proceedings, pp.13-16. See also Burnston, Sharon Ann "What’s in a Pocket?", Historic New England, v. 1 #4, Spring 2001, pp. 6-8
10. Greuze, Jean Baptiste, "Girl in Underwear",
can be seen at: http://marquise.de/1700/pics/1775_1.shtml
© Sharon Ann Burnston 2001
Sally Queen & Associates