Friday 24 January 2014

Eighteenth century white waistcoats

Front view
The pictures shown here are of a white waistcoat in Banbury Museum which dates to 1710 to 1720. Most people thinking of eighteenth century waistcoats think of those that appear in portraits and match the coat, or of the highly embroidered variety that are often on display in museums. White waistcoats were often worn for informal wear or, especially if made of flannel and/or completely unadorned, as under waistcoats. They rarely appear in paintings, though Mr Andrews may be wearing one in Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews of 1748-9.

Detail of embroidery

Anne Buck quotes Lord Chesterfield as writing in a letter in 1764, “I have the warmest sense of your kindness in providing my old and chilled carcase with such a quantity of flannel. I have cut my waistcoats according to my cloth, and they come half way down my thigh.” The habit continued through the century for in 1797 Parson James Woodforde recorded in his diary that at the age of fifty seven he had, “put on a flannel underwaistcoat for the first time in my life.”  (1)

The linen embroidered versions of these waistcoats survive in some numbers. Heather Toomer examines six in detail in her book. (2)
Detail of placket fastening

The example shown here in the Banbury Museum they have dated to 1710-1720. At some point it has been altered to make it larger by the addition of a strip at the side back. The front has buttons and buttonholes hidden by a placket.

Some other extant white waistcoats

1720 A sleeved waistcoat with cord quilting is in the Museum of London. It is described with a photograph by Zillah Halls (2), however it cannot be found using the museum’s online search function.

Two waistcoats, 1730-40, altered around 1750-65, and a boy’s cotton waistcoat which appears to have been cut down from a larger waistcoat are in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg, and are examined by Baumgarten. (4)

Plain rear view with insertion
c.1740 A sleeved waistcoat in the Met Museum New York. Linen embroidered with a centre panel either side of the front. This is a short waistcoat, only 26 and a half inches long, and has no pockets.

c.1740 A waistcoat in linen embroidered completely across the front, in the Met Museum, New York. The lining is pale blue silk, and the buttons are worked thread like Dorset buttons.

1744 waistcoat in the Victoria and Albert Museum  The V&A consider this may have been made for a wedding as in one corner it bears the initials PB and AB and the date 1744. The photograph on the website shows a detail of the embroidery and not the whole waistcoat, it is the image that appears in Hart and North. (4)

1760s waistcoat in the Los Angeles Museum in the Los Angeles Museum

1790s waistcoat in the Powerhouse Museum Sydney  


1. Buck, Anne. Dress in eighteenth century England. London : Batsford, 1979.

2. Toomer, Heather. Embroidered with white: the 18th century fashion for Dresden lace and other whiteworked accessories. 2008. 9780954273026.

3. Halls, Zillah. Men's costume 1580-1750. London : HMSO for the London Museum, 1970.

4. Baumgarten, Linda. What clothes reveal: the language of clothing in colonial and federal America. Williamsburg : Colonial Williamburg Foundation, 2002.

5. Hart, Avril and North, Susan. Historical fashion in detail: the 17th and 18th centuries. London : Victoria and Albert Museum, 1998.

6. Cunnington, C. W and P. Handbook of English costume in the eighteenth century. Rev. . London : Faber, 1972.

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