Designer: Textile by Anna Maria Garthwaite (British, 1690–1763)
Manufacturer: Textile by Peter Lekeux (British, 1716–1768)
Medium: silk, wool, metallic
Credit Line: Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1966
Accession Number: C.I.66.14.2
The waistcoat first appeared in men's wardrobes toward the end of the 1660s. Initially referred to as a vest, it was intended as a practical garment to provide warmth and, along with a coat and breeches, it would become an essential component of the newly emerging three-piece suit. In England, King Charles II, known for his love of finery, popularized the suit, exploiting the waistcoat for its decorative possibilities. The garment soon became a focus of men's dress, often richly embellished and made from the finest materials worn with a plainer coat and breeches.
Expensive waistcoats such as the one pictured here were often woven or embroidered to shape. This involved the pattern being worked on a square of fabric into the shape of two waistcoat fronts and pocket flaps; these squares of fabric, known as patterns, were the form in which the waistcoat would be purchased. The design would then be cut out, lined, and made into the finished garment. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the parts of the waistcoat that were hidden beneath the coat were made from cheaper fabrics, such as linen, wool, or fustian, a mixture of cotton and linen.
By the 1720s, the waistcoat was evolving into a sleeveless garment and as the century wore on, it shrank in length from mid-thigh to waist level. In England, a matching waistcoat, coat, and breeches comprised the court suit, a very formal outfit worn for special occasions and attendance at the royal court, while in France it was more usual to wear a full matching suit for less formal occasions.
In 1739, the diarist Mrs. Delany recorded the dress of the male guests at the prince's birthday ball, noting "much finery, chiefly brown, with gold or silver embroidery, and rich waistcoats."