A garment of which there are huge numbers of surviving examples, as well as painted depictions, is the late 16th century – early 17th century woman’s waistcoat or jacket. Such garments seem to be almost entirely English, and their survival is perhaps mainly thanks to their small size and intricate embroidery. It’s not very easy to cut them down and turn them into anything else!
Such garments were informal wear for noble women, while the gentry considered them formal wear. Decoration varied from simple wool embroidery on fustian to metallic threads on linen or silk, complete with hundreds of metal spangles.
Possibly the most famous jacket is the Margaret Layton one, since not only does the jacket still exist, so does a portrait of it being worn! Such a survival is rare for something for so old, and it gives valuable insight into how such garments were worn.
“The waistcoat has long, tight sleeves, narrow shoulder wings, semi-circular cuffs and a small curved collar at the back neck, dating it to about 1610. Made of linen, it is hand sewn and lined with coral silk taffeta. Originally the jacket was fastened with pink silk ribbons. In the 1620s, an edging of spangled silver-gilt bobbin lace was added. Fragments remain of the original silk ribbons used for fastening. The waistcoat is embroidered in detached buttonhole, stem, plaited braid, chain, couching and dot stitches, with knots and speckling, with coloured silk threads, silver-gilt threads and spangles.”V&A Museum
The jacket had the lace added in the 1620s, but as fashion was changing, waistlines had risen. Rather than further alter the jacket drastically, Margaret Layton instead wore her petticoat higher up over the jacket, hiding its lower waistline.
For more pictures of the jacket, see its page on the V&A website. There are nearly 100 detailed pictures of the embroidery and construction!
Another jacket held by the V&A with a huge number of images is this loose fitting one from c.1590-1630.
“This simple unlined jacket represents an informal style of clothing worn by women in the early 17th century. Unlike more fitted waistcoats, this loose, unshaped jacket may have been worn during pregnancy. A repeating pattern of curving scrolls covers the linen from which spring sweet peas, oak leaves, acorns, columbine, lilies, pansies, borage, hawthorn, strawberries and honeysuckle embroidered in coloured silks, silver and silver-gilt threads. The embroidery stitches include chain, stem, satin, dot and double-plait stitch, as well as knots and couching of the metal threads. Sleeves and sides are embroidered together with an insertion stitch in two shades of green instead of a conventionally sewn seam.
Although exquisitely worked, this jacket is crudely cut from a single layer of linen, indicating the work of a seamstress or embroiderer, someone without a tailor’s training. It has no cuffs, collar or lining, and the sleeves are cut in one piece. The jacket was later altered to fit a thinner person. The sleeves were taken off, the armholes re-shaped, the sides cut down, and the sleeves set in again.”V&A Museum
Unlike many other extant jackets, it is embroidered entirely in silk, without the use of metallic threads or spangles that are so visible on so many of the others. The fact that it survives while still being so loose fitting is also interesting, since it wouldn’t have been difficult to cut it down into on of the more fashionable jackets of the later 1630s.
One jacket that has been cut down and altered is this one.
The neckline has been cut down, cutting into the embroidery, probably so that it could be worn as a masque costume. The sides have been taken in, and the armscyes made smaller by adding pieces to them. It doesn’t seem to be a particularly skilled job, but since masques tended to take place in the evening, in candle light, it is unlikely that anyone would have noticed!
A jacket that was also altered for a masque (though in a very different way!) is also held by the V&A.
“Four pieces forming a woman’s waistcoat made of bleached linen and embroidered with coloured silks, silver and silver-gilt filé and spangles. The pattern of the embroidery comprises a lattice of geometric strapwork in plaited braid stitch with threads. Worked inside the strapwork compartments are flowers, fruits and leaves in coloured silks in detached buttonhole stitch. The grapes are similarly worked, but raised for a three-dimensional effect.
The waistcoat was probably altered in the 1620s to wear as masque costume. The fronts were removed, shortened and new gores added, then sewn to new silk backs (not meant to be seen when worn) The waistcoat probably had a scattering of silver-gilt spangles. Many more, each topped with a glass bead, were added, filling the linen ground and almost obscuring the pattern of the embroidery…
…The British philosopher and writer Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote an essay, ‘Of Masques and Triumphs’, in 1594, advising on the colours and decorations most effective for masque costume. He recommended spangles, ‘as they are of no great cost, so they are of most glory. As for rich embroidery, it is lost, and not discerned.’”V&A Museum
On that note, I think I’ll just present you with a collection of some of the other beautiful embroidered jackets still in existence!