Extant Embroidered Jacobean Jackets

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!

English woman's jacket in undyed linen embroidered with silver and gilt-silver yarns and spangles in daffodil scroll pattern, trimmed with metallic lace.
English woman’s jacket in undyed linen embroidered with silver and gilt-silver yarns and spangles in daffodil scroll pattern, trimmed with metallic lace, c. 1610-1615 with later alterations, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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.

Margaret Layton Jacket, 1610-1615 (altered 1620), V&A Museum
Margaret Layton Jacket, 1610-1615 (altered 1620), V&A Museum

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
Margaret Layton Portrait, c. 1620, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
Margaret Layton Portrait, c. 1620, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

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!

Margaret Layton Jacket, 1610-1615 (altered 1620), V&A Museum, Detail
Margaret Layton Jacket, 1610-1615 (altered 1620), V&A Museum, Detail

Another jacket held by the V&A with a huge number of images is this loose fitting one from c.1590-1630.

Loose fitting linen jacket c.1590-1630, V&A Museum
Loose fitting linen jacket c.1590-1630, V&A Museum

“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
Loose fitting linen jacket c.1590-1630, V&A Museum, Detail
Loose fitting linen jacket c.1590-1630, V&A Museum, Detail

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.

Waistcoat, c.1610-1620, altered 1620s, V&A Museum
Waistcoat, c.1610-1620, altered 1620s, V&A Museum

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.

Waistcoat, 1600-1620, altered 1620s, V&A Museum
Waistcoat, 1600-1620, altered 1620s, V&A Museum

“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!

Slashing and Pinking

Pearls, spangles, laces, metallic thread, and embroidery, were all expensive in the Early Modern period (and still even today), and so decoration of clothing tended to be the preserve of the rich. While labour during the period was cheap, the materials needed were expensive, especially in the quantity needed to decorate sets of clothes. You can see the quantity of pearls and gold trim in the portrait below, all of which would have been incredibly expensive, and (naturally) beyond the reach of most of the middle classes.

Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon, c.1515

Likewise in the below portrait, while the time and labour involved in the vast quantity of embroidery would have been relatively cheap, the gold and silk threads would have been hugely expensive: unlike the plastic gold threads we have access to today, 16th Century gold thread generally consisted of gold (as in the metal) or silver gilt strips wrapped around a silk core.

Portrait of (possibly) Lady Dorothy Cary

However, a breakthrough in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries enabled far more people to decorate their clothes.

Landsknechte, etching by Daniel Hopfer, c. 1530

The origins of slashing and pinking are unknown, but there are various theories. Soldiers returning from the battlefield with slashed, torn clothes are possibly the origin of the fashion for making pointless cuts and holes in fabric. Other stories involve the Swiss army beating Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgandy, in 1476, stealing the clothes amongst his possessions, and patching the luxurious fabric onto their own in repairs, or (more mundanely) that soldiers cut slashes into their leather tunics to give more ease and manoeuvrability. Whatever the precise origin, it appears to have had military roots.

Landsknecht mercenaries with arquebuses (Tapestries of the Battle of Pavia by Bernard van Orley, between 1528 and 1531)
Landsknecht mercenaries with arquebuses (Tapestries of the Battle of Pavia by Bernard van Orley, between 1528 and 1531)

The thing that helped the trend to spread like wildfire, however, was its simplicity. It didn’t require any extra items to be bought for embellishment: it was embellishment in and of itself. It took nothing but time, and some very simple tools.

Pinking and buttonhole cutting set, The Tudor Tailor

Tailors used scissors anyway, and these could be used for large slashes, or to cut the fabric into strips. For smaller cuts, or more subtle designs, a chisel like tool, a hammer, and a block of wood covered in lead were used to make patterns. These slashes and holes in garments could then show another fabric beneath: just the lining, or (if you had more money) another, expensive fabric.

Lady Diana Cecil by William Larkin, (1614-18) (Ranger’s House, Suffolk Collection)

The fact that the chisels could be used over and over, create countless designs, and took only labour without requiring extra materials rendered this ever popular decorative technique available to the middling classes who had a little money to spend on fashion, not just practical clothes.

Above, you can see slashing on the clothes of some English ladies, a boy from Sienna, and a German lady. For the majority of middle class people who wanted to show off their money through their clothes, slashing and pinking were the way to go, along with applied cloth strips to serve as guards on the hems of skirts, since they served the triple purpose of being decorative, replaceable, and prolonging the life of the skirt.

16th Century German Tailor’s workshop

The majority of fashionable trends in the 16th century were localised, and relatively short lived. Pleated clothing, in Germany and the surrounding area, for example, never spread very far, and with the homogenisation of European fashion in the 18th Century, it died away.

Slashing and pinking, however, continued in popularity all the way through the Early Modern period and into the 19th Century, with women complaining in the 18th Century of careless men letting their swords catch on their dresses in the street, resulting in the tearing of their silk gown. It changed very little in essence and technique, though from the 18th Century onwards, circular holes made in fabrics as well as scalloped edges were far more common.

Despite these changes, slashing in its original form made a comeback in the Regency period on some dresses! While the 1790s-1820s are known for their neoclassical fashions, some dresses were also made to emulate the renaissance period, mixing the high Italian waistlines with slashed sleeve puffs and ruffly chemisettes.

A Brief History of the Fashion Magazine Part 1

In the 16th Century, communication was relatively slow and fashions changed equally slowly. They tended toward very specific regional styles: you can see in the above map that the countries around Germany favour lots of pleats, while the Dutch and Flemish have large, dark hoods, and the English women have fitted gowns that are open down the front. Headwear in particular is different all across the map.

Upper class fashion aimed to imitate the monarch, and monarchs were often the ones who imported new fashions through their marriages, or increased the extremes of fashions through their wealth. Part of the reason for such distinct styles was the fact that the printing press had only relatively recently been invented. Through the 16th Century, a few books appeared detailing patterns for tailors, but these retained the regional styles, and were very much aimed at tailors – not the general public.

Embroidery books did exist from the 1520s onwards, with different patterns for different styles of embroidery and (later) lace. These could be used by ladies undertaking domestic sewing for pleasure as well as professional embroiderers. The fact that the patterns within these books were much plagiarised led to some commonality in the embroidery and laces across Europe, but not clothing as a whole. At this point there was no concept of a fashion magazine.

Books with clothing illustrated in them certainly existed, but they served more as a way of showing differences in regional dress. Lucas van de Heere’s book is an example of this. The one major exception to books illustrating the differences between regional dress is the book of Matthaeus Schwarz of Augsburg, which detailed each and every set of clothes he ever bought (now published as the First Book of Fashion).

While Schwarz’s book was certainly accurate, since its whole purpose was to detail his clothes as he bought them across 40 years, books of costume showing the clothes of different countries relied on letters and accounts of travellers. Such descriptions of clothes were often lacking, and so the books tended to be somewhat less accurate. Compare the painting of an English woman from 1567 with the woodcut of an English lady! The foreign interpretation is radically different to the reality.

The silhouette is relatively accurate, but there have certainly been some creative liberties taken. The headdress is not something I’ve seen anywhere in mid 16th century fashion, and the hoops of the farthingale showing would only be accurate for late 15th century Spain. The partlet and small neck ruff seem reasonably, but the neckline of the gown is bizarre. The wrist ruffs with the cuffs seem an odd combination, and the muff hanging from her girdle is ridiculously small. The slashing on her bodice seems very large, but not impossible: I have seen similar slashing on slightly later bodices. All in all, it’s an image that seems to have been created by someone who didn’t know what they were looking at or (more likely) didn’t have anything to look at!

One notable exception to the lack of fashion magazines was in Italy. Printed images were produced showing hairstyles, and while the intention was to show the hair styles of different places, women would use them as inspiration for dressing their own hair. This is something we know thanks to a few lines in a play by Ben Johnson:

Philautia:…What, have you changed your head-tire?

Phantaste: Yes, faith, the other was near the common, it had no extraordinary grace; besides, I had worn it almost a day, in good troth.

Philautia: I’ll be swon, this is most excellent for the device, and rare; ’tis after the Italian print we looked on t’other night.

Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels, first acted in 1600. Philautia addresses her friend Phantaste (Act 2, scene 1)

Part 2: Louis XIV’s Bright Idea