FORMAL SUIT OF UNCUT VOIDED SILK VELVET
WITH EMBROIDERED SILK WAISTCOAT
Probably French, ca. 1790–1800
This elegant suit illustrates the shift in both the ideal masculine physique, influenced by classical antiquity, and the fashionable aesthetic that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century. For most of the period, full–skirted coats with sloping shoulders, wide sleeves and cuffs, long waistcoats, and loose breeches characterized men's suits; in the last decades of the century, a slimmer, more streamlined silhouette emerged. A close-fitting coat with high collar, cutaway fronts and narrow tails and sleeves, worn with a short waistcoat and tight breeches revealed and emphasized the shape of the male body. Concurrently, the increasing use of solid, often dark colors reflected the new sobriety in men's dress that manifested a scrupulous attention to cut and fit, rather than opulent display, that would become more pronounced during the nineteenth century.
The understated simplicity of this suit firmly eschews the ornate and colorful floral embroidery that had decorated men's formal wear since the late seventeenth century. The coat and breeches of uncut voided dark emerald-green silk velvet with a fine diamond pattern act as a foil to the ivory silk waistcoat embroidered with silver metal-wrapped thread in a restrained, neoclassical design of overlapping crescents and dots. The suit's cut and construction underscore the muscularity and youthful attenuation of the figure: the coat's curved fronts, lightly gathered sleeve heads and layer of quilted interior padding along the top of the shoulder and chest enhance the newly fashionable prominence of the upper body, while the high-cut breeches outline and lengthen the thighs. Only three of the coat's large self-fabric buttons are functional and it was probably left open—as was often the case—drawing attention to the contrasting waistcoat.
Wealthy clients who could afford to have their clothes custom-made relied on tailors' consummate skills to create a well-fitting suit. Strictly regulated by the guild system since the medieval period, tailoring was a highly specialized craft. The master tailor had the most important task of cutting out the costly fabric into subtly shaped pattern pieces without error or waste. Typical of eighteenth-century men's suits is the silk lining: each outer piece was sewn to a corresponding lining before being expertly stitched together.
This suit is a perfect exemplar of the changing concept of masculinity that emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century and the corollary notion that gender should be clearly delineated in dress.