I suppose it’s natural for any collector of old clothes to go through the pockets of a newly-purchased garment, in hopes of finding something of interest that the vendor may have overlooked. In almost 50 years of collecting men’s garments it has happened only a handful of times. Luckily I don’t buy the things hoping to find a Penny Black in them!
But although rare stamps, a Shakespearean manuscript or gold ingots don’t appear, I occasionally find ephemera that, for me as a dress and social historian, I find of absorbing interest. Sometimes it’ll be a hand-written note in a waistcoat, giving information that the garment was worn at a wedding, with the bridegroom’s name and the happy date. I even found a wedding tie once, neatly folded into the pocket. Another waistcoat proclaimed the fact that it was worn by an (indecipherable) lord at the coronation of George III (though the garment was older than that, and must have been his best waistcoat) or another I found which had an invitation to the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in it, lying in the pocket in the dark since 1852. Little bits of forgotten ephemera can take the form of a humble train ticket, and one wonders why it is still in the man’s ticket pocket, 130 years after he completed his journey (on a long-defunct railway line in the age of steam).
Sometimes my interest can be found by what is on the outside of the pocket, as shown in some of these pictures (which, by the way, are all Georgian and in the Wallis Collection). I have a couple of 18thc waistcoats with painted details, mixed in with the more typical embroidery – a fashion in the last quarter of the century. You’ll notice that one of the waistcoats (light blue, bought in France, embroidered in chain stitch) has been altered when the fashion changed about a decade later. Originating in the 1770’s, this garment would have been cut with the typical ‘W’ shape at the lower waist, be collarless and bearing the typical 3-pointed pocket flaps.
When the fashion for straight-cut, so-called ‘Newmarket’ waistcoats, sporting lapels and then standing collars, came in, these called for welted pockets, without flaps. A man’s waistcoat changed beyond all recognition over the last twenty years of the 18th century. Now obviously the poor French chap couldn’t afford a new waistcoat, so hired a tailor (and not an expert one, by the look of it – the pocket details are a shambles) to bring his best one up to the mode! There’s a whole wealth of human interest in such alterations. How did the man feel when the work was done, on the eve of the Revolution? Did he hope to fool people by this sleight-of-hand?
Other stories are clearly happy ones (or so one hopes). A pair of pocket flaps on a Spanish vest is embroidered with silver hearts and glistening paste ‘jewels’, made doubtless for a wedding, whilst another carries all sorts of mysterious meaning – it carries braided brown human hair couched onto the pocket flap! This example is unique in my experience, and was actually spotted by Auburn Claire Lucas – an ex-tailor in Savile Row and now studying at the Royal School of Needlework – when she spent a day examining my pocket flaps (!) and noticed, with her keen eye, what I had overlooked. What on earth is human hair doing on a pair of waistcoat pocket flaps?
I’m very familiar with mourning jewellery and have several Victorian watch guards and tie pins, as well as snuff boxes containing coiled human hair… freaky enough for us these days, but on a garment? Never seen the like…
Because I have been travelling a lot on business recently, and am set to do so for much of the rest of the year, on and off, I haven’t had time to open the Wallis Collection in any detail (for which I apologise), hence this rather brief foray into the arcane world of waistcoat pockets.
These are photographs of some of the 300 antique waistcoats in the Wallis Collection – please do share, comment, and ask any questions – and enjoy perusing their beauty!