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Pair of waistcoat shapes

  • Place of origin:

    France (made)

  • Date:

    1750-1759 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Silk, embroidered with silk

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 2, The Wolfson Gallery, case CA1 []

This extraordinary length of embroidered silk documents three important aspects of 18th-century dress: the high quality of French needlework, the sequence of decorating and sewing up waistcoats and the efforts to which the British went to acquire desirable French fashions.

To make an embroidered waistcoat, the needlework was done first on two lengths of fabric, one for the left front and the other for the right front. The lengths, known as waistcoat shapes, were purchased at a silk mercers or haberdashers, then taken to a tailor for making up into a waistcoat.

The stamp seen on the inside of the lower right edge reads ‘Custom House / SEIZED DOVER / GR II’, indicating that this is contraband – a French waistcoat shape apprehended during an attempt to smuggle it into England during the reign of George II (1727–60). For most of the 18th century, imported French silks and laces were taxed heavily, in order to protect British textile industries. Smuggling of these and other taxable goods was rife through all levels of society; customs officials at British ports searched very carefully and seized any contraband items. Articles confiscated in this manner were usually burned, so the survival of this beautiful but forbidden object is indeed remarkable.

Physical description

Pair of matching panels embroidered to shape to be made into a waistcoat. Each is a loom width, with pink striped selvedges, and roughly cut top and bottom edges.
On each the pattern for the waistcoat front is worked, with pocket flap. One panel has 12 worked buttonholes, uncut. The panels are of ivory ribbed silk, tamboured with silk in a pattern of rose buds in 3 shades of pink, with leaves and stems in shades of green and brown. There is also a twining outline to the edges of the decoration with pale blue and pink detailing.
Each panel has a customs stamp on the reverse.

Place of Origin

France (made)


1750-1759 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Silk, embroidered with silk

Marks and inscriptions

'Customs House / SEIZED DOVER / GR II'


Length: 860 mm, Width: 555 mm

Object history note

Purchased from Lawrence Antiques. No further provenance available.

Historical context note

Waistcoat panels worked like this were known as shapes in the 18th century. The areas of undecorated silk allowed the waistcoat to be cut and fitted to whatever size was required for the customer.

Descriptive line

Pair of waistcoat shapes of embroidered ribbed silk, France, 1750-1759

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

North, Susan. 'The Physical Manifestation of an Abstraction: A Pair of 1750s Waistcoat Shapes', Textile History, 39:1, May 2008, pp. 92-104

Labels and date

Waistcoat panel

Some silks were professionally embroidered in the shape of the intended garment, as with this waistcoat front. The tailor then cut and sewed the textile to fit his client. French silks were highly desirable and heavily taxed when imported to Britain. This silk was smuggled into Britain and seized by customs officials at Dover, who stamped it on the reverse.

Silk, embroidered with silk
Stamped ‘Customs House/Seized Dover/GR II’ [09/12/2015]




Hand weaving; Hand embroidery

Subjects depicted

Flowers, roses; Flowers


Textiles; Clothing; Embroidery; Europeana Fashion Project


Textiles and Fashion Collection

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