Pair of Waistcoat Shapes thumbnail 1
Pair of Waistcoat Shapes thumbnail 2
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Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Europe 1600-1815, Room 2, The Wolfson Gallery

This object consists of 2 parts, some of which may be located elsewhere.

Pair of Waistcoat Shapes

1750-1759 (made)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

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.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Parts
This object consists of 2 parts.

  • Waistcoat Shape
  • Waistcoat Shape
Materials and Techniques
Silk; hand-woven, tamboured
Brief Description
Pair of shapes for a man's waistcoat, France, 1750-1759; ivory silk taffeta tamboured with pink roses
Physical Description
Pair of waistcoat shapes for a man’s waistcoat, each a loom-width of ivory silk taffeta, tamboured in silk floss in shades of pink and green in a pattern of roses. Each shape outlines a curving neckline, shaped pocket and pocket flap and skirts reaching to the mid-thigh. Along the left front are 12 rectangles for the buttonholes. Each shape has a British customs’ seizure stamp on the reverse.

Dimensions
  • T.12 a 1981 length: 860mm
  • T.12 a 1981 width: 555mm
  • T.12 1981 length: 87.5cm (approx)
  • T.12 1981 width: 55.0cm (approx)
Measured by Conservation
Marks and Inscriptions
'Customs House / SEIZED DOVER / GR II' (Stamped in black ink on reverse of each part)
Gallery Label
Waistcoat panel 1750–60 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. France Silk, embroidered with silk Stamped ‘Customs House/Seized Dover/GR II’(09/12/2015)
Object history
Purchased from Lawrence Antiques. No further provenance available.
Historical context
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.
Subjects depicted
Summary
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.
Bibliographic References
  • North, Susan. 'The Physical Manifestation of an Abstraction: A Pair of 1750s Waistcoat Shapes', Textile History, 39:1, May 2008, pp. 92-104
  • Silk: Fibre, Fabric and Fashion, edited by Lesley Ellis Miller and Ana Cabrera Lafuente with Claire Allen-Johnstone, Thames and Hudson Ltd. in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom, 2021, pp. 386-387
Collection
Accession Number
T.12&A-1981

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record createdOctober 25, 2005
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