18th Century, Textiles & Costume

The 18th century man’s suit at the Honolulu Museum of Art

One of the most glorious pieces I got to see at the Honolulu Museum of Art  was a formal 18th century man’s suit, complete with breeches, waistcoat and coat.  I suspect the outfit is French, and dates from about 1760, but menswear isn’t my area of expertise, so if you have a better idea, please let me know!

The coat is of a three-dimensional pile fabric, probably a type of cisele velvet, with wine coloured velvet areas surrounding indented corded rectangles in muted gold.  This type of fabric seems to have been very common in mid-late 18th century menswear.  There is a similar but slightly later jacket here, an earlier jacket and waistcoat at the LACMA,  another full suit at LAD, and a suit with a slightly confused dating was sold by Augusta Auctions in 2011.

The embroidery is worked mainly in satin stitch with highlights in stem stitch and french knots.  The silk embroidery threads are in shades of pale green, pale peach pink, sky blue, cream, aqua & yellow.  It features roses, cornflowers, and sprays of white flowers that I haven’t identified.

Embroidery on the coat

Sprays of flowers & a leaf garland

Embroidered buttons on the coat

Pink roses

Embroidery around the shoulder and collar

An embroidered button

The embroidered pocket flaps and peek of buttons

Embroidery around the pleated back panels of the coat skirt

The embroidery at the top of the pleated coat skirt panels

The inside of the coat is lined in a combination of ivory silk-satin (the same fabric as the waistcoat), and a mix of linen fabrics.  Some of the interior stitching is rather rough: the focus was clearly on making the outside of the coat look beautiful – the inside would never be seen.

Rough stitching holding down the back pleats of the coat skirt

The stitched down pleats of the coat skirt

The join of the silk lined coat body, and linen-lined sleeves

The breeches are made of the same fabric as the coat.  They feature a flap-front closure – usually the sign of an earlier garment, or one made for an older, more conservative man.  After 1775 single placket breeches with a closure similar to modern button-front pants became more common.

The flap-fronted breeches

The button-front flap opening

The cuffs of the breeches are decorated with a simple form of the coat embroidery.

The embroidered cuffs of the breeches

The buttons that fasten the cuffs of the breeches

A glimpse of the velvet selvedge in the cuffs of the breeches

The breeches are the only part of the outfit that show obvious signs of later alterations.  A triangle of heavy silk has been added to the centre back of the breeches, making the breeches larger and covering the earlier fastenings which would have closed the back of the breeches.  The addition is quite roughly done.  Silver buttons, probably to fasten to suspenders, have also been added to the breeches.

The back of the breeches with the triangular gore

The fabric used, and the techniques used to make the alteration, both point to a late Victorian alteration.  The breeches were probably adapted either for fancy dress wear, or for theatre use.  A number of items in the Honolulu Museum of Art were given by local theatre groups.

The gore sewn over the back of the breech fastening

The original tabs of the breeches, and the black silk sewn over the metal clasps the tabs would have attached to.

The waistcoat of the suit is made of ivory silk satin – lighter, softer & more supple than a modern duchesse satin, but much heavier than a silk charmeuse.  It’s a very similar weight to most of my silk obi, or to the ivory satin I used for my tea gown.

The waistcoat

The embroidery on the waistcoat coordinates with that on the jacket and breeches, but it isn’t the same embroidery.  The shades of green and pink anre similar, but there are more shades of pink, additional touches of brown, there is no blue, and the flowers are much more stylized.  The rounded, controlled roses provide a nice counterpoint to the more flowing, naturalistic embroidery on the coat.

The embroidery on the waistcoat

The embroidery on the waistcoat pockets

Embroidered flower sprays and buttons

The hand-worked buttonholes, done after the embroidery was finished

Like the coat, the waistcoat is a mix of silk and linen.

Silk meets linen in the interior of the waistcoat

I took some images of the hand-stitching for reference in my own sewing.

Whip stitching around the collar

Whip stitching and running or back-stitch around the collar

Whip stitching and running or back-stitch around the collar


  1. Lynne says

    What a Friday treat! That was just brilliant. All those splendid close-ups – I really love to be able to see the stitches.

    That was better than chocolate!

  2. Cornelia Moore says

    it is lucious. my only dislike is the rough work in the alterations, the rest is so beautiful. I’d wear something with this kind of embroidery, just to show it off.

    • Demented Seamstress says

      The alterations do make the breeches look odd, but it’s not as bad as some of the other things the Victorians did to 18th century clothing. Shortening the hems of gowns, changing the trim, adding bust darts. I shudder to think about it.

  3. Gosh it’s so beautiful. It’s amazing too that men used to wear clothes like that by choice!! Those buttons, ooh lala!!!

  4. The amount of work put into that is amazing. It would take months of uninterupted work to replicate that! And can you imagine the agony if someone dumped red wine on it!

  5. Demented Seamstress says

    It’s amazing! Gorgeous!
    Why don’t men wear stuff like this anymore?

    Thank you so much for all the close ups. Museum websites never show enough construction details in their photos. I suppose they don’t want to show pictures of the linings because they aren’t as pretty as the outside.

    • Marko says

      It is easy to answer. Why man don’t wear stuff like this, because they will feel like Sissis in those clothes. I mean the average men. Artists very comfortable with their sexuality would not have problem with it.

  6. I love the fabric they used for the coat and breeches! I wonder how it’s made… I love the embroidery on it, too, but I couldn’t imagine trying to re-create it (sucessfuly, anyway–I do have problems with ambition).

    I’m so glad you took close pictures!

  7. Marko says

    Have a question if you can answer it. I was in a 18th century even as a male embroiderer and a question always had been asked to me: Do men used to do embroideries in that time? My typical answer was that I do believe so as men did costume for the kings so they should know how to embroider. But then I’m not that sure that my answer was correct.

  8. Susan says

    Without seeing the actual outfit, as opposed to close-in details, I can only tell you that the suit is definitely not from the mid-18th century, but closer to anywhere from 1790 to 1815, though I strongly suspect 1810. Possibly because I have seen similar suits from that time period.

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