As part of our effort to make our collection more accessible to the public we will be doing regular ‘Object Highlights’ where different members of staff or volunteers choose one of their favourite objects from our collection and tell us a little bit about what it is and why they have chosen it. This week we are looking at a men’s silk embroidered waistcoat chosen by one of our Museum Assistants Hannah.
This waistcoat is a beautiful example of Court Dress circa 1840-1870. It is made from silk with satin stitch leaves and flowers design hand embroidered using variegated threads, six small embroidered buttons and beautifully hand stitched button holes. On a technical and aesthetic level there is so much to love about this garment. The embroidery is exquisite with vibrant coloured threads and neat, precise stitching. The buttonholes are all hand stitched which, in an age when fast fashion prevails, seems like such a long winded way to make button holes. As someone who has always argued loudly with her sewing machine every time I have had to use the buttonhole function I can’t imagine the patience it must take to make such neat features. Each button is precisely covered in silk and hand embroidered with a vibrant red thread – such a beautiful touch! The precision and attention to detail in the object is something that appeals to me so much. When garments are so cheaply made in such vast quantities these days there is just something missing in the final product, an element of soul that is present in every hand made garment, a sense of the person who made it and an impression of the person the garment was made for.
This is my sewers feelings about the garment but the historian in me loves this garment for an altogether different reason – a slightly less savory reason. Sweat patches. Yes you read that right. This garment is not pristine and perfect. There are sweat stains at the underarms, slight stains and marks down the front and yet to me this adds to the value of the object not detracts from it. These are all signs that this garment was used, it was worn, it was lived in. This is such a very obvious sign that this garment was not just made and preserved for people to appreciate over a century later. This was someone’s waistcoat. This was a garment that a real living person wore, a snapshot of personal history. Not some great and grand event that shaped the world that we live in today, but rather one moment in one persons life. Was this person a nervous speaker giving a speech? An avid dancer having the time of their life at a party? Or was this just their favourite waistcoat that they wore as often as they could?