18th Century Embroidered Suits

Amidst the fast-fashion frenzied world we live in today, it can be difficult to imagine a time when clothing was a valued investment, tailored specifically to the wearer and frequently paid for in installments.  One look at the results of such a market, though, and it's hard not to yearn for its heyday—especially a chance to get a glimpse of your average man in elaborate get-ups like these beauties!

Court Suit, 1810, French.  From FIDM's collection.

Court Suit, 1810, French.  From FIDM's collection.

Kirstin Purtich, who formerly interned at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts wrote an informative article on the subject—I've whittled it down here before we dive into ogling the photos:

"In the eighteenth century, promenading among the shops along the rue St. Honoré became a fashionable leisure activity for men and women alike. This street was home to Paris's marchands merciers (known as "mercers" in English), a class of merchants who dealt in all manner of luxury goods, including textiles for furnishing and clothing. The mercers' exclusive right to finishing work—arranging for the addition of embroidery, buttons, braids, and sequins through a network of specialized workers—allowed their customers to choose the exact colors and patterns they wanted at the point of sale."

"The merchants of Paris sold their wares from elaborately painted, carved, and decorated shop fronts, each identified by the merchant's sign. Beginning around the mid-eighteenth century, the French began to adopt the English practice of glazing shop windows, which fostered the use of an ever-changing window display as a means to entice potential customers; thus the concept of window shopping was born."

"Once inside a merchant's shop, customers were able to peruse a variety of goods in a showroom-like setting far removed from the workshops where luxury goods were actually produced. While some clients dealt directly with print merchants who specialized in embroidery patterns, most men chose the decorative trimmings for their jackets and waistcoats from small embroidery samples assembled by the merchant, and often they deferred to the merchant's intimate knowledge of the latest fashions.

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Although the merchant did none of the practical work himself, he acted as a mediator between customer and maker—negotiating the costs of labor and materials, and arriving at a final price for an individual embroidered design. Generally such lavish items were purchased on credit, as most of the merchant's trade operated on a "take now, pay later" basis. Perhaps this explains why, as the author of The Art of the Embroiderer noted in 1770, customers were not deterred by embroidered fabrics for men's suits that cost much as six hundred francs per aune (approximately 1.3 yards)."

"The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century witnessed a general trend toward greater simplicity in French men's fashion, inspired by unadorned English country dressing. However, waistcoats remained an acceptable outlet for elaborate embroidery, and the new austerity did not preclude the sumptuous decoration seen on court suits of the early nineteenth century [...] In fact the often subtle variations on certain motifs seen in the samples on display demonstrate that male consumers of fashion generally adhered to established decorative themes, customizing them through their choice of fabric, color, scale, and trimmings."

Imagine getting to design one of these for yourself!  The possibilities are endless, as we can clearly see...enjoy!

Parisian, 1785, image from the DigitaltMuseum.

Parisian, 1785, image from the DigitaltMuseum.

1790, most likely a German example.

1790, most likely a German example.

French, from the LACMA.

French, from the LACMA.

Details of an ensemble.

Details of an ensemble.

A British example from 1780, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A British example from 1780, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Another detail shot from the Met's collection.

Another detail shot from the Met's collection.

An exquisite 1790 French example from the Cooper Hewitt depicting an Operatic scene.

An exquisite 1790 French example from the Cooper Hewitt depicting an Operatic scene.

A detail from the scene above.

A detail from the scene above.

Above and below, examples from  The Hidden Wardrobe  of the dainty patterns that typically filled the broader expanses of fabric.  Dense embellishment usually occurred at hems and other structural areas.

Above and below, examples from The Hidden Wardrobe of the dainty patterns that typically filled the broader expanses of fabric.  Dense embellishment usually occurred at hems and other structural areas.

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Another detail shot from The Hidden Wardrobe blog.

Another detail shot from The Hidden Wardrobe blog.

A pocket detail.  French, 1765.  Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A pocket detail.  French, 1765.  Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.