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Man’s Waistcoat, 1775–85

Man’s Waistcoat, 1775–85

This waistcoat was worn by Francis Dana (1743–1811), a Massachusetts lawyer and member of the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1778. In 1778, Dana went to Paris with John Adams as a part of the American delegation to France. Dana probably ordered the waistcoat while he was there. Unlike many embroidered waistcoats, this one lacks a seam at the waist, indicating that it was probably worked specifically to his measurements in one of France′s famous embroidery workshops, instead of being tailored from a pre-embroidered panel.
After his appointment as the American envoy to the court of Catherine the Great, Dana and his fourteen-year-old secretary, John Quincy Adams, left France for St. Petersburg, Russia, in July 1781. Although family tradition states that Dana wore the waistcoat during his two-year stint in Russia, it is unlikely that the empress ever saw it: tangled European political alliances prevented the American envoy from ever being received at court.
Men’s fashion went through a revolutionary change during the last half of the eighteenth century, as clothing steadily shrank from a curvaceous, full-skirted style into a slender, vertical silhouette. The waistcoat was a vest-like garment that a man wore, along with his breeches, over his shirt and under his suit coat. This particular waistcoat was made towards the end of the transformation, when changes in cut, fabric, and decoration combined to create a narrow, graceful impression.
By the late 1760s, a fashionable man chose tight-cut clothing to create a sleek, youthful image. His snug, barely hip-length waistcoat had sharply spread center front points and a tapered hem so as to showcase his elegant leg, prominent chest, and narrow back. It was also cut with curved fronts to fit the exaggerated posture he had learned from early childhood, which required him to hold his shoulders back and down, and to carry his arms away from his body. This silk satin waistcoat was tailored in the mid-to-late 1770s for a man who wanted a streamlined torso. The delicate pastel embroidered sprigs and garlands on the waistcoat also helped its wearer to create an illusion of slenderness.
The cream-colored silk satin waistcoat is embroidered with chain-stitched flowers and ribbons using silk floss in variegated tints of pink, brown, purple, green, blue, and yellow. Small sprigs are scattered evenly over the ground of the waistcoat fronts, and floral sprays and flower-and-ribbon garlands are worked along the front edges, hems, and both double-scalloped pocket flaps. The waistcoat closes at the center front with twelve flat self-covered buttons, each of which is embroidered with a sprig surrounded by a circle.
The hem of the short skirt is cut away below the lowest button to form a spread point over each thigh, and angled upward from the points toward the side vents. Off-white twilled silk fabric faces the center front edges and the front skirts. The waistcoat is fully lined and backed with white napped cotton and linen fustian, a sturdy twill-woven fabric. The skirt is vented at the center back seam. The overall front length is 28.5 in (72.39 cm).
To see an embroidered waistcoat as it would have been worn by a fashionable man, link to the portrait of John Dart, about 1772–74, by Jeremiah Theus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. To see how a stylish man would have worn his clothing, link to the portrait of John Musters, 1777–about 1780, by Sir Joshua Reynolds at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Musters’s waistcoat is cut to fit much like the one shown here.
This Web entry was made possible in part by a generous grant from the National Association of Men’s Sportswear Buyers, in memory of Joseph S. Klein.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Date made
worn by
Dana, Francis
Physical Description
silk, satin (material fabric, face)
silk, twill (material fabric, facing)
wool?, flannel (material fabric, lining)
wool?, flannel (material fabric, back)
silk, chain stitch (material embroidery)
overall--sh seam/hem: 28 1/2 in; 72.39 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Margaret S. Smith
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Costume
Clothing & Accessories
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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