How Plain is Plain
I have this friend, you see. I call her my “book pusher”. Everytime she discovers I’m into something, she sends me a link or shows me a book that I absolutely must have. Never has this been more true as when she showed me her copy of Avril Hart and Susan North’s Fashion in Detail. This book has such incredible close-ups of sumptuous 17th and 18th century clothing that it must have been designed with we costume addicts in mind.
In this evil book, I saw the embroidered linen doublet you see on this page. Normally, I just don’t get excited about embroidery. It’s far too in-your-face for my taste. But the doublet in question intrigued me. It is a white linen doublet of a cut worn around the time of the English Civil War. It is beautifully embroidered from neck to hem, but instead of the embroidery being garrish silk and metalic threads, it was also done in plain white linen.
I found myself wondering if this doublet belonged to a Parliamentarian (Roundhead) who shunned the lace and outward display of wealth that the Royalists espoused and yet wanted to have something not entirely plain either. That question remains. Hart and North describe the doublet briefly and Waugh includes a pattern draft. But none of the sources give any information about its owner.
As I began to covet this doublet, I contemplated asking a friend of mine (who loves embroidery) if she would embroidered the finished doublet for my husband. She pointed out to me that the embroidery on the doublet consists of three stitches: French knots, couched cord, and backstitches. She reminded me that not only are these easy stitches to do, but that I am proficient in all of them. I also have the right weight linen and linen thread on hand for the project. Thus prepared, I undertook the monumental task of thinking about the idea of making a replica of this doublet.
The first step was deciding when to make the doublet. I would love to finish it so that I could enter it in the Dress competition at St. Mary’s Grand Muster this October. Unfortunately, a heavy summer and autumn WWII re-enactment schedule prevents me from getting too deep into any other projects.
My husband and I will be spending time in London this October, and I hope to visit this specimen at the V&A while I’m there. More will be forthcoming after our trip.
UPDATE: July 2007 — Well, we’ve been to London twice since I last updated this (October 2003 and March 2006). I didn’t get to examine the doublet, but it was well-displayed in the case and I was able to discern details that I hadn’t noticed from the pictures in Fashion in Detail. Standing in front of the doublet, it is impossible to notice that a 1/2″ scalloped bit of bobbin lace edges the front and sleeve openings of the garment. These are not apparent in the photos on this page but are quite obvious on the V&A page (below). Additionally my Research Fairy Godmother found me an article that decribes the doublet and its origins, J. L. Nevinson’s “Men’s Costume in the Isham Collection” In The Connoisseur from 1934. As it turns out, this beautifully-preserved white linen doublet in the Isham Collection is believed to have belonged to Sir Justinian Isham (1610-1674), a Royalist with a rather non-cavalier preference for black and white.
Covered with couched cord, french knots and stem stitch [sic] embroidery executed in white linen thread, Sir Justinian’s doublet is simultaneously ornate and subdued. The garment shares the profile of the upper class doublets popular in the 1630s: a high waist, a small number of square skirts that overlap rather than tabs, closure only to the bottom of the breast-bone, slit sleeve fronts, and a stiff collar for supporting a falling band. However, in this example, the skirts are not separate pieces but rather cut one with the body of the garment, creating a smooth line from shoulder to hem. The sleeves sport no cuffs and no button closure [sic]. Seventeen passementerie buttons and embroidered buttonholes close the 9” front from throat to sternum. Another five buttons of the same type close the collar by hooking into cord loops, necessary because of the nearly ¼” thickness of the stiffened collar.
The interior of the doublet differs little from that of 1630s doublets. A stiff piece of buckram inserted between the lining and outer material of the garment at the lower portion on either side of the front opening serves as a belly board. This is presumably to keep the wearer’s paunch from ruining the line of the garment. Around line of the waist, an eyeleted band is attached to the lining. Into these eyelets are inserted the hooks that suspend the breeches. The decorative vestigal silk bows of the previous decade are now gone. Wool felt and linen canvas pad out the shoulders and stiffen the collar of this finely tailored garment.
NEXT: picking the materials
- Nancy Bradfield. Costume in Detail 1730-1930. 1997: Costume and Fashion Press, New York.
- Avril Hart and Susan North. Fashion in Detail.
- Nevinson, J. L. “Men’s Costume in the Isham Collection” In: The Connoisseur 1934, Vol XCIV, pp. 313-320.
- Norah Waugh. The Cut of Men’s Clothes, 1600-1900. 1964: Routledge, New York.
© 2003, 2007 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.