Variations in Style

Tonite, I received this email and it brings up an interesting point:

"I want to make a coat using your pattern for the 1780's frock coat and I find the documentation is good for the period but the pattern does not reflect the later style. The line drawings of the ones in the museums show the frock with the tapered front but the line drawing for the pattern shows a style appropriate for a much earlier period as does the picture on the front. In spite of this I began to work with the pattern but find it definitely is more appropriate for the 1730-50's with the straight front and the numerous buttons."

So the extant 1770s-80s examples in the Victorian and Albert Museum in London, the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen and Colonial Williamsburg (upon which I based this pattern) are not appropriate for the 1770s-80s either?

Imagine that! All because you say so.

Friends, this brings up a point upon which I was expounding to a friend earlier in the evening: there is more than one way to skin a cat. And in a world where tailors jealously guarded their construction techniques, it's not unusual to find the same style of garment constructed in slightly and even wildly differing ways. I've seen it myself.

Add to this the fact that not everyone in the universe wore cutting edge fashion. Even wealthy people didn't necessarily have their tailors make them coats in the latest style just because the young bucks were wearing cut-away fronts this season. That would be like every woman in the country discarding all her full skirts as soon as narrow skirts came into fashion. Are we really to believe that there was no variation in styles?

It didn't happen. How do I know? Because I look at both the pictorial and the extant garment record. I take into consideration all the garments from the period when I make a pattern.

What I do not do is listen to the pronouncements and prejudices of a single reenactment group and make a pattern based on their ideas. I take their ideas into consideration and, like they trained me in grad school, I gather all the available evidence about the time period, make judgement calls upon what is good evidence and what can be discarded, and produce a pattern based upon what I believe to be truly representative of the time period.

You may follow the same process and come up with an entirely different coat pattern. I accept that another coat pattern would also be appropriate for this time period. What I do not accept is that my pattern is wrong because yours is, of course, right.

If my pattern drafts show a garment more appropriate for the 1730s-50s, then why wouldn't I use that for my earlier patterns? I mean, I do sell earlier patterns after all. There's no real reason I would say a coat was 1770s when it is 1730s. (By the way, the fronts of coats from the 1730s are hardly straight. You have to go back 80s years to get a truly straight-fronted coat.)

You can even lay the 1770s pattern over the 1730s and 1750s patterns and see the differences. Some are subtle. Some are bigger. But it is a lie to say that there are no differences.

Just like it's a lie to say that men didn't wear this cut of coat in the 1770s.

If you want everyone in your group to look exactly the same -- same coats, same breeches, same hairstyles -- I encourage you to continue in your current mindset.

But, you know, I'm only a clothing historian. I'm sure someone from your local Rev War group can tell you how wrong I am and how their cuffs were always an inch wide and stuff...