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The story of the French vest

Column Carpet, tapestries and textiles, Collections

Main item from the triptych forming "the French coat" and whose 3-piece suit will be the last incarnation, the vest is a piece of menswear that it is not uncommon to discover in the trunk of old costumes and in auction.


I. From the jacket to the waistcoat.


Succeeding the doublet around 1670, the vest - which will take this name in the last third of the eighteenth century - is still called vest and worn under a coat, a sort of frock coat itself named during the Louis XVI period.

With pockets and buttonholes often fake, the jacket tails down again until mid-thigh during the Regence. Only after losing his long sleeves have been shortened to the size it becomes vest, circa 1760.


In the first part of the century, the vest or jacket, which only the visible part is "rich stuff" (the adjustable back with a lace fabric is cut in a plain linen or cotton) is most often matched with the “habit”. Velvet carved miniature or plain Gros Tours embroidery enriched with gold and silver will be long in vogue, especially for winter suits. However, the exuberance of floral fabrics in oversized gives way to 1760 for the planting of flowers and stripes.


From 1770, the fashion trend is for taffeta and Pekins with striped and more often plain satins shades lighter than the coat, greenish yellow called "merdoye" and especially ivory.

These vests delicately embroidered in polychrome silk (picture 1) constitute the vast majority of the pieces seen at auction. They are often embroidered on some parts. Their decor, selected from the boards of patterns or samples of the embroiderer, has been carefully embroidered form on the strip of uncut fabric (sometimes including the buttons) before being sent to the tailor who cut and assemble the vest to measurements required. It is also not uncommon to find these delicate gouache models that reflect the boundless imagination of quilters and coquetry of the elegant era.


Nobleman in the eighteen century is not afraid to be "bling, " he loves spun gold or silver sequins, spangles, faceted mirrors, rhinestones and other "flashy" mixed with silk embroideries, to shine a thousand lights in the glow of candlelight.


From 1780, the traditional models with swags, garlands and flowers thrown are enriched by small figurative drawings witch are very popular. If the costume is fixed in a simple way inherited from the Anglomania, the fantasy is still in the jacket with a square cut, straight without flap pockets and small embroidered collar with lapels. Striped cloth or changing, it stops at the waist and leaves clearly visible panty charms, watches, glasses that will survive the simplification of the costume.


II. The man’s vest or « l’homme paré » *


The ornamentation of the vests with short basque and small collar in Louis XVI time is full of allusions inspired from pastoral fables. They also immortalize episodes of hunting or battles (picture 2), trendy opera or the news with balloons, when they do not adorn libertine performances intended to remain hidden "under wraps".


Expert broderie, textile, mode ancien


During the revolution, the vest may prove subversive and allows the owner to display his political loyalty as Robespierre who wore a vest decorated with figures and revolutionary maxims.

Nice example, this incredible jacket (picture 3) a noble freshly converted to the revolutionary cause and whose allegiance is made known by a simple mesh vest tricolor calls to go beyond the envelope ... On pockets are embroidered "Honi soit qui mal y pense " or "the dress does not make the man" on the reverse of the collar, a caterpillar and a butterfly with clipped wings, symbolizing the abandonment of a lifestyle superficial at the time or the luxury of toilets is equated with tyranny. But it is fashionable to adopt a mode less flashy we can instead view the revolution as opposed to those royalists who paraded armed vests covered with lilies after the fall of the Bastille!


Expert mode, costume, tissu ancien


Under the Directoire and Consulate, the color palette is reduced; the decorative style is smaller with certain rigidity and stylized motifs. Downscaling neoclassical is beautifully illustrated here by a yellow satin waistcoat straw (picture 4). It is printed in ink in the manner of fine mythological engraving compositions from Angelica Kauffman. This rare vest was preempted for 4800 euros by the Musée de Bourgoin-Jallieu in 2005.


Expert en Etoffes, Costumes et Papiers peints anciens


After several years of democratic simplicity, there is with the Empire a return to the formality of court dress with beautiful clothes and ceremonial vests embroidered velvet pinned. Around 1830-1840, (pic.5) vest velvet shawl collar or miniature teddy bears are worn very short. If the "Dandy" romantic does not hesitate to squeeze his waist in a corset under a bunk or more vests, this last bastion of originality in a place more devoid of luster, however, eventually disappear in the second half nineteenth century.


Expert costume ancien


Late 18th century vest in satin or gros Tours are estimated between 300 and 500 euros. The Louis XV one, highlighted with gold or silver can reach 3000 to 7000 euros for the more exceptional pieces.


Séverine Experton-Dard
Expert en Etoffes, Costumes et Papiers peints anciens


Légendes Illustrations :

ill.1 Gilet brodé, époque Louis XVI

ill.2 .Détail de rabat de poche d’un gilet de marin, vers 1780, Crédit Thierry de Maigret, 18 avril 2008 

ill.3.Gilet Révolutionnaire conservé au  LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum)

ill.4.Gilet Directoire imprimé à l’encre en taille douce (musée de Bourgoin-Jallieu)

ill.5.Gilet Romantique 1ère moitié du XIXe siècle


* L’Homme paré, exposition aux arts décoratifs 2005