October 15, 2014

Closet Histories #2.4 : Embroidered Jackets

I am really stretching the boundaries of "Elizabethan" by including this style of jacket. It is certainly more of a transitional style; from the very end of Elizabeth's reign in the early 1600's into the Jacobean era. Though Elizabeth died in 1603, I consider "Elizabethan" period fashion to continue as an influence for several years afterward, before the look had fully transitioned into something distinctly new. In any case, I wanted to discuss this style of embroidered jacket now, before moving onto Jacobean and Stuart period fashion next week.

There are four very similar extant jackets in the collection of the V&A in London. There are other survivors scattered around in other museums, a jacket at the MET, another in Glasgow, one at the fashion museum in Bath, and I am sure a few others. Why have these garments survived when so few others from the same time period (1600-1625ish) have not? It is well known that formal garments get saved over casual ones, expensive ones over cheap pieces, special garments like wedding gowns over everyday clothing. I think even centuries ago people knew jackets like these were special. The man(/woman) hours and artistry that went into creating the densely embroidered patterns must have been appreciated even then. Like all early extant pieces, these jackets are tangible portals very far back in time.

1600-1620, Great Britain, United Kingdom
The first jacket we will look at from the V&A is sadly in pieces, but no less magnificent. Made of silk and linen, the jacket is heavily embroidered in natural floral and faunal motifs with colorful silk threads. Additional embroidery is sewn with metallics, real gold and silver threads, and is accented with gilt metal sequins. The overall overall pattern is a loose lattice work print done in metallic braid stitches and then filled in with detached buttonhole stitch. It is believed this jacket was altered after it was first made to have a shorter waist, as had then become fashionable. In addition to altering the shape, thousands more sequins were applied, filling in all of the open bare linen areas. The jacket would have shone very brightly after this alteration, which may have been done to adapt the jacket for a masquerade ball costume.

1590-1630, Great Britain, United Kingdom
The second jacket we will be looking at is dated a bit earlier. Hailing from the turn of the 17th century, this jacket too is of floral embroidery over a light linen ground. This jacket is cut in a much looser style, which the V&A suggests might be intended as maternity wear...

"This simple unlined jacket represents an informal style of clothing worn by women in the early 17th century. Unlike more fitted waistcoats, this loose, unshaped jacket may have been worn during pregnancy. A repeating pattern of curving scrolls covers the linen from which spring sweet peas, oak leaves, acorns, columbine, lilies, pansies, borage,hawthorn, strawberries and honeysuckle embroidered in coloured silks, silver and silver-gilt threads. The embroidery stitches include chain, stem, satin, dot and double-plait stitch, as well as knots and couching of the metal threads. Sleeves and sides are embroidered together with an insertion stitch in two shades of green instead of a conventionally sewn seam.

Although exquisitely worked, this jacket is crudely cut from a single layer of linen, indicating the work of a seamstress or embroiderer, someone without a tailor's training. It has no cuffs, collar or lining, and the sleeves are cut in one piece. The jacket was later altered to fit a thinner person. The sleeves were taken off, the armholes re-shaped, the sides cut down, and the sleeves set in again."

So perhaps embroidered jackets like these could have been worked at home by the wearers themselves in addition to having been bought from professional embroiders and tailors.

1600-1625, Great Britain, United Kingdom
This third jacket certainly has an earlier shape, more conical like the Elizabethan fashions we have been looking at. By looking at the close up photos we can spot caterpillars, butterflies and an occasional bird in amongst the floral embroidery. Again the embroidery follows the same pattern of braided metallic stitches filled in with flowers and other natural motifs. On linen again too, with colored silk threads, this jacket follows the same style as the other two we looked at above. The V&A has a lovely description of the floral motifs and their possible symbolism...

"Stylised red and white roses had been central to sixteenth century Tudor dynastic symbolism. Their role as emblems also developed to represent marriage, fecundity and motherhood - the red rose symbolised childbirth and the white rose a mother's milk. Columbine was sometimes seen to signfiy sorrow due to its often dark purple appearance whilst in a catholic cultural context seven columbine flower-heads could be used to represent the seven sorrows of Mary as well as being symbols for the Holy Spirit. In this case seven flowers would represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: power, riches, widom, might, honour, glory and blessing. By the early seventeenth century it is uncertain whether such decoration would have had a specific symbolic purpose. It is is more likely that the rose and columbine on this jacket, together with the other flowers, which include honeysuckle, irises or lilies, daisies and pansies are the commonplace fashionable floral motiifs of a woman adorning herself in the maner of a modern Flora. Nevertheless they may still have subtle emblematic intent with overtones of classical and pastoral imagery."

1610-1620, England, Great Britain
The last jacket we will consider today is truly a magical survivor. Not only does the V&A have the jacket itself, but also a portrait of it's original wearer, Margaret Layton, wearing the jacket! I have compiled the V&A's information below:

"This fine early 17th-century woman's waistcoat is particularly significant because it is shown being worn in the Portrait of Margaret Layton (museum no. E.214-1994), attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636) and displayed alongside it. Waistcoats were long-sleeved upper garments, opening down the front and fitted at the waist using inserted gores. They were often made of linen and splendidly decorated as in this example."

"In the portrait, Margaret Layton wears the waistcoat with an Italian needlelace collar and cuffs, a black velvet gown, a red silk petticoat and a whitework apron. As with many women of this period, we know very little about her life, other than her recorded connections to her father and husband."

"Margaret Layton (formerly Laton) was the daughter of Sir Hugh Browne, a wealthy vintner and grocer. She is said to have been born in 1579, but it is more likely from her costume and appearance that she was born around 1590. She married Francis Layton (1577-1661), one of the Master Yeomen of the Jewel House at the Tower of London, and died in 1641.

The artist, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1635), spent his early years in Bruges (Belgium), where his father was active as a painter and printmaker. When he was about seven, the family moved to London. Marcus eventually obtained many commissions from the English court, both for portraits and for decorative work. He was popular at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I, but fell out of favour with James's wife, Anne of Denmark, after 1617. After that date, Gheeraerts's sitters came more and more from the gentry."

Can someone please make a movie about this woman, married to a Master Yeomen of the Tower of London Jewel House back in the 17th century? That is pretty crazy awesome. Also judging by Margret's stylish jacket, the job paid pretty well.

Jackets like these were certainly rather popular for so many of them to have been painted into portraits and been saved, surviving still today. The style enchants so much even now that there has been a very well researched recreation of this style by Plimoth Plantation living history museum here in the US. To check out the project click here and also watch the video below!

I hope you find these jackets as beautiful and fascinating as I do! As always, thanks for reading!

All of the information for this post has been gathered from the textbook Survey of Historic Costume (5th edition) by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eurbank, from the links above or my own knowledge. I want to share the resources I come across with all of you as much as possible. The portraits used to illustrate today's post are credited to either the museum where they reside (whenever possible) or the source where I found them, and are linked via their fig. # underneath. Again I repeat my disclaimer that I am not a historian, and if you have corrections or additions for this post, please begin the discussion in comments as I would love to learn more!

Thanks for reading! 


  1. Embroidery like this is just so jaw-dropping. My sister is a talented embroiderer, and I keep wanting to do an embroidered hat collaboration with her, but it hasn't happened yet. I hope the right time will arrive. This era of embroidery is probably my favourite. I'm a sucker for the intertwining florals and the birds!

    1. I love working on embroidery but haven't done a project in a long time, I really need to start something new! An embroidered hat would be awesome!

  2. These are such incredibly beautiful, ornate, detailed masterpieces. I look at them and I then look at ultra cheap "here today, gone tomorrow" clothing that permeates the world these days and wonder how they can even share the same word "fashion".

    ♥ Jessica

    1. I know what you mean, I think that's why I have gravitated to making so much of my own clothing these days, it can just be so difficult to find quality pieces these days in shops for a reasonable price!


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