A Pair of Quilted Breeches: Why Were They Altered?

In the last post I considered what we know about this pair of quilted breeches. Keeping this factual evidence in mind, I will now go on to briefly speculate about why they were altered and who they may have been altered for.

Initially I had run with the assumption that they had been intended for a man. The fact that they were pink did not seem to me to be a problem. Pink did not have the same feminine connotations in the eighteenth century, and it was worn by many men. These two waistcoats below from the V&A are made from a pink silk, as is a Banyan from Manchester. Interestingly, the Banyan, dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, has also been remade from eighteenth-century silk.

Waistcoat, V&A, T.134-1921

Waistcoat, V&A, T.355-1985.

Banyan from the Gallery of Costume, Manchester, 1948.39.

The Banyan especially supports the idea that they were altered to be worn as informal, comfortable indoor wear for a man. The warm quilted fabric would certainly have been comfortable.

Another option was that they had been altered as part of a costume, at any point between the later eighteenth century and the time they became part of Bath’s collection. Looking at costume designs, such as this 1959 design by Oliver Hilary Sambourne Messel, this could be a possibility, but one which is difficult to prove. However details such as a pocket seem unnecessary additions if they were meant for theatrical purposes.

It has also been suggested that the breeches may have belonged to a woman. This is certainly a possibility from their size, and considering the fact that they were made from a woman’s garment.

Women’s cross dressing was hotly debated in the late eighteenth century, ignited by the ‘breeches parts’ played by contemporary actresses. The website for the recent exhibition The First Actresses at the National Portrait Gallery states the following:

The popularity of cross-dressed or ‘breeches’ roles for women provoked lively debates about feminine decorum and the display of women’s bodies on stage. During the century several actresses renowned for their breeches roles, including Peg Woffington, Frances Abington and Dorothy Jordan, attracted large audiences for their famous comedy performances.

Women outside of the theatre were also satirised for their masculine dress styles.

There was an outpouring of public horror at the concept of the masculine woman, which was demonstrated through prints such as An Officer of the Light Infantry driven by his Lady to the Cox-Heath. This print satirises the tendency for women of the period to adopt male styles and military motifs in their dress. It was referred to at the time as “cross dressing”, and a number of women were banned from the assembly rooms at New Town in Edinburgh for adopting this style in their dress.

However this sartorial style does not appear to have developed to the point where a woman could have worn breeches. It has been suggested that they could have been worn underneath a riding habit for warmth and comfort.

I remain undecided about which possibility I think more likely. What do you think? Do you have any other ideas?

This entry was published on September 1, 2012 at 5:51 pm and is filed under Eighteenth Century, Extant Garments, Men's Dress, Nineteenth Century, Women's Dress. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “A Pair of Quilted Breeches: Why Were They Altered?

  1. Anny mentioned that a woman might have worn these underneath her dress as cozy leg-warmers. I like that idea. But it also sounds to me as though the alteration process was painstaking. At least–I never would have taken that much trouble, even with such beautiful fabric, if I just needed an extra layer for outdoor work. On the other hand, I don’t know anything about sewing, now or in the past: maybe all this hand-sewing would have been the usual investment in any garment, even a hidden one.

    If pants on a woman were that exciting, maybe a woman constructed these for at-home wear.

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