The waistcoat is by far one of the most common pieces of clothing I have come across in the records of seventeenth-century women. While women did wear gowns during this period, if we look across the social spectrum we can see that waistcoats and petticoats were by far the most common garments that were worn by women on a daily basis in seventeenth-century England.
Many museums and scholars refer to these garments as “jackets”, presumably because the word waistcoat is now commonly associated with male dress. However, this is anachronistic. During the seventeenth century these garments were never called jackets. They were recorded in female wardrobe accounts as “wastcotes”, “wastcoates”, “waistcoates”, etc. They were commonly worn over the top of the petticoat and a pair of bodies, but I have also seen them listed in conjunction with gowns too. In essence, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a waistcoat was a type of informal front fastening jacket-bodice.
I have examined many common, middling, and aristocratic wardrobe inventories and bills in the last eight or so years since I began studying the dress of the seventeenth century, so I thought I would share some of the material I’ve come across relating to waistcoats and their changing silhouette and construction. I hope anyone who is interested in reconstructing seventeenth-century dress will find this useful. I’ve also included some handy resources for where to get patterns for these waistcoats below.
I initially wrote this as one blog post. However, I soon realised that it would be too long to do the entire century in one go. So, I decided to break it up into 3 parts: Jacobean Era, Caroline and Interregnum Era and Restoration Era. This blog post pertains to the Jacobean Era.
Jacobean Era (1603-1625)
Waistcoats were worn by all social sorts in England by at least the middle of the sixteenth century. The waistcoats of the Jacobean era changed little in design from those of the preceding Elizabethan period. They were generally fitted around the bust, waist and arms, with “skirts” that were looser over the hips. We have several surviving waistcoats from this period in British collections, all of which exemplify the different styles worn at the time. I will give an outline of the styles typically found during this period.
Jacobean Silk Waistcoats
This example from the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is dated between 1610-20 and is believed to have belonged to a member of the Isham family from Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire. It contains narrow cuffed sleeves and shoulder wings that cover where the sleeve is attached to rest of the garment, mirroring design elements seen in men and women’s doublets. Gores have been inserted into the skirts of the waistcoat to enlarge them so that they would sit perfectly over a farthingale roll. The front of the garment ties together with the silk ribbons attached to either side. The general cut of this example is typical of other surviving waistcoats from the 1610s (see list of other examples below).
This garment would have been worn over a petticoat with an attached bodice (“petticoat-bodies”) or a pair of bodies, a stiffened torso-garment (later known as stays).
This waistcoat is made of coral-pink silk, is hand-embroidered with blue silk thread wrapped in silver and decorated with spangles. It is a rare surviving example of a waistcoat made of silk, as most surviving examples of this garment from this century are made of linen or fustian (see below). Although not many silk waistcoats have survived, they were not uncommon during the Jacobean period.
References to silk waistcoats appear regularly in the accounts of Elizabeth I and Anne of Denmark.
In June 1610 it was recorded that a “waskett [waistcoat] of white taffetie bound with a white galloone and Lyned with Carnation plushe” was delivered to Queen Anne of Denmark. [a]
The 1624/5 probate will of Dame Honor Proctor of Yorkshire recorded that she owned “one waistcoat of white taffitie” and “one wrought waistcoat with silk…” [b]
Jacobean Embroidered Linen Waistcoats
Most surviving examples of Jacobean waistcoats are embroidered. This particular style appears to have been somewhat unique to England – I have never come across an example of similar embroidered waistcoats in the French court or the Dutch Republic (although I am happy to be proven wrong!). Late Elizabethan and Jacobean English embroidery commonly depicted motifs of strawberries, rosehips, carnations, thistles, honeysuckle, pansies, foxgloves, sweet peas, vine and oak leaves and acorns. Animals like snails, butterflies and birds were also common. Such motifs were often framed by embroidered scroll work.
Unlike the garment above, the majority of embroidered waistcoats that survive are made from linen and embroidered in silk thread. One of the earliest surviving examples belonged to Margaret Layton, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant who married Francis Layton, a Master Yeomen of the Jewel House at the Tower of London.
As with the previous example of approximately the same age, this waistcoat has narrow cuffed sleeves and shoulder wings. It is fitted over the bust and waist and was originally fastened using silk ribbons. Main differences in design lie in the narrower skirts and it also has a back neck collar. It is made of linen, lined with silk taffeta and embroidered with coloured silk threads, silver/silver-gilt threads and embellished with spangles. According to the V&A catalogue the embroidering techniques utilised include “embroidered in detached buttonhole, stem, plaited braid, chain, couching and dot stitches, with knots and speckling…”
What makes this example amazing is that Margaret herself was painted wearing the garment c. 1620 by the famous artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.
Another waistcoat embroidered with floral motifs is also in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (MET). This waistcoat also contains floral and vegetal motifs and is a similar cut, although it does not have shoulder wings like those other examples.
Embroidered Jacobean Waistcoat (back), c. 1616, English. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 23.170.1
Stylistic changes in 1620s Waistcoats
By the early 1620s the design of waistcoats mirrored the fashionable gowns of the period: the waistline was high and the length short, which created the illusion of a short torso. Take for example the image above of an Unknown Woman c. 1620. The woman wears a beautifully embroidered waistcoat (likely over a separate pair of bodies) and a red petticoat embroidered with gold. In this instance, the portrait portrays this woman in casual undress as her hair is unbound.
The final Jacobean waistcoat I want to took at in this blog post shows the evolution in cut and design that occurred during the 1620s. The linen waistcoat is embroidered in silk thread and trimmed with bobbin lace made from white and black linen threads. Like those before it, the decorative motifs consist of scrolling stems and floral motifs such as roses, pomegranates, pansies, pea-pods, acorns and oak leaves, as well as birds and butterflies. While these natural motifs carry on design elements from previous decades, the cut of this 1620s version is quite different.
The waistline is quite high and designed to site over a farthingale roll or “bum roll” as they were increasingly called. The shoulders still contain “wings” but the sleeves are open at the front, which would have revealed the linen smock underneath. This is similar to sleeves seen on gowns from the decade, as depicted in a portrait of Elizabeth Leicester. The waistcoat would have been worn with the centre front piece pinned edge to edge.
By the end of the decade waistcoats embroidered with coloured silks were still common. The 1629 probate inventory of Arthur Coke a Gentleman from Bramfield in Suffolk contains a list of his late wife’s clothing that included “2 wastcoats wrought with coloured silk & gold” and a “wastcoate wrought with black.” [c]
Non-Elite Women and Waistcoats
Many of the surviving examples of Jacobean waistcoats belonged to women of the aristocracy and gentry. Yet waistcoats were one of the must basic, and fundamental, garments in a common or middling sorts woman’s wardrobe. In 1605 the probate inventory of Agnes Adams, a Spinster from Towersey in Oxfordshire listed her clothing as consisting of a “gowne”, two “red petticoats”, one “russett peticoat”, one “fustian petticoat”, one “fustian waistcoat”, one “wollen waistcoat”, “three kerchiefs”, four smocks, as well as shoes and a hat. [d]
Over a decade later in 1617, the probate inventory of Elizabeth Bateman, a Widow from Shirehampton, contained “on[e] wastcot” alongside red petticoats and “Frise” gowns. In 1618 the goods of Ann Large, who was a servant to a shoemaker named Robert Flower in Bristol, were recorded as containing various types of petticoats and waistcoats that were worn together, such as a “a stammel wascote and a ride [red] pettecote” valued as 8 shillings. [e]
There are few images of common women from the Jacobean period, but we can surmise that their waistcoats likely followed the same silhouette and cut of their social superiors as it had changed very little from the preceding Elizabethan period. They may have resembled the waistcoat worn by a female servant in Spain as depicted by Diego Velázquez in a 1618 allegorical painting.
As probate records show, waistcoats that belonged to these women were likely made of sturdy woollen or wool-mixed fabrics such as fustian or stammel. It is often hard to know from probate entries such as these whether the waistcoats that belonged to common women were embroidered or otherwise decorated, as inventories are often notoriously vague.
However, it is not impossible that that non-elite women’s waistcoats had elaborate embroidery. As Margaret Spufford and Susan Mee have shown, decorating coifs with cutwork or crewel was inexpensive and not uncommon in non-elite wardrobes. Decorative trims like fringe were also widely used by labourers and husbandmen, often purchased from petty chapman who roamed the countryside.
Blackwork was an extremely common embroidery technique during the sixteenth century and was used on waistcoats (as demonstrated by the c. 1620s example above). In 1621 Eadye White, the daughter of a merchant, left her “best blackwork waistcoate” to her aunt after her death.
Embroidery on non-elite women’s waistcoats may also have been done in coloured woollen thread instead of silk. A woman’s linen waistcoat c. 1610-20 in the Museum of London (MoL) has been embroidered with black wool in a pattern of barberries.
Adam Martindale, a Lancashire teacher and Presbyterian preacher born to yeoman parents recalled his sister leaving home after the plague of 1625 in his biography. In this description, he reflected on the changing habits of single women in the era:
 Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies, The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing sixteenth-century dress (London: Batsford, 2006), 21.
 Susan North and Jenny Tiramani eds., Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book One, (London: V&A Publishing, 2011), p. 48.
 Margaret Spufford and Susan Mee, The Clothing of the Common Sort: 1570-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 258-9.
 Adam Martindale, The Life of Adam Martindale: By Himself, ed. Richard Parkinson (Manchester: Chetham Society, 1845; BiblioBazaar, 2008), pp. 6-7.
[a] Cambridge University Library: Dd 1.26: Inventory of Queen Anne of Denmark’s wardrobe, 1607-1611.
[b] John Richard Walbran, James Raine and J.T. Fowler, Memorials of the Abbey of St. Mary of Fountains, vol. II, part 1 (Ripon: 1863).
[c] Francis W Steer, ‘The Inventory of Arthur Coke, of Bramfield, 1629’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, 25 (1952), pp. 264-287
[d] Oxfordshire Wills Index, 1516-1857. Agnes Adams, 1605.
[e] Clifton and Westbury Probate Inventories, 1609-1761, edited by John S Moore (Avon Local History Association, 1981); Bristol Probate Inventories. Pt. 1: 1542-1650. Vol 54, edited by Edwin & Stella George, with the assistance of Peter Fleming (Bristol Records Society, 2002).
Embroidered Silk Waistcoat – Susan North and Jenny Tiramani eds., Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book One, (London: V&A Publishing, 2011), pp. 42-47.