Figured silk coat
Silk, metallic lace, horsehair
This coat was worn as part of an ensemble with a richly embroidered thigh-length waistcoat and fitted knee-length breeches. It was likely commissioned to wear at the Royal Court, where shades of brown were particularly fashionable around 1740. In 1739, Mary Delany described men’s dress at court as ‘chiefly brown with gold or silver embroidery and rich waistcoats.’
The subtly textured woven pattern of the pale brown silk creates a play of light, enhanced by silver lace, buttons and a pale blue facing on the cuffs and inside of the jacket. It mirrors the use of silver and gold thread and gilt lace often found in court mantua dresses of the same period, which added definition to textile patterns in candlelight.
The pronounced curve of the coat chest combined with the flared and stiffened skirt creates a type of S curve. This was emphasised as a line of beauty by artist William Hogarth in The Analysis of Beauty. The width of the coat skirt and cuffs also reflect the emphasis on the hips and skirt fashionable in women’s dress at the same date.
Trimming a formal coat with silver or gilt lace was a quicker way than embroidery to obtain a rich effect. Lace or braid had the advantage of being more easily removed for alternative use on other garments. It could be purchased separately and applied by a tailor or finisher, whereas gold or silver embroidery was a specialist trade.
Portrait: Robert and Elizabeth Gwillym and their family, by Arthur Devis (1746)
Joseph Highmore portrait © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge