“I would not be quite in, neither would I be quite out of the fashion”:
James Habersham orders some Clothes
While doing research into the prevalence of knit breeches among men in the American colonies, I ran across the letters of James Habersham. Born in Yorkshire in 1712, Habersham became Secretary of the Province of Georgia in 1754 and President of the Upper house of the General Assembly in 1767. When Governor Wright left Georgia on a leave of absence in 1771, Habersham assumed the duties of governor.
Habersham liked wearing knit breeches. In the letter below, written to Provincial Agent William Knox in London in 1767, he requests “one pair of fine black frame knit silk stocking Breeches, and two pair of the finest frame knit black worsted stocking Breeches, as the best are the cheapest for common use.” Even for a man of his wealth and stature, knit breeches were the legwear of choice, at least for “common use.”
I give you the entire letter, because it provides a fascinating glimpse into the method by which wealthy colonists obtained their clothing. Not content to trust their expensive silks and broadcloth to the “Bunglers” in the colonies, they turned to the best London tailors.
William Knox Esqr Savannah in Georgia
in New Street Hanover Square London the 17th Novr 1767
pr Mr Hall
About two Months agoe, I sent by Mr Hall, who had taken a Passage in the unfortunate Ship Hawke, a Coat and Breeches to get a Summer suit made by them- This Ship you will learn was cast away in a hard Gale of Wind near Sapalo with a valuable Cargoe, among which was our last years silk- All the crew and passengers got safe on Shore, and Mr Hall goes to CharlesTown to take a passage from thence my coat and Breeches were lost in the Hawke, but Mr Hall is so obliging as to take another Coat and Breeches to deliver you-I shall not apologize for the Trouble I am now to give you, because I would not disoblige you-All my cloths are miserably spoiled by the Bunglers here, and after repeatedly trying new Hands, I am forced to this Method of getting a decent Garb.
I want a dress, plain and grave Coloured Silk Coat- A black silk Waistcoat without sleeves, one pair of fine black frame knit silk stocking Breeches, and two pair of the finest frame knit black worsted stocking Breeches, as the best are the cheapest for common use- I chuse black Breeches, as they suit my coloured Coat, and I want the Black silk Waistcoat to attend funerals in Summer, for in that hot season, I always wear holland Jackets, except on these solemn occasions.
In the Breeches Pocket now sent, you will find a piece of silk Grogram, of which I have a Coat that has now done its best after 3 Summers wear- The Colour I like, because I think it suitable for a man of near 55 years of age, and I only send it on account of the colour, that you may know, what I mean by grave, for otherwise I think it coarse, and would have something finer- However I entirely leave the choice to you.
I suppose you will employ your own Taylor, and I would have him keep my Measure by him, in Case I may have Occasion to apply to him hereafter- you will observe, that I want a dress Coat, and that I dont send the Coat and Breeches for any other purpose, than to direct, as far as I can the size.- The Coat fits me at present tolerably well, is not cut quite full enough over the Breast, it is also about 1 1/2 Inches too short in the Sleeve, and full 2 ½ Inches too short in the Skirts-These Defects the Workman will rectify- The Coat has been made 5 years-I would have my new Coat lined with something strong, and as light as possible, and the Taylor should particularly notice, that Cloaths cannot possibly be made too light and airy for Summer wear here, The Coat will doubtless direct him in the size of the Waistcoat-The Breeches now sent are about an Inch too short, and are a little too wide over the thigh, which the workman will advert to, in the Breeches to be made for me, and I shall add, that as I would not be quite in, neither would I be quite out of the fashion- What that may be,- I know not, but I apprehend a Cuff on the Sleeve, something like the Coat sent, may be as decent for a Man of my years as any-pray excuse this odd Epistle, and send the Workman for payment of the whole to Mc Gillivary, Grahams and Clark- I had almost forgot to say, that I would have the Trimmings of the Coat quite plain, I mean the Buttons of the same Colour with the Coat, and send at least a dozen of spare Buttons, and some Remnants of the outside of the Coat, and lining to repair it, if necessary, and if two dozen of small Buttons and some Remnants of the Black silk vest were sent to mend, it would not me amiss, as you know such things are not always to be had here I would also have about an Inch let in on each side of the Coat and Jackett to let out, in case I should grow more Bulky, and any alteration should be needfull Desire your Workman to send me Directions in his Bill how to write to him, and if he pleases me, I can then for the future send direct to him, without troubling you-I need not mention, as we all wear Drawers here, that the Breeches are not to be lined, and care will be taken to line the Seams with something strong- It's time to have done- I am dear Sir
Your faithfull Friend and Svt
I believe I am a little round shouldered, and cannot wear a Coat, that is pinched there, and therefore I would not have the Coat and Waistcoat to be made a bitt less over the Shoulders, than the Coat sent-I am the more particular about the size, because if the Workman has once fixed my measure, there will be no need of a repetition on that head. I hope to have these Cloths to wear the 4th June next our Good King's Birth day- Pray direct the Taylor to have the Coat as light as possible, and if the Masster on the vessell the Cloths are sent by, would put them in his Cabin or in some as dry place in the Ship, I would be much obliged to him, as I have frequently known Silks especially, very much spotted by the Heat of the Hold Tho' I have mentioned sending a pc of silk Grogram in the Breeches Pocket, I believe I forgot to do it in the last pair, which are gone to Charles-Town, and therefore you will find a Bitt enclosed.
The letter, along with many others, are reprinted in “The Letters of the Hon. James Habersham, 1756-1775,” published in Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, vol. 6 (Savannah: Savannah Morning News Print, 1904).
Getting Breeched, or Introductions
"In making mee there is no gaine but one,
Which is for labour and for woorkmanship;
Except some time a peece of cloth come home,
As yf that by mischaunce the shere did slip."
Except some time a peece of cloth come home,
As yf that by mischaunce the shere did slip."
-Francis Thynne, 1592
We are none of us born with shears in our hands, so when it comes to recreating eighteenth century clothing, it must be a process of continual discovery and improvement. Interpretation and scholarship never stand still and neither should the living historian. Contemplating period portraiture and dissecting original clothing (mentally, that is) has consumed far more of my waking hours than I care to admit. But careful study is just the beginning of any quest to capture the “look” of a period. Equally important are the months or years spent experimenting. How does a coat hang if the skirts fall at a certain angle, or if the waist’s nipped in to a certain degree? Making and unmaking, redrafting and discarding- it all gets us closer to achieving the look and feel of eighteenth century American clothing.
I’m lucky to know a host of talented tailors who have turned out some splendid suits. All of them will admit (if only to themselves) that there are certain garments they dislike making. Personally, I find breeches to be the most annoying garment foisted on man by Fashion. But because they were the most common nether garments worn by Anglo-American men for more than 150 years, I have no choice but to suppress my loathing and press on. Whence springs this dislike you ask? It has something to do with the geometry of the thing that drives me mad. First, you must get the inseam and outseam length exact or else the knee bands ride up your kneecaps when you sit. (I suppose it is some consolation to know that actual period tailors found this challenging as well- even fashion-conscious George Washington repeatedly cautioned his tailor to make his breeches “longer than the Measure sent last.”) If the seat doesn’t have enough ease, producing the characteristic “derriere pouch,” everything is apt to tear away when you bend over. Most annoying of all is figuring the stride of the “fork” (what we moderns vulgarly call the crotch). Allow too much stride here and you get an uncomfortable wad of fabric where none should be, but allow too little and you will inevitably suffer a spectacular blowout at an inopportune moment. This unpleasantness is compounded by the fact that by the 1770s, the fashionable world expected a man’s breeches to fit like a second skin. Making a garment tight through the knee and thigh, but loose in the seat and crotch can drive one to distraction.
The beau ideal of the well-breeched gentleman: His Excellency George Washington looking relaxed at Princeton. Note the almost wrinkleless expanse of thigh.
Ease in the seat- unsightly, yes, but entirely necessary. Red woolen breeches from the MET, ca. 1775 (accession no. C.I.39.13.240). The buttons and adjustment strap on the waistband are later additions.
Enter the subject of our story. There is one obvious way to ameliorate these difficulties- make your breeches out of something stretchy! Tailors and their clients hit on this idea early on, and the result was breeches made of knit fabric. Wrought of worsted wool or silk, knit breeches solved many of the agonies of breeches making and wearing. It was easy to make them cling to the leg, and the seat and fork were not endangered by one’s morning calisthenics (or horseback riding, or snipe shooting, or tree felling, or whatever appropriately manly activity you might engage in).
So, considering my past failures with breeches made of inflexible broadcloth, I’ve decided to make a pair of knit breeches, which with luck I’ll be showing off to good effect at the Concord Garden Party. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be talking about the history and form of knit breeches, exploring modern fabric choices, agonizing over their construction and reporting on their performance in the field. In the end I hope we’ll all be a bit more educated and maybe even edified! After all, if clothes make the man, then the tailor should be a prime candidate for deification. Perhaps we’d do well to leave it to the poor Scottish tailor in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus:
"[T]turning the corner of a lane, in the Scottish Town of Edinburgh, I came upon a Signpost, whereon stood written that such and such a one was 'Breeches-Maker to his Majesty;' and stood painted the Effigies of a Pair of Leather Breeches, and between the knees these memorable words, Sic Itur Ad Astra [thus you shall go to the stars]. Was not this the martyr prison-speech of a Tailor sighing indeed in bonds, yet sighing towards deliverance, and prophetically appealing to a better day? A day of justice, when the worth of Breeches would be revealed to man, and the Scissors become forever venerable.”