Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Regency Tailcoats

I've been getting a lot of orders for Regency Tailcoats lately. By a lot I mean 3. There are a few Jean Austin Balls coming up, and the guys are getting ready. I now have 2 gray coats in stock. One is double breasted, the other single breasted. Both are quite pretty ($200 if anyone is interested). This picture is of my husband reluctantly modeling the single breasted tailcoat, (unfinished in the photo), over his jeans and t-shirt. I must say, it suits him much better than a sweatshirt. This coat is a little big for him, but fits me quite well. I look great in a tailcoat and 1812 stand-up collar!

I got the pattern from The Cut of Men's Clothes, a truly wonderful book and a good investment for anyone interested in costuming. (I'm saving for Cut of Women's Clothes, and Corsets & Crinolines). Most of these patterns require an extensive knowledge of period tailoring, modern sewing and pattern-making experience. I started by blowing up the pattern as-is, then adjusted it to fit my customers. None of the drawings include seam allowances, so if you work from them, be sure to add 1/2" allowances (much easier to calculate than 5/8"). If I thought in metric it'd be even easier.

I like to draw all of my patterns free-hand and check everything with a ruler and measure tape many times. I also use grids and plum lines. The T-square is my friend! Someone suggested that I pick up one of those curve-makers at JoAnn's, but I've found them difficult to use, and for me it's easier to just re-draw a curve by hand. There have been a few garments that I've made miniatures of, just to understand the proper assembly and finishing techniques. Doing this saves fabric and prevents nasty surprises (like, the directions didn't mention the gown had a bodice lining that is totally different from the outside!)

One thing I noticed is that most of the CoMC patterns are quite small. At first I thought the tailcoat was for a child or very young man, but then I looked at the back-waist measurement (17") and realized that the person was actually a little taller than my petite 5'2". They were just very, very narrow. In the last 200 years Americans have gained a lot of weight! Our shoulders and chest have gotten broader, we have grown taller (my great grandmother was 4'10 and only a little under average), and we have gotten much bigger around.
This is a generalization, of course, one of my many-great grandfathers was over 7' tall, he may have been a giant.

The small waist could be explained by a men's corset, but I don't think the person who wore this coat needed any help in that department. Corsets were commonly worn by men in the Regency and Victorian eras, and helped give them that wasp-waist / pigeon-breast look that was so popular for both genders. Puffed sleeves made shoulders look wider without adding bulk to the midsection.

You can see in the cartoon how a good deal of the body was artifice and clever engineering. One of my friends who also makes historic clothes made calf pads for a guy who did 1720's reenacting. He had very small legs and wanted calf muscles to look good in his stockings!

After making several of these tailcoats, I know doesn't have to be as complicated as the cartoon portrays. The coat is tight at the waist, then flairs at the hips and chest, making the waist look smaller, no matter what size it really is. The collar is heavily stiffened (I use a heavy wool with a fusible interfacing), and the chest is padded with the same material. The stiffness of the front and collar make it stand out from the body, making those areas look even bigger (instant pigeon-breast without a corset!).

In addition to the clever cut of the coat, the shirt has a wide stand-up collar, the cravat adds considerable bulk, and the waistcoat adds quite a bit of poof & foof to the whole look, while keeping it very 'clean'. You can see the white-on-white look was quite popular. I love the combination of royal blue and warm brown. Very striking. This particular gentlemen (Nicolas -Pierre Tiolier, 1817) is not nearly as romance-novel-worthy as another gent in similar clothes, but alas, his painting doesn't show the clothes as well.

As to the shirt, I've been using another CoMC pattern, the 1700-1810 shirt, with very wide cuffs, no ruffles, and a collar from Tailor's Guide (I turned the Highlander collar upside-down for a perfect 1812 collar). I could also use a very wide rectangular collar and get a similar effect, but I got a kick of turning theirs upside-down. For this last customer, I added a straight button placket to the front instead of leaving it open. I didn't think he would appreciate having an open chest, and I have found one example of an 1812 shirt with a 2 button closure. Unfortunately, painters didn't revel in painting men in their shirtsleeves like they did women in their chemises...


Anonymous said...

This has been the most helpful article I have found so far concerning the creation of this style coat. The other day I was watching Pride and Prejudice and fell in love with Mr. Bingly's coat that he wears near the end of the movie. It has lead me on a wild goose chase to find out what it was called. I found very little of any help. This though is wonderfully informative; from the book you used to the issue with growing bodies. I have a bit of experience with sewing machine and less with pattern creation, but I'm good at figuring things out; do you think I'll be able to figure this all out if I get that book? Thank you for this article.

--White Weasel

tofucactus said...

Thanks for going into so much detail. I've been wanting to convert tails tuxedo into one of these. I'll see if I can't buy or borrow a copy of the pattern book you recommend.

Gail Kellogg Hope said...


The easiest way to transfer a pattern is to put it on a 1" grid and assign a number to it. The Norah Waugh books work well with 1" = 9".
The first thing you have to adjust from there is the back waist measurement. Then the waist, chest and armhole.
Check that your pieces line up and make a test garment from inexpensive fabric (muslin is good for that).