A Fine Collection’s artifacts have been skewing a little feminine this year, so let’s take a look at the other side of fashion. Today’s piece is masculine, but not plain: An embroidered waistcoat, from the second half of the 18th century, worn by Charles Jones of what is now Chevy Chase.

The waistcoat is silk with a linen back, embroidered with both silk and metallic threads and embellished with tiny metal sequins. (Today the metal trim is dulled; you’ll have to imagine the sparkle it would have added.)  There are two crescent-shaped pockets, and eleven self-covered sequined buttons (the top buttonholes are fakes).  The bottom is square-cut, ending just below the waist, and there is a short stand-up collar.

Men’s waistcoats were introduced, literally, in 1666; they have stayed more or less in fashion – at least for formal wear – ever since. Alas, today’s vests are usually fairly sedate, but until the early 19th century they were often elaborately embellished, and meant to be seen and admired. If you think this vest is fancy, check out some of these even more fabulous examples from Colonial Williamsburg, the MFA, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Here's your man William Paca, painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1772. His waistcoat is sadly unembroidered, but it gives you a sense of the garment's place in the whole outfit. From the Maryland State Art Collection.

Judge Charles Jones (1712-1798) was a prominent landowner and local official. His estate, Clean Drinking Manor, was built around 1750, and remained in the family into the 20th century. (Remember Jonesy? This is his grandfather.) Jones served as one of the first judges of the Montgomery County Orphans Court, from 1777-1779, and was appointed Justice of the Peace in 1780. The 1783 tax assessment lists his real and personal property at a total of 2,520 pounds, quite a good haul for the time.

After a stint at the Smithsonian, the waistcoat was loaned to us for many years and and finally donated by the Jones family in 1982. Family tradition tells us that it was worn by Charles Jones in 1750, “when [he was] presented to the King and Queen of England.” We can take that with a grain or two of salt; for one thing, England was ruled only by the widower King George II in 1750. For another, some of the design elements on this waistcoat are more 1780s than 1750s. (Click the link for a very similar piece at the V&A.)  Whether Jones made a trip to England in 1750 is currently unknown.

Even if this waistcoat didn’t make it to England, Jones was an important and wealthy gentleman who would have needed some formalwear; he could have worn it to many events in and around Montgomery County in the late 18th century.  The family, not unnaturally, chose to focus less on local appearances and more on the potential Royal connection (even though Jones was an early proponent of the Revolutionary cause, and might himself have been uninterested in perpetuating his Royal visit). I can’t quibble, since it helped to ensure the waistcoat’s survival for our admiration. 

Mr. Paca, in the Maryland State Art Collection, can be found here.

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