Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Dressed to Impress: Dr. Douglas’s Silk Waistcoat

Accession # 1989.0001
Item: Waistcoat
Men’s Clothing- Outerwear- Textile

Let your Address upon your first appearance be genteel and engaging, and consequently give advantageous impressions of you. - Lord Chesterfield: His Character and Characters by Colin Franklin

In British and European culture, men’s everyday and formal wear of the eighteenth century was defined by the three piece suit: coat, breeches, and waistcoat, a fashion that was developed from the court attire required by Charles II in 1666 after the British Restoration. Unless engaged in manual labor or relaxed in the privacy of one’s home, a coat worn over waistcoat and knee-length breeches was worn from season to season by all social classes. The material, intricacy of design, and tailoring distinguished the class of the wearer and the function of the suit. For grand occasions and royal court appearances no detail was spared on formal wear. Silk suits were embroidered with flowers and other decorative motifs. Commenting on men’s fashions and manners, Erasmus Jones noted, “A smart Coat, fine Waistcoat, nicely powder’d Wig, and lac’d Linnen, may in some degree justify a Man’s taking upon him in the Street, where Respect depends wholly upon Appearance.” From buckles on breeches to embroidery on waistcoats, each element revealed something of a man’s class, wealth, or expectations. Consider the painting of Henry Fane with Inigo Jones and Charles Blair by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Completed in 1766, each gentleman is portrayed, elegantly attired in a three piece suit.The waistcoat was as indispensable to everyday dress as the coat and breeches. On formal occasions, the waistcoat was often the most decorative element of the suit.

The silk waistcoat from the Wilton Collection has a particular connection to the Randolph family. A handwritten label attached to it reads, “COURT VEST. Over 150 years old. Worn by Dr. Douglas at the Court of George II. Mrs. J. W. Randolph.” Based on the life of Douglas and the style of the waistcoat, the label should read George III. Dr. Charles Douglas of Scotland was married to Susanna Randolph of Curles Plantation. According to Randolph family history, Susanna was born in Virginia, December 9, 1756, and raised in England. She married Douglas, a descendent of the illustrious Douglas clan and heir presumptive to the 14th Earl of Morton, on January 23, 1783. Shortly thereafter she was presented to George III at the Court of St. James in London. For such a grand occasion, fine and appropriate attire was a must; however, for men court attire was not necessarily à la mode.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
         The cut and fit of the three piece suit evolved over the course of the eighteenth century, but fashions from previous periods were often retained in court attire. A British waistcoat, c. 1770, from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection illustrates the flashiness of formal waistcoats. The fanciful embroidery, couched chenille thread and expensive satin silk conveyed wealth. Generally after the 1770s, waistcoats grew shorter, closer fitting, and less ornamented- embroidery was confined to the pockets, skirts and buttonholes. The formal Douglas waistcoat closely resembles those fashionable between the 1760s and 1770s.It lacks the highly decorative embroidery of other court suits. The front is made of beige silk with pewter gray braid sewn around the skirt and pockets. The skirt is cutaway in the shape of an inverted “V.” The waistcoat back and lining are linen. It was common to make the back of less expensive fabric. Perhaps as a physician, with plans to return to Virginia with his new wife, Douglas chose a sensible, but no less expensive, waistcoat to wear at court. The essayist and politician, Lord Chesterfield advised men to “dress yourself as well and as fine as the people of your age and rank do, in the place where you are. It is of more consequence to be well drest, than Philosophers are aware of…” Certainly Douglas’s waistcoat was chosen carefully to reflect his status; unfortunately we do not know what breeches or coat he wore.

        Not much is known about the private lives of Dr. Douglas and Susanna Randolph. What could his waistcoat and the rest of his wardrobe reveal about his character? In 1784, there is an account of Douglas and his wife at Wilton. After living in Virginia, possibly at Curles Plantation, Douglas moved to Bermuda where he died in 1823 and was buried at St. Peter’s Church in St. George’s. In his will, Douglas requested that Charles Randolph receive “Instruments Linen and cloaths apparel [apparel was a later notation] and the Seal of the Family. Perhaps the “cloaths apparel” included Douglas’s court waistcoat. The will is intriguing and signifies the importance and value placed on men’s clothing in the eighteenth century.


Costume Design Center. The Colonial Williamsburg Costume Handbook. Colonial Williamsburg
            Foundation, 2005.
“Historic Threads: Three Centuries of Clothing.” Colonial Williamsburg‘s online museum collection.
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2012. 20 March 2012 <>.
 Jones, Erasmus, The Man of Manners, Third Edition, 1737.
Meade, Bishop William. Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott
 Company, 1906

For more information on eighteenth-century clothing search the collections on the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London websites.

Image Credits
Painting of The Honorable Henry Fane (1739–1802) with Inigo Jones and Charles Blair by Sir
 Joshua Reynolds, 1761-1766, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession
 Numbe:87.16 <
Waistcoat, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum number: 652A-1898. <

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"I am a brazen-faced old optimist"

Object: Sundial
Ascension #: 2012.0003
The Randolphs may have had a sundial in their terraced gardens similar to this one to keep up with the fashionable garden décor of the times.  The bronze sundial’s face has Roman numerals to mark the morning and evening solar hours and Thomas Hart London 1765 inscribed on it.  Inside the Roman numerals that make up the outside ring are numerous scrolling leaf designs and Fleur de Leis along with a poem that reads in all caps:

Serene I stand amongst the flowers,
And only count life’s sunny hours,
For me dark days do not exist,
I am a brazen-faced old optimist.

Closing in on the center of the face is a small flower with feather-like leaves on either side around circle.  On the inside of this circle are the cardinal directions and between each letter is a cloud.  In the center of the face is the gnomon (Greek for 'pointer' or 'indicator', and also 'one who knows'), which casts the shadow, with numerous chased floral designs and a degree mark.  It is a horizontal sundial, which has the gnomon lined up with the tilt of the earth’s axis.  Horizontal sundials are typically the ones found on pedestals in gardens.  The gnomon makes an angle equal to the latitude of the location for which it was designed.  The angle of the gnomon is equal to the latitude of the original location for which the sundial was intended in this case possibly London, England.
The “shadow stick” is the earliest form of a sundial which was placed pointing up perpendicular to the earth and where it cast its shadow was marked.  Egypt and Mesopotamia had shadow measuring devices as early as 1500 B.C.  The Egyptians built obelisks or stone towers which helped people tell time as the shadow of the obelisk moved throughout the day.  The earliest description of a sundial comes from Berossus, a Babylonian priest and author in 300 B.C. Vitruvius writes in book 9 of his Ten Books on Architecture in about 25 B.C. a list of inventors and their various sundials in which he mentions Berossus “Berosus the Chaldaean is said to have invented the semicircular one carved out of a squared block and undercut to follow the earth's tilt.”  The first sundial was erected in Rome in the year 290 B.C.  Later, one historian explains that the Romans desired to have sundials put in “every possible corner of their villas and grounds”. Cicero makes a reference to his desire to have a sundial placed at his villa in a letter written in 48 B.C. to Tiro.  The earliest sundials in England of Saxon origins and may point to early Norseman dividing time into eight tides.

This sundial was presented in 1975 to Wilton by Lester Gayle, Jr. in memory of his wife who was a Dame for many years.  For more than thirty five years it had been casting the sun’s shadow on the house’s river side out in the elements because of the assumption that this timepiece was a 20th century reproduction of the original.  It was not until the prevailing winds of Hurricane Irene brought a oak tree down toppling the sundial from its stone pedestal to the ground leaving it bent and discolored due to contact with leaves and other organic material that a surprising discovery was made.  Upon investigation of the damaged sundial and to what extent it would need to be repaired, it was found that what had been basking in the sun for so many years was in fact not a 20th century reproduction, but an 18th century original done in 1765 by Thomas Hart of London.  Only two recorded sundials were made by Thomas Hart of London.  As one source notes, the rhyme was a 20th century addition as it suggests the word ‘optimist’ does not seem likely to have been used before this upon looking at the Oxford English Dictionary.  The sundial has since been repaired to its former glory.

One historian notes how timeless the sundial is, “Sundials continued to be erected long after clocks came into use, and in the 17th century many fine specimens were erected.  Clocks did not in any way diminish their popularity, and if the truth be known doubtless only helped to cause a greater number to be erected, since not only could they be relied upon to keep accurate time, but also to serve for the setting of a clock when it stopped.”  The custom of having bronze sundials mounted on stone pedestals on display in private gardens began as early as the late 17th century.  So as the Randolphs strolled through their garden on a sunny spring afternoon they could possibly have passed by a sundial such as this which helped them keep time as the hours of the day waned.

Come out during the 79th Historic Garden Week and experience being serene among the flowers and part of life’s sunny hours as you tour the gardens of many of Virginia’s historic landmarks. See for more details.

“Sundial History”. Accurate Sundials, LLC. 8 April 2012.                
“When Time Began: The History and Science of Sundials”. Time Center. 8 April 2012.            
“Sundial History”. 8 April 2012. <>
“Sun Clocks” Journey in Time. 8 April 2012. <>
“Antique Sundials and Weathered Modern”. Jardinique: Antique and Quality Garden Items. 21 March 2012.
“Types of Sundials” 10 April 2012. Sundials on the Internet.. 8 April 2012.
 “Conservation Report”. Bronze et al, Ltd. 3 March 2012.
Mintz, Daniel. “History Topic: Timekeeping in the Ancient World: Sundials”. University of St.
            Andrews. April 2007. 8 April 2012.
Nordoff, Helga. “History of the Sundial”. 8 April 2012.            
Strohm, Bob. “Windfall at Wilton”.
Probst, Chuck. “Further to your sundial”. Email to Carol Givens. 8 October 2011.
Ward, John and Margaret Folkard. “Sundials: Part 2: Definitions and Basic Types”. Horticulture: 
       Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture. From The New Zealand Garden Journal (Journal of the
      Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture), Vol. 2, No. 1, March 1997, pp. 21-25. 8 April 2012.