Art. XI . Making a Man's Tailcoat, by J. Gottfred.
Anyone who wishes to portray a clerk, partner or factor from around 1795 to 1815 will need a tailcoat tucked into their cassette. In this article, I will discuss tailcoats of this period, and give you some advice on how to make your own.
Before looking at the details of the construction, let me first review the evolution of both men's and women's fashion during the latter part of the 18th century, as some context is required to get a feel for look you are trying to create.
Around the 1780's, women's fashions began to lose the wide-waisted look of the colonial period dress, and by 1795 the so-called 'round gown' had come into vogue. Round gowns are the precursor to the classic empire dress. They had high waistlines, and narrower skirts, but they were still made of fairly substantial fabrics in both dark and light colors.
Tailcoat (c. 1815)— This tailcoat is a non-buttoning single breasted version with the 'M' style of collar. The material is summer-weight wool in a deep lavender with black buttons. Tails not shown. The shirt is a standard white linen shirt with standing collar and black silk stock with long tails. The waistcoat is white with red, light blue, and black stripes. (Photo from Old Fort William by J. Gottfred.)
From around 1800 to 1815 the true 'empire dress' came to the fore. The idea was for the woman to look much like a Greek statue or marble column. High fashion gowns of the time were made of light fabrics in white or cream, with waistlines just under the bust, and short hairstyles done up in curls. These gowns were so thin and light that they were practically transparent, and became known as 'influenza gowns'. After a pneumonia epidemic in Paris in 1803, shawls, Spencer jackets, redingotes and pelisses became popular. In England, cashmere shawls were especially so, with the Spencer jacket a practical choice for outdoor wear. (Spencer jackets got their name from Lord Spencer, who, when frustrated by his tails catching on the brambles, tore the tails off of his coat when hunting one day.)
Obviously, country wives in the North West did not go running around in empire dresses (except possibly for the wives of partners), but the high fashion look did penetrate through all levels of the social structure. An example of this is shown in the Peter Rindisbacher drawing 'A Half-caste and His Two Wives', circa 1825 (Josephy, Plate 31; Peterson & Brown, Plate 13). The native wife on the left is wearing a long-sleeved, short-waisted, low-cut short-gown which creates the general shape and impression of a tailored Spencer Jacket. The wife on the right is wearing a large shawl over her clothes.
Now, back to the men. The period of 1789 to 1815 has been called the 'age of the man of action'. The dandified, foppish look of colonial times had given way to a straight-cut, few-frills, plain-fabric look which smacked of military influence. Napoleon himself set the tone of the age by appearing in salons dressed in military fatigues and combat boots.
The colonial style wide-hipped look and long waistcoats had first given way to tailcoats with high collars and cut-away lapels that wouldn't even meet in the middle. By 1795, tailcoats of the style pictured in this article had come to the fore.
The new look was characterized by short waistcoats, ending at about the waist, and tailcoats with tails that ran from the point of the hip to the back of the knee, the waist being cut straight across above the waistcoat. These styles were double or single breasted, with a plain collar. After 1803 the so-called 'M' cut collar came into vogue. At the same time, the waistline of the narrow fall trousers rose higher and higher, eventually being held up with suspenders when they could no longer be supported by the hips.
Tailcoat (c. 1815)— This is a double-breasted tailcoat with a plain cut collar. The material is narrow-wale, medium-weight gray corduroy with tan buttons. Tails not shown. The shirt is a standard white linen shirt with the collar folded over a black silk stock. The waistcoat is black wool. (Photo from Old Fort William by J. Gottfred.)
Men's dress was the opposite of the women's. Where women's dress was characterized by light colored, light-weight fabrics which oozed feminine charms, men's dress was bold and stark, characterized by heavy, dark fabrics and a 'down to business' look. Only the waistcoats, with collars and bottoms peeking out from under plain, dark tailcoats, provided a splash of color.
Making a man's tailcoat is a somewhat daunting problem for beginner sewers like me— but if I can do it, so can anybody!
A tailcoat has a tailored fit, so unless you are practiced at drafting patterns, you will need to find a pattern to work from. I have not included a pattern in this article because I feel that for the average person working from the sort of inexact drawing I could provide would be an exercise in frustration.
For my tailcoat, the only pattern I could find (aside from a rough sketch pattern available through Old Fort William) was from Rocking Horse Farm, (P.O. Box 735, Chardon, Ohio, 44024-0735) called '#201 Tailcoat 1795-1820'. This pattern comes with several variations including the standard and M-cut collars.
For your first effort, I would recommend trying a pre-1803 version with the standard collar. The construction is quite a bit simpler.
The instructions are about average in ease of understanding. If you are familiar with standard sewing terms then you should make out just fine. If not, you should consider buying a beginner sewing book which explains the terminology of patterns, and gives you hints on various techniques that you will need to use to make this pattern.
Although these projects are called 'sewing', in my experience this is a misnomer. Sewing the various bits together into a tailcoat is only about a quarter of the work in making a project such as this.
Partners with Clerk (c. 1815)— This picture shows four North West Company partners and a clerk at Old Fort William waiting for a canoe brigade to arrive from the Northwest. The clerk (on the left, pouring brandy) is dressed in a double-breasted, narrow-wale green corduroy tailcoat with brown pants and a light brown 'clerk's cap'. Note the buttons at the center back gathers, and the length of the coat. The gentleman on the right is wearing an unbuttoned, double-breasted, dark wine tailcoat with gold buttons. He is wearing a white stock, yellow waistcoat, and gray wool pants. All of the gentlemen are wearing shoes, and the company partners are all sporting fine beaver hats. Note that Mr. Simon Fraser (back right) is wearing a camblet cloak. (Photo from Old Fort William by J. Gottfred.)
The first thing to do is to get some sewing tracing paper from a fabric store and carefully trace the pattern for your size from the original. Don't wreck the original— you will need it for making adjustments! Cut out the copy you traced and transfer it to some cheap fabric (use an old sheet, or some ugly stuff no one will buy on sale for 75% off at the local fabric depot.) I transfer it by laying the fabric and the pattern on a sewing board, and then poking pins through both to hold things in place. I then brush around the edge of the pattern with a piece of tailor's chalk, using the pattern as a stencil. This gives me an extremely accurate pattern transfer. I can't overemphasize how important it is to draft and transfer your pattern with absolute accuracy. Variations of as little as ¼" can make a huge difference in the fit of the final garment.
Carefully cut out the pieces and sew them together to make a trial garment. Try it on— suprise! It doesn't fit! (They never do, at least, not for me!) In fact, you will need to make two or three trial garments before you can even figure out which is the correct size to use. You must remember that these garments do not fit like modern clothes, so you have to wear each model around for a while before you get a sense of what a proper fit is likely to be.
Once you have found which size is going to give you the best fit overall, you will now have to stretch and shrink it here and there in order to match it as closely as possible to your particular shape. This is not as tough as it sounds, as most of the changes should be pretty straightforward. If you are unsure of how to enlarge (or reduce) the pattern, then take it and the model to a sewing store, or your grandmother, or wherever you can find someone who can help you fine tune your pattern.
Finally, you are ready to try it out on the real thing. By now, you should have confidence in how to proceed, because while making all those models, you have uncovered all the secrets hidden in the instructions, and you have practiced the tricky bits such as insetting the sleeves. (Hint : use a gather stitch around the edge of the sleeve shoulder to compress the sleeve so that it can be set into the coat shoulder.) As I mentioned earlier, the M-cut collar in this pattern is tricky— I'm still fiddling about trying to get it just right on my second tailcoat.
For my first tailcoat, I chose a fairly thick melton cloth in dark green. The result was great, although I thought my sewing machine was going to give up the ghost a couple of times on places where there was up to six layers of the fabric to sew through!
This pattern requires at least ten buttons, more if you want to put buttons along the sleeve edge.
The jacket body is lined, but the tails are not (they traditionally weren't). On my second coat I am lining the tails so that the edge has a nice finished look to it.
Choose a smooth surfaced wool for a partner's coat, or a narrow wale corduroy for a clerk's outfit. The illustrations from Old Fort William will give you a sense of the various materials and styles.
Good luck, and keep in mind the North West Company motto— 'Perseverance'!
Josephy, Alvin M. (Jr.). The Artist Was a Young Man : The Life Story of Peter Rindisbacher. Amon Carter Museum : Fort Worth, Texas, 1970.
Peterson, Jaqueline & Brown, Jennifer S. H. (ed.). The New Peoples : Being and Becoming Métis in North America. (Manitoba studies in native history ISSN 0826-9416; 1) University of Manitoba Press, 1985.
Copyright 1994-2002 Northwest Journal ISSN 1206-4203. May I copy this article for my class?