The Black Market Trade in…Waistcoats?!

You are looking at one of the greatest threats to British sovereignty in the 18th Century: a French silk waistcoat. Indeed, this nefarious forefather of the vest was charged with threatening the great British silk industry and was heavy taxed, often beyond the waistcoat’s actual worth, in an attempt smother the French monopoly on fashionable, embroidered accessories. Much like America’s ill-advised attempt to ban alcohol during Prohibition, Britain attempted to stamp out French imports by taxing them at customs, but like flappers and bathtub gin, when Brits couldn’t get their French embroidery fix legally, they turned to smuggling.

“Customs Officer, sir, I swear I did not know I had six French waist shapes hidden in my trunk!”

The unfinished waistcoat above is called a waistcoat shape or a waist shape. They are the shape of the waistcoat beautifully embroidered on a full panel of silk, often with matching accessories like pocket flaps and button covers that could be pieced together by your local tailor. Since they were on a whole fabric sheet, the waistcoat could be tailored to fit, adding an inch here or removing one there without having to alter the embroidery. It’s much easier to embroider on flat, square fabric than an already cut piece of cloth anyway!  It was common for thrifty embroiderers to place the lower left pocket detached from the rest of the design in order to make the most of a single piece of cloth.

I always puzzled over why some waist shapes had the decorative pocket flap embroidered in place since it would have to be cut out, leaving a large hole to patch. If you check out the back side of this waistcoat, you’ll see that the decorative flap is actually a separate piece that has been basted into place– less cutting for the tailor later! You’ll notice the example above has the whole package: a smattering of little round buttons,decorative pocket flaps, and matching collar (click the here to see every angle). Such fully matched sets where everything is carefully engineered to match are called a “habit à la disposition.” When complete, the waist shape above would have made a waistcoat similar to this one:

Deluxe! Notice the pocket flap, collar, and buttons– all of which would have been sewn on the waist shape before being tailored.

These waist shapes don’t look very scary, do they? They don’t look like assassins or narcotics or anything else that might threaten an empire as powerful as Britain, so why would the British government heavily regulate something simple like an embroidered sheet of silk? The answer is two fold: money and pride.

This lovely floral waist shape was carefully embroidered by a skilled French craftsman or craftswoman. The roses are so detailed! Each petal is shaded with a richer shade of pink and the bright green leaves contrast perfectly. It’s hard to think that this is actually an antique piece of contraband. This waist shape bears the stamp of British Customs, not as an approved, taxed item, but as illegal, smuggled goods!

The stamp seen on the inside of the lower right edge reads ‘Custom House / SEIZED DOVER / GR II’, indicating that this is contraband – a French waistcoat shape apprehended during an attempt to smuggle it into England during the reign of George II (V&A).

French embroidered waistcoats were very popular in England and the Exchequer Records in the Public Records Office refer to many instances of French waistcoat panels being smuggled across the Channel to avoid paying duty (V&A). Someone risked severe penalties for this rose-covered waistcoat: fines, jail time, even physical punishment. What is most amazing is that this waist shape–once evidence in a black market case–was not destroyed. Just like confiscated drugs or counterfeit money today, collected smuggled items were routinely burned.

“I will burn all your bloody French waist shapes, you barbarous traitor.

Silk was big business. In fact, much of the French economy depended on its silk production prowess, especially the Lyons Fabric company. The trade was carefully monitored, certain maritime routes were dedicated entirely to the movement of silk products, and trade secrets were protected under pain of death by not only manufacturers, but the state. By the time the 17th century rolled over into the 18th, France was at the top of the fashion pantheon. Silk was the fabric to wear in court and everything–gloves, hats, ribbons, skirts, fans, stomachers– was made with it, including giant mantuas like this:

The English had set up their own silk industry and were trying to catch up with French production. After all, seeing English aristocracy clothed entirely in the fabric made by one of your biggest military rivals is pretty aggravating, if not downright unpatriotic. So what could England do about it? Banning French fashion was out of the question (after all, almost all of the gentry was obsessed with French fashion), but taxing it seemed like the perfect solution. Make the import more expensive than the domestic product and Sha-zam! The British silk industry suddenly has control of the British fashion market! At least that was the idea…

“We shall employ waistcoat-sniffing dogs who can detect an untaxed French waistcoat at a quarter league!”

Waist shapes were quite easy to smuggle, much more so than a giant swathe of yardage for a mantua or a bulky ivory-handled fan. Since they were flat and relatively modest in size, you could easily tuck one away under the papered top of your trunk or roll it up inside a shirt, or even sew it into the lining of your coat or dress. It’s amazing how far people would go just to enjoy their favorite forbidden fashion!

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