The womenswear in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s China show couldn’t be more spectacular, but flashy menswear is not forgotten in the Ratti Center’s show, Elaborate Embroidery: Fabrics for Menswear before 1815, running through July 19.
It’s tiny, but lets you see what rich, fashionable men of the late 1700s and early 1800s were getting from their tailors in the biggest cities of Europe just before the fashions changed. Around 1815, Western men all adopted the monochrome suits that they’re still wearing for formal occasions and business today.
Until that fashion wave hit, the most spectacularly dressed men on the Continent would sport elaborate embroidery on silk or velvet jackets. The Met’s conservation center and textile library has selected some of its most spectacular samples. Check out the elaborate needlework in our Flickr feed.
The show centers around a few samples that would be on display in retail shops where fashionable men would place custom orders. For more details on the 1770s showroom experience, read the Met’s blog post.
You’ll see swaths of silk or velvet all embroidered to the fit of the customer, just waiting for the tailor to perform the 3D transformation. The handwork is truly incredible. An early sample from the 1760s uses silver (that’s metal) embroidery interlaced with different-sized sequins to catch the light. Just imagine the dazzle when that guy made his entrance at court.
Some of the samples in the cases appear toned down by comparison to the silk-silver-sequin combo, but close inspection reveals how piling on a profusion of different stitches create botanical illusions running up and down the edges of coats and waistcoats. They’re comparable to botanical illustrations in the NYBG’s collections.
The most elaborate work was done in France, but with the switch to more democratic, monochrome suits in the early 1800s meant that people who had developed some of the best embroidery skills in Europe had to look for other jobs.
Whose stitches are on top? East or West? There’s just one more week to compare these snippets of handwork history with the elaborately embroidered 1700s and 1800s Manchu robes on loan from Beijing’s Palace Museum in the downstairs gallery of the Costume Institute. Decide for yourself.