18th century waistcoat

Contributed by: Private collectors

left lower front embroidery waistcoat front back waistcoat
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Private collectors
  • Date range:

    1770 - 1780
  • Place of origin:

    London, United Kingdom
  • Gender:

    Male, Female
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Object information

Significance statement

Captain James Cook (1728-1779) was a brilliant British explorer, navigator, and cartographer who, among many other achievements, was the first European to document the east coast of Australia. He was sadly killed in Hawaii during a dispute with the locals.

This embroidered silk waistcoat was reputedly worn by Captain James Cook and is of great interest to historians. It poses intriguing questions that we hope will, in time, be answered. If it truly belonged to this explorer then it is of great value to the community at large and to Australian history in particular.

It is a typical well to do man's waistcoat from the late 18th century, when men were about to lose their flamboyant and colourful styling for the more sombre greys and blacks of the 19th century. The colourful floral embroidered waistcoat was the last vestige of baroque style.

The fact that the waistcoat's ownership has been so well documented certainly points to the integrity of the provenance, but as with many articles of clothing, it is extremely hard to establish the exact provenance when so much time has elapsed. In the absence of signatures, dressmakers' labels and corroborating portraits, we must study the evidence carefully. An excellent report on this waistcoat has been written by Arthur Beau Palmer whose findings have been included in this entry. Several other objects with a similar provenance have been considered in the research.

The ownership was undocumented from 1835 to 1880, before it came into the hands of antique dealers, the Woollan sisters, reputedly fastidious in their information gathering.

They sold the waistcoat to Viscount Leverhulme on the understanding that they had acquired the waistcoat from a member of the Cook family.

The provenance is intriguing in itself and how it relates to the changes that were made to it. William Hesketh Lever, Viscount Leverhulme was an industrialist and philanthropist with extraordinary collections of paintings, furniture and objects d'art. Like Ruby Rich the subsequent owner of the waistcoat, he would have had little reason to exaggerate the provenance of the waistcoat for monetary gain.

Ruby Rich was a flamboyant character from a wealthy family who chose to enjoy the waistcoat irrespective of its important provenance. She altered it to fit with her party going and amateur theatrical activities. Even at the time this would have been contrary to all the advice of how to keep textiles safe and intact! These alterations sadly make it impossible to determine its original size.

The waistcoat is of great historical interest and a wonderful invitation for further study.

Author: Lindie Ward, 3rd September 2009.


The twilled silk waistcoat front is embroidered with an overall floral sprig design with concentrations of more complex flowers along the front edges, pocket flaps and across the front hem. The fine floss silk is embroidered in a range of natural colours in symmetrical floral patterns. Two shaped embroidered pocket flaps have at some time been relocated as a collar at the neck. The waistcoat fastens at the front with 9 brown leather shanked buttons (not typical of this style) and hand-worked button-holes. Darts have been stitched into the front body, one at each armhole which has been removed and one at each side from side seam to accommodate a female bust-line, which remain. The lower front edges have been re-cut shorter than the original waistcoat by lifting the embroidered hem bands and machine stitching them to the body along a curved seam-line at a different angle to the grain of the main waistcoat. The armholes are neatly hand hemmed and the buttonholes hand stitched.

The back is made from cream linen and has also been altered to fit a woman. The centre back is made wider by an inserted machine stitched panel of cotton fabric. Two vertical machine sewn darts have been unpicked and a narrow band along the hem has gaps where those darts were previously stitched.

There is a combination of original hand stitching, more recent, rougher hand stitching and machine stitching on this garment.

History and Provenance

Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information

Captain James Cook (1728-1779) married Elizabeth Batts (1742-1835), the daughter of Samuel Batts, keeper of the Bell Inn, Wapping and one of his mentors, on the 21st of December 1762 at St. Margaret's Church in Barking, Essex.

The couple had six children: James (1763-1794), Nathaniel (1764-1781), Elizabeth (1767-1771), Joseph (1768-1768), George (1772-1772) and Hugh (1776-1793).

When not at sea, Cook lived in the East End of London.

Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

This waistcoat is reputed to have been owned and worn by Captain James Cook who died on 14th February 1779 on his third and final voyage. Cook set out in July 12th 1776 on this voyage. If he did not take the waistcoat with him, the last time it was worn would have been prior to this date.

The following ownership information is edited from a report by Arthur Beau Palmer 2008.

'The Woollan sisters' (who sold the waistcoat to Ruby) 'were seminal, well known & socially well connected antique dealers in London c1880s - c1910. They are recorded as having traded in Art needlework, a category within which this embroidered silk waistcoat falls. They were pedantic in a manner extinct after the Victorian era closed. ... They were also most likely to be very particular about provenance. The Woollans overlap with Leverhulme in time and place. As Leverhulme was one of the largest collectors of antiques the English speaking world has seen, it is most unlikely the Viscount was not a regular client of the Woollan antique shop.'

Arthur Beau Palmer 2008

Ruby Rich-Schalt (23/6/1888-10/5/1988) was born in Walgett. Her primary interest in life was music and she performed her first piano concert at the Sydney Town Hall in 1899. Despite her wealthy father refusing to allow her to become a professional musician, she studied under the best tutors in Sydney, Paris and London where she also became a keen suffragette. In Sydney she joined the International Alliance of Women and played an active role in the Jewish community.

Ruby and Leverhulme both lived life to the full and chose to enjoy the objects in their collections, not to store them away. Ruby is thought to have had the waistcoat altered to fit herself. She may have had it altered several times.

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

The waistcoat is typical of men's waistcoats in Europe from 1770-1790, decorated with colourful and complex floss silk floral embroidery.

Where did this information come from?

Arthur Beau Palmer, Ethnographic Consultant

  1. Place of origin:

    London, United Kingdom

  2. Owned by:

    1. Cook family 1770-1835

    2. 1835-1880 unknown

    3. Helen & Isabel Woollan, Antique dealers, 28 Brook Street, London c1880-1910

    4. Purchased prior to 1912 by Viscount Leverhulme on the understanding that they had purchased it from a member of the Cook family.

    5. 1912 Viscount Leverhulme presented the waistcoat to Dr Ruby Rich of Sydney.

    6. 1985 Charles Rich (Dr Rich's nephew) sold the waistcoat by private treaty to the present owner.

  3. Worn by:

    Reputed to have been worn by Captain James Cook.

  4. Occasion(s):

    no special occasion known

  5. Place:


  6. Made by:

    Said to have been made by Cook's wife, Elizabeth. Waistcoats were embroidered flat before being made up into a 3D waistcoat and often a different person would sew it together.

    This embroidery bears no resemblance to the embroidery on the tapa waistcoat in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, thought to have been embroidered by Elizabeth. It is unlikely that she embroidered this waistcoat. However she could have hand stitched the already embroidered pieces together to make the finished waistcoat.

  7. Made for:

    Thought to have been made for Captain James Cook

Trimmings / Decoration

The embroidery is hand sewn in coloured floss silk depicting various stylised flowers that are difficult to identify. The main body of the front is embroidered with sprigs and the denser, more complete flowers appear along front edges, hem and pocket flaps.

The stylised flower designs need further research to determine whether they were influenced by Sydney Parkinson's botanical illustrations from Cook's first and second voyages.

Viv Sinnamon of Kowanyama, North Queensland, suggests one of the buds featured could be hibiscus, endemic to many Pacific islands; a star shaped flower featured is found on the eastern seaboard; a familiar vine is embroidered close to the buttons and what look like banksia seed cases are at the lower panel, all plants not found in Britain.

(edited from a report by Arthur Beau Palmer 2008)


Coloured floss silk floral embroidery, dense around edges, hem and pocket flaps

Fibre / Weave

The front is made from white twilled silk.

The back is of plain weave linen with a central cotton insert and waist pieces seamed in at the hem.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


This garment has been through several different stages having been completely re-cut at least twice to suit a woman.

1. When first made the waistcoat is likely to have been cut much longer to extend well below the waist, with side seams curving outwards as indicated by remaining curved hand stitching on the side seam. Pockets and pocket flaps would have been positioned below the waist.

2. The shoulder was unpicked and re-cut at the front. Fabric was added to the outside of the shoulder with hand stitching. The shoulder seam was sewn together with machine stitching therefore dates to post 1855.

3. The front hem embroidery was cut off along the embroidered line and reattached higher up but at a different angle from the main body to make the waistcoat much shorter. This was stitched by machine therefore dates to post 1855.

4. The pocket flaps from the original waistcoat were unpicked and repositioned on the front neck to form a collar.

5. Darts on each armhole just above the bust were stitched by machine to fit a woman and then unpicked, indicating the first post 1855 alteration.

6. Darts from the side seam to the bust were sewn by machine to fit a woman and remain.

7. Darts on each side of centre back were sewn by machine as evidenced by stitch holes and remnant threads, later to be unpicked, indicating first post 1855 alteration.

8. Addition of fabric to enlarge the centre back is machine stitched in place therefore dates to post 1855.

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other


The alterations to the body of the waistcoat have resulted in the grain of the upper and lower body of the front being different. From a close study of the grain you can work out the angle at which the embroidery originally sat since each waistcoat front would have been made in one piece.

  1. Bias
  2. Straight


The waistcoat fastens with nine leather shanked buttons and hand stitched button-holes. The buttons are uncharacteristic of the 1770s, which would have been embroidered silk matching the embroidery on the waistcoat itself.

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

The lining is of a coarse cream linen.


Chest 920 mm
Front neck to hem 420 mm
Back neck to hem 430 mm
Neck to sleeve head 120 mm
Cross back 340 mm
Underarm to underarm 510 mm
Convert to inches

Had the waistcoat not been altered, we could have drawn conclusions about the wearer and compared its size to other waistcoats thought to have been worn by Captain James Cook. Unfortunately the fabric has been cut away from side seams and shoulders and few of the original hand stitches remain to hint at the original size.

Dress Themes

This was an expensive garment probably worn for special occasions but we are not able to say exactly which special occasions.

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

A painting, George Carter's Death of Captain Cook, 1781 illustrates how Captain Cook wore his waistcoat (not this one) extending to below the waist by about 100mm.

An engraving of Captain James Cook published in April, 1799 by I. K. Sherwin

(from a painting by N. Dance) again shows Cook's waistcoat (not this one)extending well below the waist.

Other related objects

Tahitian tapa cloth waistcoat embroidered by Elizabeth Cook, c 1775 held at the Mitchell Library, Sydney

Embroidery depicting the voyages of Captain James Cook held in the Australian National Maritime Museum c 1800 by Elizabeth Cook

Waistcoat 1755-1785 held by Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington

Waistcoat with naval buttons 1750-1779 from the collection of the State Library of Victoria


Evidence of repairs

Note in manufacture section the detail of various changes that have been made to this waistcoat.

The silk is fragile in places and has split.

Certain coloured embroidery threads, especially pink and white, have deteriorated probably due to dye/bleach substance rather than wear, to reveal minute needle holes and pattern markings in the silk.


  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor


  1. Discolouration
  2. Fading
  3. Brittle
  4. Holes
  5. Stained
  6. Worn
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