This waistcoat is reputed to have belonged to Captain James Cook: it is said to have come from a house where Cook stayed at one time. Whether that is, or is not, so it is certainly the style of garment worn by respectable gentlemen under their coats in Cook’s time. In the portrait of Cook painted by John Webber, the captain is wearing a waistcoat of similar style, though somewhat less decorative.
For men in the eighteenth century, the waistcoat was the most decorative item of clothing. The front of this one is made of silk lined with cotton. Its back is made of cotton. You could adjust the fit by lacing it up through eyelets at the back. The sprigs of flowers on the front have been embroidered with coloured silk threads. The buttons, edges of the waistcoat, and pocket flaps are embroidered with silk, spangles, and threads of gold and silver.
Waistcoats then were much longer than today’s waistcoats, though this one was shorter than waistcoats in the earlier part of the eighteenth century. The latter had skirts – almost as long as overcoats – and long sleeves. Coat, waistcoat, and breeches were the three main items of men’s clothes – a combination of dress that has endured in men’s clothing to this day, in the form of the three-piece suit.
Mrs Matthews, who donated this waistcoat to the Museum in 1967, reported that it originally had a label attached confirming that the waistcoat had belonged to Cook. But as this was mislaid before it came here, we have no way of authenticating the claim.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).