Meet the Tailor


The tailor’s art is all in the cut. Journeyman Tailor Mark Hutter threads the needle of historic fashion.

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Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Opinions differ on whether clothing made the man in the 18th century, but it is certain that men made the clothing. Journeyman tailor Mark Hutter is here with us today to talk about the tailor’s trade. Mark, thank you for being here today.

Mark Hutter: My pleasure.

Harmony: You’re a journeyman tailor in the Historic Area. What does that mean that you’re doing day to day?

Mark: The large part of my day is spent interpreting the trade and practicing the trade as it was practiced in the 18th century for the visiting public. Currently the trade is practiced in the combined shop shared with the milliners and mantua makers, two other clothing trades. Historically these trades were distinct and separate from one another, and most often found in separate shops throughout the town. Today we combine them into the single shop, but there were also partnerships as we represent.

Historically what really differentiates the tailor’s trade from its sibling, the mantua maker or gown maker, are the differences in the skills. The mantua maker creates gowns by draping cloth on the body. The tailor creates fitted garments by measuring and patterning and then cutting flat and building three- dimensional garments from that. So the garments that require that method, such things as men’s coats and waistcoats and breeches, but also ladies’ stays or later known as a corset and their riding habits are fitted to the body by a series of seams as opposed to a series of pleats. So they remain part of the tailor’s work through the 18th century. So it’s the different approach to the technique of fitting; draping versus flat patterning is how we define that today. Historically this was called cutting to the body versus cutting by measure.

Harmony: So cutting becomes a real art?

Mark: Cutting is the art. The name of the trade, “tailor,” is thought to perhaps derive from the same word in Latin that “talley” does. Of course, to tally is to make a count by making small cuts or marks so that the “tallier” “the tailor” is the cutter.

Harmony: Your century does not have a sewing machine.

Mark: Correct.

Harmony: We don’t learn about sewing machines until the 19th century that it really becomes in wide use. You’re doing everything by hand.

Mark: In the 18th century they’re beginning to think about the possibility of mechanizing sewing. There are patents taken on the idea of a sewing machine by the mid-18th century. By the 1790s there are models being attempted, but there’s no real operable sewing machine for garment-weight fabrics until approximately 1840. There’s a series of inventions that become the sewing machine that we recognize it today. Those by Barthélemy Thimonnier in France, Elias Howe, later Isaac Singer. Singer did not invent the sewing machine, although his name is perhaps the most strongly associated with the earliest of the sewing machines.

Harmony: Are there some things you suppose you would still rather do by hand anyway?

Mark: When it comes to 18th century clothing, I prefer to do all of it by hand. These garments were never designed to be sewn by machine, so their methods and order of construction used the best available technology at the time of their fashionability.

You really cannot reproduce an 18th-century garment on a sewing machine. As the word implies “to reproduce, to make again,” means that you have to use only the technologies that were available at that moment. You can make very palatable adaptations of 18th-century clothing and modify some of the methods in order of construction, but if you’re picky enough you can see the differences. Even the way a hand-sewn seam lies on the exterior where you can’t see the stitching can be different.

You have infinitely more control in your hands than you do under the presser foot of a sewing machine and so when it comes to this work I always prefer to do it by hand. In our shop we do not use machines at all. That’s the purpose of all of our trades across the Historic Area, is to practice these trades only as they were practiced in the pre-industrial manner.

Harmony: You named coats, waistcoats and breeches. What other garments or accessories is the tailor making for his customer?

Mark: Within each of those three: coats, waistcoats and breeches, there are, of course, many different types or subcategories. There are full dress coats and there are plain workaday frocks and there are fly coats which are a protective coverall worn by men and many others. So while most of the work can be categorized within that small group: the three pieces of a suit, coat, waistcoat and breeches, there’s actually a tremendous amount of variety.

A lot of the variety comes from the type of customer for whom the garments are being made. We most often associate bespoke or tailor made clothing as being very exclusive. That’s not at all the 18th century perception of it. Whether the governor or a field slave, you’re coat, waistcoat and breeches for a man, as well as some of the garments in women’s wardrobes were bespoke objects. The difference in fashion, the difference in price is determined primarily by the fabric that the customer chooses. Not in the fact that it’s been custom-made. The labor is far less expensive than the fabric in the majority of garments.

Harmony: Do you see a lot of changes in the fashion or trends for men’s clothing in the period that you study?

Mark: Absolutely. I think costume history tends to have a very distaff view. We look at women’s clothing far more when talking about the changes of fashion and because men’s clothing is perhaps understudied it’s often accused of being stagnant, slow, boring. Perhaps it doesn’t change as much in its silhouette, so the visual effect is not as dramatic as raising and falling waistlines and hemlines of women’s clothing. But there’s the constant change in the preferences of fabrics, the width of cuff, the trims, the buttons, so it’s a more subtle change but it’s just as constant. The gentlemen’s magazines that were published in London in the 18th century and the prints that became available really in the 1780’s just after the time that we represent just as rapidly document the changes in men’s clothing as they do in women’s clothing.

Harmony: Can you make a distinction, or is it even fair to try, to look at those changes in terms of which are fashion and which are function?

Mark: Function always changes more slowly than fashion and so there’s a certain stream that is more constant and of course there are the details that really determine the fashion which should also be separated from fad or trend. And there are just as many fads and trends and quirky momentary fashions in the 18th century as there are in 21st-century or contemporary fashion. Those have to be separated from fashion though. Fashion, while ever changing, has to reach a broader market, find a broader appeal, a larger social significance than the trend or the fad does. But they certainly exist and those are fun to look at and interpret.

Harmony: I’m imagining that tailors who came to the Virginia colony were English tailors or even if they were second generation they would have been apprenticed under an English tailor so they’re using English methods, English materials, but they’re doing it in the Virginia climate. Are there things that had to be changed once they got here? Was there something new that they invented that helped them with some aspect of Virginia climate and Virginia life?

Mark: You’ve pinpointed the most significant variation or deviation from following London’s fashion is the accommodation of the extremes of Virginia’s climate. The heat of the summer and the bitterness of the winter, particularly here in the Tidewater, where the air is always damp and while we might not see a tremendous amount of snow, the winters can be very biting and chill. So, yes, there are certainly variations that are unique to Virginia, but I wouldn’t call them fashion. Those are more functional and they’re based on the climate.

Probably the most identifiable of them is the propensity toward wearing very plain white linen suits or light colored thin fabric suits to accommodate the humidity and the heat of Virginia and further south. And even though these sorts of plain white linen suits are seen in the Carolinas, Georgia and the Sea Islands they become identified as Virginia suits. There are Philadelphia, Pennsylvania references and London references to men in plain white linen suits that they call Virginia suits because they’re so strongly associated with this area.

Harmony: When you see dramatic interpretations on television or at the movies and they’re 18th-century period representations is there something that catches your eye, are there things that are commonly gotten wrong?

Mark: Probably the most difficult thing to recreate in any historically-based presentation, whether it’s on the street of Williamsburg or the movie or on stage is not the color, not the detail, but the cut and fit of clothing and more importantly the way the body fits within the garment; the deportment, the posture, the manner and the movement of the individual.

Clothing without a body is just a rag. And so to complete the picture, you have to fill it out with a human form. And that’s very difficult to set aside all the mannerisms, the bodily mannerisms, the posture that you’ve grown up with and understand not only how, but why somebody in the past stood, sat, moved differently. Posture is learned; movement is learned. Most 21st century people recognize people in different cultures might move differently. You see those same differences across time and so to replicate that and make the garments fit and move like they should is by far the most difficult thing. Especially given the confined time that a director has to create a movie or a play is generally not enough time to train the actors, to do the research, to train the actors and get the posture so well inculcated that it’s seemingly natural.

Harmony: Mark, thank you so much for being our guest today and we hope that all of our listeners will make it by the tailors shop to see you at work.

Mark: I hope so as well. We’ll see you there.