Wednesday, March 20, 2013

John Hancock's Fashion Flourishes

the flourish of John Hancock’s (1737-1793) eponymous  signature is well-known and highly recognizable. the graceful, Restrained Luxury epitomized in John Singleton Copley’s 1765 Portrait (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) Captures the moment before Hancock begins his political Journey. 
Together, they leave one with the image of confidence and Strength of character. John Hancock’s clothing selections, however, while not unusual for one in a position of affluence in colonial america, is perhaps less likely to fit comfortably into our impression of the American patriot or a Revolutionary, Particularly one who was actively sought out (with Samuel adams) as an enemy to BRitish colonial authority. The same may be said of many of his contemporaries who felt a disconnection between his political actions and the Fineries of his dress, his “shocking” yellow carriage, renowned largesse, love of entertainments and well-appointed beacon hill home (since demolished.)

We are fortunate that detailed Likenesses (including clothing and other accoutremonts), contemporary accounts and garments have survived and are available in the public domain.

At the Bostonian Society (, Hancock’s red silk Velvet jacket, c.1780s, possibly worn for his gubernatorial inauguration; at the New York Historical Society (, an elaborately embroidered silk waistcoat, c.1780s (attributed), and, at the Lexington historical society (, a second, simpler, waistcoat.

The Proceedings of the Bostonian Society Annual meeting, 1912 (p.41) records the following: “Court Suit. Crimson velvet body-coat, blue satin waistcoat embroidered with gold and drab silk trunks, formerly owned and worn by Governor John Hancock.” The items were given by Franklin Hancock of Haverhill, MA. 

John Hancock's (1737-1793) waistcoat (attributed), ca. 1780. The cream silk twill front panels are richly embroidered with a floral and garland motif, and bow-ties decorated with gold-painted metal sequins (spangles). As was common, There is a natural linen back panel and interior lining. Thirteen buttons covered with gold foil and gold wire serve as closures.  Gift of George Gibbs to the New York Historical Society

From the Lexington Historical Society, another silk embroidered waistcoat "worn by Gov. John Hancock." Image: 

This short piece, published late in the 19th century, gathers a number of delightful descriptions of Hancock’s garments:  

John Hancock, a character sketch, by John Roy Musick, 1898

“He seems to have been the leader of fashion--Genteel aristocrat of the day: As a young man ‘He wore a coat of scarlet, lined with silk, and embroidered with gold, white satin embroidered waist coat, dark satin small-clothes, white silk stockings, and shoes with silver buckles.’ It seems that this attire with the ‘three cornered gold laced hat constituted the gentleman of the period.’ His equipage, a coach and six blooded bays, were such as had never been seen in Boston. 

One who knew him in 1782 says: ‘He had been repeatedly and severely afflicted with gout, probably owing in part to the custom of drinking punch — a common practice in high circles in those days.’ As recollected at that time, Hancock was nearly six feet in height and of thin person, stooping a little, and apparently enfeebled by disease. His manners were very gracious, of the old style, a dignified complaisance. His face had been very handsome. ‘Dress at this time was adopted quite as much to the ornamental as the useful. Gentlemen wore wigs when abroad, and commonly caps when at home. At this time, about noon, Hancock was dressed in a red velvet cap, within which was one of fine linen. The latter was turned up over the lower edge of the velvet one, two or three inches. He wore a blue damask gown lined with silk, a white satin embroidered waist coat, black satin small clothes, white silk stockings and red morocco slippers.’ 

‘His apparel was sumptuously embroidered with gold, silver, lace and other decorations, fashionable among men of fortune of that period. He wore a scarlet coat with ruffles on his sleeves, which soon became the prevailing fashion.’  There is an anecdote told of Dr. Nathan Jacques, the famous pedestrian of West Newbury, walking all the way from that place to Boston in one day, to procure cloth for a coat like that of John Hancock, and ‘returned on foot with it under his arm.’” 

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I remember John Hancock's "scarlet coat with ruffles on his sleeves" well. It's on display at Boston's Old State House, and I talked about it all the time on my Super Duck Tours.


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