Curator's Choice : Stars of the Historic Costume Collection
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Calico Balls and Soirees - an uniquely American pastime of the 19th and early 20th centuries all but entirely forgotten today. These were public, and sometimes private, social gatherings designed entirely around cotton calico fabric as a means of fundraising and charity, and later historical nostalgia and fancy. Taste and delicacy of these events ran the gamut from open-venue events in town halls, to exclusive invitation-only occasions held amongst the first families of a particular city's society.
The function of calico balls, soirees, hops, and parties can be seen to fluctuate across the 19th century. More often than not, calico balls functioned as fundraising events where attendees would contribute to local or particularly needy causes. These contributions could be financial donations, revenue from ticket sales, or material donations in kind - calico.
One steadfast rule was that attendees must arrive donned in calico of some sort- the strictness of this rule, just as the exact function of the calico balls, tended to vary. The exact extent to which one would wear calico was usually stated in the invitation, the public announcement, or the printed advertisement for the calico ball.
Lady attendees were often asked to arrive in simple, unadorned calico gowns, which would be donated to a specific cause or to the working classes after the ball was over. These gowns were often later cut-up, the fabric reused for various purposes. Other times, the dresses or calico accessories were donated in whole to clothe those in want of clothing. Male attendees, who were also frequently the managers and organizers of calico balls, seemed to have more relaxed sartorial expectations. Gentlemen were commonly required to wear only one item of calico, such as a cravat, tie, waistcoat, or handkerchief. Sometimes these calico items for men would match the dresses of female attendees, assigning each their dance partner. These too, would be donated to charitable causes after the event.
Tastes in calico balls changed as the 19th century wore on. Young ladies less thrilled to wear calico dresses might adorn theirs with expensive lace and silk trimmings, a strange juxtaposition of economy and luxury. Calico ball managers wanting to accommodate this desire for evening finery, and eager to obtain their calico fabric items as soon as possible, advocated for a "Midnight Switchover" where at the stroke of midnight, ladies would withdrawal to a dressing room to remove their simple calico gowns, only to reveal their striking and fashionable evening gowns worn underneath. These calico castaways were again collected and distributed amongst the poor, those in need, and other charitable causes.
This 19th century calico diamond patchwork waistcoat is a recent acquisition to the Susan Greene Collection at Genesee Country Village & Museum. The waistcoat is double-breasted with the diamond patchwork carefully mirrored on either breast and either row of buttons, indicating great care and effort was put into making this garment of relatively inexpensive material. The calico prints present in the waistcoat date from the 1830s to as late as the 1840s. The waistcoat features deep facings of calico diamond patchwork, again mirrored on the interior facing panels on either side. The stand collar also reveals mirrored and matching patchwork diamonds when the waistcoat is buttoned all the way.
The waistcoat is backed and lined with plain weave cotton fabric, with two ties in the center back. The center front of the waistcoat features a small point. Welt pockets also match one another in the calico print used in the diamonds, and are level with the bottom edge of the waistcoat.
Overall, the shape of the waistcoat is boxy, either due to the wearer's size or to the period in which the waistcoat was made. This waistcoat was too well made to be worn only once, and was most likely worn by a gentleman manager, ticket-taker, or organizer of a calico ball. The visual excellence and vibrancy of this waistcoat, with its exacting patchwork diamonds, would have been a must-see for calico ball-goers.
The gentleman who wore this waistcoat was most likely of generous girth given the boxy cut. The stand collar featured here, usually seen on waistcoats from the first two decades of the 19th century, may indicate this waistcoat was worn for a fancy dress calico ball, or to a calico ball held in colder weather. A stand collar would have been useful for a ticket-taker standing for hours by the entrance of a calico ball, although no inner lining or batting is present. These considerations for climate, an affinity for fancy dress and nostalgia, and the wearer's size make dating this waistcoat to a specific decade difficult. The national provenance is also a mystery. The patchwork diamonds themselves were not made for or cut from a quilt - the patchwork was made specifically for the waistcoat. The technique of whip-stitching the diamonds together from the front or "good side" of the fabric is seen in both American and English patchwork, muddling efforts to determine national origin. Perhaps the English wife of an American gentleman created this waistcoat for her husband to attend a calico ball.
What is certain is that this waistcoat was created with great attention to detail, exacting precision in the patchwork, and certainly a sense of visual humor.

"Nineteenth Century Calico Balls." Early American Life, April 2018, 48-55
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Patchwork WaistcoatPatchwork Waistcoat