I've been researching short sacks--aka short sacques, pet-en-l'airs, French jackets, jackets in the French style, caracos Francaise --the list goes on. Back to all of that later.
I love them and I'm currently making one. I find it easier to understand a garment if I make one. However I'm not one of those people that tries to make research "fit" what I want to do. I like to do what the research shows is appropriate. This one is a mystery and whether or not I ever wear a short sack to an actual living history event will involve drawing a lot of conclusions from some vague research.
My research seeks to answer the usual who, where and when questions about these garments. This is made challenging due to terminology questions.
I'm mostly looking at short sacks from 1775-early 1780s. I always thought of them as earlier garments, which they were as well. Most of the extants I've seen are later ones.
First let's look at some extants and images before we get into other research.
1760-1780 (looks closer to 1780)
No information but style suggests late 1770s - 1780ish
Kyoto Museum no date. Looks 1770s
No date. Style suggests late 1770s-1780ish
Belgium -- no date but style suggests late 1770s-1780ish
Note that this example is a block printed cotton instead of silk
Sealing a Letter, Chardin 1733
Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews 1743-48
Hayman, Girl at Spinning Wheel ca. 1750
Gainsborough, Mr. & Mrs. Kirby ca. 1751-52
Paul Sandby, Lady drawing
Paul Sandby, On Windsor Terrace
French fashion plate 1778 (caraco plissé de taffetas)
French fashion plate 1778
French fashion plate 1778 (Caraco de taffetas)
French fashion plate 1778 (Caraco galant de taffetas)
French fashion plate 1786 (caraco de taffeta)
I would note the evolution of the style of short sacks both in the extants and in the images. As jackets, they follow the same evolution of fitted jackets--being longer in the early-mid 18th century and shorter in the later part of the century. The sleeve styles also become less full and longer, following the same evolution of gown sleeves with early ones having shorter sleeves with large cuffs or flounces and later ones having slimmer fitting sleeves with sabot style cuffs or ruched trim. Later ones also have longer sleeves, some even being full length.
With the exception of the French fashion plates, the images are British. I would also note that you see fewer British images later in the century yet French fashion plates are still very common.
Barbara Johnson's album gives us a few more clues. For those who don't know, Barbara Johnson was a middle class parson's daughter in England who kept a fashion scrapbook from 1746 to 1823. Her album consists of sketches and images clipped from ladies' magazines as well as swatches with descriptions of what she hope to make/have made and the date. Here are some examples from her album:
The short sacks go along with the dates in the other British images above. The Brunswick is a bit later but could be considered a variation of the short sack.
I had always thought of these garments as a form of undress--something an upper sort woman wore at home--yet the images show them being worn outside.
Who wore these garments? Given that most of the ones that remain are silk, we can assume that they were worn by at least middlin' and most likely upper sort women. Even the Sandby images imply this to me.
Were they worn in the United States? This one is hard to answer. I've been searching the newspaper database for various terms. Let's start with sack back gowns. We see them called sacques, sacs, and sacks. I find no instances of the terms sacque or sac from 1760-1780 in ads. I do find plenty of sacks which involves weeding through the ads that are referring to sacks used to carry things and sack that one drinks. I do find some stolen ads describing sack gowns (spelled "sack") from Boston and other areas. I also found milliner ads that referred to "lace for sacks". We also have portraits of upper sort women wearing sacks where the lose back can be plainly seen and others that imply sacks by the various style features of the gown. It seems that women in the United States didn't have their portraits painted in casual clothing hence no portraits in jackets.
So what do we call short sacks? Once again, I searched for Pet-en-l'air which I see people refer to them as. Not one instance of that name was found. Likewise "short sack" or "short sacque."
I found one reference to a French jacket and one to a jacket in the French style. I think this may be what I'm looking for. One theory I have is that we probably just lumped these garments in with jackets. The reason I've been thinking this is --the French fashion plates refer to them as caracos which appears to have been the French catch all term for jackets. The same thing goes for gowns. Looking at inventories and the like, I will find loads of "gowns" but no specific identifier as to the type of gown. Occasionally I will find "night gown" which refers to a pleated back English gown.
A Dictionary of English Dress 900 - 1900 describes this garment as follows:
PETENLAIR, PET-EN-L'AIR, FRENCH JACKET c. 1745-1770s F. (somewhat earlier in France.) A thigh-length or sometimes knee=length jacket-bodice with sac-back, short elbow sleeves and often a stomacher front. Worn with a plain skirt (then called a petticoat). "Inspire'd by thee, the skilful engineer Lopp'd half the sack and form'd the pet-en-l'air" (1751, The Gentleman's Magazine 'Hymn to Fashion'.
There's that French jacket reference again.
Iris Brooke in "Dress and Undress": "Elizabeth Montague writes of a gathering in 1745: 'Such hats, capuchins and short sacks as were never seen' " which certainly implies these were fashionable garments worn in public.
I guess the question still remains--did American women wear these? We can't say for sure but we do know that fashionable American women did enjoy French fashion so it's easy to assume they did. Being a British colony, our fashions were informed by those in England and we do see fashion plates in the Lady's Magazine from London that have French influence.
Rochambeau and his officers made observations about seeing American women dressed in French fashion.
Quotes from "French Memories of 18th Century America" by Charles Hitchcock Sherrill
"I hardly expected to find French fashions in the midst of American forests. The headdresses of all the ladies, except Quakers, are high, voluminous and adorned with our veils. One is surprised to find throughout all of Connecticut so active a taste for dress,--I might even say, so much luxury amid customs so simple and pure that they resemble those of the ancient patriarchs."
Chastellux noted a lady who "has taste as delcate as her health. Excessively enthusiastic over French fashions, she only awaits the end of this trifling revolution now taking place to initiate an even more important one in the customs of her nation."
Chastellux also noted that in Annapolis "the luxury of the women surpasses that of our provinces. A French hairdresser is a man of importance there; one of these ladies pays hers one thousand écus wages."
Baron Closen noted, "The women are very pretty, have good style, and dress excellently--some even following the French fashions."
General Rochambeau also observed "the women have taken up French fashions, in which they are deeply interested."
My own thinking is that short sacks were most likely worn here but by a certain group of women. I imagine upper sort younger fashionable women may have worn them in public whereas older women, who tended to prefer gowns, may have worn them as undress.
As with many things, without specific references, images, or extants with an American provenance, we may never know for sure.