Spotlight On … Theatrical Doublets.

Written by James Hawksley.

Occasionally we get a mystery item that isn’t quite what it seems. Items that leave us scratching our heads, trying to figure out; is it genuine, or isn’t it? Where has it come from, who owned it?

Our most recent mystery was this splendid ‘Shakespearean-esque’ doublet. After languishing in our fur store room for a couple of years, it has drawn attention by visitors on numerous occasions. When I am leading store tours, visitors often ask me if it’s a real Elizabethan doublet. Now, as someone who struggles to sew on a button, it’s a tricky question. I am certainly no expert in needlework, sewing or any other areas of haberdashery. I’d love to tell those visitors yes, but something in the back of my mind always said no.

© National Leather Collection 2018
© National Leather Collection 2018

After a weekend visit from a group of the re-enacting sort (who are usually known for their boffin-level knowledge in areas like authentic stitching), this particular doublet was picked off the rail and scrutinised. My curiosity was now boiling over.

We decided to investigate this mysterious doublet more thoroughly. Initially, thoughts of a stage or theatre costume sprang to mind, but then why use such a high level of detail for a garment that would be viewed at a distance? If it was a stage piece, was it for major theatre, private performances, or even fancy dress (something that was often enjoyed in high society). The style is Elizabethan, however, the craftsmanship and condition indicate that the date of manufacture was far later. Though if it is a replica, how old is it?

Luckily after many questions, munching of biscuits and drinking of tea, we had two break throughs.

Written on the leather lining near the collar, was a name – Frank Gregory.

Frank J. Gregory, if this is indeed the same Frank Gregory, was a theatre playwright, actor and director who performed on Broadway. He was mainly active in theatre between 1918-1935.

The second clue we had was in relation to its age.

Stuffed in its Piccadils to give them some ‘puff’ was a page from the London Daily Mail dated Saturday 13th March, 1909.

© National Leather Collection 2018
© National Leather Collection 2018

So, with all these clues, have we managed to solve the mystery?

We’re still not 100% sure to be honest, but that’s the fun of museum work. The nine-year difference between the date of the paper and the start of Mr. Gregory’s theatre career is yet unaccounted for. It could be that the coat wasn’t necessarily made for him, but he adopted it somewhere along the way. Or perhaps the newspaper was simply found later in an attic somewhere and used for stuffing piccadils.

With so many unknowns, it is unlikely that we’ll ever be able to answer those visitor questions for sure, but we have great fun trying!

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