Historical Costume 1780s : Caraco. But what IS a caraco?

What is a Caraco?

Striped silk sack-backed caraco, 1760-1780

Striped silk sack-backed caraco, 1760-1780

Caraco isn’t a word that many of us are familiar with. It’s not in many dictionaries, either. It is in Wikipedia, though, along with this illustration of a lovely caraco jacket, dating from 1760 but altered in the 1780s. The original is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

So… what is a caraco?

It’s a woman’s jacket, usually waisted and thigh length, with a front opening. It could be worn as the bodice of a gown and was termed a “caraco dress” when it was complete with a skirt. Some simple versions had high waists even as early as the 1780s.

According to Wikipedia, the original French caraco was often worn with a stomacher to fill the front opening, as with the silk one in the picture above. The English version was designed to meet in front and didn’t need a stomacher. Which is a pity, as stomachers can be truly beautiful, like these from earlier periods…

Left and centre examples from Bath Costume Museum; right example from Hereford Museum

What was a Caraco for?

The Elopement (detail) by John Collet, 1764

The Elopement (detail) by John Collet, 1764

It originated as practical clothing for working women. For them, it was a truly useful garment, as Nancy Bradfield points out.

Unlike the rich women who barely had to lift a finger, working women had to move, and lift, and bend. Great panniers and lots of stiffening and hoops would have made their work impossible, even if they could have afforded such a luxurious style of dress.

Whether working women had to be quite as loosely garbed as the older woman in this 1764 picture (right) is open to question, though. My mother would have called that “looking like a sack tied around the middle” I’m afraid!

Chocolate Girl 1743-45

Chocolate Girl 1743-45

The chocolate maid, left, from a few decades earlier, looks a great deal neater, but then, she wasn’t caught conspiring in a pretty dodgy-looking elopement!

Replica 1780s caraco

Replica 1780s caraco

Shown right is a modern (white) replica of a 1780s caraco, from the Hereford Museum’s 2015 Exhibition: Shades of White by Professor Nancy Hills. It’s modelled by one of her theatre costume design students from Caine College, Utah State University. It’s obvious that this caraco would be a comfortable garment to wear and that the woman would be able to move easily in it.

But both these versions look quite complicated, with long tight sleeves, cuffs, gathers and frills.

So how was the jacket made?

How to sew a Caraco?

Replica 1780s caraco

With a great deal of skill, I’d have said, looking at the detail of the replica shown left and the closeup, below right.

Replica 1780s caracoIt is gathered with three ties: at the neck, under the bust, and at the waist, plus it has a complicated neckline and a generous ruffle finish to the front that extends all round the hem. The tight sleeves end in a buttoned cuff.

Then look at all those pattern pieces below, and remember that every stitch was done by hand, possibly in indifferent light. No wonder seamstresses often had trouble with their eyesight.

Replica 1780s caraco, pattern

But the finished garment is stunning. Look at this closeup of the (replica) back, with its beautiful collar like a fichu scarf. The back of the bodice is carefully pleated from neck to waist which can just be seen at the waistline. The skirt is pleated and gathered all round the waist too, giving a great deal of fullness.

Replica 1780s caraco, back view

Wearing a caraco

The caraco was a garment for working women or, for those of higher status, a comfortable “at home” garment. It can defy the stiffly corseted and panniered image of Georgian fashion so often shown in paintings of aristocrats and the like. The white replica shown above looks so much less artificial.

1770s caraco dress<BR>© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1770s caraco dress
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I’m not sure I can say the same of this example of a 1770s caraco dress from the V&A collection.

The fabric, imported from south-east India, was hand-painted, rather than printed, and the staged dyeing process for the different colours was very complex. The cotton was probably not cheap to buy and then the owner had to pay her English seamstress to make it up into this elegant gown. It wouldn’t have done for the working woman in the elopement painting at all!

Finally, the caraco had one more —
extremely practical — function.

Maternity wear for Georgian women

Queen Charlotte
Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1789

The caraco was a particularly convenient garment for pregnant women, who could have it let out as their bodies swelled. We know that Georgian women were pregnant a lot of the time. Just think how many children they often had.

For example, George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte — shown right, after her childbearing years were over — had 15 children in the space of about 22 years. The poor woman (though she probably didn’t think of herself in that way) spent an awful lot of her life being “in an interesting condition”! She may even have worn a caraco when she wasn’t likely to be seen in public.


On a personal note, I’d add that I like the caraco because it’s a work of art by an unsung heroine,
the Georgian seamstress 😉

Joanna Maitland, author


Next time, I’ll be progressing to the 19th century and examining the classic Regency-style gown. It looks very simple, basically just a round-necked bodice, plain sleeves, and a straight skirt.
But was it that easy to make?
Find out in the next of my Historical Costume series, coming soon.

6 thoughts on “Historical Costume 1780s : Caraco. But what IS a caraco?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Glad you’re enjoying it, Ros. As I said before, I get so deeply into this costume stuff that hours pass without my noticing. I find it totally fascinating too.

    1. Joanna Post author

      If it’s any consolation, Lesley, I didn’t know it was a caraco either, until I saw it at the wonderful Shades of white exhibition. In my defence 😉 I don’t write about the Georgian period and so I haven’t done much research into Georgian costume. Until now. And some of it is fascinating, even though the idea of wearing those ridiculous panniers makes me giggle.

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