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What is this item of clothing? What was it used for? How old might it be? Sleuth out clues for this clothing item with the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery's (MAG) Katelin Karbonik, Associate Curator of Clothing & Textiles.

Object: Cavalry twill riding jacket

Accession number: MAG Collection #1986.141.7

Note: "Cavalry Twill" is a type of fabric historically used for hard wearing garments such as military or sportswear.

Main points:

  • Garments are complex items with mysterious pasts
  • It’s impossible to know their histories in most circumstances
  • Slow, careful observation can help uncover clues as to what they were used for.


Hi, my name is Katelin Karbonik and I’m the MAG’s Associate Curator of Clothing & Textiles. Right now I’m working on surveying the textiles collection, meaning taking out each garment, and trying to figure out what and how old it is. This is a big job and though I have special training in historic clothing, sometimes I get objects that I’m not sure about. Today I’m going to talk about what I do when I get these objects and share some simple strategies for when you want to learn more about a garment.

It is very rare to know the whole story of a garment. Even if a garment comes with histories, these may not be very detailed or, sometimes, they may be inaccurate. The provenance that comes with a garment can be useful but it should be considered critically.

Another way to learn about a garment is to slowly and carefully observe it. Garments are complex objects and they contain a lot of information in their physicality about where and why they were made, and also how they were used, which are sometimes different.

This is a red wool jacket I pulled out of the collection without any associated provenance. By looking at it closely, I was able to learn some things about what it is and how it may have been used.

  • Even very basically, I can see that this jacket looks similar to a modern suit jacket, but that it has some key differences. This means that that it comes from the western tradition of tailored wool garments, but that it probably was not for normal day or evening-wear.
  • The fabric is very thick and tough and it doesn’t hold creases or edges very well. This could mean that the maker wasn’t very skilled, but based on the quality of the stitching on the rest of the jacket, this probably wasn’t the case. The fabric probably was chosen to be hard-wearing, potentially for outdoors, a deduction that is supported by the heavy wear across the jacket.
  • So what we can see by looking at it closely is a high-quality tailored jacket made out of a hard-wearing fabric for outdoor/active purposes. Which is already a lot more information than we had at the start. Can we go farther?
  • The interior of the jacket has been pieced multiple times, indicating it has been worn at lot. Mostly it has been re-pieced with similar wool fabrics, but there is a curious fabric at the back, right at the spot where you sit. This suggests that the wearer may have been sitting a lot, and that they wanted a fabric that slides easier in this area. That the original wearer was sitting a lot in this garment is supported by the deep slit, that would have accommodated the sitting body.
  • What kind of outdoor sports activity would require a tailored jacket that also involves sitting? Based on all of these clues, we can speculate that this garment was likely meant for horseback riding. This make sense because though considered a sport, riding is also associated with the upper class and the traditional outfit is traditionally still finely tailored.
  • How old is it? The materials are all natural, which means it can technically be any age (the inclusion of synthetics into the original construction could help us date it more precisely to the last 100-120 years). It entered into the MAG’s collection in 1986, and based on the materials and construction I would say it is before 1920.

By looking at the cut, materials and construction of this garment we can learn more about what it was for and how it was used. Though these are speculations, they can help narrow down the research process on an unknown garment.

A good resource for this kind of garment analysis is "The Dress Detective"  by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim. This book talks about object-based research and also gives several examples similar to what we did today with this riding jacket.

AGO post about Ingrid Mida (Sept. 23/20) "Becoming a dress detective"

Where to find  "The Dress Detective" (we do not receive any commissions from these links)


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