Court suit worn by Captain William Hovell, 1856
This court suit was first worn by Captain William Hilton Hovell (1786 - 1875), a sailor, explorer, and one of Australia's prominent early colonial settlers.
In 1823, whilst exploring the land surrounding the Cumberland Plain, Hovell was the first European to discover the Burragorang Valley. However Hovell is best known for accompanying Hamilton Hume in 1824 on the first European exploration of southern New South Wales down to Port Philip Bay. An official expedition was first proposed by Governor Brisbane but did not eventuate, and Hovell and Hume's undertaking was largely self-financed. Hovell and Hume actually arrived at Port Philip Bay on 16 December 1824, but an error in calculating their position led Hovell to believe that the bay was in fact the western shore of Westernport. The party returned to Gunning in January 1825. In 1826 another party, including Hovell and led by Captain Wright, was sent by Brisbane to Westernport by sea, where on arrival Hovell realised that the site was in fact Port Philip Bay. When large coal deposits were discovered after further examination of the area, Hovell's mistakes were forgiven as this was a valuable resource for the new colony.
In the nineteenth century, class distinctions were enforced with a rigorous set of codes for behaviour and status symbols such as fashionable dress and grand houses. This court suit, an indication of Hovell's social standing, would have been worn during occasions of state. Court attire has historically followed strict rules according to the status and position of the wearer, from the type of trimmings and buttons through to cut and colour. T. H. Holding, in his 1894 book 'Uniforms of the British Army, Navy, and Court', wrote: "The chief technicale of their production lies in the trimming, in faithfulness to regulation, and in exactness to those trifles which make all the difference between one uniform and another' (Holding 1894).
Court attire often reflected fashions of an earlier period, as the formalities and regulations caused resistance to change. For example, from around 1830 trousers were the usual attire for day wear but breeches such as these were still worn as court dress. This suit consists of a single-breasted court coat with standing collar and breeches, made from chocolate brown cashmere. Court waistcoats were generally white or, as in this example, of floral design. Completing the outfit are white lace cuffs and collar, indicating the status of the wearer, and shoe buckles which would have been worn with black pumps.
This well-provenanced court suit, worn by Captain William Hilton Hovell, is an excellent example of men's court attire from around 1856 and reflects the colonies' adherence to British traditions and formalities. Along with its historical context, the court suit can be used to illustrate important changes and processes in the design, fabrication, function and cultural meaning of men's fashions. It provides context for later changes occurring in the production of men's costumes from one-off, hand embroidered and stitched clothing such as this, to mass produced, machine made garments.
Michelle Brown, 2007
Holding, T. H., 'Uniforms of the British Army, Navy, and Court', London, 1894
Vaucluse Historical Celebrations Committee, 'The Book of the Revels at Vaucluse House, Vaucluse, Saturday, 19th March, 1932', W C Penfold & Co, Sydney, 1932