Early Victorian Era (1837-1850) & Modern Men's Formal Wear

“[T]here is no perfect suit and the history of tailored clothing is one of a constantly changing ideal of beauty and of masculine expression (and suppression).”

– Richard Martin[1]

Curator, The Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art


“As a young man in the early years of the ninteenth [sic] century, the brilliant and elegant Disraeli would saunter about town wearing bottle-green velvet trousers, canary-colored waistcoats, and buckled shoes. But after mid century he dressed in a black broadcloth suit as befitted the leader of the Conservative Party of the House of Commons and the age.”

                  – Bruce Boyer[2]

  During the Victorian Era, styles recognizable as "modern" men’s formal wear became firmly codified into a set of fashion rules and implicit regulations that are recognizable if not identical today. The early years of the Victorian Era, were a short time period in which fashion’s response to failed Revolution took the form of Romantic embellishment; moreover the backlash to Romanticism led to the inception of a more somber, recognizably “modern” look. [caption id="attachment_101" align="aligncenter" width="430"]http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Victoria_Privy_Council_(Wilke).jpg Victoria holding a Privy Council meeting. Sir
David Wilkie. 1838 (Public Domain by age). Oil on canvas.[/caption] During the nineteenth century, black or dark clothing dominated menswear, even at the most formal occasions that previously had called for fine fabrics, colors, and embellishments. This about-face is generally credited to vague concepts such as the puritan ethic; or austerity, gravity, and reserve; or the male renunciation of or withdrawal from unimportant matters of frivolity, ostentation, and so on. Still, as Farid Chenoune points out, this change did not come about instantaneously. Instead, we must realize that “Making too much of the ‘puritanical’ aspect […], seeing it in terms of renunciation, impoverishment, and loss (indeed, mourning), probably overstates one aspect of a revolution that also heralded a sturdy, strong, masculine ideal stemming from rites and roots more complex and less one-sided than is generally acknowledged.”[3]  

1. From Artistic Romanticism to Bourgeois Sobriety

[4] [caption id="attachment_102" align="alignleft" width="239"]http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sans-culotte.jpg Painting of a typical sans-culotte[/caption] Among the rubble left by turbulent years of revolution in both France and England, new fashions that clearly aligned with new ideals began to take root. No longer did “fashion” automatically mean “whatever is worn at court” or “whatever the sovereign has declared acceptable.” Instead, many people separated themselves from the idea of aristocracy and gravitated toward a Romantic worldview in which expressive freedom and historical nostalgia reigned. The Romantics projected “contempt for the ‘grayish’ middle classes”; they rejected “bourgeoisie” ideals and called for greater artistic expression.[5] Not lords and their lackeys, but rather writers and artists, were admired as fashion icons. In France, the people were inspired by the works and lives of artists such as Victor Hugo and Rubens[6]; in England, Walter Scott received similar adoration and a similar type of following[7]; in both countries, Byron served as Romantic ideal.[8] Political ideology had failed—had failed miserably—and so the people turned to art instead. Rejecting classic styles such as dark-colored frock coats and modernized waist-length vests, the Romantics looked backwards to Elizabethan fantasy for sartorial inspiration. The doublet, left behind during the eighteenth century, made a short-lived return. The Romantics looked for artistic exaggeration not only in ideology but in their lives, particularly in their dress: as Léon de B. wrote to a friend in 1831: “‘The whole secret, the whole contour of a garment is in the thinness and narrowness of the waistband. Catechize your tailor on this. … Insist, order, threaten if necessary. My rule is wide shoulders, full and flowing skirts, very tight waist.’”[9] Along a similar vein, it became “fashionable” to wear daggers and swords with one’s daily—and even evening—costume. French Romantics were inspired by the red vest that Gautier wore to the premiere of Victor Hugo’s Hernani, so much so that it became all the rage not just among fashionable elite but among schoolchildren. One mother in 1832 lamented her son’s desire for “‘a red vest, like most of his friends’”; moreover, this vest must “‘button or lace up at the back, hugging the chest tightly so that it curves like a breastplate, as he says. … He’d wear a corset, if he dared…. And would you believe that this little coxcomb wants his two vests made by a dressmaker?’”[10] [caption id="attachment_103" align="aligncenter" width="299"]http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Théophile_Gautier_by_Nadar_c1856-1.jpg Portrait of Théophile Gautier: Originator of the red vest.[/caption] Ideal Romantic fashions were praised for their “character” and “local color”; clothes were described as “picturesque,” “archaic,” “fiery,” “frenzied,” “astounding,” “ineffable,” “monumental,” “cathedral,” “furiously gothic.” One didn’t just wear a doublet and carry a dagger; oh no, one wore “Milan armor” or “Venice justaucorps” with one’s “Toledo blade”: “language used for an extraordinary wardrobe straight out of some Romantic Babel.”[11] Though notable for its dramatic nostalgia—and especially for its inspiration not by the court but by artists and their followers—Romanticism in men’s dress did not last long. Just as the Romantics’ political ideology failed to take hold, their fashionable popularity faded too: these “romantic, flamboyant” styles began shuffling off fashion’s stage as early as 1837.[12] By the 1840s, men’s clothing had become darker and more practical again: the early Victorian era witnessed “the fading away of flamboyance and colour from men’s garments, not to be recovered until very modern times. It was considered ungentlemanly to wear anything striking.”[13] What it witnessed, too, was the ultimate triumph of the bourgeoisie—not just in politics and in fashion, but in terms of the period’s overall sociopolitical atmosphere. As James Laver, former curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, writes of the era, “The dominant figure in English life was now a respectable bourgeois, who had no desire to make himself conspicuous but wished merely to present a gentlemanly appearance.”[14] This shouldn’t be surprising, of course, as we’ve discussed clothing’s use as private missive or public statement. Still, the perfection with which popular styles illustrated their era is particularly striking during these years.  

2. Frock Coats and Evening Coats

[caption id="attachment_104" align="aligncenter" width="285"]http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1816-Lord-Grantham-Ingres.png Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres; sketch of Lord Grantham (note ascot, tails, pantaloons, boots); 1816[/caption] The early response to Romantic exaggeration seems to be a complete reversal: away from nostalgic fantasy and right back to where fashion left off—that is, inspired by the unadorned yet perfectly polished styles of Beau Brummell[15]: “for evening, the eminent Mr. Brummell donned a navy blue swallowtail coat, black breeches, white waistcoat and shirt, along with a white neck cloth and a 6-inch starched collar of his own invention. Near the end of his reign as the dandy definitive, all Londoners turned to somber clothes and haven’t looked back since.”[16] In fact, Brummell is credited with individually setting the style for the first half of the nineteenth century.[17] [caption id="attachment_105" align="aligncenter" width="362"]http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Georg_Friedrich_Kersting_005_detail.jpg This gentleman wears a double-breasted frockcoat in dark blue over a buff waistcoat. His gray trousers have straps under his shoes. His slightly conical tall hat sits in the windowsill, Germany, c. 1815.[/caption] It’s true that Brummell’s simple, sober, yet polished aesthetic became commonplace—expected, even—during the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. The pinched waists and padded shoulders, the flamboyant waistcoats, the decorative daggers of the short-lived Romantic period began their slide into (re-)obscurity after 1837. In their stead, the cut-away coat (another name for Brummell’s swallowtail coat, and a clear precursor of the tailcoats of today) became the fashion of choice for both day and evening wear—the only difference being that evening coats were always black and generally made of finer fabrics.[18] (Many people—still following Brummell!—stuck to frock coats for day and swallowtail or cutaway coats for evening.) The anonymously published fashion guide of the 1840s, The Habits of Good Society, provides us with a clear picture of what the “well-dressed man” of the time was (or ought to be) wearing[19]: […] the well-dressed man needed four kinds of coat: a morning coat, a frock coat, a dress coat, and an overcoat. He needed four of the first and one each of the others, the cost of the seven coats being £18 (i.e. little more than £2 each). In addition, he needed six pairs of morning and one of evening trousers, at a total cost of £9; and four morning waistcoats and one evening waistcoat, costing £4 in all. Another £10 was to be allowed for gloves, linen, hats, scarves and neckties, and £5 for boots. The well-dressed man of moderate means could therefore fit himself out for under £50 a year […] This seems a nominal sum—though keep in mind that £1 in 1840 was the equivalent of roughly £50 today, meaning that “the well-dressed man of moderate means” was expected to spend something like £2,500 on clothes every year! And, of course, dandies hadn’t disappeared with Brummell’s exile and Romanticism’s abandonment. They persisted into the 1840s, spending much more than this estimated £2,500 yearly sum. At this point, though, remaining dandies were considered “relics of a former, dissipated age.”[20] Habits of Good Society exhorted gentlemen to wear sober colors: dark blue or black for town wear, with an exception granted for tweed in the country.[21] Still, despite what looks like an overwhelming triumph of bourgeois sobriety over the color and costume of dandies and Romantics alike, there was a single loophole left open—or, rather, a buttonhole.  

3. The Boutonniere

History does not say which inspired genius or fashion-conscious rebel it was who first decided to leave the top buttons of his frock coat unfastened. Whoever it was, his anonymous figure is owed a huge debt by fashionable society.

– Nicholas Foulkes, “The Great Age of the Boutonniere” [22]

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, men first began to leave the top buttons of their frock coats or evening coats undone. This allowed the coat’s collar and upper-front pieces to fall back in a sort of proto-lapel.[23] And this inchoate lapel proved to be perhaps the unlikeliest of sources to allow a tiny piece of the Romantic spirit to live on—in the form of the boutonniere. Nicholas Foulkes probably puts it best in his essay on the boutonniere’s greatest years[24]: Men’s clothing had now entered a far more sober phase where virtually all, latent peacock instincts had to be curtailed, save for the fortunate opportunity proffered by the emergent lapel and its as yet unused but still retained buttonhole. It proved to be the perfect backdrop for one last splash of color—the boutonniere—or buttonhole flower—which soon came into fashion, born on the spirit of the Romantic age and its worship of nature. Beginning in the 1830s and continuing on throughout the century, the boutonniere prevailed as the mark of a well-dressed man. According to Alan Flusser, “the wearing of a lapel flower was a symbol of gracious living, a tribute to the lady on your arm, as well as to your host or hostess.”[25] For some, the buttonhole flower retained special meaning, symbolizing a love of nature and an endorsement of seemingly lost Romantic ideals; even “taking on a symbolic—almost quasi-religious—importance in certain circles.”[26] Regardless of one’s political commitments or aspersions, the boutonniere allowed for a spark of color and individuality despite the overwhelming dark and homogenous nature of men’s formal wear during this time period.  

4. The Rise of the Overcoat

[caption id="attachment_106" align="alignleft" width="288"]Note: overcoats, top hats, and trousers Note: overcoats, top hats, and trousers[/caption] In addition to the boutonniere, one of the largest emergent fashions of the early Victorian Era was the overcoat. Its first descendants can be traced back to 1835. As a “warm covering designed to protect the wearer from inclement weather,” it continued to gain popularity and new adherents right up until the First World War. This was, to say the least, “a fashion which provoked wariness among tailors.”[27] And perhaps rightly so: the overcoat did not hug the waist; it had no horizontal seams or underarm pleats; it fell “straight like a sack.”[28] It was, perhaps, the first sign of things to come: that is, ready-made clothing without the need for precise, individual tailoring. Tailors, of course, were not about to take this new fashion lying down. In 1839, the French fashion and tailoring magazine, La Fashion, decried the overcoat[29]:

‘today’s stylish men borrowed, several years ago, the OVERCOAT from Dieppe sailors. This coarse garment whose simple weightiness and barely-sketched shape gave those who donned it against rough weather or to go herring fishing, such a massive bulk that the learned folk of Honfleur and Saint-Valéry will tell anyone willing to listen that paltoquet [‘lout’] means nothing other than paletot-wearer!’

To many tailors’ distress, however, the overcoat’s popularity continued to grow on both sides of the English Channel. By the 1840s, multiple variations and styles were developed: there was the aforementioned Paletot—originating in France before making its way to England—which fell straight down from the shoulders with no identifiable waist or tailoring of any kind. There was the chesterfield: a longer coat with a slight waist popular in England (in fact, still popular today!). There was the Pilot Coat, the Curricle Coat, and the “Twine” (a linguistically confused term referring to the French adoption of the English variation of the originally French paletot!). Darker, more conservative styles, as well as the prospect on the horizon of ready-made clothes, are perhaps this early Victorian Era’s most notable developments in men’s fashion. If you read on, it will become increasingly apparent how styles brought about by sociopolitical backlash have influenced men’s formal wear—in style, in regulation, in tailoring and creation—right up until the present day.   [1] From the Preface to Farid Chenoune’s History of Men’s Fashion. [2] Boyer, G. Bruce. (1985). Elegance: A Guide to Quality in Menswear. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 106. [3] Chenoune, 19. [4] Though this movement began in the early 1830s and faded away during the early years of Victoria’s reign, I’ll describe it here because the backlash against its affected melodrama paved the way for the progression of fashion toward the end of the first half of the nineteenth century. [5] Chenoune, 50. [6] Ibid. [7] Laver, J. (2002). Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 4th edition. New York: Thames & Hudson. 168. [8] Chenoune, 50. [9] Quoted in Chenoune, 54. [10] Ibid. [11] Chenoune, 54. [12] Laver, 168. [13] Ibid., 169-70. [14] Ibid., 169. [15] Foulkes, N. (2000). “The Great Age of the Boutonniere,” in Angeloni, U. (ed.) The Boutonniere: Style in One’s Lapel. New York: Universe, 26-39. p. 27. [16] Flusser, A. (2002). Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion. New York: Harper Collins. (p. 234, emphasis added.) [17] Foulkes, 27. [18] Laver, 168. [19] Quoted in Laver, 169. [20] Laver, 169. [21] Ibid. [22] Foulkes, 27. [23] Ibid. [24] Ibid., 28. [25] Flusser (2002), 231. [26] Foulkes, 28. [27] Chenoune, 65. [28] Ibid. [29] Quoted in Chenoune, 65.