Formal Wear History: Introduction and Early Influences

Men’s formal wear might appear, on first glance, to be a relatively rigid piece of a broader cultural or stylistic puzzle. Over the past hundred years or more, men’s formal wear seems to have changed very little, and very gradually—with small amendments catching on after originating in the particular tastes of British nobles, or upper-class Americans, or even movie stars. In fact, according to renowned menswear (and particularly formal wear) expert Alan Flusser, “Tailcoats were once akin to Fords: it was a point of pride that the model seldom changed.”[1] [caption id="attachment_110" align="aligncenter" width="401"] Charles I, Anthony Van Dyck (at the Louvre)[/caption] Despite this traditional story, though, men’s formal wear as we know it today did not spring out of the ground fully formed! It is just one link in a fascinating historical chain stretching back (at least) several centuries. And while, historically speaking, the shift from traditional court dress (think brocade, gold braiding, large powdered wigs, tight silk hose and buckled high-heeled pumps) to modern and comparatively subdued formal wear (tailcoat, waistcoat, trousers, dress shirt, etc.) happened quite quickly, most of the major changes occurred over years rife with social upheaval, heated conflicts between upper class and lower class, French court lackeys and British country gentlemen, and more. Exploring the social rumblings encouraging these changes, the broader social issues underlying gradual transformations in fashion, and so on, is quite fascinating. What’s more, a knowledge of this information can provide anyone interested in becoming part of the long chain of formal wear’s history, a better sense of where he fits in, why his clothes are shaped, styled, and even named the ways that they are, and more. It’s true, in just about every arena, that learning the history behind a topic or subject of interest provides a much deeper understanding. However, I think it’s doubly true where fashion in concerned—particularly formal fashion that’s rooted in a distant aristocracy. Though of course a thorough understanding of the history of men’s formal wear might not be a necessity for the modern man, already well versed in formal styles, it can give any man a depth of knowledge that might help him gain a fuller understanding of the slight variations in available styles, the significance of tiny choices (between collar styles or trouser fittings, perhaps), the origins or accessory names, and much more. This section is meant as a guide for those men fascinated not only by the form of their clothes, but also by the origin and meaning of such forms. I hope that you find it not only informative, but interesting, whether you’re just entering the world of formal wear, you’ve already amassed an extensive formal wear collection and are looking for more, or you’re simply fascinated by the social and historical influences of and on fashion. In the rest of this introduction, I’ll lay out some of the broad ways in which formal fashions have changed, certain social explanations for these changes, as well as illustrations of such trends in the earliest recognizably “modern” fashions. The following sections describe each time period—that period’s most notable stylistic changes, explanations for those changes, and so on—in greater detail.  

1. Pre-Regency Fashion

Probably the largest upheaval (or combination of upheavals) in men’s fashion took place during what’s known as the Regency Era (often referring to the span of time from 1795–1837 or so). It should not, perhaps, be surprising that massive changes in men’s wear followed or overlapped extreme changes in social structure. The Seven Years’ War, America’s Revolutionary War and the French Revolution (1779-1799), all had caused drastic changes in every aspect of life. Thus, though from a distance, the history of men’s formal wear might look more or less like a still pond with few ripples, viewed from up close and within its proper context, it is in fact a series of riotous upheavals, in which centuries-old traditions, social structures, and so on, are toppled in part by stylistic choices. [caption id="attachment_112" align="aligncenter" width="359"] James I; First Half of 17th Century[/caption] To truly understand the history of men’s formal wear, we must go back farther than the early twentieth century. Though England’s Regency Era is most likely responsible for the largest historical upheaval in men’s fashion, influences stretching as far back as the early eighteenth and even seventeenth centuries must be recognized as contributors to modern formal wear. Though the most lasting and significant transformations undoubtedly took place during the Regency Era, these transformations were shaped by—and could only have been successful given—growing social and related stylistic trends beginning to take shape from the late seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries. Attempting to explain such massive shifts in the political order, the social order, and the fashion that served as a form of social commentary throughout is nearly impossible without massive simplification (and even more impossible to avoid oversimplification in a series of essays rather than a series of tomes!). Still, I’ll do my best to account for numerous sources of nuance as a result of competing factions and multiple simultaneous and self-reinforcing influences. To this end, I’ll break my explanation up into three distinct sources of change. Note that even the three causes I’ve singled out were not working in a vacuum; rather, they amplified, competed with, and reinforced each other through complex societal interactions. The history of men’s formal wear is not as a single, simple story with clear beginning, middle, and end. It is in fact, the result of many past, influential social and political events.  

1.i. The Rise of Anglomania

[caption id="attachment_113" align="alignleft" width="302"] Charles I[/caption] Today, it’s royal women’s clothing that gets all the attention: in fact, many experts in the area of men’s formal wear explain that the purpose of a man’s dark, subdued tuxedo or tailcoat is to showcase the bright colors and extravagant glamor of the lady on his arm. However, this was not always the case! According to Bruce Boyer in his influential Elegance: A Guide to Quality in Menswear, “Henry VIII, if we may believe the evidence of Holbein and other portrait painters of the period, outshone his various queens for gorgeousness and drama of costume”[2]; and he was not the only British monarch of the period that “have had something of the dandy about themselves.” (Other notable dandy-esque early monarchs include Charles I: 1600-1645; and Charles II: 1630-1685.) Prior to the Regency era, throughout England and continental Europe, men’s formal wear was, for the most part, defined by the elaborate, ornate, gold- and precious stones-flecked, largely unfitted coats, doublets, tight hose, and extravagant wigs—often powdered or died white. Formal wear was considered court wear: anything less (styles that today would be considered ultra-formal) were referred to as “undress.” However, it was in England where these early forms of men’s formal wear—including those relatively unfitted but extremely embellished coats stitched throughout in gold (which, incidentally, was an extravagance that, by law, was prohibited for non-nobles, non-landowning men, and/or men below the rank of “knight”[3])—first gave way for more “simple” dress (so regarded by any visiting French peers). Upon visiting England as early as 1730, the French César de Saussure was shocked by the nature of English dress[4]: he noted that the English “dress simply. They are rarely seen in gold braiding; they wear a small coat that they call a frock [i.e., dress coat] that is without pleat or adornment, with a collar on top. They all have a little round wig, a plain hat, and a stick in hand instead of sword.” Most shocking of all for a Frenchman of high stature was the fact that this English costume was typical of well-off merchants, moneyed lords, and even aristocrats of the highest distinction—especially since, up until this time, men’s dress was perhaps the most obvious and recognizable signal of their class and standing. Of course, at this point, Englishmen still “dressed properly” for court functions; however, “Woe to anyone in those days who stepped into London’s dusty and muddy streets ‘dressed properly, with braided garments, a feather in his hat and a knot in his hair’—he was in danger of being called a ‘French dog.’”[5] Still, the simplification of dress was representative not only of the prominent and growing British tradition of “the country lord”—that is, landed gentry who didn’t spend much of their time in court (as in France) but upon their lands, enjoying country pursuits such as riding, hunting, and racing; it was symbolic of larger changes yet to come. According to Farid Chenoune, “England has been the historical and legendary focal point of men’s fashion for over two hundred years”[6]: this observation is due in large part to this initial simplification or “country-fication” of aristocratic costume and its accompanying atmosphere and philosophy. Despite the disdain of older French lords, an obsession with all things British began to captivate the younger aristocracy: they began breeding, riding, and racing horses in imitation of their English counterparts; simultaneously, they began imitating the trendy English equestrian-based attire—not just while in the saddle, but in the city streets as well. Naturally, such flagrant disregard for tradition appalled and horrified the older generation—but, of course, the third strand in the history of men’s formal wear that I’ll discuss (applying just as well to current commentaries on the modern loss of good taste and style!) concerns the younger man’s timeless desire to cast off his father’s stodgy apparel and tradition.  

1.ii. Revolution and clothes as political statement

Though what Chenoune calls “Anglomania” in France played a large part in continental Europe’s adoption of simpler, British-equestrian-based dress, there were deeper sociopolitical forces at work as well. “Although primarily a fashion phenomenon, Anglomania crystallized the cultural, social and political crisis brewing in elite French circles in the eighteenth century. Sartorial fads were just so many variations on the major theme of slow revolution in dress that occurred between 1750 and 1815; the rise of more informal dress signaled transformations in the codes of elegance. Within this revolution in masculine etiquette, Anglomania simultaneously represented an experimental laboratory, a social testing-ground, and an ideological crucible.”[7] Thus, the popularity of simpler dress, both in England and continental Europe, represented more than a short-lived fad; it represented the use of dress as political statement. The idea of clothes as political statement is not a new one: Boyer discusses the ways in which political conservatism—and moves both away and toward conservatism—“initiates, capitalizes on, or merely follows in the wake of … style.”[8] Though certainly not new, this intertwining of fashion and politics was especially obvious during the politically tumultuous pre- and early-Regency periods, when part of the drive behind the simpler English look was undoubtedly due to the aristocracy’s changing sense of power post-American Revolution; when certain Frenchmen’s adoption of this simpler dress proclaimed or echoed a support for equality leading up to the French Revolution. [caption id="attachment_114" align="aligncenter" width="349"] Sans-culottes vs. Culottes[/caption] The Revolution brought out two opposing styles of dress (primarily in France, though echoed by British supporters): the muscadin, or Royalist fops, continued to wear the traditional “fine dress” including tight-fitting silk breeches and chiné stockings with fine-grain leather boots. On the other hand, the sans-culottes eschewed traditional breeches and stockings for the trousers worn by the working class in order to use dress as a symbol of inequality: they “turned slovenly dress and dirtiness into political weapons and armor.”[9] Interestingly, the shockingly simple yet pristine style adopted by George “Beau” Brummell (called the “Father of Modern Costume” by Max Beerbohm) not only revolutionized the way English gentlemen dressed so dramatically that the silhouette he created is closest to what we know as “formal wear” today; in adopting this style of dress, he also slashed class boundaries. As Chenoune puts it, he “basically smuggled entire classes across a social border. […] He established a dress code aimed at individuals with no noble title who moved in an evolving hierarchy, as against a rigid etiquette based on rank.”[10] Brummell’s attire was defined primarily by frock coats, linen fabrics, few adornments, and an emphasis on cleanliness rather than embellishment. In many histories of men’s formal wear, Brummell is credited with revolutionizing modern fashion basically in a vacuum. Understanding his choices (as a commoner lucky enough to be taken under the wing of the Prince of Wales as a boy) from a sociopolitical perspective helps us understand why and how men’s formal wear changed (and continues to change) the way it did.  

1.iii. Decreasing formality; increasing comfort

Another line along which we’ll see formal wear changing is perhaps the simplest and most obvious of all: young aristocrats resisting the rigid rules set in place by their fathers, and working to make formal wear more comfortable without sacrificing good looks. This balance between comfort and formality is one that men continue to stretch to this day, and the response from older generations remains largely the same as it was in the eighteenth century. As Alan Flusser himself complains, formal “relationships and principles […] were developed in the 1930s and for many years were handed down from father to son and from tailor to client. Then, starting in the 1960s, communication broke down. Young people stopped listening to what others, older than they, had to say, and a whole body of knowledge was almost lost.”[11] Perhaps Flusser has a point: this is a subject discussed at length in the “Classic” and “Contemporary” style sections of this formal wear guide. Still, it’s interesting to note the continuity of a thread that has guided the evolution of men’s formal wear since its earliest “modern” inception.  

2. The History of Formal Wear from Multiple Perspectives

Throughout the “History” section of this guide—from modern men’s formal wear’s regency roots to late twentieth-century styles—I’ll work to address stylistic changes from multiple perspectives and along multiple continuous lines such as the ones described above. This way, I hope to provide a multidimensional consideration of formal wear’s dynamic history—not just as a matter of shortening vests and softer fabrics, but as an expression of sociopolitical ideals, good old youth rebellion, and more. The rest of this “History” section will precede chronologically, but I intend to address these major themes throughout.

“Its spirit is in collective orthodoxy, but it is also expressed in individual and idiosyncratic clothing desires. The essence of men’s fashion lies in its repeated templates and its essential conservatism in tailoring, haberdashery, and conventions, but its animation stems from its potential for change. […] we are as delighted by the new, progressive, changing and modifying aspects of clothing that may bring us fads in menswear, but also bring us to clothing that speaks eloquently of our time.”’

                                                                                          Richard Martin (Curator, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

[1] Flusser, A. (2002). Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion. New York: Harper Collins. (p. 234) [2] Boyer, G. Bruce. (1985). Elegance: A Guide to Quality in Menswear. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. (p. 197) [3] César de Saussure, Lettre et voyage en Allemagne, en Hollande et en Angleterre, 1725-1729, Paris, 1903, 57-58. (Quoted in Chenoune (1993), 9.) [4] Chenoune, F. (1993). A History of Men’s Fashion. Dusinberre, D. (trans.) Paris: Flammarion, 9. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Ibid., 17. [8] Boyer, 102. [9] Chenoune, 19. [10] Ibid, 22. [11] Flusser, A. (1985). Clothes and the Man: The Principles of Fine Men’s Dress. New York: Villard Books, xiii.