“The little note of individualism that makes dress delightful can only be attained nowadays by the color and treatment of the flower one wears. This is a great pity. The color of the coat should be entirely for the good taste of the wearer to decide. This would give pleasure, and produce a charming variety of color effects in modern life.” – Oscar Wilde[1]

 

“… for the fin de siècle, the nature of the gentleman was a minor question. Wilde’s era asked, instead, and with a new urgency, what it meant merely to be a man.” – Ellen Moers[2]

  Viewed from a distance, men’s fashion during the later Victorian Era (from 1850 to 1901) might appear to be relatively stable—with perhaps a minor blip or two on the radar with the death of the frock coat and the invention of what we now know as the tuxedo jacket. In reality, though, it was an era of identity crises: in the aftermath of revolution and the growth of capitalism and meritocracy, remaining nobility tried to understand their place in the world. Men of high stature and taste wondered what, exactly, it meant to be a gentlemen. Finally, with the rise of feminism on the one hand and the aesthetes (led by Oscar Wilde) on the other, the nature of masculinity itself came under scrutiny. And all of these tensions were reflected in fashion: as Alan Flusser points out (quoting Pearl Binder in The Peacock’s Tail), “‘Dress is the outward expression of a man’s state of mind, and it is his attire that tells the world what he thinks of himself.’”[3]  

1. The Very Meaning of a Gentleman

“Follow the fate of the term “gentleman” through time and space … and you will see its meaning broaden … as social stations converge and intermingle.” – De Toqueville[4] Since the Renaissance, English men of high social standing had been debating amongst themselves what it is, exactly, that makes a man a gentleman. By the Victorian Era, the word no longer applied only to nobles and aristocrats (as did the French word gentilhomme)—though of course nobles and aristocrats still merited the term. At the same time, others—from knights and squires, to gentry, even to local citizens of particular quality—began earning the term as well. “This process fascinated a nineteenth-century Europe torn between the old aristocratic model of society and a bourgeois model, between the ideal of chivalry and the reality of industry.”[5] [caption id="attachment_86" align="aligncenter" width="477"]rsz_tissot_cercle_detail The Circle of the Rue Royal, by JJ Tissot, c. 1868. Currently at the Musée d’Orsay[/caption] There was considerable controversy over whether or not some socioeconomic barrier prevented anyone from becoming a gentlemen—an issue raised by the English association between a true gentleman and impeccable morals rather than wealth or bloodline alone. Eventually, this gentlemanly morality (based on self-control, propriety, reserve, etc.) became associated with dress. As Michael Leiris put it, “‘England is the only Western country that managed to develop a successful version of formality as symbolized by dress.’”[6] Throughout this era, you’ll see fashion changes fluctuate as “true gentlemen” attempted to maintain a dress code that signified their standing as apart from non-gentlemen, but without becoming too flashy in dress and thus abandoning their social status.  

2. Rebellious Fashions: Aesthetes and Rational Dressers

[caption id="attachment_87" align="alignleft" width="186"]rsz_reynaldo_hahn_1898 Reynaldo Hahn c. 1898 in typical aesthete attire; photo by P. Nadar[/caption] Despite the role of the nobility and other gentlemen in dictating the period’s fashion, there were (as always) a number of men who worked against the establishment—again, doing so primarily through clothes. Advocates of Rational Dress (originating around 1881[7]) and Hygienic Dress bemoaned the tight clothes and the corset-like padding and layers of fabric that were fashionable during the time. Hygienic Dress, a movement started by Dr. Hans Gustave Jaeger, held that breeches were safer (preventing cold drafts from entering a man’s trousers) and that natural fibers (preferably wool) should always be worn next to the body.[8] Meanwhile, the Aesthetes presented an even greater threat to established society: “Some intellectuals, as a protest against the ugliness of contemporary fashion, began to wear clothes influenced by those of he Pre-Raphaelites.”[9] The aesthetes, too, advocated the return of breeches—not for health reasons, but in the hope of “[reviving] showy masculine dress.”[10] The costume worn by Oscar Wilde while on tour in the US in 1882 is probably most representative of their look: purple velvet vest and coat; soft, turndown collars and flowing silk neck scarves; knee breeches, silk stockings.[11] In the quote at the beginning of this section, Wilde makes a case for color in men’s dress as opposed to the primarily black wardrobe of the period. He also praised Parisian frilled shirts for “[alleviating] the tediousness of a flat polished surface of stiff linen.”[12] Clearly, aesthetes—so characterized by decadence and showiness in appearance—flew in the face of everything it meant to be a proper gentleman. Worse, though, the growing notoriety of their leader (in both written works and in life) led to the aforementioned male identity crisis of the later Victorian Era. Thus, the period’s popular formal fashions weren’t the pure invention of the nobility, as some describe.[13] Rather, styles such black non-waisted dinner jackets, plain white shirtfronts like polished breastplates, minimal ornamentation, etc., can be seen as an attempt not only to look the part of a proper gentleman but also to affirm one’s “true masculinity” in the face of the “mauve peril”[14] represented by Wilde and his followers. (Note how this point alone—Victorian men’s fear of the term “homosexuality”—illustrates the masculine identity crisis described.)

3. Style in One’s Shirtfront

Above, I briefly mentioned the upsurge of plain white and almost breastplate-stiff shirtfronts that grew popular during this period, especially for evening wear. By about mid-century, proper evening wear included vests and coats cut lower in front than their daytime counterparts, leaving an expanse of shirtfront exposed. As “one of the most visible elements of male finery,”[15] the shirtfront became a social signal. After all, a white shirt had “always been the true sartorial sign of a gentleman—or at least of someone who could be counted on to afford clean linen.”[16] [caption id="attachment_88" align="alignright" width="251"]rsz_félix_nadar Eugene Delecroix, by F. Nadar: note low waistcoat, high collar, open shirtfront[/caption] That last statement is a very serious one, as the cost and difficulty of maintaining clean white shirts had been prohibitive for many (thus the white shirtfront’s symbol of status and affluence).[17] During the later Victorian Era, though, detachable shirt fronts (as well as collars and cuffs) were developed and quickly grew popular: they made it possible to change one’s (significantly cheaper) cuffs, collars, and even shirtfronts without changing the shirt itself. Of course, such detachables were decried at first; soon, though, their benefits were recognized. As fashionable collars grew taller and stiffer with the progression of the century, detachable collars, cuffs, and shirtfronts served as a means of “democratization of white collars as a symbol of social affluence.”[18] Naturally, the truly rich had to find a way to separate themselves from lower-class poseurs, however; thus, it became fashionable (in Paris if not in London) to wear finely adorned shirtfronts that couldn’t be mistaken for a readymade detachable imitation. Shirtfronts were pleated, braided, embroidered; the finest status symbols included multiple embellishments. Here we can see the result of two often-opposing poles: avoiding excessive flashiness as required of a proper gentleman, and distinguishing oneself from those on a lower rung of the social latter. In this case, the former eventually won out and plain shirtfronts were almost universally adopted for formal occasions.  

4. From Dress Coat/Evening Coat to Dinner Jacket/Tuxedo Jacket

“Black dress coat, white vest, wing collar, cape, top hat, monocle, and carnation in the buttonhole—such was the often-sketched evening attire of fashionable fin de siècle gentlemen. It became the very image of La Belle Epoque, as figured on posters for the Moulin Rouge…”[19] [caption id="attachment_89" align="aligncenter" width="255"]Mens_fashion_1856 Men’s fashion plate c. 1856: note dress coat on the left[/caption] Perhaps the most notable fashion revolution of this period was the invention of the first dinner jacket—the closest ancestor of our modern black-tie attire. There are several legends surrounding this feat of fashion. Some attribute its invention to the Prince of Wales (responsible for multiple trends throughout this and the Edwardian eras). Allegedly, he “wanted a more comfortable alternative to dine in than the swallowtail evening coat with its bothersome tails.”[20] Though it would have been a massive fashion faux pas, the Prince of Wales’ status as the arbiter of fashion made the shorter dinner jacket acceptable. Another tale attributes the invention of the jacket to an American tobacco tycoon, Griswold Lorillard, who wore a short black smoking jacket (rather than the customary tailcoat) to an 1886 ball at the Tuxedo Park Club. This break from tradition allegedly caused “a spot of bother”; however, the trend soon caught on.[21] Whether or not Lorillard truly invented the dinner jacket, this escapade can be credited with bestowing the jacket with its modern American name—the tuxedo. The most probable explanation, though, combines two trends: the dying out of the tailcoat (or evening coat, or dress coat) and the growing popularity of the smoking jacket. Though the dress coat (as described in the quotation above) dictated formal fashion for most of the latter half of the century, it faced a number of problems; its popularity peaked in 1880 before beginning a “long and inevitable decline.”[22] The dress coat’s death knoll sounded when servants began wearing black livery to formal evening events. This started a general panic around the issue of confusing the host and the butler (yet another source of identity crisis!)—a worry that became so common it was soon the subject of myriad jokes and caricatures.[23] Despite tailors’ multiple suggestions for adding or removing embellishments from master’s or servant’s attire, these changes never did much to help the confusion. Thus, the stage was set for the tailcoat’s demise; it only needed a successor. [caption id="attachment_90" align="aligncenter" width="405"]1857_Mens_Fashions Fashion plate c. 1857: again, note dress coat on far left[/caption]   This is where the smoking jacket came in—originally a thick, comfortable coat, often sporting a velvet outer, worn by gentlemen at dinner parties upon retiring for cigars and billiards &c.[24] [25] (and removed again when back in the company of ladies). The new dinner jacket boasted a similar shape: shorter, no tails, no clear waist, and meant to button in front. At first, dinner jackets were only acceptable in one’s own home, club, or at intimate dinner parties. By the end of the century, though, the dinner jacket had become “the emblem of modern elegance.”[26] Of course, dinner jackets did not replace tailcoats entirely; however, as is often the case during a piece of fashion’s demise, the tailcoat became reserved for the most formal of occasions. [caption id="attachment_91" align="aligncenter" width="251"]428px-Robert_d'Humières_1892 Robert Humieres, by P. Nadar (1895):note early dinner jacket[/caption]  

5. Victorian Accessories

Like the tailcoat, many articles of clothing formerly considered necessary elegance were relegated to highly formal wear—these included the frock coat and perhaps most notably, the top hat. Both garments followed what by now should be a familiar route to obscurity: from an outrageous or unacceptable beginning, to eventual acceptance as casual daytime wear, to increasing formality (at its peak). And then the decline: from formal to acceptable at only the most formal occasions (e.g., “audiences accorded by the queen, during the opening of Parliament, and at weddings”[27]), before resigning entirely as a piece of costume. [caption id="attachment_95" align="alignleft" width="197"]306px-Millais_Ruskin_Detail John Ruskin (detail) by John Everett Mills: frock coat is dying; top hat is dead[/caption] Even today, some mourn the loss of the top hat: “What the passing of the top hat comes to signify, in its symbolic sense, is the social ideal of gentility.”[28] Still, at the time the top hat was abandoned for what might be the very opposite reason—as increasing minimalism, comfort, and lack of ostentation came to define a true gentleman. Along a similar vein, the Victorian Era was responsible for the end of additional adornments: “Since Victorian times, stylish men have tended to avoid all but the most discreet and useful accessories. With the exception of the finger ring, man’s jewelry has been fathered by function …”[29] The only exception, as during the earlier part of the century, was the boutonniere—which truly bloomed (pardon the pun) during the second half of the century. During this period, despite the general antipathy toward embellishment, the boutonniere was “widely accepted as the mark of a man who was careful in his dress.”[30] Even the most proper and austere politicians wouldn’t be seen without a flower in their lapel. In 1887, The Tailor and Cutter reported on Prime Minister William Gladstone’s appearance one day in Parliament[31]:

‘He wore a new black frock coat, a low-buttoning waistcoat, showing a large expanse of shirt front, which is now as well known a ceremonial uniform as the wig and gown of the Lord Chancellor; and in his buttonhole was a rose, which is also part of his full dress attire. His large white linen collar, of which the comic papers never omit a caricature, contrasted with his ashen countenance, and gave him the appearance of quite the old man.’

Actually, this passage demonstrates quite a few of the fashions best illustrating this half century: the now-ultra-formal frock coat, the stiff collars, the low-cut vest and expansive shirt front, the boutonniere. It illustrates the era’s struggle to refine oneself without excessive show; to stand apart from those below you without performative ostentation. Men’s fashion of the later Victorian Era is remarkable in its tightrope walk between these two poles, and in its illustration of the gentleman’s struggle with his own identity. [1] From a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph in 1981; quoted in Farid Chenoune’s History of Men’s Fashion, 98. [2] Quoted in Chenoune, 98. [3] Flusser (1985), xii. [4] c. 1856; quoted in Chenoune, 78. [5] Chenoune, 78. [6] Quoted in Chenoune, 80. [7] Laver, 200. [8] Chenoune, 96-8. [9] Laver, 200. [10] Chenoune, 98. [11] Laver, 200. [12] Quoted in Chenoune, 98. [13] C.f., Boyer; Flusser (2002). [14] Foulkes, 30. [15] Chenoune, 95. [16] Boyer, 106. [17] Chenoune, 92. [18] Ibid. [19] Chenoune, 109. [20] Flusser (2002), 240. [21] Boyer, 107. [22] Chenoune, 109. [23] Ibid. [24] Ibid., 111. [25] Flusser (2002), 240. [26] Chenoune, 111. [27] Adolf Loos, quoted in Chenoune, 122. [28] Boyer, 254. [29] Flusser (2002), 227. [30] Foulkes, 28. [31] Quoted in Foulkes, 30.