“Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
- Polonius to Laertes
Hamlet, Act I, Scene III
As noted in the introduction, the first glimpse of what might be called “modern” men’s formal wear occurred during what’s known as the Regency Era (so called because there was no official King in England at the time, merely a Prince Regent). The Regency itself lasted from 1811 – 1820; however, talk of the Regency Era
(especially when dealing with topics such as period art, fashion, and so on) often refers the broader span of time from 1795 – 1837 or so.
During the Regency Era, simpler (in terms of a lack of brocade and embellishment) and more fitted clothing first became de rigueur
. Though formal Regency looks are a far cry from what we know as formal wear today, this era marks the first time in history that formal wear did not always coincide with court wear; and that fineness of fabric combined with a well tailored fit was more important than the amount of gold braid a gentleman could claim.
From Frock Coat (or redingote) to Double-Breasted Morning Jacket
In the introduction to this section, we discussed the way in which English country gentlemen took to “formalizing” their country—or, more specifically, equestrian—attire by wearing it into the city streets, even (eventually) into formal gatherings. Such was the evolution of the English frock coat (soon adopted by Anglomaniac French gentleman as a redingote,
taken from “riding coat”
Over the last quarter of that century in particular, gentlemen’s dress was evolving along less formal and more comfortable lines as the landed gentry turned increasingly away from the stiffness, heaviness, and gaudiness of court clothes to the greater simplicity of country dress. The English riding coat became the prototype for correct day wear, balanced nicely by a double-breasted fastening, collar, and lapels.
[caption id="attachment_116" align="aligncenter" width="276"]
Gwyllym Lloyd Wardle by Arthur William Devis[/caption]
The adoption of this longer, often tailed, broadcloth garment as day wear began in the seventeenth century and became commonplace by the end of the eighteenth. When Beau Brummell himself began to wear one, it was given the official approval of the Prince Regent himself.
The English riding coat became the first official double-breasted jacket, and some of its practical equestrian-inspired features remain today. For example, the jacket always buttons on the left flap in order to accommodate the hilt of a sword, so as not to catch in the buttons or fabric when drawn.
From Breeches to Trousers
Breeches, too, were an equestrian import. For the true aristocrat, breeches were made of the finest fabrics—silks and chamois—and were so tight that they required extensive maneuvering to get them on successfully! The comte d’Artois was known for wearing chamois breeches that were “so snug that he required the help of four lackeys to get into them.”
Breeches were traditionally worn with fine silk garters buckled to keep them and the breeches in place, or with soft, polished riding boots. (Some youths with no care for propriety even wore their boots with spurs around town!
However, the fashion for breeches soon evolved into a fashion for pantaloons—once again, if not invented, at least popularized and made acceptable evening wear by none other than Brummell himself. Eventually, pantaloons lost favor to trousers (looser and originally considered more formal)—both pantaloons and trousers considered types of pants.
Pants were not a new invention, though; rather, they had previously marked the boundaries of childhood: upper class parents had been dressing their young boys as “sailors” (an outfit consisting of loose pants buttoned to a short jacket) since 1770.
Still, they were so bound up with childhood that French revolutionaries were named for what they didn’t
) rather than for what they did, as the idea of a grown man wearing pants wasn’t really a graspable idea.
How, then, did pants—in any form—become a popular, even formal, fashion?
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"Portrait of Nicolas-Pierre Tiolier" by François-Édouard Picot; Note: Trousers & Tails[/caption]
Like most other items of fashion, the short answer is that Brummell wore them and, as a result, the Prince of Wales allowed or even encouraged them at court. The longer answer in the case of trousers, though, had to do with medical reasons in addition to social and aesthetic ones. In his “Considerations Concerning Men’s Clothing, Particularly Breeches,” Dr. L.J. Clairain expressed his worry that the pressure applied to a man’s calves by his tight breeches and their garter buttons or buckles could cut off the circulation and cause varicose veins (as well as unpleasantness).
In addition, evolution in the aesthetics of handsomeness combined with a growing disgust for the artifices (including padded stockings and false calves), employed beneath breeches to make a man look more well-endowed than he was, slowly pushed breeches out of favor.
This evolution followed the usual progression, of course: first trousers were considered practically uncouth; then they were acceptable or even expected daywear; finally, they made their way to court and formal balls (usually the doing of one Beau Brummell).
From Doublet to Vest
The doublet, which had begun its transformation to the vest or waistcoat we know today back in the seventeenth century, continued its evolution during the Regency Era.
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Doublet, 1635-1640 V&A Museum no. 177-1900 (CC License)[/caption]
King Charles originally declared the vest into being, and Pepys documented the occasion in 1666: “The King hath yesterday in counsel declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes, which he will never alter. It will be a vest, I know not well how. But it is to teach the nobility thrift, and will do good.”
The King’s decree came to pass, though not because of his decree; the doublet had begun its transformation already and continued to do so naturally.
In the first half of the eighteenth century, fashionable men wore what was called a “Persian vest”: it was the first official replacement for the doublet, though it maintained a “skirt” that billowed out below the hips and the vest itself was longer than the coat that covered it. By the second half of the century, the vest began to shorten (first ending just above the knee, then at mid-thigh) and the skirt began to disappear. By 1760, the vest’s sleeves were removed; by 1770, the vest was shorter than the coat, reaching the top of the thigh while the coat came down to the knee; by 1790, the vest ended at the waistline—in size, very much as it is today.
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Velvet 3-piece suit; Man’s suit (coat, waistcoat and breeches), France, circa 1755. Silk cut, uncut, and voided velvet[/caption]
This, too, raised quite a scene originally: “On the other hand, men had conquered the vest, which initially raised even greater commotion and had a harder time getting into drawing rooms. All was lost, said the most proper of people, for men were going around naked—nothing hid their bodies anymore.”
By the early nineteenth century, the vest had become an important part of men’s wardrobes; as it became smaller, “it became more conspicuous in a refulgent, sprightly way.”
Thus, despite the overall sobering and equalizing of clothes, the vest remained a (significantly smaller) means of showing off the finery of one’s fabric; if left unbuttoned at the bottom, it allowed its wearer “to show off an exuberant amount of ruffled shirt front in deliberate deshabille.”
Unsurprisingly, it was quite a favorite garment among royal dandies. Not until the Edwardian era did the vest’s exuberance settle down to match the rest of a modern gentleman’s wardrobe.
The cravat is considered to have come into the height of its popularity in the early nineteenth century. With the increasing popularity of “simple” dress, it became harder to tell a man’s social class by his clothing alone. The true social expert had to understand small details—the quality and cut of a man’s cloth, the manner of his bearing, and, perhaps most importantly, his cravat. As Honore de Balzac noted, “when the French gained equal rights they simultaneously acquired sameness of dress.”
Thus, a starched and elegantly tied cravat became the only well to tell “a true gentleman of refinement.”
[caption id="attachment_123" align="alignleft" width="320"]
Beau Brummell is usually credited with the invention of the cravat (as with many other details of modern fashion!); however, it’s possible that George IV was responsible for originally influencing Brummell. After all, George IV had dealt with swollen glands in his throat since childhood and worked to conceal them with his clothing.
Either way, it’s undisputed and undisputable that Brummell perfected the cravat and made it the focal point of his wardrobe. Brummell’s cravats were so perfect, so pristine, that they afforded him an air of awe and mystery. It is said that he spent hours trying on and discarding starched strips of potential-cravats—handed to him by his patient servant—which he referred to as “our failures.”
The Prince of Wales often went to watch Brummell get dressed (which allegedly took him nine hours of his waking day), often staying so late that he was forced to send his carriage home.
Despite his best efforts, the Prince (or anyone else) never managed to replicate Brummell’s cravat perfection. Brummell’s biographer, perhaps, described the process best:
‘The collar, which was always fixed to his shirt, was so large that, before being folded down, it completely hid his head and face, and the white neckcloth was at least a foot in height. The first coup d’archet
was made with the shirt collar, which he folded down to its proper size, and Brummell, then standing before the glass, with his chin poked up to the ceiling, by the gentle and gradual detention of his lower jaw creased the cravat to reasonable dimensions, the form of each succeeding crease being perfected with the shirt which he had just discarded.’
Brummell’s pristine cravats are worth noting not just because they served as the precursor for modern neckwear, but because he made them the centerpiece of style: his perfected look required no further embellishment.
The Top Hat
Like most men’s formal wear, the top hat was originally designed as a piece of equestrian equipment—meant as a sort of crash helmet in case of a foxhunting accident. It began to appear in this capacity in the late eighteenth century; in 1797, James Heatherington (often credited as its inventor) was the first to wear a top hat in the streets rather than on horseback. This caused a literal riot: “an ever-increasing crowd followed him down the street, several women in the throng fainted, dogs barked, horses shied, children screamed and threw things, and at least one lad managed to get his arm broken.”
As a result of the turmoil, Heatherington was fined £50; the St. James’s Gazette
described the top hat as “a tall structure, having a shiny lustre calculated to frighten timid people.”
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Men's Formal Wear Top Hat[/caption]
Not long after, though, the English gentleman’s fondness for wearing his country clothes to town extended to the top hat, and it became a common sight in the day and eventually evening. This seems to be the usual progression of new fashions: from shock and horror, to everyday wear, to semi-formal evening dress.
Quoted by Boyer, 274.
Chenoune, 14. (Quoting Baron de Frénilly)
Balzac, quoted in Boyer, 28.
William Jesse’s biography of Brummell, quoted in Chenoune (22).
Quoted by Boyer, 252.