Late Victorian (1880s, '90s)
What's in a Name?:
Sans culottes means "without breeches". French
revolutionaries were given this nickname because of their
preference for long pantalons
instead of the short breeches which were previously the
norm and which became associated with the nobility.
On a related note, the French word pantalons was
anglicized as pantaloons and later truncated to
1795 French refinement
The English nobility's adaptation of the
common man's clothing was also inspired by British sympathizers of
the egalitarian principles of French and American
In their rejection of their colonial masters, American
rebels turned to their French brothers-in-arms for their
fashion cues which became ironic when the new French
elite began importing the gentrified English look.
Italian court dress circa 1800
Regency evening attire was
usually divided into three sub-categories:
dinner dress for informal dinners and
concerts, ball dress for formal entertaining and the opera,
and court dress
formal Royal functions. The latter two were often
termed "full evening dress".
Court dress was the
most formal level of dress in
It was distinguished by elaborate fabrics and
ornamentation and by preservation of outdated
Regency Origins: The Tale of the Tailcoat
The interesting irony of
formal attire is that almost without exception, every aspect of the
masculine evening costume derives from the sport of horseback
Elegance: A Quality Guide to Menswear
Georgian Fashion Revolution
The tradition of
dressing up after dark has existed for centuries. Perhaps the
most obvious evidence of this is the “dress circle”
theaters, a term derived from the eighteenth and
nineteenth century grand
European opera houses which restricted this exclusive seating
area to patrons who were properly attired. However,
the philosophy of dress clothes underwent a dramatic change at the turn
of the nineteenth century when modern evening wear evolved from
surprisingly rustic origins.
Prior to the
mid-1700s men’s fashion in Europe
was largely a peacock affair for aristocrats
adorned themselves in the most extravagant clothing they
could concoct. The standard wardrobe of the time consisted of
cutaway coats with long, stiff skirts combined
with elongated waistcoats that were elaborately
embroidered and knee-length
breeches worn with stockings and buckled shoes.
For ordinary occasions this apparel would be made of cloth of
various kinds but for formal affairs there was no substitute for
imported silks and satins often embellished with gold
As it had been
since the advent of civilization, fashions were dictated by the
elite and followed by the masses.
The social pecking order was maintained in dress not only by
the expense of the fabrics but also by the impracticality of the
fashions: garments of the upper classes were deliberately
uncomfortable and close-fitting so as to render them unfit for the
manual labors of the lower ranks.
Then the English
revolutionized fashion history when its aristocracy developed a
preference for the more comfortable garments of the
working man. It began
in the 1730s with the adoption
of the common frock, a simpler and looser-fitting coat that was more practical for
hunting and riding, pastimes which were quickly gaining favor among
the elite. King George
III was a particular aficionado of outdoor activities so his
ascension to the throne in 1760 ensured
widespread acceptance of the
new concept of the "country gentleman”.
Towards the end of the eighteenth
century this new look emigrated from country to town where it was
perfected by a man whose profound influence
on male fashion has lasted to this day: George “Beau” Brummell.
Beau Brummell and
Beau Brummell was
a middle-class Englishman with social ambitions well beyond his
income. By the time he gained his inheritance and moved to London in 1799 he had managed to infiltrate
the highest level of society and developed a close friendship with
the Prince of Wales, the future George IV.
However, it was
financially impossible, not to mention socially unacceptable, for
a man of Brummell’s station to mimic the opulent garb of the upper
class. Thus he set out to perfect the more affordable look of the
country gentleman by combining his impeccable sartorial tastes with
an impressive physique for displaying them.
Brummell's artful strategy was to
elevate the common drabness of country attire to a refined
replaced the bright colors previously favored by the elite with a
limited palette of
dark coats and plain, light-colored waistcoats and
pantaloons. Patterned waistcoats
were traded in for monochrome versions,
frilled shirts were replaced
by plain styles and
lace cravats were
superseded by starched linen neckcloths.
imported an understated military and equestrian flair to
his wardrobe to emphasize
the wearer’s physique and authority.
This was done primarily by adopting the tailcoat – a frock
coat with a skirt cut away at the front for easier wear when riding
– as his coat of choice and enhancing it with skilful tailoring to suggest broad shoulders and a trim waist.
Below this his muscular legs were emphasized by the wearing
of light colored pantaloons – tight-fitting ankle-length trousers
held in place by a strap under the foot – which disappeared into
knee-high black leather riding boots styled after those of the
The end result of
these innovations was an ensemble vastly more regal than the
ill-fitting apparel of the country squires and sans culottes that
originally inspired it.
It was subsequently adopted by the haut monde as the meticulous
Regency wardrobe seen so often in Jane Austen film adaptations.
traditional day wear was only half the equation
in a society which
reserved their most elite functions, and
their most formal attire,
Regency Evening Dress: Etiquette
Dressed, Half Dressed and Undressed
The politics of dress in the early eighteenth century was a serious
matter. Knowing what to
wear and when to wear it was an essential life skill for the upper
class and part of an elaborate etiquette used to distinguish the
purebred gentry from the merely rich.
The underlying principle was
summarized by a period etiquette guide which explained that one's
attire should be adapted to
the occasion, season, place and time so that there was "harmony between the stiffness of
the coat and of the company."
Depending on the authority cited, this aesthetic harmony
was governed by classifying clothing
as Undress and Dress, or the
slightly more defined hierarchy of Undress, Half Dress and Full
Dress. Within these
categories was a secondary ranking
of the many
ensembles that might be worn by the gentry over the course of a
Generally speaking, the appropriateness of clothing was
based on the following principles:
informal clothing worn in the privacy of one’s home
was at the
bottom of the sartorial ladder because public appearances
attire for outdoor leisure
activities was next in rank but inferior to
the professional apparel required for affairs in
the city (thus the
popular differentiation between “town and country”)
called for more upscale
dress than did mingling with the general populace
the formality of evening affairs trumped all other
Most of these formal distinctions are inherently logical and remain
relevant in society today.
But the nineteenth-century practice of dressing like an
orchestra conductor every evening bears some explanation.
A good place to start is the origin of dressing
for dinner as provided by Nicholas Antongiavanni quoting fellow
menswear historian Hardy Amies:
“Men spent a great part of the day on horseback. Personal hygiene
apart, you did not want to bring the smell of the stables into the
house.” And the clothes that men changed into were more formal than
the ones they changed out of, the idea being that one dressed “up”
for the formal ritual of a multi-course meal. Moreover, the presence
of ladies demanded better clothes. Ladies, the thinking went, have
delicate sensibilities, and one always wanted to look one’s best for
The formal meals mentioned by Antongiavanni provide another clue as to the
dominant status of evening clothes: among the leisure class dinner
was not the end-of-day meal it is for us now but, rather, an event that
divided the two halves of a day that began late in the morning and lasted well past
hours were for business affairs and recreation
while candlelight was
dedicated to seeing and being seen at lavish repasts, opulent balls
and private opera boxes. Being
spent exclusively indoors and exclusively with peers,
the latter portion of the day
was by its nature the most formal and
therefore demanded the most prestigious
Regency Evening Dress
As he did with day wear, Beau Brummell
revolutionized how a gentleman
dressed after dark. His
preferred evening costume was a more staid version of his
and according to biographer Ian Kelly
consisted of a dark blue or black tailcoat, white waistcoat, black
pantaloons or black knee breeches with silk stockings, white cravat
and thin shoes. By 1801 Brummell's outfit had become required
attire at Almack's, the most fashionable club in London thus laying
the foundation for the black and white palette that governs evening
wear to this day.
Brummell's dress code did not gain universal
acceptance overnight, though. In the century’s second decade the renowned dandy's influence waned when he
fell out of favor with the Prince Regent then ultimately ended
his self-imposed exile to the French coast to escape massive personal debt incurred from years of living far beyond his
means. In his absence
beaus on both sides of the English Channel
began to bastardize the understated style that he had pioneered.
Some of these Regency variations were soon discarded while
others helped shape the evolution of today’s White Tie.
Aristocratic finery typical in Europe prior to
the French Revolution.
The 'country gentleman' look as sported by the third Duke of
Iconic dandy George "Beau" Brummell in classic
Regency daytime wardrobe of tailcoat, pantaloons, starched cravat and
Circa 1808 English "full dress" (left) and "half dress"
(middle). The former was for evenings and differed in the
hat, coat color, leggings and footwear.
1807 English "evening full dress"
1862 sketch of Beau Brummell in his evening
costume circa 1815.
Beau Brummell figurine based on historical
research shows closed
tailcoat and white waistcoat.