Late Victorian (1880s, '90s)
The horseback origins of the tailcoat are
evident in formal equestrian attire such as the tailcoat
sported in dressage competitions and the scarlet
evening tails worn to hunt balls by entitled members of fox
Scarlet Evening Tails
Ebony apparel became increasingly stylish due in part to
Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The popular author
"as a romantic gesture to
show that he was a
according to menswear
historian James Laver.
In his hugely successful
1828 novel Pelham
he wrote that to look good in black "people must be very
distinguished in appearance". Stylist Alan Flusser says
that the dandies of the day took this comment as a challenge
and adopted the color to prove themselves worthy.
Top Hat Origins
top hat, 1830
Wikipedia points out that the
popular story of an English haberdasher
named John Hetherington first creating and/or
wearing the top hat and causing a riot in the streets of London has no factual basis.
What's in a Name?: "Fob"
A gentleman's watch was carried in a
hidden pocket called a fob and the name eventually became
associated with the decorative chain or ribbon attached to
Regency Evolution: Dress
Dress, over the
habitable globe, has ever been, and is, regulated by habit except in
where that staid regulator is fast getting superseded by a turn-coat
whirligig maniac called Fashion, that is always changing and running
into extremes, being scarcely ever detected in one form before it is
out of it.
The Whole Art of Dress
As previously mentioned, the
tailcoat’s origins lie in the adaptation of the frock for comfort
and style. In the late
1700s the front of the long frock’s skirt (the portion below the
waist) was increasingly cut away to make the coat more practical for
horseback riding. By the
end of the century all that was left of the skirt was its rear
which was divided in half by a long center vent – once again, for
riding comfort – resulting in two “coattails”.
“swallowtail-coat” or, more simply, “tail-coat”
was soon adopted as the new dress coat for day and evening.
Both types of dress coat could be single- or double-breasted. At first they were worn
either open or closed but the open style
became the most popular for evening coats so as to better show off
the waistcoat, shirt and cravat and by the
1820s evening tailcoats were being deliberately cut so that the fronts could not
even meet. The
coat's front was cut high and its tails displayed moderate variations in shape and length during the
The colors of the first
evening tailcoats were often black or the dark shades of blue, green, claret,
brown common to day coats. Soon dark blue models with gilt buttons and black with
covered buttons were the only acceptable choices and the latter
version was the norm by the end of the first decade.
A significant tailoring
detail was the separation of a coat’s collar and lapels for the
first time, with the lapels being folded back as if from the lining
of the coat. The point
where they met was marked with a notch in the distinctive M shape of
the period or in a simple V shape. On evening tailcoats the collar was often velvet but lapels
were not yet silk lined as they are now.
Other notable features
of early tailcoats were two buttons on the small of the back (and
buttonholes at the end of the tails) originally added so the tails
could be folded up and buttoned to the back of the coat when in the
saddle. And thanks to
Beau Brummell and his tailor, pockets were hidden in the folds of
these tails so that they would not interfere with the lie of the
coat the way that traditional hip pockets did.
While the Regency
daytime waistcoat could be either single- or double-breasted, the
evening version was always single-breasted.
It was cut straight at the bottom and in the 1820s collars were
introduced that were either notched or “en schal” (shawl).
White marcella or plain black fabric was standard for
evening waistcoats until the end of
the 1820s when “all the colours of the
rainbow” were being worn by dandies who also preferred embroidery
and rich plain or figured silks and satins.
grew longer in the late 1820s leading to the return of the late
eighteenth century under-waistcoat.
At first this was a sparse undergarment meant to project just
beyond the edges of the overlying version.
It then evolved into a full-blown torso covering with lapels,
decorative buttons and gorgeous colored materials designed to
contrast with the upper-waistcoat which was often left open at the
top for better exposure.
For evening dress, as
with day dress, breeches and pantaloons were both acceptable.
At the beginning of the century the most popular choice was
breeches ending just below the knee.
Brummell preferred black silk but white or light-colored
wool fabrics were quite common during the Regency.
By the 1820s the
popularity of pantaloons had relegated breeches to only the most
formal of occasions and by the following decade trousers had also
become widely acceptable for evening dress. Although pantaloons tended to be slightly more form-fitting
than trousers, they were often indistinguishable and the two terms
were apt to be used indiscriminately.
Both were originally calf length in order to show the ankle
and stocking then by the teens they were cut closer to the shoe and
acquired straps to hold them in place and to
prevent wrinkling when
seated. For day dress
these stirrups were worn under the shoe but with evening dress they
went under the foot.
Evening dress pantaloons and trousers were generally of white
or black kerseymere or cashmere.
Day and evening shirts
were generally white muslin.
While the choice of white
material might seem entirely unremarkable today, in Beau Brummell’s
time the wearing of white shirts, waistcoats and
neckcloths was a subtle indication of a man’s wealth.
In order to maintain a spotless appearance in the dirty
conditions of the country or city, these easily-soiled garments
would have to be changed frequently which meant hefty laundering
only by the rich.
Evening shirt-fronts were pleated and/or frilled, often
asymmetrically. Collars were tall enough to
stand above the
cravat and were sometimes stiffened. At first
they were attached to the shirts then in the
1820s the detachable collar began to appear.
The Regency neckcloth
consisted of either a
cravat or a stock.
A cravat was a large, usually starched, square or triangle of
linen or silk folded into a band and wrapped around the neck.
It was sometimes wrapped around a stiffener first, which was
a sort of tall leather collar that often enveloped the entire neck.
There were different ways to tie
the cloth depending on the formality of the corresponding attire.
By the 1830s it was common to tie
the evening cravat in a bow although the most elegant style,
Ball-Room", did not feature one.
was a shaped band
fastened at the back of the neck with ties, a buckle or hook and
The Cut of Men’s Clothes
they were made
from horsehair or buckram with
and were covered with
velvet, satin or silk.
This type of neckcloth had long been used by the military and was
introduced to general society by King George IV in 1822.
The Whole Art of Dress,
an 1830 guide to men’s fashion,
The Royal George style of stock as
being composed of
“the richest black Genoa
velvet and satin” and tied into a small
gordian knot with short
broad ends. It was also
known as the Full Dress stock because
the two other
the Plain Bow (or “Plain Beau”)
and the Military
were not considered suitable for formal occasions.
White was the obligatory
color for all evening dress neckwear during this time with the
notable exception of George IV’s reign when his penchant for black
During the Regency era,
full dress differed most from day wear in that pumps were
worn instead of boots.
According to Handbook of
English Costume in the Eighteenth Century pumps were originally
worn by acrobats and running footmen (attendants
who ran beside or behind the carriages of aristocrats)
owing to their pliability but
they were also sported for elegance. Describing this type of shoe circa 1830, it states: “The
Dress Shoe, generally termed
Pumps and always worn for
full dress, was of Spanish leather, the sides not above 1 ½ inches
high and 1 ½ over the toe. Tied with a small double bow of broad ribbon.”
According to an 1836
British menswear periodical “varnished boots (i.e. half boots)” had
by then gained favor with “dancing pumps” although this trend
apparently did not meet with everyone’s approval: an American
etiquette book published the same year sternly warned that “Those
persons who dance in boots,--and many fools of fashion do it—degrade
themselves and insult society”.
Whether worn with
breeches or pantaloons, evening dress stockings were white or
natural colored silk. By
the 1820s black silk was becoming a popular alternative.
At the turn of the
century the chapeau bras
was the only hat for evening dress. Also known as a cocked
hat, it was a crescent shaped headpiece like the one made famous
by Napoleon but was specifically designed as a collapsible hat to be
carried under the arm – thus its French name “arm hat”.
According to Handbook of English Costume it was also known as an
opera hat (not to be
confused with the later collapsible top hat of the same name) and
today it is frequently referred to as a
general term for two-cornered hats.
its moniker, in England the hat was black and often fringed with feathers and
sometimes had a tassel at the two peaks.
The chapeau bras was
soon limited to the extreme formality of court dress thanks to the 1812 invention
of a collapsible version of the "round hat" that
was popular as daywear. This novel
contraption allowed gentlemen to flatten their high
hats so that they could be placed under the seat
when attending the opera or
theatre which were popular evening pastimes.
Acceptable at first only for informal
evening events, tall hat styles became increasingly popular as
full-dress attire in the 1820s with the arrival in England of the
French top hat. The standard
top hat was made of black silk plush (a pile
longer and less dense than velvet pile) or felted beaver fur
while early collapsible versions
were generally made of the former material.
Men’s evening gloves
were usually white or buff colored kid leather,
a luxurious material that fit like a second kin. Glove
protocol was quite stringent: they were to be worn at all times
except supper. The exception was just as
important as the rule according to an 1836 etiquette guide
which declared that
“nothing is more preposterous than to eat in gloves.”
Regency evening dress was
form-fitting finery that held little regard for the storehousing of
personal artifacts common
among day clothes.
A virgin white pocket-handkerchief of lawn or cambric muslin
with lace trim would likely have been carried in the tails’ inner
pockets since there were no visible ones elsewhere on the coat. These pouches would also have discreetly held
a gentleman's gloves when
them for dinner.
A pocket watch was similarly concealed in a small
compartment sewn into the inner waistband of the breeches or
trousers. The timepiece was
accessible by means of
an attached strip of decorative chain or fabric which
was usually weighed down with a personal seal. Other than an
occasional cravat pin there were
rarely any other embellishments to be seen
as shirt studs, cufflinks and boutonnieres were not yet in
The Foundation is Set
While France may have dominated women’s fashion during
the nineteenth century, the superior skill of
established English menswear
as the standard for Europe and
the New World. In
the matter of evening wear, that standard consisted of Beau
Brummell’s 1801 black-and-white dress code which had withstood the
experimentation of the intervening years to become the status quo by
the end of the Regency era in 1837.
With the passing of the crown from William IV to his niece
Victoria, the British Empire
would commence an
epoch of prosperity and conservatism during which
fashions would evolve into a virtual uniform
across the western world.
The Georgian frock that would evolve into the Regency
1811 English evening dress: black coat worn open,
black breeches & stockings, white waistcoat and cravat, pumps, chapeau bras.
1811 English evening dress notable for blue coat with gilt
breeches, white stockings.
1819 French soiree featuring coats of various
dark colors worn closed.
Mix of breeches and pantaloons.
1823 ball at London's exclusive Almack's club.
By this time evening pantaloons were generally black and tailcoats
1834 French black-and-white
evening dress from an 1898 drawing. Note pantaloon foot straps and new
1834 French evening costume followed England's
lead - although this figure is carrying the outdated chapeau bras.
1830 examples of formal cravat (left) and full-dress stock
Cravats were often secured with a broach or pin of brilliant gems.
1830 English dress shoe (pump) for full dress and
new "dress boot" for dinner dress only.
While Napoleon wore his bicorne
side-to-side, the British wore theirs front-to-back as popularized
by the 1st Duke of Wellington.
1836 French fashion plate featuring early collapsible top hat
by Antoine Gibus who perfected its construction.
Antique watch fobs dating from the Victorian era.