Early & Mid Victorian Era: A Universal Uniform
The usual Evening-Dress
is so imperiously insisted upon, that it might be almost classed in
the category of uniforms.
The American Gentleman’s Guide to Politeness and Fashion (1857)
When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 the
industrial revolution was in full swing.
The prosperous emerging middle class
respectability and homogeneity and was heavily influenced by the
solemn Protestant movement of the time. As a result, the impractical dandyism of the Regency
leisure class was replaced by functional and
sartorialism preferred by the men who,
in the words of one historian “wanted to appear as grave and serious
as the banks and factories they owned”.
So it was that the concept of the gentleman trumped the idea
of the courtier, leading The
Tailor and Cutter
to declare in 1878 that
“dress in our day has ceased to be the index of a man’s social
of Dress and Undress carried through into the Victorian era.
One popular etiquette guide of the period summarized that
‘undressed’ is to be dressed for work and ordinary occupations"
while to be "dressed" was to show respect for society by wearing
the garments "which
the said society
pronounces as suitable to particular occasions."
New to the era was a more
of the Dress category
into morning dress and evening dress.
dress was formal daytime attire. Evening dress – often referred to as full dress – remained
the pinnacle of patrician apparel and the practice of dressing for
dinner was essential for men who aspired to genteelness.
Manual of Etiquette:
In the evening,
though only in the bosom of your own family, wear only black, and be
as scrupulous to put on a dress coat as if you expected visitors.
If you have sons, bring them up to do the same.
It is the observance of these minor trifles in domestic
etiquette which marks the true gentleman.
Thanks to Britain’s global influence, this
sartorial practice was adopted around the world.
Brahmins in particular were eager to incorporate the refined
traditions of their former rulers so as to imbue their young country
with an Old Word civility.
Said the highly popular American etiquette book, Sensible Etiquette of the Best Society:
The true evening costume,
accepted as such throughout the world, has at length, though not
without some tribulations, established itself firmly in this
country. With advancing
culture we have grown more cosmopolitan, and the cosmopolitan
evening dress, acknowledged everywhere from
to the pole, has been granted undisputed sway.
The fundamental etiquette
of this new
costume remained elusive to Americans, however.
To the author’s dismay, most of her countrymen
did not understand that evening wear was meant to be worn in the
evening and instead considered it appropriate for any formal
occasion, day or night.
The book also contained
two notable exceptions to the universal custom of dressing up
Sunday evenings were not
appropriate for the finery of evening dress and so morning dress was
In some circles evening
dress was considered to be an affectation therefore “it is well in
provincial towns to do as others do”.
Theoretically, the new full
dress maintained the old sub-hierarchy of
relatively informal dinner dress, general
evening dress and most formal
ballroom and opera dress.
However, the distinctions between the strata were
increasingly minimized as a result of the new era’s emphasis on
uniformity and practicality.
“Evening dress is the same, whatever the nature of the
evening’s entertainment,” said Sensible Etiquette.
“The theory is, that a gentleman dresses for dinner, and is
then prepared alike for calls, opera, or ball.”
Defining Victorian Evening Dress
Because the era spans over
sixty years there is no such thing as typical Victorian
dress. Instead there are
three fairly distinct phases:
the early period from about
1840 to 1860 is notable for the gradual disappearance of Regency
the middle period from about
1860 to 1880 – also known as the beginning of the American Gilded
Age – is notable for a strict codification of standards
the late period from about
1880 to 1900 – the second half of the Gilded Age – is notable for
the introduction of the dinner jacket and the consequent two-tier evening dress code
The following review covers
the evolution of individual garments over the first four decades of
the era as the dress code was gradually streamlined.
The trends described here apply to both Britain and America unless
As the evening outfit became
more understated and uniform, the need to execute it well became
materials, expert tailoring and the latest styling were now the only
traits that could distinguish the attire of a true Victorian
Initially the tailcoat
– known as a dress coat
during this time –
continued to be used for
dress and morning dress.
By the 1860s it was worn only in the evening.
As in the Regency era,
various dark colors were acceptable at first. The popularity of the
blue version with gilt buttons and of the brown version waned over
time until by 1853 “the proportion of black evening dress coats is
twenty to one against any other colour”
according to The Gentleman's Magazine of Fashion.
This increasing appeal of
black during the Victorian era was due to a number of reasons: the
previously mentioned somber Protestantism of the time, the
pragmatism of living among the soot-covered cities of the industrial
revolution and a decreed year of mourning following the death of the
Queen’s husband in 1861.
Vanity also played a role in men's preference for black
to The American Gentleman’s Guide to Politeness and Fashion
which noted that it
had a slimming effect and was a
challenging look to pull off.
“It is a very high compliment to any man to tell him that
black becomes him, and it is probably owing to this property that
black is chosen, par excellence, for evening or ball dress.”
Dress coats at first
continued to be single- or double-breasted
morning dress coats were now
designed to button up,
versions were still
intended to be worn open so as to show off the
waistcoat and shirt front.
This rendered the double-breasted’s buttons purely ornamental
and by 1870s the most common style of evening dress coat had two
buttons on either side of the front.
The V and M notch collars
continued to be popular in the early Victorian era but the latter
faded into history around the 1870s.
Silk lapel facings appeared in the 1860s, which menswear
author Nicholas Antongiavanni credits to the envy of civilian men
wearing their tailcoats in the company of heraldic finery or
full-dress military uniform.
Unlike today, the facing did not cover the entire lapel but
stopped at the edge of the multiple buttonholes that were standard
on lapels of the time.
A stylish alternative in the
1860s was the roll collar (shawl collar) but it fell out of
favor by the early '70s. Velvet collars remained another
fashionable option until the
late Victorian period.
Dress coat sleeves often had
false cuffs which were sometimes velvet to match the collar.
Button trim began to appear in the 1870s.
Pockets remained hidden in
the tails because "in company," said
The Handbook of the Man of Fashion, “as little as possible should be borne
in pockets of the coat.”
The length of the tails and
the height of the waist continued to vary according to the whims of
The waistcoat was the last
evening garment to retain its Regency flamboyance.
At first it was made of lavish materials
such as silk, satin,
velvet and cashmere and was often decorated with embroidery.
By the 1860s it was generally cloth or silk and limited to
black or white. This
choice of waistcoat color was one of only two variations allowed in Victorian
evening dress (the necktie color being the other) although British
etiquette authorities advised that white was unfashionable and
should be limited to only the most formal of occasions.
Whether ebony or ivory,
evening waistcoats were always single-breasted.
They were increasingly low cut with a V-shaped opening until
the 1870s when the U shape appeared.
Conversely, the waist became increasingly higher so that by
the 1850s the bottom was usually cut straight.
The shawl collar was
on the waistcoat and two pockets were featured by mid-century.
Buttons were either material covered or gilt or fancy stones.
A trouser loop was introduced to the wedding and evening
waistcoats in 1840 and remains a mark of a quality waist covering to
his day. The
under-waistcoat, a Regency novelty, died out by the 1850s due to the
shortened waist previously mentioned. (Illustrations from
later in the era show what appears to be a slipped waistcoat,
a pseudo under-waistcoat now more commonly associated with morning
Pantaloons and Trousers
At first, pantaloons – tight
fitting and short enough to display the foot and ankle – were the
norm and trousers
were allowed only for less formal evening occasions.
Over time trousers became acceptable at all evening functions
although they remained more fitted than day trousers.
The foot straps introduced in the Regency
era passed out of
fashion during the 1840s.
Originally evening trousers
were black kerseymere or sometimes cashmere but by the 1860s they
were made were made of the same wool as the tailcoat.
Like the tailcoat’s adoption of silk facings, trousers began
to sport military-inspired ribbon braid on their outseams in the
Shirt & Collar
Ruffled shirt fronts
increasingly rare throughout the
era as delicate pleats became the
decoration of choice.
Plain fronts were the most common style by the 1850s
a thick bosom to maintain an unrumpled
appearance on a shirt that otherwise fit very loosely.
Eyelets began to appear at the same time to accommodate studs
and starched cuffs made cufflinks more
Stiffened upright collars
appeared in the 1860s and began to display wings in the following
decade. Turndown collars were
occasionally seen in the 1860s and early '70s.
The standard evening
neckwear was a white cravat at first then by the 1860s a
white "neck-tie" or
bow tie, all in washable material.
In America black ties were equally acceptable but in
they were relegated to the least formal affairs.
By the 1860s evening bow ties
were generally narrow and featured pointed ends.
At first, evening footwear
continued to be black dress boots or pumps although they were now
being specifically described as patent leather.
In 1857 The Fashionable Dancer’s Casket reported that “Shoes,
or pumps, have gone out, excepting at State balls, where court
dresses are worn.” Boots
were now the foot covering of choice.
Evening stockings were
generally black silk although some period illustrations show white
silk hose making occasional appearances throughout the Victorian era.
According to the 1839
Handbook of the Man of Fashion, “At a dance or large evening party,
a chapeau bras is appropriate and elegant ; but to carry a common
hat on such occasions, as is done by some awkward imitators of
fashion, is clumsy and absurd.”
“common hat” mentioned is the top hat which by the 1840s “had
changed from a fashion novelty to a status symbol for bourgeois
men,” explains the
Museum's Web site.
hat symbolized respectability, wealth, dignity and social standing:
High and imposing, it made men look taller and ‘handsome.’”
Although acceptable for
evening wear, the black top hat was impractical not only because of
the aforementioned awkwardness when carried but also for its
susceptibility to damage when stored under a gentleman’s seat at the
opera or theater. Consequently,
when Antoine Gibus perfected the collapsible version of the top hat
in 1840 the resulting gibus hat quickly became the most popular
headwear after six o’clock.
Originally common in beaver
fur, the top hat (aka topper)
was increasingly popular in silk hatter’s plush
thanks to advances in silk hat construction, the significantly lower
price, the style’s adoption by Prince Albert in 1850 and
the depletion of the North American beaver by mid-century.
For this reason it was
also frequently known as a silk hat.
The use of evening dress gloves
– “the ungloved hand is the cloven foot of
vulgarity” (1839) – to
recommended, particularly when dancing
– “to touch the pure glove of
a lady with uncovered fingers is impertinent!” (1857) – to
optional – “this fashion of uncovered hands originated among English
royalty, and it finds favor with many of the leaders of American
society” (1878). Regardless of the necessity, one protocol remained
firm throughout the period: gloves must always be removed for
Dark or pale colors were
acceptable for ordinary evening wear but at very formal occasions
such as balls gloves were required to
be white or possibly pale yellow,
also known as buff. The
luxurious properties of kid leather made it perfect material for
According to Handbook of
English Costume of the Nineteenth Century, both cloaks and overcoats
were worn with Victorian evening wear, the latter becoming more
common over time.
Now that evening waistcoats
featured pockets it was acceptable to store watches in them as was
the fashion with morning dress.
Attached to the timepiece was a decorative chain which
fastened to a waistcoat button to prevent the watch from falling out of its storage place.
watch chain or watch guard could be embellished with valuable
trinkets or mementos at first but by 1878
authorities were cautioning
that less jewelry “always looks more manly and aristocratic than a
superabundance of ornament.”
Shirt studs and cuff-links
were another new addition to evening wear.
Etiquette mavens recommended that the studs and
sleeve-links be kept small and simple and
favored ones made of turned
gold or decorated with diamond, black pearl or opal.
An 1857 American etiquette
book suggested a “soft, thin, white handkerchief” be carried with
evening dress and a number of
period British manuals referred to scenting
this accessory with perfume.
Ready for Relief
Evening dress may have been
virtually obligatory in the nineteenth
century but that doesn’t mean it was universally loved.
One of the most popular etiquette
authors of the Gilded
Age shared his surprisingly frank opinion of the outfit:
It is simple nonsense to
talk of modern civilization, and rejoice that the cruelties of the
dark ages can never be perpetrated in these days and this country.
I maintain that they are perpetrated freely, generally,
daily, with the consent of the wretched victim himself, in the
compulsion to wear evening clothes.
Is there anything at once more comfortless or more hideous?
No doubt this writer was not
the only Victorian male to resent dressing up in a formal uniform
six nights a week. Day
wear had been made significantly more comfortable with the advent of
the common sack suit and it was high time to devise a similar
solution for evening apparel.