Late Victorian (1880s, '90s)
1895 Montgomery Ward mail-order
Americans had greatly improved the fit of
ready-to-wear ("ready-made" or “off-the-peg” in UK) clothing by
the mid-1830s and it became
increasingly popular with the British middle class in the late
However, the English upper class
continued to define themselves by the perfection of Savile Row tailoring
have no doubt
been appalled at the thought of purchasing
mass-produced evening dress.
Open Fronts and Backs
Prior to the end of the century, men's shirts only
had a partial opening in front and were slipped on over the head.
Around 1895 the modern "coat-shirt" appeared which buttoned the
entire length of the garment. This was especially popular
for evening shirts perhaps because it
was more fitted and the
starched bosom could avoid wrinkling during the dressing process.
Another modification of the
time was a back-buttoning style that allowed the bosom to be an
undivided whole and the studs to be inserted prior to wearing.
This style of formal shirt remained popular into the 1930s.
Formal Facts: The Dickey
Like the detachable collar and cuff, the
dickey was another convenience intended to save on laundry
costs. However, this faux shirt front was often a source
of ridicule and considered "a feature of the lower and middle
► Early Cummerbunds
Vintage Waist Coverings page for details of
the cummerbund's evolution through the twentieth century.
Late Victorian Era (Pt 2):
Full-Dress & Informal Dress
Plain and simple as the
dress is, it is a sure test of a gentlemanly appearance.
The man who dines in evening dress every night of
his life looks easy and natural in it, whereas the man who takes to
it late in life generally succeeds in looking like a waiter.
Modern Etiquette in Public and Private (1893)
The appearance of full-dress
attire in department store catalogs is indicative of just how
democratized fashion had become by the late nineteenth century. Class distinction was now entirely in the details which The
Man of Fashion: Peacock Males and Perfect Gentlemen says were
brought to such a fine art that “a
wrinkle across the back of a coat or a crease caused by a sleeve a
millimetre too long were social as well as sartorial solecisms.”
Because of the dominance of
English tailoring, the details of Victorian evening dress were
largely the same in Britain and
America. The following descriptions therefore apply to both countries
unless otherwise noted.
The roll collar (aka shawl
collar) reappeared on the dress coat in the 1880s
thanks to its adoption by
“mashers” – the middle-class English dandies of the day
– and eclipsed the
conventional style of lapel by
1886. It was faced to
the edges in either black satin or corded silk. When traditional
lapels returned to favor in the following decade they
were initially faced to
the buttonholes as in the past then more
likely to be devoid of the multiple buttonholes and trimmed all the
way to the edge. One feature that was consistent was that they
were cut in the peak style that has been standard ever since.
The roll collar trend may
have been responsible for the ultimate demise of velvet collared
evening tailcoats around the same time. Stitched cuffs also fell out of fashion in the late Victorian
By now the low-cut style was
unique to evening waistcoats. The deep V front remained popular at first then was
superseded in the mid-1880s by U- or shield-shaped models which were
more effective at displaying the formal shirt front. Single-breasted types were
double-breasted grew in favor from 1890. Regardless of the model, the waistcoat collars were always
In England white piqué gradually ousted
black fabric which became consigned to informal
dinner wear. Conversely, black waistcoats to match the dress suit were the
norm in the
United States where white versions
were considered a luxurious alternative because of
the associated laundering expense.
English officers serving in
British East India had adopted the local practice of
wearing a sash around the waist in place of a waistcoat.
In the late nineteenth century they adapted this kamarband
into evening wear and exported it back to Europe where it was hardly
a resounding success with full dress. One French fashion magazine described it in 1873 as a “wide
belt that constitutes yet another grotesque fashion whose slovenly
appearance hardly requires mention.”
Handbook of English Costume in the Nineteenth
Century notes that some
maverick dressers traded in their waistcoat
in favor of
black or crimson silk waistbands. But by 1895
English etiquette authorities were noting that
“the cummerbund is hopelessly vulgarized” and it quickly fell out of
fashion, at least in civilian attire.
By this time full-dress
trousers were typically made of the same material as the dress coat
and usually featured side braid. They remained a closer-fitting cut than day trousers.
Shirt & Collar
The late Victorian period
ushered in the stiff evening shirt that is still the standard for
full dress today.
It became known colloquially as a "boiled shirt" because boiling was
the most effective washing process to keep linens white and to
remove the copious amount of starch from the undergarment's
four-layer bosom. These
bosoms were made of white piqué
or linen, the latter either plain or pleated,
and generally took one or two studs.
Invented in the United
States in the 1820s, detachable collars and cuffs had become
internationally popular by the late Victorian era because they could
be reversed when soiled in order to save on laundry costs. However, this frugality was frowned upon by polite society
who generally maintained a preference for attached versions. Evening dress collars were straight standing
folded over tips known as wings. Cuffs were either buttoned or held together by
By the 1890s black bow ties
were outré for formal evening dress and only white ties of piqué,
lawn (a fine sheer linen or cotton fabric of plain weave) or linen
were deemed acceptable.
They were typically narrow and often made
in sized models
versions were also available although period
etiquette guides repeatedly stressed
that “made-up neckwear of
any kind is not worn by well-groomed men."
Pumps or black patent
leather button boots continued to be regulation footwear for evening
dress. The bows featured
on pumps were now often made of a corded material called petersham. White silk stockings were still seen in evenings at first but
black silk dominated by the end of the century.
The black silk top hat
remained de rigeur for day and evening dress despite
distaste for it as voiced by Modern
Etiquette in Public and Private:
When in town you must always
wear a high hat. Every
shaft of ridicule has been urged against it in vain.
It is costly, it is heavy, it is unpicturesque and
stiff-looking : but nevertheless it has this one merit in its favour
– that it makes a man look like a gentleman.
The collapsible version of
the top hat continued to be a popular evening option as it could be easily
carried under the arm at a ball or folded under the seat at the
during this period were, appropriately enough, the crush hat and
Evening dress gloves
were still made of white kid although pearl and pale yellow
remained popular alternative colors. As for the etiquette of covered hands, in 1884 The Mentor
noted that “for several years gloves were little worn by men,
especially with full dress, even at dancing-parties and balls, but of
late the wearing of gloves, particularly at parties and balls, is
the rule rather than the exception."
Correct Dress, an 1887
American guide to menswear, epitomized period advice regarding
evening jewelry for gentlemen: “No jewelry whatever is used except
that which has a direct purpose and this is kept as simple as
possible. It is limited
to studs and cuff buttons [cufflinks], with a partial exception in favor
of the watch chain.” These studs and links were often mother of pearl or
enamel with gold, or simply plain gold. Watch chains of precious metals were a bit gauche; Correct
Dress preferred ones of black silk instead.
A new development in Victorian
evening accessories was a flower worn in the dress coat’s
buttonhole, "one of the few allowable devices" to brighten up a
man's evening attire.
To protect his shirt front
from soiling while in transit, a gentleman of the time would don a
white silk muffler with his overcoat or evening cloak. Better yet was a dress-shirt protector, a pad of white
quilted satin faced with white silk that was popular at the end of
Finally, The Complete
Bachelor: Manners for Men advised that a plain white linen handkerchief "must be
present but not seen."
Informal Evening Dress
Early Dinner Jacket
The original dinner jacket
was essentially tailored like the short
single-breasted jacket of a
suit (sack suit in America) with a shawl collar
imported from the smoking jacket and finishes
copied from the
full-dress coat. Details of the
jacket’s development through the 1890s are provided by The Handbook
of English Costume in the Nineteenth Century:
Cut like a lounge but
not intended to be buttoned, so that the foreparts were narrow, with
roll collar continuous with lapels turning low to two buttons,
becoming one button in 1898. The back invariably cut whole and
sleeves finished with cuffs (1899). The roll was completely
covered with silk, satin, or velvet . . . Materials: as for the
dress coat [at first a fine
vicuna; from 1895 often replaced by a fine hopsack or twilled
worsted] or of velvet.
Peaked lapels (aka "pointed" or
"step roll" collars) were imported from double-breasted garments and by
1899 they had become the most popular style.
The dinner jacket was worn with the same
accoutrements as prescribed for full dress
– including a white or black waistcoat – with the exception of a black silk tie that sometimes replaced the
white lawn tie.
By the end of the nineteenth
century Beau Brummell’s vision of one hundred years prior had for all
intents and purposes become universally accepted full dress. The only exceptions – the black waistcoat and bow tie – were
by now limited to full-dress alternatives.
In the upcoming Edwardian era they would be relegated exclusively to
informal evening dress and the
dinner jacket so recently introduced by the new king would begin its
gradual ascent to evening supremacy.
1882 English dress suit shown with collapsed
1887 American full-dress suit.
1890 American full dress. Note two types of
lapels and two colors of waistcoats. (Click image to see associated
1893 British full dress with same
variations as U.S. styles above.
1895 American ready-to-wear dress
shirts. Left model has "plaited front"; right has "single front
plait", white embroidery and opens front and back.
2-inch tall collar styles
acceptable for full dress in 1887.
1895 American full-dress
with patent leather bottom to imitate pump and cloth top to
imitate silk stockings.
British "patent calf court shoe" from 1895
1888 British "dress jacket".
1889 British "dress lounge". On the left is the
"new" peaked lapel style.