A Century of Sartorial Style: A Visual Guide to 19th Century Menswear

Individual Collage Images Courtesy of LACMA, Met Museum, and the Kyoto Costume Institute.

Individual Collage Images Courtesy of LACMA, Met Museum, and the Kyoto Costume Institute.

Men’s fashion changed very little during the nineteenth century, especially when compared to women’s fashion of the same period. For this reason, I thought it better to provide a general overview of the century, looking at changes decade-by-decade as opposed to year-by-year. In this manner, you can see the slow evolution of nineteenth century menswear, from the Regency dandyism of Beau Brummell to the matched three-piece suits of the late Victorian era. Changes were subtle, but significant, each of them moving men’s fashion one step closer to the elegant silhouettes still evidenced in fashionable menswear of today.

*Please note: This is a brief, primarily visual, overview of men’s fashion in the nineteenth century. For in-depth information on individual decades, please consult the recommended links.

1800

Entering the nineteenth century, men were no longer wearing the fancy fabrics and trimmings that characterized their clothing in the 1700s. Instead—under the influence of George Bryan “Beau” Brummel—men’s fashion was gradually moving toward the restrained, conservative costumes that would set the tone for the rest of the century.

Caricature of Beau Brummell by Robert Dighton, 1805.

Caricature of Beau Brummell by Robert Dighton, 1805.

Short-fronted tailcoats and fitted waistcoats were worn over plain, white linen shirts. Tight-fitting pantaloons replaced eighteenth century knee breeches, Hessian boots replaced buckled shoes, and intricately tied, white linen neck cloths became the mark of the true man of fashion.

Cutaway Tail Coat, 1805-1810.(Mint Museum)

Cutaway Tail Coat, 1805-1810.
(Mint Museum)

Each article of clothing was impeccably made, tailored on simple lines and cut from dark or neutral fabrics. Much of the embellishment in this decade was saved for the waistcoat. Adding to this fashionable, yet understated, ensemble was a  tall, beaver hat (similar to the one shown above) and various accessories such as canes, pocket watches, and quizzing glasses.

Menswear, 1806.

Menswear, 1806.

1810

Advancing into 1810, the fashion for simple, well-cut clothing—in the manner of Beau Brummell—had become very much the norm. Men of the upper-classes continued to wear double-breasted dress coats of fine wool and light-coloured waistcoats over white linen shirts. Buckskin breeches and top-boots were de rigueur for the gentleman in the country (see below), while tight-fitting pantaloons and Hessians remained the fashion in town.

Portrait of Joseph-Antoine de Nogent by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1815.( Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum)

Portrait of Joseph-Antoine de Nogent by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1815.
( Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum)

For evening dress, gentlemen wore knee breeches of black or light-coloured satin or velvet with white stockings, a white waistcoat, and a dark tail-coat.

Full Dress of a Gentleman, Ackermann's Plate, 1810.

Full Dress of a Gentleman, Ackermann’s Plate, 1810.

In 1816, the frock coat was introduced. Unlike long-tailed dress coats, frock coats had a waist seam and a full skirt which hung down to the knees. Initially viewed as being rather informal, the frock coat would eventually become a wardrobe staple.

1815 Wool Tailcoat.(Met Museum)

1815 Wool Tailcoat.
(Met Museum)

1820 Frock Coat.(LACMA)

1820 Frock Coat.
(LACMA)

1820

By the 1820s,  the silhouette of gentlemen’s fashion was beginning to change. Coat sleeves began to puff at the shoulders, chests swelled out, and waistlines narrowed to an often extreme degree.  This hourglass silhouette—frequently enhanced with padding and corsetry—would remain fashionable into the early 1830s.

Costume Parisien, 1826.

Costume Parisien, 1826.

Meanwhile, trousers (or trowsers) were becoming fashionable for day wear. Trousers generally had a fall front which buttoned at the waist and a strap at the foot to ensure that they fell smoothly on the leg.

1820s Woollen Trousers with Figured Silk Waistcoat.(Fashion Museum Bath)

1820s Wool Trousers with Figured Silk Waistcoat.
(Fashion Museum Bath)

Some gentlemen preferred loose-fitting Cossack trousers.  Inspired by the trousers worn by Cossack soldiers who visited London with Alexander I of Russia in 1814, Cossack trousers were pleated at the waist and full in the hips and thighs.

1820-1830 Cossack Trousers.(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1820-1830 Cossack Trousers.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1830

Entering the 1830s, trousers were fuller in the leg and frockcoats began to be made in a variety of designs, suitable for every taste and every occasion.

1828-1830 Frock Coat.(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1828-1830 Frock Coat.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

At the same time, waistcoats became a bit more elaborate. They were made of rich fabrics like velvet and jacquard-woven silk and embellished with embroidery, patterns, and prints.

1830s Wool Tailcoat, Cotton Twill Trousers, and Cut-Velvet Patterned Vest.(Kyoto Costume Institute)

1830s Wool Tailcoat, Cotton Twill Trousers, and Cut-Velvet Patterned Vest.
(Kyoto Costume Institute)

By the late 1830s, elaborately tied white cravats and neck cloths had fallen from favor for day wear. In their place were black neckties,  knotted in a manner not too dissimilar from a bow tie.

1833 Blue Silk Coat.(Met Museum)

1833 Blue Silk Coat.
(Met Museum)

1840

Moving into the 1840s, the Victorian era was well and truly underway. In her 2001 book Pantaloons and Power, fashion historian Gayle Fischer states that this was the decade when:

“Men gave up their claims to ornamentation, colors, and lace, and adopted a more uniform style of dress, thereby making fashion and all its accoutrements the sole province of women.”

1845-1853 Trousers.(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1845-1853 Trousers.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

Trousers of the 1840s were fuller and, as the decade progressed, the strap at the foot disappeared and fall fronts were replaced by a fly front design.

L'Oriflamme des Modes, 1840.

L’Oriflamme des Modes, 1840.

The 1840s is also notable for being the decade that introduced the sack coat. Unlike a frock coat, the sack coat was short, single-breasted, unlined, and loose-fitting. The sack coat was generally worn for sporting or country pursuits. For all other occasions, men donned a frock coat or a tailcoat.

1845 Cotton and Linen Suit.(Museum at FIT)

1845 Cotton and Linen Suit.
(Museum at FIT)

1850

Advancing into the 1850s, the waistline of frock coats began to lower, eliminating the high-waisted look of earlier decades.

1852 Frock Coat and Trousers.(LACMA)

1852 Frock Coat and Trousers.
(LACMA)

Meanwhile, sack coats grew in popularity, with many of them being made to match a gentleman’s trousers.  Frock coats and tailcoats were also occasionally made to match, as illustrated by the black trousers and coat seen below.

1850 Black Wool Suit with Checkered Vest.(Museum at FIT)

1850 Black Wool Suit with Checkered Vest.
(Museum at FIT)

Despite the prevalence of matching coats and trousers in somber hues, some fashionable gentlemen favored patterned trousers. Through much of the 1850s and into the 1860s, gentlemen could be seen wearing striped or checked trousers, often in relatively bright colors. With the invention of aniline dye in 1856, these colors became even more vivid and—on occasion—rather garish.

L'Elegant, 1853.

L’Elegant, 1853.

1860

Moving into the 1860s, frock coats were no longer as fashionable as they had been in previous decades. Instead, for informal occasions, most gentlemen preferred the sack coat.

1865-1870 Wool Suit.(Met Museum)

1865-1870 Wool Suit.
(Met Museum)

Trousers of the 1860s were creased, with many gentlemen continuing to opt for striped or plaid fabric. Different designs of checks or stripes were popular in different seasons. For example, the 1867 edition of the West-End Gazette of Gentlemen’s Fashion reports that for May of that year:

“Trousering of large check designs are quite the rage among fashionable dressing men; the most favourite design is a check formed of three or four lines of a subdued tint, with a large check of a fine line of blue or other brilliant colour intermingled.”

1860-1870 Wool Plaid Suit.(LACMA)

1860-1870 Wool Plaid Suit.
(LACMA)

The 1860s is notable for being the decade when the three-piece suit began to emerge. Made in matched black, brown, or other dark hues, three-piece suits were generally worn with white shirts and dark-coloured cravats.

1867-1868 Black Wool Three-Piece Suit.(Met Museum)

1867-1868 Black Wool Three-Piece Suit.
(Met Museum)

1870

Entering 1870, the Gentleman’s Magazine of Fashion reports that coats were cut “a slight degree shorter” than in previous seasons. Coats were also straighter and cut closer to the shape, with longer waists and narrow sleeves.

1870-1800 Wool Twill Trousers.(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1870-1800 Wool Twill Trousers.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

Frock coats were still in fashion for formal day wear. Morning coats, which were single-breasted and cut away from the front, were also quite popular. For business dress or less formal day dress, the sack suit dominated the decade.

Gentleman's Magazine of Fashion, 1876.

Gentleman’s Magazine of Fashion, 1876.

Waistcoats continued to be worn, but were usually hidden behind high-buttoned coats. They were generally made to match coats and trousers. As for trousers themselves, they changed very little in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. During the 1870s, they were cut a bit fuller for day wear, with the knee measuring the same width as at the ankle. For evening wear, trousers were slightly narrower.

1870-1880 Wool Trousers.(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1870-1880 Wool Trousers.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1880

Advancing into 1880, most gentlemen of fashion owned several styles of coat, including a frock coat, tailcoat, cutaway coat, and sack coat.

1880 Morning Coat and Vets.(LACMA)

1880 Morning Coat and Vest.
(LACMA)

The sack coat was initially the least formal option, however, toward the end of the decade, a dressier version of the black sack coat was introduced in Tuxedo, New York. This tuxedo jacket—or dinner jacket as it was known outside of the United States—would become a mainstay of men’s evening wear for decades to come.

1885 Evening Suit with Dinner Jacket.(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1885 Evening Suit with Dinner Jacket.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

Matched three-piece suits in blacks, browns, and tweeds continued to be quite fashionable. Trousers patterned in bright plaids or checks were also rather popular, especially when paired with dark coats.

1885 Wedding Suit with Cutaway Coat.(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

1885 Wedding Suit with Cutaway Coat.
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

1890

Moving into the 1890s, the morning coat began to rival the frock coat for formal day wear. For informal occasions, the sack coat remained popular.

1894 J.B. Johnstone Wool Morning Suit.(Met Museum)

1894 J.B. Johnstone Wool Morning Suit.
(Met Museum)

Trousers were narrow and—thanks to the invention of the trouser press—were often creased down the front and the back. As for men’s shirts, the 1894 edition of the Clothier and Furnisher reports that:

“…colored starched shirts, with cuffs to match and white collars, are all the go.”

1897 Fock Coat, Vest, and Striped Wool Trousers.(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

1897 Frock Coat, Vest, and Striped Wool Trousers.
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

By the 1890s, most men were wearing either neckties or bow ties. For day wear, these ties could be solid or patterned. For evening wear, they were white.

The Sartorial Art Journal, 1894.

The Sartorial Art Journal, 1894.

A Few Final Words…

I hope the above overview has given you a general idea of the changes in men’s fashion during the nineteenth century. Again, I remind you that this is just a brief, primarily visual guide. If you would like to learn more about nineteenth century men’s fashion, including details on men’s hats, shoes, and accessories,  I encourage you to consult a reliable reference book.  The following links may provide a starting point:

Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail by Lucy Johnston

Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style by DK Publishing

L'Elegant, 1857.

L’Elegant, 1857.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in January 2018). She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. Her articles have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web, and are also syndicated weekly at Bust Magazine.

Sources

Blanco, José.  Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2015.

The Clothier and Furnisher, Vol. 23. New York: Masson Publishing, 1894.

Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style. New York: DK Publishing, 2001.

Fischer, Gayle V. Pantaloons & Power: A Nineteenth-century Dress Reform in the United States. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2001.

The Gentleman’s Magazine of Fashion. London: Louis Devere & Co., 1870.

The Gentleman’s Magazine of Fashion. London: Louis Devere & Co., 1871.

Johnson, Lucy. Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2009.

Norris, Herbert and Curtis, Oswald. Nineteenth-century Costume and Fashion, Volume 6. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1998.

Nunn, Joan. Fashion in Costume, 1200-2000. Chicago: New Amsterdam Books, 2000.

The West-End Gazette of Gentlemens’ Fashions. London: Kent and Co., 1867.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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28 thoughts on “A Century of Sartorial Style: A Visual Guide to 19th Century Menswear

  1. paper doll says:

    Another great post! It seems from 1860 on we see the modern silhouette of a straight waist . Beau Brummell was in the military and one can see that influence in his innovations. The lower part of the male dress in his time looks like a cavalry officer uni . It’s interesting breeches were kept for evening wear . Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      You’re very welcome 🙂 Well into the 19th century some older gentlemen continued to wear knee breeches for day even though they were no longer in fashion. So much depended on personal taste and long-standing habits!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. mjtierney1 says:

    Reblogged this on Airship Flamel and commented:
    I found this article very informative and well-researched. While there is much information about women’s fashions of the time, finding examples of men’s clothes are rarer. I’ll be referring back to this frequently as I edit my next book.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. rshepherd1964 says:

    Wonderful post! It’s a very good overview and I think it demonstrates that while men’s fashion wasn’t as changeable as women’s there was still a wide enough variety to suit all tastes. And as you say, there were men didn’t observe changes of style at all. There was a Whitechapel doctor who still wore kneebritches well into the 1880s, people who knew him said that he dressed 100 years behind the times. And I have a photograph from 1923 in which one man in the crowd is wearing a top hat and frockcoat. I hope that we can look forward to more posts on men’s fashions.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Alison Center says:

    Hi Mimi, I enjoyed the article. Luckily for beavers, in about the early to mid 19th century, top hats were made out of silk instead! This summer I visited a replica of Fort Umpqua (less than an hour from my house, unfortunately, the original fort burned down). It was the most southern British fort (Hudson Bay Company) on the west coast of the U.S. The replica is a few miles from where the original stood along the Umpqua River in Elkton, Oregon. They primarily were trapping and trading for beaver skins, mostly to make men’s hats. It did reduce the beaver population quite a bit. However, the beavers are now doing well and are encouraged by the Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife Departments because dammed up streams make good rearing habitat for young salmon. Interesting connection between fashion and history!

    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Glad you enjoyed the article, Alison 🙂 Actually beaver top hats were really popular during the Regency era. Thank goodness all that is behind us now and that the population of Beavers has rebounded. They’re such cute, industrious little creatures and, as you say, good for the environment too!

      Like

      • Nicholas says:

        Beaver Hats were made simultaneously when Silk Hats became popular. Beaver Hats never ceased they waned in popularity due to the silk hat being a less expensive option that shines with more luster. Often both silk plush and a combination of different furs were used with pure beaver always being the most expensive option. If beavers were hunted to extinction we could not make quality hats today.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Exactly right, Nicholas. Beaver hats continued to be made along with silk and other varieties. I wish they had fallen completely from favor for the sake of the beavers, but sadly, no such luck!

        Like

  5. Gavino di Vino says:

    I, like other commenters, have been enamoured by the fabulously flashy 1700s, but have recently taken an interest in the more sombre yet nuance 1800s. Thank you for keeping such an organised, well documented and well researched blog.
    Exquisite!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ruth says:

    What country are we talking about here? Ninetheenth century fashion does vary depending on where you are. Your visuals are from England, France and the US…

    Liked by 1 person

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