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Victorian Secrets of Classic Men’s Style

In a previous post, I explained how British dandy Beau Brummell had set the pattern of the precisely tailored three piece suit as the definitive style of the day: dark coats in black and blue, light-colored waistcoats and pantaloons usually in tan, and plain white shirts and starched linen cravats.

 3-17-13 Tailored and Styed Blog Post--Beau Brummel Standard Dress 2

Recall also that he derived his style from his military and equestrian pursuits and through his influence and example virtually transformed the style of the day.


Brummell had done his work so well that once set, for most of the next century through the Victorian period and part of the Edwardian, this version of the three piece suit went through a slow evolution. 

In stark contrast, however, the same can’t be said for Western society:


– The Industrial Revolution moved into full swing underpinned by the economic thought of Smith and Ricardo


– Post-revolutionary democratic government rose in prominence alongside a resurgence in monarchic imperialism


– Scientific discoveries such as those of Maxwell, Kelvin, Darwin, and Pasteur advanced understanding at an unprecedented rate


– Philosophy incorporated the ideas of Descartes and Kant giving rise to new systems

exemplified by the thought of Hegel, Marx and Engels, and Nietzsche


– The arts saw new movements in neo-classicism, romanticism, impressionism, and modernism


All this portended a new view of human existence and endeavor.  So it is a curious contradiction that the suit changed so slowly during this period while the very fabric of society underwent such convulsive changes.


However, what had endured throughout was the idea of the self-made, genteel man who lived according values of integrity, refinement, taste, and manners.  This manner of being was reflected in the selective simplicity of men’s dress.  Check out the “Portrait of a Man” by Edouard Manet to see an example of this simplicity.

 5-6-13 Tailored and Styled Blog--Edouard Manet Portrait of a Man

As one Victorian etiquette manual asserted, “A true gentleman is always himself at his best.  He is inherently unselfish, thinking always of the needs and desires of others before his own.”


The well-dressed man was accorded respect and deference since his wardrobe expressed the inner values of a respectable man.  Not only that, correct dress was a gesture of respect for one’s peers and friends.


If you were a gentleman during this time, you would have worn a frock coat, pants, a vest, a cravat, and a top hat.  The frock was usually in black for business wear, but also could be seen in midnight blue, garnet, chocolate brown, and pine green.  Men often used cravats and vests of contrasting colors to express a measure of individuality.

5-6-13 Tailored and Styled Blog--Frock Coat 

Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, is usually credited with popularizing the frock coat. During the Victorian era, the frock coat rapidly became universally worn in Britain, Europe and America as standard formal business dress, or for formal daytime events. It was considered the most correct form of morning dress for the time.

 5-6-13 Tailored and Styled Blog--Prince Albert

The frock coat began as a form of “undress” or casual wear, replacing the dress coat for informal situations.  Over time, the frock coat became accepted as formal day time full dress, thus pushing the dress coat to evening full dress (where it remains today as part of white tie dress).  Throughout the Victorian era, it was worn in much the same way as the lounge suit is worn today such as for weddings, funerals, and by professionals, especially businessmen.


The beginning of the end of the frock coat was ushered in during the 1850’s by England’s Count D’Orsay in the 1850’s in the form of the sack coat or lounge coat—the true forerunner of today’s suit jacket.

 5-6-13 Tailored and Styled Blog--Sack Coat

Men wore the sack coat for informal occasions much in the same way as the frock coat had been for the dress coat.  The sack coat hung straight down from the shoulders and was cut at the hips.  It was single-breasted and vents were cut in the sides or back for riding.  Normally, it was paired with a contrasting vest, pants of a lighter color to include stripes and checks, a shirt with detachable collar, and a tie or cravat.  It was to be worn only in casual settings in the morning, in the country, or at the seaside.


However, by the end of the century, the steady current of casualization had made the lounge suit or “ditto suit” more and more accepted for business wear in addition to informal events and attendance at church. The below illustration from a 1905 Sears & Roebuck catalog gives an idea of what suits were offered then.

 5-6-13 Tailored and Styled Blog--Sack Suits

So by the 1860’s there were four variations of the three piece suit: frock coat, dress coat, morning coat, and sack coat.  The rules for when to wear each were exacting.  The correct attire depended on time of day, season, geography, and the event for which the suit was to be worn.  Books, magazines, and newspapers regularly printed rules of etiquette for the most current dress standards.


For many, such rules were not only confusing, but were also out of reach.  As a result, there arose a certain dependence on the growing industry of mass-market clothing manufacturers to ensure that men’s wardrobes were “correct” when it came to prevailing style norms.


Despite the societal upheavals that occurred throughout the 19th century, we can see the threads of men’s style continuity during this period including an underlying consensus on key values, the trend of the casual replacing the formal, the continued wear of the three-piece suit, and a principle I will call selective simplicity.


Selective simplicity enacts core values with a certain “just enough” propriety in terms of the clothing worn for particular occasions and the clothing owned.


Going forward through the Edwardian period, we will see that the societal forces that had been building throughout the 19th century will converge to drive a truly momentous shift in men’s style.


Let me know your thoughts!


By Joe Scherrer | Tailored and Styled Writer

Article publié pour la première fois le 07/05/2013


  1. […] previous list had 8 principles.  Given additional examination of men’s dress during the Victorian age, I’m adding two more: grounded individuality and selective […]

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