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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Advancing into the 1850s, the waistline of frock coats began to lower, eliminating the high-waisted look of earlier decades.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Advancing into 1880, most gentlemen of fashion owned several styles of coat, including a frock coat, tailcoat, cutaway coat, and sack coat.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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