Styling the 19th Century Gentleman

Title image: Carte-de-visite photograph of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Prince Albert, Prince Consort (1819-61) standing together, in outdoor clothes. The Queen wears a tartan dress, cape and bonnet and the Prince wears a morning suit, tartan waistcoat and top hat.

By Maxine Carter-Lome, publisher

 

Title image: Carte-de-visite photograph of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Prince Albert, Prince Consort (1819-61) standing together, in outdoor clothes. The Queen wears a tartan dress, cape and bonnet and the Prince wears a morning suit, tartan waistcoat and top hat.
Carte-de-visite photograph of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Prince Albert, Prince Consort (1819-61) standing together, in outdoor clothes. The Queen wears a tartan dress, cape and bonnet and the Prince wears a morning suit, tartan waistcoat and top hat.

In the 19th century, men, like women, literally wore their wealth on their sleeves. From the cut of the cloth to the numerous accessories that styled the “look,” a man’s fashion sense easily distinguished him as a gentleman in the eyes of others; someone of wealth and status. This look was also his calling card for entree into all the best drawing rooms and men’s clubs in his social class. As a result, the 19th-century gentleman was as slavishly devoted to the appropriateness of his attire as his wife.

Social society had a strict fashion code in the 19th century. “Looks” were prescribed for all activities and times of the day. Even color, material, and fabric choices were dictated by fashion trends. And, ladies’ fashion magazines were dedicated to helping a wife accessorize her husband as the ideal of a well-dressed and refined gentleman.

As it is today, fashion was fluid throughout the 19th century. Knee breeches, an 18th-century colonial hold-over, were lengthened in favor of trousers in the first half of the 19th century, first only worn for informal day dress but within decades, acceptable for evening wear and then formal day wear.

By mid-century, formal gentleman’s daywear revolved around the frock coat, usually of black or blue-black wool, and the cut-away coat, and straight trousers. The jacket, trousers, and waistcoat that comprised the suit could be of one color and were then known as “dittos.” Alternatively, contrasting waistcoats and trousers were often worn to add color and variety to the outfit. This style continued until the 20th century and became identified as the city businessman’s suit of black coat, striped trousers, and bowler hat (replacing the top hat).

The lounge suit became popular during the 1860s because of its easy comfort. It originated from the “lounging jacket,” which was cut to fit the waist without a waist (most similar to what we know as a suit jacket). By the 1870s, the jacket was worn with a matching waistcoat and trousers and had become popular for informal wear. In the early 20th century, it replaced the frock coat and the morning coat.

As the fashions evolved, so did the numerous head-to-toe accessories required to pull off the look. From hats to spats, every occasion, time of day, and season had a look and style all its own, and the 19th-century closet needed room to house it all.

Top Hats

Vintage Beaver Top Hat ca. 1880 photo: 1stdibs.com

There has never been a more sophisticated and dominating hat in fashion than the top hat. When the first top hat was worn by the haberdasher John Hetherington in 1797, it caused a near riot. According to a newspaper account, “passersby panicked at the sight. Several women fainted, children screamed, dogs yelped, and an errand boy’s arm was broken when he was trampled by the mob.”

So, Hetherington was taken to court for wearing “a tall structure having a shining luster calculated to frighten timid people.”

What Hetherington designed was a modified riding hat of the day, widening the brim and lengthening the top area. In 1823, Antoine Gibus came along and modified it even more to a collapsible opera hat, which made traveling with it much easier and during the opera could be stored flat, under the seat.

It was not until 1850 that the top hat really took off when Prince Albert started wearing it in public and it became the fashion rage. From 1850 to 1900, the top hat was a compulsory fashion accessory for any gentleman, who would have been required to own one for every occasion, time of day, and season in the requisite colors of pearl gray (for daytime), black (for day or night), and beige, fawn, and white.

A black formal opera pop-up top hat
A black formal opera pop-up top hat

Felted beaver skin was the preferred material for top hats because of its waterproof properties. Because of the high demand for beaver fashion (men’s coats were also popular), the Victorian top hat practically wiped out the beaver population in America by 1900.

Monocles

In the present day, a monocle is almost always part of a costume. It’s a visual shorthand for a stock character: a wealthy gentleman with the air of a Gilded Age aristocrat ready for a black-tie gala or a night at the opera. He peers through its single lens to project a critical gaze at a work of art or perhaps a raffish orphan given into his care. It drops from his eye to mark astonishment at a breach of manners or an abrupt revelation. Or else, the monocle-wearer is a sinister European gentleman. Aristocratic, yes, but cold and calculating, filled with menace. The villainous Penguin fights Batman wearing a monocle, Mr. Peanut is never seen without his, and Eustace Tilley, The New Yorker’s cartoon mascot, is defined by his.

1880s antique Victorian estate 9ct solid yellow gold monocle selling online for $1,499.23
1880s antique Victorian estate 9ct solid yellow gold monocle selling online for $1,499.23

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the monocle was generally associated with wealthy upper-class men. Combined with a morning coat and a top hat, the monocle completed the costume of the stereotypical 1890s capitalist.

There are three styles of monocles. The first style consists of a simple loop, typically framed in gold, with a lens designed to be fixed in the eye socket and held in place hands-free, wedged behind the loose skin around the eye thanks to the orbicularis oculi, the muscle that closes the eyelid. These were the first monocles worn in England and could be found from the 1830s onwards.

The second style, which was developed in the 1890s, was the most elaborate, consisting of a frame with a raised edge-like extension known as the gallery. The gallery was designed to help secure the monocle in place by raising it out of the eye’s orbit slightly so that the eyelashes would not jar it. Monocles with galleries were often the most expensive. The wealthy would have the frames custom-made to fit their eye sockets.

The third style of monocle was frameless. This consisted of a cut piece of glass, with a serrated edge to provide a grip and sometimes a hole drilled into one side for a cord. Often the frameless monocle had no cord and would be worn freely. This style was popular at the beginning of the 20th century as the lens could be cut to fit any shape eye orbit inexpensively, without the cost of a customized frame.

Cravats

Illustrations from H. LeBlanc’s The Art of Tying the Cravat. A number of quasi-comic cravat-tying manuals appeared in the mid- to early-18th century, schooling the would-be gentleman in the complex significance of different techniques. photo: cabinetmagazine.org
Illustrations from H. LeBlanc’s The Art of Tying the Cravat. A number of quasi-comic cravat-tying manuals appeared in the mid- to early-18th century, schooling the would-be gentleman in the complex significance of different techniques. photo: cabinetmagazine.org

“A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life,” was one of the memorable lines from Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance that premiered in 1893.

Like other fashion accessories, the cravat, the precursor to the necktie, varied in style throughout the day and evolved over the century. It was an elaborately folded and lightly starched linen or cambric neckcloth worn under the collar of the shirt. For evening wear, the white tie was de rigueur; while the dark tie or cravat was worn for less formal occasions or as respectable daywear.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Ascot tie began to take prominence, named for its association with the races at Ascot, where gentleman dressed in a certain fashion to attend this upper-crust event. The wide tie, often fastened with a pin, was sold readymade in very bright colors. Ascots are still worn today for formal weddings.

Ultimately, the cravat of the 19th century gave rise to four main styles: the bow tie, scarves and neckerchiefs, the Ascot, and the four-in-hand or long tie. The long tie or vertical tie originated as young men’s sporting attire in the 1850s but became widespread within a decade. Early versions of this style of tie were simple rectangular strips of material with identical square ends that reached no lower than the sternum as waistcoats were usually worn. Practical because it neither impeded movement nor came undone, it was adopted both by workers and by the leisure classes as high, stiff collars gave way to soft, turned-down ones.

Gloves

Men’s evening gloves, ca. 1848
photo: metmuseum.org

Gloves were an important accessory for 19th century men as well and were worn at every social occasion. The well-dressed man of the late 1800s never removed his gloves, whether dancing at a ball or relaxing at home.

Besides gloves made of (kid) leather, there were numerous types of gloves of the 1800s made from fabric or materials that included thread, cotton, silk, worsted weight, and knit materials. Thread gloves were sometimes made from unbleached yarn but were usually made from linen or cotton.

Social codes prescribed the types of gloves to be worn during particular day and evening engagements. To appear in public without gloves could invite censure or ridicule. Colors were white for the evening, grey for daytime, and tan leather for riding or driving. Maintaining one’s gloves was also very important, as soiled gloves were reflective of poor etiquette. As a result, gentlemen were required to purchase their gloves in multiple quantities and carry spare pairs with them on outings should one pair become soiled.

Spats

Antique 1920s Gentleman’s tan felt spats. This pair was made in England for the American trade. It sold for the princely sum of $5 in the 1920s. Considering that the average male weekly wage in England in 1925 was about £5 and in New York, in that era, a months rent averaged $30, 1/100 of today’s prices, it is clear that spats were prohibitively priced. photo: classicshoesformen.com
Antique 1920s Gentleman’s tan felt spats. This pair was made in England for the American trade. It sold for the princely sum of $5 in the 1920s. Considering that the average male weekly wage in England in 1925 was about £5 and in New York, in that era, a month’s rent averaged $30, 1/100 of today’s prices, it is clear that spats were prohibitively priced.
photo: classicshoesformen.com

Spats, not to be confused with sportsmen’s or military gaiters, were the ultimate shoe accessory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were stiff fabric covers attached to the top of the shoe and extending up the lower part of the leg. Spats, especially white ones on highly polished black shoes, were an important part of a wealthy young man’s dress.

Spats is an abbreviation of “spatterdash,” a sartorial concept born in 18th Century England as a protective accessory for military officers’ boots against mud. By the early 20th Century, spats or gaiters were widely worn by both men and women and even integrated into shoes and boots.

By 1910, shoes made a comeback in style for men, and a kind of shortened spat became a required part of the gentleman’s attire. Gentlemen’s white spats became de rigeur in the early 1920s and were considered the signature of elegance and privilege. Spats came to represent both wealth and eccentricity.

Braces

Braces, a form of suspenders, were fashionable in men’s wear beginning in the late 18th century through the early 20th century. They were first used when gentlemen’s trousers were high-waisted and unsuitable for a belt.

Four sets of ca. 1850-1890 gentleman’s braces with embroidery, two made of silk, in very good condition, sold for $420 at Augusta Auctions
Four sets of ca. 1850-1890 gentleman’s braces with embroidery, two made of silk, in very good condition, sold for $420 at Augusta Auctions

Early 19th century braces were typically made of Morocco leather but by 1840 it became popular to wear embroidered braces made in two separate bands, with tabs and buttonholes. The gentleman would attach these braces to buttons on the trousers.

Braces were the perfect gift for a young lady to embroider for her fiancé, or for a wife to create for her husband.

Most braces were constructed of silk, velvet, or canvas. During the 1850s and 1860s, Berlin woolwork on canvas was the most popular style and featured brightly colored wools embroidered in either geometric or floral designs. Often these braces were worn by the groom at his wedding and were preserved as a family heirloom.