History Article 2: The Gentleman's Wardrobe
The Gentleman's Wardrobe
The resplendently-garbed Georgian father, upon inspecting his Regency son, would probably have deemed the relatively relaxed clothing of his heir better suited for the country house than for the showy life in Town. The Regency buck, by contrast, would only have donned the rich, velvet-embroidered, lace-trimmed small clothes and diamond-buckled shoes of his father’s day for a presentation at Court.
Influence of the French Revolution…
Male fashions throughout Europe became simplified in response to the French Revolution. After all, dressing like the studly Valmont in “Dangerous Liaisons” screamed “aristocrat” and could get a chap a one-way ticket to the guillotine.
Partly because of the chaos in France for so many years at the turn of the century, it was in this period that male fashion ceased to be led by that most fashionable of countries. While the Iron Duke and Admiral Lord Nelson led British soldiers and sailors to victory against Napoleon, likewise, English tailors of this period from Bond Street to Savile Row triumphed over their French rivals and have remained the masters of Western male fashion ever since.
These “knights of the thimble” as they were called were not only armed with that high-tech new invention--the tape measure!--but studied anatomy and geometry to help master the art of fitting to all body types the fine wools England had cultivated for centuries.
In any case, if dread of the guillotine and a fear of appearing too rich was the ‘stick’ driving fashion away from the rococo effervescence of earlier decades, the ‘carrot’ luring it in a more casual direction was the craze for Classical Antiquity.
Influence of Classical Antiquity…
As we discussed in The Lady’s Wardrobe, the craze for Ancient Greece and Rome was going strong at the turn of the 19th century. It was reflected in everything from the Palladian-domed, Ionic-columned mansions coveted by the wealthy to the crisp, clean-lined Sheridan furniture inside, such as the scroll-armed divan on which a fashionable socialite might recover after a night at the ball. Even their plates and teacups were often adorned with frolicking nymphs and satyrs, or other Classical subjects.
So, while the ladies of the ton strove to look like marble Aphrodites and Athenas come to life, the gentlemen embraced the cool reserve of stoic Rome and the athleticism of Spartan Greece. (Sports such as boxing, fencing, hunting, riding, driving, and cricket were essential parts of the young buck’s lifestyle. Sea-bathing and weight-lifting were also popular. Regency clothes tended to show off manly muscles.)
Men’s hairstyles are a particularly good place to note the change in style: in contrast to the Georgian dandy’s white-powdered tye-wig or “queue” tied back with a black velvet ribbon, for example, the Regency buck cropped his hair short and wore it in artfully tousled curls reminiscent of Caesar or Alexander the Great (even if he had to sleep in curlers to achieve the look).
An Interesting Aside: A heavy tax placed on white hair powder in 1775 helped drive the powdered-wig look out of style. The tax simply made the style too expensive for most people, so it fell out of fashion. The style was retained, however, as part of the standard uniform of liveried footmen—a not-too-subtle way for the rich to advertise their wealth!
In this essay, we shall look at dressing the Regency hero, step-by-step. But first, no discussion of Regency male fashion could possibly be complete without a mention of George “Beau” Brummel.
Influence of Beau Brummel…
This uppity commoner of inimitable style made friends with the Prince Regent at school, thus gained access to the highest circles of the fashionable world, and proceeded to tell the aristocracy how to dress. And they listened.
Known for his scathing wit as well as his fashion sense (I can’t help picturing him as Rupert Everett for some reason) both men and women trembled in fear of the Beau’s sartorial disapproval. In the years before his downfall in 1816, when he ruined himself gambling after insulting the Prince Regent to the point of enmity, Beau Brummel led the charge in men’s fashions toward the new style of elegant simplicity.
Before Beau, men judged the excellence of a coat by the richness of its trimmings, such as gold- or silver-thread lace; he set the trend of judging a coat instead based on the quality of the fabric and the perfection of its cut. His influence can still be seen today in the overall conservatism of men’s suits with their focus on excellent tailoring.
Brummel was also known for his fastidious cleanliness. At a time when few people (even lords and ladies) thought it necessary or even very healthy to bathe daily, instead simply dousing themselves with perfume as needed, some people thought his insistence on personal hygiene quite eccentric. Thankfully, the Beau’s mighty influence turned their attitudes around and thanks to him the world became a much better-smelling place.
The Gentleman’s Gentleman…
Another person—or rather class of persons—who must be considered in any discussion of 19th c. male clothing is the all-important “gentleman’s gentleman” or valet. The hero behind the hero, the valet was the male equivalent of the lady’s maid. He dressed and undressed his master, shaved him, likely did his hair, kept his clothes neat and meticulously ironed, blacked his boots, sewed buttons as needed, and kept secret any flaws of his master’s figure that might need correction by means of a male corset, shoulder pads, or false calves. But most importantly of all, the valet had the solemn duty of starching and tying that showpiece of male attire—the cravat.
This being said, however, the Regency dandy was expected to have a certain style or panache all his own. It was a grave insult to say that a man had been “made” by his valet or tailor. Fashion sense was as important a trait for a proper gentleman as wit, gallantry, or “bottom” (courage). Let us now proceed to the various elements of dressing the Regency man!
Dressing the Regency Dandy
Hair and Face
Boots and Shoes
Hair and Face — hair worn short and layered, no particular “part” in the hair, with intricate, individually sculpted curls falling forward on the forehead with the help of pomade (the Regency man’s hair gel) and curl papers if necessary. The look “a la Titus” as it was called, was tousled and heroic, like a Caesar’s bust as described above.
This style was often worn with neat sideburns, a la Jason Priestly and Luke Perry in “Beverly Hills 90210”; however, the term “sideburns” did not come into being until the Victorian period. In the Regency, they were merely called “side whiskers”. Beau Brummel shaved his off by 1815 for an even more clean-cut look. Carefully kept moustaches seemed to be particularly popular among military men. Beards are rarely seen in Regency period portraits or sketches.
Underclothes — Instead of that all-important dilemma that men face today—boxers or briefs?—the Regency man’s only choice was between short drawers or long. Since these were the days before central heating his decision would likely be based on the weather! Drawers were loose-fitting, made of breathable linen, cambric, or cotton, and tied in front with a ribbon, then pulled it at the back by tapes to make them fit.
Short drawers were about knee-length and resembled boxers; long drawers were basically long-johns that could have a strap under the foot to keep them from bunching up or wrinkling beneath one’s trousers, or they could even have feet attached to them (footed long drawers). Long drawers were worn for extra warmth or to avoid breaking the clean line of skintight pantaloons (see below) by having to wear separate stockings and the gentlemanly garters required to hold them up.
For the top half of the body, there were no undershirts like men wear today. Instead, the man’s actual shirt went on next, of white linen, cambric, or cotton. It generally went on over the head with just a few buttons midway down the chest, creating a deep V. It could have plain or frilled cuffs; it might also have a “chitterling” or frill at the neckline, running down the chest.
The shirt’s collar would be flipped up when the guy put on his cravat. Unlike today, where a man puts on his tie then flips his collar back down, the Regency man kept his shirt collar standing up, as with a modern tuxedo. The points of his shirt collar would have to be well starched so that once the cravat was in place, the collar points would stand up straight, framing his manly jaw line. “Incroyables”—a French term for dandies who wore the most outrageous fads—wore their shirt collars cut so long that the points reached the outer corners of their eyes. Such high collar points were called “winkers” and, with enough starch, a chap could poke his eye on them if he turned his head too fast.
Regency male socks were called stockings and were held up by gentlemanly garters just below the knee. (He would not need to wear stockings with footed drawers.) Special help for the male figure: Since the fashions of the day hugged the body, a man might resort to a variety of contraptions to correct any flaws in his physique. Padding was available for wherever it might be needed. Corsets were also widely used by men, and when you consider the basic shape of the fashionable tailcoat, it’s easy to see why. A pot belly would look decidedly sloppy hanging out below the straight, square cut of the coat across the waist. To help achieve a flat stomach, men might employ the aid of the Apollo Corset, the Cumberland Corset, or the Brummel Bodice.
Once he had donned all of the above, our Regency buck might slip on a dressing gown or banyan robe to lounge in while reading the Times over his morning coffee, perhaps waiting for his valet to finish readying his clothes for the day. The dressing gown was a loose, wraparound, floor-length bathrobe sort of garment, while the banyan was knee-length and more fitted. Rich-colored, luxurious fabrics were preferred, such as satin, velvet, or silk damask.
His Lordship’s Jammies—I doubt any hero of mine would ever be caught dead in it, but the Regency version of pajamas were the “nightclothes”, basically a loose, ankle-length nightgown with a floppy open collar, and a “nightcap” a knitted silk hat with a tassel on the end. How cute is that???
“Inexpressibles”—we call them pants, but that word didn’t exist yet except in vulgar circles. The bottom half of male clothing in the Regency is a rather complicated subject, but I’ll do my best to make it plain; alongside it, we will discuss footwear, because which style of pants a man chose determined which type of shoes or boots he wore with it, and vice-versa. J Note: boots were everywhere during the day, but an absolute no-no for eveningwear.
Breeches (a.k.a. “knee breeches”). Relatively loose-fitting, fastened with a horizontal rectangle of fabric called the “falls”, and buttoned or buckled at the knee, breeches served as the all-purpose bottom half of male attire until about the Battle of Waterloo (1815). Other options appeared (see below), but breeches, with their connotations of gentility and tradition (they were required dress for entrée into Almack’s), served for all levels of formality--day, evening, or sport. The only difference was what they were made out of. For example: nankeen for daywear; fine wool for evening; velvet for court; soft leather such as buckskin or doeskin for riding.
In the last case, they would be worn with knee-high riding boots; for dressier occasions, they were worn with white, gray, or sheer black stockings and elegant black or brown low-heeled shoes referred to as (don’t laugh!) “pumps”, the forerunners of today’s male dress shoe. The shoe might have a small flat bow or a reserved tassel for decoration, but none of the high-heeled, diamond-studded flamboyance of earlier generations. Alas, after the shift in fashions of 1815, breeches fell out of favor and were only worn thereafter by elderly men or for ultra-formal occasions, such as a visit to the royal court. In everyday life, from that point on they were relegated to riding costume only.
Pantaloons – Before there was spandex…there were pantaloons. Pantaloons made their debut as daywear and were only gradually accepted as formal enough for evening wear. They were originally invented to solve a rather comical problem which resulted when a new kind of boot style came into fashion. Instead of the traditional knee-boots discussed above which had long been part of riding costume, Hessians and Hussar boots became all the rage. These boots only came midway up the man’s shins, leaving the wearer with an embarrassing stretch of leg between the too-high hem of his knee-breeches and the too-low tops of his flashy new boots. Pantaloons were the solution—simply elongated breeches that managed to cover the rest of the leg so the new boot style could be worn.
(Incidentally, a Regency miss would have been very proper to faint were she to hear that indecent word “leg” spoken in her presence. If it could not be avoided, this part of the anatomy would be politely referred to as a “limb”.)
Until 1817, pantaloons were calf length, but later on, they went down to the ankles, at which length they were often worn with a strap that ran under the instep to keep them lying neatly in place.
It’s important to note that the basic “look” for day was a darker-colored top half and a lighter-toned bottom. Thus a fellow might choose a coat in dun or brown, bottle-green, charcoal gray, or dark blue, with pantaloons or trousers in shades like cream, ivory, biscuit, bone, fawn, or yellow if they were made from the popular fabric, Nankeen, a heavy twilled cotton first used in tropical-wear.
The prep school boy’s uniform of a navy blazer and beige pants is probably a modern descendent of this look.
In any case, as mentioned above, the overall male silhouette was changing to reveal more and more of the body. Pantaloons once more became the fashion-forward choice by getting tighter. And tighter. And tighter! (Insert wolf-whistle here.)
That high-tech wonder, the tape measure, along with experimental new blends of wool and cotton and other threads, gave English tailors the tools they needed to sculpt pantaloons to their patrons’ manly bottoms.
Cossacks – On the other side of the spectrum, there were Cossacks, or Cossack trousers. They were a fashion inspired by Russian folk garb when the glamorous young Czar Alexander visited London with his entourage. His imperial Cossack guards wore traditional folk costume, including the big furry hats (which never really caught on for some reason!) and these extremely comfortable, ankle-length, baggy pants. Wearing them must have been a welcome break from pantaloons.
Trousers — The forerunner of the basic men’s pants style of today. Straight-leg. Also worn in pale shades as noted above. They could be tight, but generally not as tight as pantaloons, nor as loose as Cossacks. Instead of reaching to the knee like breeches, they went all the way down to the ankle and might have a strap under the instep to keep them from wrinkling up. They could be worn with pumps or ankle boots called high-lows.
Day wear from 1807, but did not become accepted for eveningwear until 1816 when the Prince Regent gave them the royal stamp of approval by wearing them as such.
All of these styles would have been held up by suspenders, also known as “braces”. They crossed in the back and went over the shoulders. Worn over the shirt, but hidden inside the waistcoat.
Neckwear — cravats were nothing short of an art form during the Regency. A cravat was a good-sized triangle or square of starched silk, lawn, or muslin which would be artistically folded and tied around the gentleman’s neck in any of a variety of popular knot forms. Some of the most popular types included: the mail-coach, the Obaldeston, the Irish, the Gordion knot, the Napoleon, the American, the orientale, the mathematical, the cravat en cascade, and my favorite, the trone á amour.
For formal wear, cravats were always white, but for informal occasions, they could be worn in black. Colors were permissible for daywear after 1810. The “Blue Billy” is a fun example—a blue neck cloth with white polka dots, this style was copied by sports enthusiasts from the celebrity prizefighter, William Mace.
Remember that the cravat or neck-cloth, as it might also be called, was tied on around the man’s shirt collar, which got flipped up. When the cravat was in place, the collar points would frame his handsome face and depending on how fashion-conscious he was, the amount of starch used would determine how much or how little he was able to move. The ultra-dandies wore collar points so high and such large, crisply starched cravats that they could barely turn their heads!
Waistcoats — the Regency term for a vest. Waistcoats could be single- or double-breasted, with or without collars or lapels. For evening, white or black in a fine fabric like silk or cashmere were de rigeur, but for daywear, waistcoats could be worn “in bold colors and gaudy prints” (Laudermilk & Hamlin). Horizontal stripes were popular, especially a white or pale stripe on one of the standard coat colors (dark blue, bottle-green, buff, etc. See above.) (Hendrickson). It could have a couple of small pockets, especially for a man’s fob-watch.
The cut of the waistcoat was intended to show an inch or so at the front of the waist beneath the level of the cutaway-style tailcoat. (The edge of the white shirt cuff would also show a little bit at the sleeves.) The waistcoat could be cut straight across the front or angle down into a point in the middle, or have two points that would likewise show beneath the square-cut front of the tailcoat and overlap the top of the breeches or trousers. The lighter, brighter, livelier color/pattern of the waistcoat would spruce up the plain and always solid-colored outer coat.
A high-standing collar was a popular feature of many waistcoats. This type of collar would show above the collar of the outer coat or tailcoat, encircling the back and sides of the man’s neck and displaying the cravat.
For a young lady to see a man dressed down to his waistcoat and shirtsleeves implied a considerable level of informality and/or intimacy. The tailcoat (see below) was usually to remain on the fellow; like a modern suit jacket, it was an essential part of the total look, not to be immediately removed upon going indoors like a modern man’s light-weather coat.
Coats — doesn’t mean the outdoor-wear/inclement weather type coat as we would use the term—that would be a “greatcoat” and its variations, and we’ll get to that.
In Regency-speak, the word “coat” refers to the tailcoat, THE essential piece of Regency male clothing. These tailcoats can be divided into two main kinds:
Dress coat—square-cut at the waist with square-cut tails that fell to about the back of the man’s knee. Some had velvet collars. Yum!
Morning or riding coat—the informal style, distinguished by sloping front edges and shorter, slightly rounded tails.
Most popular colors: black, brown, dark blue, olive, bottle-green, plum.
Beau Brummel favored dark blue until black became the universal color for formal wear, but I’ve also read that dark blue was a color frequently worn by men of the professional classes, so the more top-lofty nobs avoided it for its less-than-aristocratic connotations.
Frock coats existed but were more rare and referred to a different garment than the same word meant in either the earlier Georgian years or the Victorian age. The Regency had both of the following versions for two different circumstances.
Court Costume: The Georgian version of the frock coat was still used as court costume—highly ornate, no cut-in at the waist, but long, sloping lines that swept back elegantly into the tails. It would often be trimmed with some outrageous thing like gold ribbon or silver-thread lace.
Military-inspired costume/Informal: The frock style coat omnipresent in the Victorian age was seen here and there in the later part of the Regency. The style emerged from military usage. The frock coat was shorter, fuller, and of an even length all around instead of having tails in the back, which meant it could have handy side pockets. If you’ve seen photos of famous Civil War generals like Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, they’re usually in frock coats.
The Tom Tierney resource (see Bibliography) shows a spencer jacket for men, which is a great-looking style, but I include it with the caution that I haven’t seen it anywhere else so am unable to cross-reference this one. The spencer was a neat waist-length coat without tails shaped more or less like a modern jean jacket. (This style for women was discussed in Lesson One: The Lady’s Wardrobe.)
All of these coats could be single or double breasted, though single-breasted was more usual for eveningwear. They were constructed from fine woolens with a dress finish, such as broadcloth, kerseymere, superfine, or merino.
Greatcoats – a generic term for any of the variety of overcoats or “surtouts” that existed. All of them were long and roomy, had big pockets, and were more or less waterproof. Here are some of the most common types:
Box coat—noted as part of traveling costume. It had several short capes and took its name from the fact that it was a style associated with coachmen, who drove the coaches from up on the driver’s box.
Cloak—another traveling style, but also worn with eveningwear. Could have shoulder capes and a richly colored silk lining.
Demi-surtout—a more form-fitting overcoat style that appeared in the later Regency period. Hugged the upper body with full “skirts” around the legs—oops! I mean limbs. (G)
Hats — there are two main hat styles to know about:
The “Topper” or Beaver hat – the classic black top hat. A wardrobe essential for nicer daytime occasions as well as formal eveningwear. It had a tall, narrow crown and a short brim that was rolled up slightly on the sides. Sporty versions for daywear could have a shorter crown that tapered in closer around the head and a shorter brim, as well, that tended to curve more. The Beaver got its name from the felted beaver wool from which it was made; this animal’s fur was prized for its natural waterproofing.
Chapeau bras: literally means “arm-hat” because it could be folded flat (longwise) if two-pointed and tucked gallantly under the man’s arm. It could be worn with the two corners pointing sideways or front-to-back. Three-pointed styles also existed. Also known as a cocked hat, the chapeau bras was worn on full dress or court occasions.
Accessories — Typical accessories of the Regency buck included: a monocle or ‘quizzing glass’ for inspecting the ladies passing by on fashionable Bond Street; seals (small metallic medallions) dangling from ribbons off the man’s waistline; the ubiquitous fob-watch and fob-chain; a walking stick with a head of ivory or silver; and possibly a small fan on a hot day or in an overheated ballroom.
Wedding Suit – “By 1820 a blue dress coat with gilt buttons, white waistcoat, and black or dark gray breeches.” (Hendrickson) The Mattox book depicting Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley from Pride and Prejudice, wearing the clothes Jane Austen describes for them in her novel have both bridegrooms dressed in white waistcoats, breeches, and stockings, and black tailcoats that have been adorned at both shoulders with large looped bows of white ribbon. Their cravats appear to be in the “Romantique” style, which would have well suited a country wedding.
<< Back to History Page