Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.
The late Victorian era was a time of great prosperity. Technical advances created the birth of the large corporation and unfettered capitalism. It was a time of optimism and opportunity, conspicuous consumption, and corruption. Industrialization brought people to cities, and urban areas grew. Railroads increased ease and availability of travel and the ability to move products long distances quickly. The late 1800s saw the invention or development of commercial and household electricity, the telephone and the telegraph, electric streetcars, mail order catalogs, and department stores.
The era can be viewed as one long stream of contradictions—a time of prosperity interrupted by the Long Depression of 1873–1879 and the Panic of 1893. While the elite built extravagant homes, workers lived in crowded tenements, and the economic downturns forced workers to accept lower wages just to feed their families.
Mark Twain's term the "Gilded Age" (1870–1900) refers to a gleaming exterior that covers a sub-par interior. La Belle Epoque (The Beautiful Era) also refers to the same time period, from the 1870s–1914.
Men's Fashion Overview
To modern eyes, there was little change in men's styles over the years of the late Victorian era. Variations in collar height, the visibility of waistcoats (vests), and jacket closures are subtle. Clothing represented status. Better clothing was a sign of good breeding, taste, and sense. Wealth signified moral character, and the well-dressed man was viewed as better in every way than those who stood on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.
The greatest variety of style can be seen in how men dressed for different occasions or the time of day. A gentleman wore specific garments for morning formal occasions or evening events, for outdoor activities, for general day wear, and after sunset.
Extreme styles, loud colors, or wild combinations were viewed as unmanly or loutish. New styles were generally worn by the young, while older or conservative men stuck to older style garments.
Most men of the era wore their hair short. One of the greatest ways to stand out in a crowd was facial hair. In the middle of the century, full beards ruled. As the Industrial Revolution brought more men indoors, a full beard suggested a viral, outdoor kind of guy. A man with a full beard appeared strong and wise.
As the century progressed and full beards fell out of fashion, men grew some very creative facial hair.
- Muttonchops were exaggerated sideburns.
- Side whiskers were muttonchops taken to an extreme. They hung well below the jawline.
- A goatee featured hair on the chin but not the cheeks.
- Van Dykes were hair on the chin paired with a moustache with no hair on the cheeks.
- The Walrus moustache grew down past the outer edge of the mouth, sometimes to the jawline.
- A handlebar moustache extended outwards and could be turned upwards at the ends, the hair held in place by wax.
By the end of the century, most men were clean shaven.
Jackets or Coats
Worn as part of a suit, jackets varied over time as well as time of day and occasion. While wide lapels ruled mid century by the 1880s lapels became narrow and jackets buttoned high. In the 1890s, jacket sleeves were short enough to reveal the lower part of shirt cuffs.
Frock Coats had been worn for formal day wear or professional attire since the early Victorian era. A Prince Albert was double breasted but a frock coat could also be single breasted. These knee length jackets were close fitted with a vent at the rear and a horizontal seam at the waist. It buttoned to the waist. A frock coat did not match the trousers which could be grey, striped, plaid, or checked. By the 1890s, frock coats were worn only by the elderly, or for diplomatic occasions.
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Morning coats were originally developed for horseback riding, a popular morning activity for gentlemen. The single breasted jacket curved back from just above the waist and displayed the lower part of a waistcoat at the front. The long, parted section of the back earned the name "cut-away" in the UK, "tails" in the USA. Now we view tails as formal attire but during the late Victorian era, morning coats were informal dress.
A morning coat could be worn with striped trousers. Morning coats eventually replaced frock coats as formal day wear for professional work, weddings, funerals, and other day time special occasions.
A tailcoat or dress coat is very similar to a morning coat. Instead of a gradual curve from front waist to rear, the difference in lengths (front to back) is more pronounced. This coat was worn with matching trousers with decorative braid or trim down the length. A tailcoat is double breasted.
Sack jackets or lounge coats were what we think of when we picture a modern man's suit jacket. Originally worn for informal occasions in the countryside or at the beach, a sack coat fell to the hips and had no seam at the waist. They were made of wool for winter or linen for the warmer months, and had three outer pockets.
Early versions featured a loose fit but became more fitted toward the end of the century. While frock and morning coats required tailoring and alterations, the looseness of the sack coat made it easier to make, allowing for mass production. They were available off the rack at department stores or through catalogs.
Sack jackets were worn with matching trousers. Though dark or neutral colors predominated by the 1890s, early versions appeared in plain colors, checked, or plaid.,
The Tuxedo or dinner jacket was based on the sack jacket and became formal evening dress in the late 1800s. They often featured satin lapels.
The Norfolk jacket worn for outdoor activities like hiking and shooting, featured a belt and was usually checked or tweed.
Waistcoat or Vest
Waistcoats or vests were simple, sleeveless garments with deep or shallow necks, buttoned down the front. Openings could be V or U shaped. Small pockets on the lower part of the vest were often used for a watch and chain (before wristwatches).
Waistcoats were always worn over a white shirt. Even laborers wore vests at work as appearing in only a shirt was considered inappropriate. Working men wore vests of heavy cotton or denim. Upper class men wore silk or wool broadcloth vests. Broadcloth, also used for jackets and trousers, is a large piece of wool that is felted or shrunk in hot, soapy water creating a fabric with no visible weave. Summer versions appeared in linen, heavy cotton, or seersucker.
While early Victorian vests could be quite colorful featuring printed silk designs, later Victorian waistcoats were usually black, grey, or white. Waistcoats featured straps at the back to ensure a snug fit.
While waistcoats featured lapels, those worn for formal occasions had no lapels.
Trousers did not change much after the mid 1800s. Loose cut trousers were worn for day wear and informal occasions while narrow trousers were worn in the evening and for dress. Some trousers for evening featured braid or piping running along the length of the leg.
Day wear trousers appeared in stripes, plaid, or checks. By the late 1800s, trousers matched both jacket and waistcoat. Creases appeared in the 1890s. Cuffs were not in vogue until Edward VII introduced the style in the 1890s while he was the fashionable Prince of Wales. Trousers were supported with suspenders or braces, not belts. Trousers fastened with buttons as zippers had not yet been invented.
- Knickerbockers, worn for outdoor activities like hunting, biking, shooting, hiking, and golf ended at the knee and were worn with knee high socks and sturdy shoes or high boots.
- Jodpurs, worn for equestrian activities and sports fit tight at the knee and puffed out at the thighs. These were often worn with a jacket that flared at the hips.
The iconic top hat was worn for both day and evening formal occasions. The tall stovepipe hat of mid century shortened during the late Victorian era. Usually black, top hats also appeared in charcoal or grey. A wide black band surrounded the tall crown for mourning, worn after the death of a family member.
Top hats were originally mate of felted beaver fur, later of silk hatter's plush (a soft silk weave). The hats were brushed to a fine sheen. Mercury used in the production of top hats is poisonous with symptoms including dementia and hallucination giving rise to the phrase "mad as a hatter."
A derby or bowler featured a hard, rounded crown and narrow, upturned brim. First created as protective gear, it became the first mass produced hat. Worn by factory managers and bookkeepers, the inexpensive ready made hat became hugely popular. Despite stereotypes of cowboy hats and stetsons, the derby was the most frequently worn hat of the American west.
Boaters were made of stiff, braided straw. They featured a flat crown and a wide, flat brim. A ribbon surrounded the crown. The cool summer style had specific dates (which varied regionally) when they could be worn.
Homburgs were introduced in the 1890s and were a favorite of Edward, Prince of Wales (the fashionable prince who gave his name to an era). Made of wool felt with a flattish brim, Homburgs featured a dent in the center of the crown running from front to back.
Shirts and Ties
White shirts worn for formal and professional day wear featured stuff, starched shirt fronts. A plain white shirt was always worn with a vest. Stiff, standing collars widened up to three inches tall in the 1890s.
Removable collars and cuffs became popular in the 1880s. The collars could be worn straight up or folded over. In the 1890s pastel or striped shirts were paired with removable white collars. The removable starched linen collars and cuffs meant that one shirt could be worn for days.
The elite wore custom tailored shirts but mass produced, ready-to-wear shirts became available at men's shops or the new department stores.
Shirts were made of linen, cotton, lawn (very light weight cotton or linen), or cambric. Flannel shirts were provided warmth and a causal feel in the country side.
Simple bow ties were popular in short or longer versions. Ascots gained popularity in the 1870s for both formal and informal occasions. Ascots could be tied simply or in complicated knots. The ascot gave birth to the necktie as we know it today. Late Victorian neck ties were shorter than modern versions. Stick pins were worn with ascots as well as neck ties.
Overcoats were worn full or ankle length or could be calf length. Top coats ended at the hips. Several styles of coats were popular.
- The Chesterfield, a herringbone tweed coat, featured a velvet collar.
- Tweed Ulster coats were worn loose or belted with a detachable hood or cape. The cape fell to the elbow.
- A Mackintosh was a waterproof all weather coat. Wool cloth was coated on one side with dissolved rubber with another layer of wool on top.
- The Inverness originated as a sleeved coat with a long cape. By the 1870s, the cape was divided into wing like sections. Lapels appeared in some versions while others had no lapels. It looked like a cape worn over a coat and provided extra weather protection for carriage drivers and others who spent a lot of time outdoors.
Undergarments and Sleepwear
Until the 1890s, men slept in a nightshirt, a long loose fitting dress like garment that could reach to the knees or longer. They could be gathered at the neck with a drawstring or feature a neat collar.A nightcap was worn in cold weather.
By the end of the century, pajamas came into vogue. Called a sleeping suit, or pyjamas in the UK, pj's came in silk or wool and in colors and stripes. Men also wore robes.
During the late Victorian era, men's undergarments were made in factories and available at department stores or men's clothiers. High waisted drawers could be knee or ankle length. They featured an access hatch or drop seat in back and a fly front fastened with buttons.
A vest or undershirt was square cut and plain, hanging below the waist. Drawers and vests were made of flannel or wool. Combinations or union suits, similar to jump suits or one piece garments were also worn..
Shoes and Socks
- Socks made of Balbriggan, an Irish knit, were usually black and held up by garters.
- High top shoes featured pointed toes and could have laced or buttoned closures. For evening, a gentleman wore pattent leather low rise shoes or low rise boots.
- In the 1880s, toes became blunt and squared off. Cloth topped half boots featured leather on the lower part of the shoe, with heavy cloth stitched on the upper part.
- Plimsolls or sneakers were rubber soled and were worn at the beach or for tennis. Keds were introduced in 1892.
- Rubber overshoes were available to protect feet from the rain. Rubber boots lined with wool provided warmth in winter and for snow.
- House slippers made of plush silk often featured elaborate embroidery. The slip on house shoes could be open or closed backed.
In England, men wore drawers for swimming. Women bathed at separate locations so going shirtless did not offend.
One piece, short-legged tank suits were popular in the USA where both genders bathed in the same areas. Separates included knee-length breeches and a short-sleeved or sleeveless shirt. Swim wear was made of jersey, a wool knit.
Clothing of the Lower Class
Working class men wore ready made garments constructed of inexpensive fabrics like cotton, wool, denim, or corduroy. Corduroy is a warm, ribbed fabric that is both soft and durable and was used in making trousers, vests, and jackets. Laborers and factory workers all wore a vest over their shirts.
Of course, lower class men could not afford or have reason to make all the daily clothing changes of the elite. Most lower class men owned a sack jacket and good trousers for special occasions. This Sunday best lasted a lifetime.
Sweaters, often worn by fishermen and rural people of cold climates were hand knit. Some fishing families or regions made sweaters with distinctive colors or patterns. Wool sweaters are great insulators as wool keeps the body warm even if it becomes wet. Victorian fishermen, as well as their wives and daughters, knit.
Bib overalls were introduced in the 1890s.
Test Your Knowledge
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- Which of these was NOT a way men grew facial hair during the late Victorian Age?
- Walrus mustache
- Van Dykes
- Which of these was NOT a coat worn by men during the late Victorian Age?
- Frock coats
- Morning Coats
- Walrus mustache
For Further Reading
History of Men's Fashion by Farid Chenoune
Englishman's Suit by Hardy Amies
Elegance and Style 200 Years of Men's Fashion by Vittoria De Buzzaccarini
Handbook of English Costume in the 19th Century by Alan Mansfield and Phyllis Cunningham
A History of Men's Fashion by Nicholas Storey