Saturday, April 18, 2015

Men’s Clothing History: Suits and Coats

During the Victorian era, it was quite easy to tell a man’s social position by his style of dress.  Class distinctions were clear cut and rigid.  It would have been unsuitable for a working man to imitate the fashions of his betters; and indeed he had neither the wish nor the means to do so.

The standard suit of the 19th century was a modification of the military uniform of the Napoleonic wars.  Jacket lapels were derived from the high collared tunics of military uniforms.  To make themselves more comfortable, soldiers unfastened the upper buttons, and rolled back each side.  When the fashion spread into civilian clothes, tailors retained the notch (indicating the break of the original collar) and the buttonhole (where the tunic would have fastened at the neck).  As for the cuff buttons, it was the great Bonaparte himself who ordered that buttons be placed on the cuffs of his soldiers uniforms so that they could not wipe their noses on their sleeves.

 Whether single or double breasted, a man’s jacket always buttoned left side over right.  This design prevailed so that a man would not catch his sword in the opening, when drawing right handed.

By 1855 the bright colors, glitter and gold of the early 19th century gave way to darker, more uniform colors.  Sober businessmen felt that bright colors were not suitable in a hard working age; and they preferred clothes that were richly plain rather than gaily colored.  Black frock coats replaced the blues and greens of previous decades.  White evening waistcoats were exchanged for black ones.  Good tailoring became the mark of beauty and fashion in a suit.

In Victorian times, tailors would take a dozen fittings to perfect a suit.  Even Royalty accepted the importance of the way a suit fit a man.  Admiral Sir John (“Jackie”) Fisher once appeared before King Edward VII wearing a decidedly elderly outfit.  “That is a very old suit you are wearing,” said the King, “Yes, Sir,” he replied, “but you’ve always told me that nothing really matters but the cut.”

It was a sign of wealth to have a separate jacket for “sports”.  For, “in casting away clothes worn during working hours, the cares and worries of the daily round fly with them; a change of raiment makes a new man of one.”

Woolen tweeds like Cheviot, Irish, Scottish, Yorkshire and Saxony became the first choice among Victorians and Edwardian country gentlemen.  The blazer, so popular in our own time, made its appearance during Holmes’ heyday.  The origin of the blazer goes back to the Captain of the frigate H.M.S. Blazer, who was faced with a visit to his ship by Queen Victoria.  To smarten up his crew the Captain had short jackets in Navy blue serge, with brass Royal naval buttons, made up for his men.  Queen Victoria was impressed and the jackets became a permanent part of the crew’s dress.

A brief look at the life of the Victorian gentleman, based on the habits of the great detective Mr. Sherlcok Holmes. Included are: (1) Clothes, (2) Food, (3) Smoking, (4) Clubs, (5) Etiquette

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