I keep getting told that this is a subject of endless fascination–which if I’m honest, always leaves me scratching my head. But there you go.
The early 19th century sees English tailoring dominating male fashion for the first time. Previously, it had always been Paris which had been the dominant capital of fashion. But the combined forces of the ongoing war against the French and Napoleon (which would have made the idea of all things French repugnant to many) and Beau Brummell allowed the English tailors to show what they could do. And what they could do what draw on Britain’s extra-ordinarily wide access to different weights and weaves of wool, and cut that wool so that it would mould to the figure as only a natural fabric, when well-cut, can do.
So, the top layer is the gentleman’s coat–of darker colours, black, navy, dark green, even dark plum. Lord Castlereagh, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies from 1807-09 and Foreign Secretary from 1812 until his death, had a marked preference for plum-coloured coats. Brummell preferred navy. Depending upon the gentleman’s preference, the coat might be cut very close-fitting or not.
Beneath that would be the waistcoat, or in colder weather, two waistcoats, the second out of flannel. As mentioned previously, the waistcoat, like the breeches, would be of a pale colour, and made of anything from a twilled heavy silk to buckskin. When the coat was buttoned, you might only see the bottom edge of the waistcoat and the edge of the waistcoat’s upstanding collar.
The shirts were made of linen or lawn, cut so that they were gathered from the shoulder, with full sleeves. And the collar–post 1803–would have been large and would lay flat when not bound up in a cravat. They had very long shirttails as well.
The cravat–which comes from the Croatian word hrvati–was a large piece of heavily starched lawn or linen, roughly a metre square which was folded in half along the diagonal, then folded again until it resembled a bandage about four inches across. This was then wrapped about the neck, once or twice, and knotted in a variety of ways. Depending upon how it was folded and the amount of starch used, it could indeed immobilise the wearer’s head above his collar points. And this fashion, of this mound of pristine white linen rising out of the shoulders was introduced by Brummell in 1803. It caused a sensation–mockery from the older members of society and mimicry from his contemporaries.
The breeches and trousers are spoken of on another post, but beneath these would have been linen or lawn smalls. They’re like long boxers really, not that full in the waist obviously, and they didn’t have elastic, but cut similar, with buttons at the waistband and perhaps at the fly, with the legs going down as far as the knees or just below.
The front of the breeches or inexpressibles is called the fall. Think, if you will, of what we call sailor’s trousers with the two drops on either side, fastened by a button or two at the waist. This is how the breeches fastened. There would have been two buttons at the waist, holding the fall in place. Beneath the fall, the sides of the breeches came round to meet in the middle–some would have been buttoned at the centre, others might have been laced and tied.
And there you have it.
The early 19th century also saw a huge rise in the physical activities which would contribute to a gentleman looking like a Greek statue. Previously, fencing might have been considered de rigeur for a gentleman. But the late 18th century saw a huge rise in the popularity of pugilism or bare-knuckle boxing, with many boxing salons opening up. Also, it’s important to remember that this society has three ways of getting places, walking, riding a horse, or riding in a carriage. Horsemen have very well developed thigh and calf muscles. So, all of those who have left me messages saying you wouldn’t have the courage to look at a gentleman wearing inexpressibles–I suspect you would look, and it would have been worth the looking. They intended to look like Greek gods, and by God, they did.
For a fuller description and a discussion of just how influential Brummell was, I cannot stress enough the superiority of Ian Kelly’s Beau Brummell.