What a Gentleman wears…

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.


14 comments on “What a Gentleman wears…

  1. So, this is where you hang out when you’re not on Autho.


  2. junebugger says:

    I think my heart was fluttering the whole time while reading this article. You’re right, maybe I would have stared…*Sigh* And this is why I like the Regency Hero so much. I read somewhere that the coat was tailored to fit the gentleman so tightly that sometimes, when bending the elbow, the fabric would tear…Or was it the trousers…I forget.

  3. M M Bennetts says:

    To tell the truth, this whole thing makes me laugh a great deal. Because to me, judging this period on the clothes–not that we don’t all do it to a greater or lesser extent–is like judging the world events of 1938 including the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia based on what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were wearing in their latest film. And it concerns me that it’s allowed to syphon off the importance of what these men achieved–there, that’s serious me.

    Interested in everything me says, I never heard that the fabric ripped through tightness–unless we’re talking about the Prince Regent whose clothes were probably always too small because he was so vast and the corsets he wore didn’t help that much.

  4. Gevvy says:

    I’m here for the illustrations. –Wink– Can you please recommend other books of eye-candy–I mean, publications about fashions of that period? For serious research, of course.

    PS: “Judging this period on the clothes … is like judging the world events of 1938 including the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia based on what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were wearing in their latest film.” Ha ha! This country is in the worse financial crisis since the Great Depression, and I’m running around in a BCBG Sasha jacket. I’m still trying to find the logic in THAT…

    • I’m writing a book which may interest you. It’s a biography of Prinny’s tailor and contains a lot of detail about gentlemen’s tailoring from about 1780, assuming it is gentlemen’s fashions that you are curious about. See my blog below for a lot of background information.
      Best wishes

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Sounds fascinating. I assume you will have read Ian Kelly’s biography of Beau Brummell which I found most enlightening. At the moment, I’m quite firmly fixed in the military, diplomatic and intelligence aspects of that latter part of the Napoleonic wars–but I shall assuredly visit your website. Great stuff!

      • Yes, I have read Ian Kelly’s book and found it very good. It is complementary to mine in the sense that it covers the later period, after about 1795. He, and other writers before him obviously knew nothing about Louis Bazalgette and his importance before this time. Kelly also flatly states that Schweitzer and Davidson were making all of Prinny’s uniforms where I can show that this was far from being the case.

        I found your description of Napoleon’s army’s laying waste of Europe very vivid – thank you. I had read about this before, as an avid reader of the period myself, but never such a complete and shocking account.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        I very much look forward to your book when it comes out. You will let me know when that is, yes?

        I’m grateful you found the descriptions vivid. It’s always a borderline call, for me, what is too graphic, what is borderline whitewash, all of these things. So much of what happened was squelched, you know, it made for too uncomfortable reading. Though, I was just at at academic conference on imagery from the war and a Portuguese scholar brought forward a series of prints similar to Goya’s, but pre-dating those…so the work goes on, I’m happy to say.


      • Thank you for your interest. I’m not sure when the book will be out. Mainly I am waiting for French researcher whom I asked to check two quite specific items but who has given me almost no results over 10 months despite all my blandishments. Then the index and adding illustrations but then it will be ready.
        I can see how harrowing that particular research would be. i don’t know if the full story has ever been told. If so, I haven’t seen it in the books that I have read. If not, it is a great opportunity, assuming you can stand it… Best of luck and more power to your elbow.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Ah research and researchers! And there’s never more than 30 hours in day, is there?

        I included a great deal of the detail of ‘war’ in ‘Of Honest Fame’, my last book–and as far as I can see, there will be more in the book upon which I’m now working. I tell myself the next book will be more cheerful, but I’m fairly sure I’m lying.

      • I have had previous research done in France and they do tend to take their time, but 10 months? She ignores my emails, as does the man who recommended her. Perhaps she is in gaol. If not, she should be, or she has skipped the country with my 200 euros…

        I’ll read your books – I am sure they will be very interesting and well-written.

  5. junebugger says:

    For me, the fashion is one of the main intrigues of the Regency Era. As important as the it is to place importance on what the men achieved in that era, for a female like me in love with the fashion of that time period, their heroic deeds just wouldn’t be as “romantic” to me had they been attired a different way. It doesn’t mean to say that I want a whole description of how they’re dressed. But I still think it’s important to describe it a bit, because it helps me imagine the story I read with more vividness. I guess it really depends on the reader. Clothe description of the hero is usually used to enhance his appeal on the female readers, and so its needed in historical romances, but I guess it’s a different matter when it comes to HF.

    I tried to find that site again where I found the info about fabric ripping and couldn’t. I swear I read it somewhere…either it’s inaccurate or my memory is faulty!

  6. Alice Gray says:

    Very nice. I love the idea of two buttons and a set of laces in the middle.

  7. […] as he lived it [dandy in those days was defined as the opposite of a bore–work that out…] wore perfect tailoring in subtle and dark colours–dark blue or dark green jackets with buff coloured breeches for […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s