How are Victorian men’s formal wear different than today’s tuxedo? This is a topic I had to research for my husband’s Victorian wedding suit (above). Protocol in formalwear changed over the seven Victorian era decades, but the general look and feel is similar throughout and not entirely far off from today’s white-tie evening wear. The following guide will explain some of the history of men’s white and black tie full dress as well as some tips on purchase clothes for your formal Victorian event.
The Victorian era is roughly 1940 to 1900. Read this guide for post-1900 formalwear.
Victorian Men’s Tuxedo: The Tailcoat
The tailcoat was the correct style for evening events taking place after 6pm. It had a high straight edge around the waist and longer tails behind that hanged to mid-thigh in the early years and down to the knee by 1900. Black was the best choice for evening wear because it had a slimming effect. In the pre-1870s and briefly after 1890, men’s blue dress coats with gold gilt buttons and a blue or buff vest were popular among the fashion-forward dandies. It was a cheerful color, but too trendy for most men who replaced their evening coats every 10 years.
Besides color, evening coats were left open, to expose a nice white vest and shirt underneath. The appearance of single but usually double-breasted buttons on either side of the jacket was purely ornamental. The length and cut of tailcoats changed from season to season. In general, the front facings were cut square and lined up with the vest’s bottom edge, just below the upper waistline.
Depending on the year and how up to fashion the man was, his tailcoat could have had peaked, notched or shawl lapels in various widths. Lapel facings were made of silk, satin or velvet and sometimes outlined with an inch of cording or fabric that matched the coat. Tailcoat lapels were notched in the V and M shapes for most of the Victorian era. The 1860s introduced the shawl collar, which remained fashionable for only a decade.
The fabric was made of a fine diagonal wool twill or corkscrew weave until the 1890s, when smooth vicuna was preferred. The fabric was quite thick and heavy. Some older men could wear suits made out of heavy broadcloth which was a bit more flexible.
The main difference between Victorian and modern tailcoats is the fit. Today’s “one size fits all” fitting leaves tailcoats hanging loosely and boxy on the body. Victorian tailcoats were fit snugly on the body using the most advanced tailoring techniques (a lost art today). Modern tailcoats also hang lower on the waist to accommodate a short pant rise. Vests, too, are longer.
For authenticity, you will have to have one made for you. But for a “looks close enough” type suit- nearly any modern tailcoat will do. Stick to black for evening wear with notch collar and decorative buttons.
In the 1880s the sack-like dinner jacket was introduced as an alternative to the tailcoat. Initially, it was worn in semi-formal settings such as on cruise ships and hotel dining rooms. It transitioned into private parties, theater, and summer resorts, but steered clear of ballrooms and very ceremonial events. In France, the dinner jacket was called a smocking and in America, the tuxedo (named after the N.Y. Tuxedo Park Club, where it was first seen).
The Tuxedo jacket was cut like a short sack coat with a single-breasted closure. It hung straight from the shoulders to the hip. The front edge could be square or rounded. Most styles were black with silk lapel facings. A white version was seen occasionally at summer resorts by 1900.
Both single and double-breasted vests in black, white or grey were worn with the tuxedo coat. A black bow tie was worn with a dark vest and white bowtie was worn with a white vest. There was some argument that white ties should only be worn with tailcoats, a rule that was to become more popular in the next century.
In the summer, a derby/bowler felt hat or straw boater hat was accepted instead of the silk top hat.
Elaborately embroidered waistcoats in fine silk, satin, and velvet were the eye candy of men’s Victorian formal suits. However, by the 1860s simple pique cloth or silk vests were the standard options. Black was worn for dinner and white or ivory for the ballroom. Vests were cut straight across the bottom and featured low V or U shaped necks to match that of coats. Vests were either double-breasted with 4-6 buttons or single-breasted with 3-4 cloth-covered or jeweled buttons.
Unfortunately, finding formal U shaped white vests, especially with a shawl collar, is next to impossible. Most men settle for a more modern white formal vests with a deep V cut and square lapels. Or, they opt for a full white or ivory vest that covers the shirt. Black vests will be a bit easier to find with a U or V neckline. Shop men’s vests/waistcoats.
Formal Victorian Men’s Pants
Men’s formal dress trousers (pants) haven’t changed too much in the last 100 years. The main difference is the height. Men’s Victorian pants went up and down from the belly button to rib rage depending on the fashion of the year. Legs were fitted narrowly and tapered to the ankle in the early years and widened to about 19 inches at the knee and 16 inches at the ankle for most of the century. Waistlines were very high and hips full and roomy. Out-seams featured ribbon braids, inspired by military uniforms, for most of the Victorian era while a single ribbon stripe came about in the late Victorian era. Braids and stripes were optional.
To make modern pants work for the Victorian era, I buy regular flat fronted tuxedo pants with a ribbon stripe down the sides. Since they need to fit very high on the waist I will buy them one size up and hold them up with button-on suspenders. If possible, buy locally (or online with a very good return policy) and try on your pants with your vest. You should be able to move around, raise your arms, and not have a gap showing between your vest and pants. I have been happy with Jos A Bank’s flat front tuxedo pants which have a good, classic rise. Modern tuxedo pants in skinny fit will be too short in the waist and too narrow in the leg for the correct fit.
Victorian Men’s Formal Shirts
The bib front shirt was the best option for U or deep V waistcoats since the starched fronts kept the shirt flat. Some earlier fancier formal shirts had lace frills along with the front buttons but these styles are much harder to find today. Mother of pearl shirt links and cufflinks secured the shirt together instead of buttons. Pleated shirts started to appear in the mid 1890s but were slow to catch on.
The most important element of formal Victorian shirts is the collar. Stiffened upright collars appeared in the 1860s and began to display wingtips in the following decade. Turndown collars were occasionally seen in the 1860s and early ’70s.
Plain front, button-down white dress shirts will work well enough for your Victorian suit. A modern wingtip tuxedo shirt (no pleats) will also work quite well and is probably the simplest option, although harder to find without pleats.
Formal Men’s Accessories
Shoes – Traditional men’s formalwear shoes were called “pumps.” They look a bit like ladies’ low heel slippers with a bow on the toe box. Made of patent leather with a satin bow, they are not too far often from men’s traditional formal shoes today. As an alternative, you could also wear black patent leather lace-up shoes, lace-up boots, or ballroom dancing shoes. Find Victorian style men’s boots and shoes online here.
Hats – A tall black top hat made of beaver felt or silk was what every gentleman wore to formal events and parties. Most modern top hats are made of wool or synthetic felt. These will still work OK for formal events. Just remember to take your hat off indoors to be a true Victorian gentleman. Shop for hats here.
Gloves– A pair of white or ivory kid leather gloves will formalize your outfit. Cloth will be easier to find, preferably with a button cuff, not a snap. Leave your gloves on at all times except while eating, smoking or using the restroom.
Bow tie – A white silk or satin bow tie for formal and black bow tie for semi-formal evenings were the only necktie options. Shop ties.
Pocket Square – A white silk pocket square is optional. Since most tailcoats did not have a pocket, there was no place for them. However, if your new tailcoat or dinner jacket has a pocket, you may add a silk white pocket square. You could also add a white flower as a boutonnière.
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