Over the years we have been asked about making men’s clothing. While we are naturally flattered by the prospect of creating more period clothing designs from the late 19th Century, we have had to politely refuse on the grounds that it’s not our main business focus. More importantly, men’s clothing calls for a skill set- primarily tailoring- that is different from those used for women’s clothing. While there is some overlap (Redfern and especially with tailor-mades for women), it’s very much a separate speciality and we would argue that it’s an art form with a rich set of traditions that are not easily mastered. Well tailored clothes are a joy to behold and just the words “Savile Row” sets our hearts racing.
All hyperbole aside, we have chosen to restrict ourselves to the female side of historic clothing simply because if we made both types of clothing, we could not do justice to either. With that said, we would still like to present our views on the men’s side of clothing so from time to time we will be posting articles here covering various topics of men’s clothing and accessories. We would you enjoy our occasional series. 🙂
So, where to begin? Probably the best place to begin is with the sack coat/sack suit which gradually developed into the dominant style for men’s daywear during the late 19th Century, supplanting the earlier frock coat and the derivative morning coat. The sack coat/suit and the frock coat. The sack coat was meant for informal day wear while the frock coat/morning coat were reserved for more formal occasions (although there was often a lot of overlap between the two).
The sack suit, or lounge suit as it was termed in Great Britain, originated in France as the sacque coat during the 1840s and took its name from the way it was cut (contrary to popular belief, the sack coat did NOT get its name from its loose fit “like a sack”). In contrast to the more elaborate frock coat whose back was constructed from four basic pieces, the sacque coat was simplified, consisting of two basic pieces. Moreover, the sack coat was designed to fit loosely.
Sack coats usually had three or four button holes and often it was worn buttoned only at the top. In terms of colors and fabrics, wool of various weights was the predominant fabric although linen was often used for lighter weight coats intended for wear in more warmer climates. In terms of colors, they could range from solids to plaids, stripes, and checks. However, towards the end of the 19th Century, the dominant style increasingly were darker, sober colors such as charcoal gray, black, brown, and navy blue. Often they were accompanied by a matching pair of trousers and waistcoat, thus creating the three-piece suit. At the same time, the sack coat and trousers could be in different colors and fabrics. Below are some examples:
To start, here’s an image of an early sack coat from c. 1863 – 1864:
Sack Suit, c. 1863 – 1864
Three men wearing sack coats, c. 1860s; Image from Joan L. Severa, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900, 1995
The second image really shows up just how loose-fitting sack coats were in the 1860s, especially with the coat worn by the man with his back to the camera. This is in contrast to the 1880s, 90s, and early 1900s where the coats (and accompanying trousers) become increasingly more narrowly-fitted and cut closer to the body.
In the next image, we have one from 1870:
The West End Gazette, August 1870
The coat still hangs relatively loose but the trousers are gradually becoming cut more narrow.
Sack Suit, British, c. 1875 – 1880
A bit on the loud side, the use of loud fabrics steadily diminished during the late 19th Century. Sack suits could be made from linen as well as wool as with this suit that was intended for wear in warmer weather:
Sack Suit, c. 1885 – 1900; McCord Museum (M9184.108.40.206)
Sack Suit, c. 1895
Sack Suit, c. 1911; Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The above picture depicts the ultimate development of the sack suit and it’s easy to see that the modern business suit was not far off in the future.
During the late 19th Century, the sack suit became the standard “uniform” for anyone aspiring to a degree of respectability and especially those involved in business and the professions. In fact, it could be argued that the sack suit was instrumental in democratizing clothing in that it allowed any man to look like someone substantial and respectable. The sack suit was relatively cheap which had been made possible by industrialization and the development of the ready-made garment industry in America and Great Britain.
In conclusion, we would argue that if you are looking for that “one” outfit that accurately symbolizes the 19th Century man, it would have to be the sack suit. While fashion choices were often dictated by social and economic factors, it would be safe to say that the sack suit was the “default” outfit to be worn wherever possible- the sack suit symbolized respectability and social status. Even the laborer, miner, cowboy, and farmer wore sack suits when the occasion demanded and they had the means. In contrast with today’s emphasis on casual wear, dressing up was considered essential to showing one’s better side and more importantly, securing respect from one’s peers. Naturally, the above is a broad generalization but it does go a long way towards capturing the zeitgeist or spirit of the time.