A Brief View Of Men’s Clothing- The Sack Coat

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.  🙂


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).

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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.

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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:

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Sack Suit, c. 1863 – 1864

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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:

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The West End Gazette, August 1870

The coat still hangs relatively loose but the trousers are gradually becoming cut more narrow.

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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:

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Sack Suit, c. 1885 – 1900; McCord Museum (M973.137.4.2)

 

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Sack Suit, c. 1895

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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.



Unveiling The New Sack Suit!

It’s been a good time out at No. 11 this weekend and especially since it gave me an opportunity to wear my new sack suit for the first time. 🙂 Constructed of a brown houndstooth linen fabric, this suit is based on styles of the 1880s-1890s and is meant for wear in warmer climates such as those found in the Southwest. This was a collaborative effort between the two of us, me handling the canvas preparation for the two jacket fronts and construction work on the collar while Karin handled assembly and overall finishing. Due to various commitments,  construction didn’t start until last weekend, effectively giving me only a week to get it down- no pressure there! 😉

The finished product on Allen Street.

Below are a few construction pictures- unfortunately, due to time constraints, we were unable to take more detailed construction pictures.

One of the canvas front panels before mounting to the fashion fabric front. This side will be facing “out”.

The left fashion fabric front. This will eventually be mounted to the canvas.

Interior work on the undercollar. For a crisp edge, the haircloth interlining is deliberately trimmed so as to leave only the fashion fabric (which has been flatlined with a light cotton shirting).

The fronts slowly take shape along with the sleeves.

Finishing the cuffs.

As we assemble our various pictures, we’ll update this post a bit. 🙂



A Trip To The OK Corral…

The gunfight at the OK Corral has been a key element in Tombstone’s history and with the current quarantine we’ve been unable to make our usual pilgrimage. So, just to keep the memories fresh, we decided to bump up a post we made sometime ago describing one of our visits. Enjoy!


No trip to Tombstone is complete without a visit to the OK Corral and today both of us at Lily Absinthe paid a visit. The lighting was excellent, reminding us of our visit to Monet’s Giverny Gardens, so we decided to take advantage and get some pictures and soak up some period ambiance. 🙂

Who is that saucy lady? Why, she's Karin McKechnie, the one arm of Lily Absinthe.

Who is that saucy lady? Why, she’s Karin McKechnie, the one arm of Lily Absinthe.

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Out for a drive, Karin insisted on going out without a driver…scandalous!

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Another view, Karin dropped in at Fly’s Studio but fortunately, Ike Clanton had departed long before.

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Adam is checking on his holdings and has been assured that the assay is good.

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Adam dropped in at Fly’s Studio…word has it that Johnny Behan is hiding out there from the Cowboys…

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Adam taking his ease behind the OK Corral…what’s that, no gun? He left it in his other suit…

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Checking out our investment…I am not sure that the automobile will go anywhere but at least it’s in a color other than black.

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Close up outside of the Tombstone Visitor Center.

OK, the last three pictures were actually taken across the street from the OK Corral but hey, it’s close enough. 🙂

As you can see from the above pictures, we’re dressed for a day out on the town in clothing typical of the late 1870s – early 1880s. In the case of Adam’s sack suit, this is a style that eventually segued into the modern business suit and will work for the 1880s through the early 1900s. This particular suit is made from linen with a lining of shirt-weight Pima cotton.

In the case of the Karin’s dress, this is a Parisian-sprigged cotton print trimmed in silk from the c. 1879. This is a dress definitely designed for a warmer climate. So, Gentle Reader, contrary to popular belief, Victorian Era clothing does not have to be dull, drab, and/or uncomfortable! 🙂



A Look Back At The Movie Tombstone…

As we’re leaving No. 11 today, the movie Tombstone hasn’t been far from our thoughts so in honor of the movie, we thought we’d re-post our take on some of the costuming aspects of the movie, so enjoy!


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The Earps and Doc Holiday off to the date with destiny at the OK Corral- From the movie Tombstone.

On a costuming level, the movie Tombstone never fails to excite interest and invariably, the question will arise: “How historically accurate are the costumes?” The short answer is “Somewhat…” Yes, much of the costuming is fairly accurate although one may quibble on the specific details. One of my favorites is the much-maligned Johnny Behan:

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Johnny Behan wearing a tailored blue/gray pin stripe sack suit.

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A better view of Johnny Behan’s suit.

Behan’s is wearing a well-tailored sack suit proper for someone in his position. Unlike the usual image of the scruffy frontier marshal or sheriff, Behan was more of a politician and his primary job was collecting enough tax revenue to keep the Cochise County government financially afloat. The actual work of dealing with criminals was tasked to several deputies.

That said, let’s take a look at the central focus of the movie, Wyatt Earp:

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This is the iconic Wyatt Earp outfit, one that has been widely imitated over the years by those recreating the Earp persona, usually for reenactments of the gunfight at the OK Corral. Now, as for historical accuracy, the coat itself is wrong. There were no ankle-length frock coats. Anything this long would be some sort of greatcoat. The frock coat of the later 19th Century tended to come down to just above the knee.

OK, so it rates a boo and a hiss…or does it? Bear in mind that this is a movie and a movie’s primary goal it to tell a story. Costuming supports this story-telling process and it’s often subject to conscious design changes in order to increase the dramatic effect. In this case, it’s pretty successful, judging from how much it’s imitated and let’s face it, it does increase the dramatic effect, especially when done in black (both the length and color choice were deliberate choices made the director). The effects of black color, coat length, and pictures of it flapping open in the breeze all suggest a superhero figure. So in the end, it’s all about telling a story.

Now just for a little equal time, here’s the Earps and Doc Holliday off to the OK Corral gunfight in the movie Wyatt Earp:

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The Earps and Doc Holiday off to the OK Corral and thei date with destiny- from the movie Wyatt Earl.

Compared to the top picture from Tombstone, the look in the above picture from Wyatt Earp is bit more gritty and less heroic (in fact, the actual gunfight scene itself is a bit anticlimactic in the movie). One is not more “correct” than the other, both go for a specific dramatic effect. Whether one is more effective than the other is subjective, in the eye of the viewer (we have our favorite, too).

So Gentle Readers, where does this leave us? Well, it goes to show that one must be mindful of the historically correct while at the same time being mindful that a movie’s objective differs from simply a recitation of historical events in that it also seeks to entertain. As a rule, costume designers go to great lengths to school themselves on what is historically appropriate for the period being depicted and they know exactly where departures are made.

If one thinks that this is a recent development, it is not. A good example of this in an earlier era is from the movie Gone with the Wind which was released in 1939. in which the costuming of the background and supporting characters is historically correct but the costumes for the lead actors were not. In closing, we view movies with an open mind and believe that costuming for film is an art form all itself and we like that.