Dressing The Dandy – Late 19th Century Style In The West

Last Saturday in Tombstone, an older gentlemen wearing what could be described as “gunfighter” clothing ran up to me and exclaimed “You must be a dandy- where did you get your suit?” I was a bit taken off-guard and was at a loss for words, especially with the “dandy” part. Dandy? Hmm.. I’ve never considered myself one, what’s up with that? And while we’re at it, just what exactly is a “dandy” (or more properly, “Dude”) anyway? Roughly defined, a dandy is “…a man who gives exaggerated attention to personal appearance.” Interesting… 🙂


I was flattered (I think) but puzzled- all I was wearing was a simple sack suit that any man in an average Western town would have worn. I wasn’t trying for an extreme impression but rather I was seeking to portray an average middle class Victorian man. After thinking about this for awhile, I realize that part of the problem stems from modern perceptions of dress equate anything involving the wear of coat and tie as “formal.” Moreover, as it’s been commented on by fashion writers ad infinitum, in recent years male fashion has become increasingly informal and especially when it comes to the wearing of ties and suit coats.


OK, you want “Dude,” here it is…

This move towards informality is also reflected in Old West reenacting (a pretty broad category) in that many groups tend to classify anyone wearing a sack suit or frock coat as being a “townie” and somehow not being a “true” Westerner compared to the stereotypical movie/TV image of the rough, tough cowboy who’s armed to the teeth. actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Just about anyone with a pretense of social standing dressed in a sack suit or frock coat on a daily basis to even include lawmen such as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp, to name a few:


Bat Masterson, 1879

Wyatt Earp c. 1870

Wyatt Earp, c. 1870

Even out in the field, lawmen could look a bit dapper…(of course, this could have been staged but I doubt it)

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Co. D, Texas Rangers c. 1888

So why the misperception? Well, let’s talk about men’s day wear and especially the near-universal sack suit. By today’s standards, the Victorian Era was exceedingly formal and this applied to all phases of dress. While much of this was more of a middle and upper class thing, the lower classes still tended to observe the same formalities, as best they could, and that was reflected in the idea of “Sunday best.” But no matter what class you were, you always attempted to show yourself at your best.

Sack Suit2

When it came to dressing for a day in town during the late 19th Century, the most common type of daywear for men was the sack suit. The forerunner of the modern business suit, 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 Suit, c. 1911; Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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

As can be seen from the above, daily menswear tended towards the formal and semi-formal and this was the norm, even in the West (or course, there were always exceptions). In the end, it’s all a matter of perception but it’s easy to allow modern ideas about dress to cloud and distort what was historically done. Worse, is when reenactor groups further spread misinformation by using modern assumptions to base their standard/pronouncements about historical garments. I’ll be commenting more about this in future posts so until then, do your research and don’t let modern attitudes cloud your judgement. 🙂

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