Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Brief Look at Men's Fashion in the 1870s

I was really surprised when my sweetheart said that he wanted to join me during the Victorian weekend that's coming up in February. I had figured he would want to attend the symphony, but not that he would want to go to brunch with everyone the next day. This, while making me very happy, also meant that I needed to make him an entirely new set of Victorian day clothes. I literally only had one Victorian-era piece, the black coat I made for him for an event several years ago.

I wanted to make him something that would roughly correspond with the time period of my outfits, so I started digging around for fashion plates of men's 1870s fashions. There were a few plates available online; there weren't many, but enough to give me an idea of the changes to men's styles between the 1870s and the previous decade.

Looking at the fashion plates I had found, I could tell a few important fit details that would peg the look firmly in the mid-70s, and not in an earlier decade.

The fit of trouser legs is one of the most changeable parts of men's fashion. Usually the fit of the leg will give away a time period if nothing else does. In the mid-70s, trousers were fairly relaxed, with the bottom half of the leg staying the same size all the way to the hem. Compare the images above, with the one below, which is from 1866.

In '66, the leg was much more tapered toward the hem, and the leg was overall much narrower. In either decade there is almost no break at the top of the shoe, yet the back of the leg is only an inch or so off the ground. The trouser hem was actually cut at an angle so it would taper away from the front of the foot. This angle is less pronounced in the 70s than it was in the 60s.

Other small changes can happen over a short number of years. Compare the two frock coats in the images below. The right is from 1866, the left is from 1874.

The two images are very similar, but there are small differences. The narrower leg of the '66 trouser is the first big difference. The shape of the sleeve is also somewhat different - there is less fullness at the elbow in the '74 sleeve, while the shape of the elbow is somewhat exaggerated and pointier in the '66 coat. This often gave the sleeve a somewhat baggy appearance, as in the photo of Lincoln, where his coat sleeve is narrow at the wrist, but quite voluminous at the elbow. Mr. Powell, on the right, has a more fitted sleeve.

Formal portrait of John Wesley Powell, 1874
Grand Canyon National Park collection
The final minor difference is in the false cuff - both the '66 coat and the '74 coat include these false cuffs, and both have piping to visually separate the cuff from the rest of the sleeve. In the '70s, though, these cuffs usually had decorative buttons included, where in the '60s they were left plain. It wasn't a hard and fast rule that ones in the 70s had buttons, though, as you can see above in Mr. Powell's portrait. He has no buttons on his cuff.

The changes in fit were subtle, but there. But what about style? Taste in individual fashions is very much a personal choice, but it's always rather fun to see what contemporaries were saying about current trends.

For instance, in January of 1874, a tailor wrote a letter to the editor of Gazette of Fashion and Cutting-Room Companion, bemoaning the Ulster overcoat.

"I have the form of the Ulster overcoat more immediately in mind in penning these remarks, as its appearance can scarcely be defended by anyone with the slightest claim to taste. ...even taking the best in styles, there is little to be said for the shape. Let a customer be ever so well made, his figure is so completely concealed by this garment that no difference would be detected between him and another man whose waist was nearly as large round as his breast. Unfortunately, also, as if to make the ugliness still more apparent, a tailor will induce or allow a customer not exceeding five feet five inches, or thereabouts, in height, and slim in proportion, to adopt this form. The consequence is that he presents a most pitiable appearance..."

Ouch! It seems that Mr. "T.K." was in the minority, though, because Ulsters were wildly popular, and remained so for decades.

French fashions are discussed in the same volume, with the author noting that even though French fashions don't reign supreme in England, that they still might be adopted eventually, so attention should be paid. He mentions that sleeves in France were cut much wider and fuller than in England, and that the suit in question was light blue, and says he hopes that the trend will catch on at home.

So why all this focus on the difference between 60s and 70s styles?  In modern costuming, it's difficult to find a pattern that is specifically 1870s. A lot of what is available is either too broadly dated, such as "Vests: 1840 - 1900", or is out of range, like patterns geared specifically to Civil War or Rev War reenactors. With the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, a lot of Edwardian-era patterns are popping up, which muddies the waters even more. Big 3 patterns often ignore the minor details, like the shape of the elbow, and produce something that's close, but not quite right.

The best we can do right now is tweak the available patterns so they are right for the period we're going for. If you are doing 1860s, then don't forget the big elbow and tapered pants! 1870s, bring that elbow in, widen your lapels, and lengthen that trouser hem.

Here are a few good resources I've found, that should help you on your journey into 1870s menswear:

The Gazette of Fashion and Cutting-Room Companion
This volume is from 1870. Other years can be found in the "Related Books" suggestions underneath the main title. Contains fashion plates and patterns for menswear, with some women's patterns included. So far, this is the absolute best reference I have found for period menswear.

The Black Tie Guide: History of Evening Wear 1840s - 1880s
A good, though brief, overview of evening fashions, with some attention paid to the 1870s. Goes over the minute changes in styles between decades, which is nice.

Bad Wolf Costumes: Ultimate Trousers Pattern
This pattern has all the right shapes for trousers from the 1870s. Bonuses include an extensive online instruction booklet on how to put it together, including tips on matching stripes and plaids.

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