Gentlemen's Fashion in the 1790s: A Decade of Transition
“To be truly elegant one should not be noticed.”
For this research exploration, let's take a look at some of the fashion elements from 1790-1799, including what they wore, what was new in fashion, and how these trends served as the precursor to Regency fashion. For this post, we'll look only at the gentlemen's fashion of the decade, and then in a separate post, we'll give an in-depth perusal of the ladies' fashion. For now, let's get a taste for what our heroes would be wearing. Most of my novels are set in the 1790s. I simply love this decade! I do have several series planned for the future that will take place in other eras, including the Regency (especially when I write the stories of the children of our current heroes and heroines since they'll be at marriageable age during the Regency), but the decade of the 1790s holds a special place in my heart.
The decade was one of transition in a great many arenas, especially fashion. At a single ball, we might see the older generation still clinging to their fanciful embroidery, bold colors, panniers and stomachers, elaborate white-powdered wigs, lengthy frockcoats, and other extravagances, while the younger generation would be sporting earthy tones, shortened waistcoats, high waists, straight-figures, natural hair, and other simplicities.
In no decade was there a greater differentiation between the fop and the dandy, both being insults to a vain gentleman who is obsessed with his appearance, but with the fop specific to the Rococo look, and the dandy specific to this new sporting or Corinthian look. Unimportant, but for the etymologists amongst us, fop as a fashion reference became popular at the turn of the 18th century, right around 1690 (although it had been in use for a century prior in other contexts), while dandy as a fashion reference became popular in the 1780s (although much like fop, it had been around for other uses for at least a century).
You might find this post on fashion terms from the Jane Austen Centre fun and useful in telling the difference between a Corinthian, a Dandy, a Beau, a Fop, a Tulip, and more! Keeping things simple for the 1790s, however, we're sticking to two categories with one distinct look for the new category: "Fop" was the old look; "Dandy" was the new look; "Corinthian" was the sporty new style worn by the Dandy (not to be confused by the actual sportsmen who were called Corinthian, as in the 1790s we're merely dressing like sportsmen, not necessarily being sportsmen. It's all about the "look," eh?)
Here are a couple not-to-be-missed visuals of the 1790s' fashion war:
The transition in fashion was not something swift, caused by a pioneer who showed up to a ball dressed a certain way, rather it had been ongoing for some time, with the previous generation already having moved away from the Rococo look of their parents for simpler and more practical wear (in comparison, anyway). By the time the children of that generation were attending balls in the '90s, that simpler and practical attire had been taken to new lengths so that even the previous generation would have looked gauche in comparison. While era dates differ in terms of when Rococo fashion was "out of fashion" since the previous generation had steadily moved away from the flamboyancy of the Rococo look, the era technically held on until 1789, making the decade of the 1790s the absolute most pivotal fashion decade. So, why specifically 1789?
It was the 1789 French Revolution that finally sealed the deal on the fashion change, permanently. French fashion had been a heavy influence on fashion in England, namely the French court dress. With the fall of the French court (French Revolution in 1789), England had to look elsewhere for fashion inspiration (Could it be argued it was also a rejection of all things French? Perhaps.), which turned out to be nowhere closer to home than in the English countryside, specifically the gentleman's riding attire, which to their mind was quintessential English--elegant yet understated. No better time to be English, eh? Keep this in mind as we see how the individual items of clothing and overall look changed. Aside from the "look," other aspects changed, such as the preference in material, stitching, tailoring method, etc., but that aspect is best saved for a separate post--a great opportunity to look at the 1790 invention of the sewing machine and how that influenced fashion in terms of bespoke vs ready-to-wear vs made-to-measure. For now, let's focus on the "look."
There is a keen difference between the formal fashion of a ball versus the fashion for afternoon calls during the '90s, as those formal balls still saw many of the formalities observed by the previous generation, such as silk breeches and embroidered ensembles, possibly powdered hair in the early part of the decade. The most fashionable of the younger generation would have set trends even on formal occasions, but the norm was to dress customarily for formal evenings, even if the day was spent in this new sporty Corinthian fashion. That said, we see more of a drastic change in the ladies' formal fashion than in the gentlemen's formal fashion, since women were opting for the same style in evening wear as in daily wear, while gentlemen were hesitant to break evening wear expectations and did so in ruled measure. For this post, we'll focus on the gentlemen's daily attire, specifically, which would soon influence their evening attire, as well, but not until the turn of the century (we must credit evening attire influences to Beau Brummel).
While the fashion was not exactly what we would eventually see during the Regency era, it came close, so although a fashion aficionado would suffer vapors from me saying this, it's safe for readers to imagine Regency fashion when reading my novels (but be sure to toss in some colorful embroidery for fun and a few members of the older generation still wearing their quintessential 18th century garb).
Our heroes would have favored what was considered an outdoor, sporting look, referred to as a Corinthian style. The 3-piece suit remained popular and would be so for a long time to come, so don't let "sporting look" fool you, for our heroes were still wearing a 3-piece suit. It was the cut, color, and fit that primarily changed. Not to say every gentleman was a trendsetter, for a good deal of what they wore had to do with their own personal taste, their family's expectations, their circle of friends, and their daily activities. This is another reason I simply love the fashion of the 1790s, for at the same ball, one of our heroes could wear lace, colorful embroidery, and heeled shoes, while another of our heroes could wear a black and white ensemble with simply knotted cravat and no-heel slippers. This is one of the only decades where we can see this combination and variety. Prior, everyone would have worn the colorful embroidery. After, everyone would be wearing black and white. This decade alone saw that wonderful combo.
Now, back to that outdoor, sporting look that dominated the decade. If you'll recall the inspiration behind the change is the English country gentleman's riding attire, then this makes perfect sense. The 1795 painting of Pierre Sériziat by Jacques-Louis David epitomizes this decade's preferences in gentlemen's fashion. Compare the fashion of that painting to this one of Charles Crowle by Pompeo Batoni from 1762. Drastic difference, isn't it?
The first thing to notice with the Sériziat painting compared to the Crowle painting is the lack of flamboyant colors and embroidery. For more formal occasions, that scheme might still be worn, but not for daily wear, and even for formal occasions, the elements would be more subdued. Muted colors that reflected nature were favored above all others, especially browns, blacks, greens, yellows, and whites. This goes to the extreme after the turn of the century when we turn to the black and white suits, but we're not quite there yet, preferring a natural palette in the '90s.
Coat and Waistcoat
The long frockcoat is shortened in length at the front to create the tailcoat. Although not shown in the Sériziat painting since he's out for a ride, the entire cut of the frockcoat changes so that rather than a long front for that uniform length front to back, it's shortened in the front to match the waistcoat length, thus creating a tail in the back that mimics the riding coats of the time. Speaking of the waistcoat, that which reached to mid-thigh (as shown in the Crowle painting) is now cut above the waist (as shown in the Sériziat painting). In the displayed Portrait of a Man by William Owen, the new high-waist cut is shown to advantage, exemplifying not only the shortening of the length in the front but also the new "tailcoat" style. Once a frockcoat, it's now called a clawhammer coat or swallow-tail coat, both names referencing a coat with tails, and can be single or double-breasted.
Hessian boots became extremely popular starting in 1789 (there's that date again!), so popular that many portraits were painted throughout the decade to come with an outdoor or riding theme so that the wearer could show off his boots rather than his clocked stockings. To the shock of the older generation, it was becoming increasingly popular to wear boots inside, as well, which never would have been done before. When not wearing riding boots, the shoes of the '90s were drastically different than what we're used to seeing earlier in the century. When we think of 18th century shoes, we think of heeled dress shoes, possibly with large buckles or bows, and decked in the same fabric and embroidery of the outfit it accompanied. Consider the image here of a gentleman's pink shoe, captioned eloquently by the Bata Shoe Museum, which would have been the height of gentleman's shoe fashion before the transition in style.
This wonderful image from the Instagram page of La Duchessa Scavenius shows the aforementioned clocked stockings and heeled dress shoe with large buckle. This page from All Things Georgian offers some nice visuals of the quintessential 18th century shoe that we're tossing to the curb in the 1790s.
The fashion of the colorful and embroidered shoes was not so fashionable anymore as we reach the 1790s. We see two new favorite styles emerge, one for day wear and one for evening wear. The day wear was the Hessian boot, not to be relegated to riding, but now the height of fashion to wear even when making calls. The Hessian boot was military inspired and the precursor to the Wellington boot. The basic styling was with a curved top and/or turned down cuff, but once the Duke of Wellington made his personal adjustments, there were several styles to choose from, such as adding tassels (gold or silver, depending on time of day). This post from Geri Walton dives into the chronology and styling of the Hessian boot to the Wellington boot and beyond.
The evening shoe of choice was a simple black slipper, no heel. Throughout the '70s and '80s, gentlemen shoes had steadily become plainer, so it's no shock to see this new level of simplicity in the shoes of the 1790s. For some, the buckle was still a must-have accessory, but for many, the shoe was unadorned. The following two images shoe an example of the 1790s' Hessian boot from Malibu Darcy's Instagram page and an example of the 1790s' simple black slipper from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The preferred hat, just like everything else, was in transition. For the first half of the decade, the tricorn (called a "cocked hat") would have still been the favored hat. (This is a fun hat post from Regency Explorer, complete with some terminology trivia, such as the tricorn being called a cocked hat at the time.) For the second half of the decade, we see a rising interest in the top hat (known as either a "silk hat" or "beaver hat" at the time, depending on what it was made of). By the turn of the century, the tricorn was pretty much a thing of the past, and the top hot had won the fashion war. Important to know is that prior to 1793, no hero would have worn a top hat, for it did not exist. After 1793, it's a hero's preference. The more fashionable a gentleman, the more likely he is to wear it (Percy of A Dash of Romance would be among the first gents to wear one, I should think!), but the more traditional a gentleman, the more likely he is to stick to his old standby of the tricorn (Trevor of A Counterfeit Wife is likely to keep his tricorn for a few more years.). Enjoy these two images showing the tricorn (cocked hat) and the new top hat. The image with the tricorn is a 1780 painting of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronte. The image with the top hat is a 1793 painting of Auguste Vestris.
Wigs and powder are a little tricky in this decade. Generally speaking, powder remained a popular choice until 1795 when Parliament levied the Hair Powder Act and taxed it out of existence. Even before 1795, however, the use was losing favor thanks to flour shortages and the wane in wig popularity. We see a mixture of portraits of the time with powdered wigs, powdered hair without wigs, and an increasing number of portraits favoring natural, unpowdered hair. Powder would have been most used during formal occasions between 1790-1795, but it was up to the person's preferences if they wanted to powder their hair for daily wear. The older generation would have never left the dressing room without it, while the younger generation was less enchanted by it. Part of this was due to the lost interest in wigs. Once all the rage, wigs had fallen out of fashion by the time we reach the '90s. No one in the younger generation would have been wearing wigs by the '90s, but the powder was a personal choice for those first few years in the decade. The favored look, instead, was the queue at the nape of the neck, tied off with a ribbon. This fun screen capture of Heath Ledger as Casanova was too good to resist sharing, as it shows beautifully the natural styling--no wig or powder--with the nape-of-the-neck queue tied with ribbons (we'll leave off a discussion of film portrayal accuracy and just enjoy the image since, technically, it shows a fab depiction of the hairstyle fashion of the 1790s).
Some of the younger generation were already going for the precursors of the Regency era hairstyles we might be most familiar with, such as the Cherubin and the Brutus, which was the favored style of Beau Brummel even at the early turn of the century. You can view some great examples of those styles (and more) in this post from Jane Austen's World. Rather than tidy side curls, which had been popular, gentlemen were opting for a disheveled look, almost as though they had just returned from a vigorous ride, which is in keeping with the outdoor sportsman look of the decade. It should be noted that longer hair was still the popular choice for gentlemen, although as we draw closer to the turn of the century, the cut shortens.
Compare the differences in hairstyles in these images, both showing 1790s fashion but depicting differences in hairstyle preferences, although both sport natural hair, no wigs. The first image is from Jean Gatien Heurteloup and shows the preference of the curls, ribbon-tied queue, and light powdering (most common for evening/formal wear and in the earlier half of the 1790s' decade), while the second is from Malibu Darcy and shows the preference of the sporty styling, no powder (most common for day wear and in the later half of the 1790s' decade).
The cravat saw a change, as well, swapping frilly lace for linen knots. The preferences in the 18th century, prior to the transitional decade of the 1790s, was to wear a shirt that was frilled with lace and then to have those frills peeking from the vee of the waistcoat. As early as the 1770s, we see the trend moving towards the simpler cravat, emphasis on the knot styling rather than the frill of the shirt lining. The preference for the cravat was nothing new, as it had been popular in earlier centuries, as well, but here it was again. Hands down, the best post you could view on cravats, especially during this transitional decade, is Cravats and Stocks from the Regency Gentleman (if you follow TigerPetri on Instagram, you'll recognize many of the images in the post!). The art of the cravat, the changes it underwent, and the preferred styles are best saved for a post all on their own, so I'll refer you to a couple of pages that offer plenty of detail and images, including the types of knots, the fabrics used, and how to tie them (and yes, there were really manuals published at the time on how to do these things!). The first page to consider is from Two Nerdy History Girls, and the second is the first part of their neckcloth series on the same blog.
The following two images offer a comparison of the preferences for the filly lace collar during most the 18th century to that of the knotted cravat in the 1790s. The first image is of Jacques Cazotte by Jean Baptiste Perronneau in 1763, and the second image is of Billaud Varenne by Jean Batiste Greuze in 1789.
Once you've given the linked pages from Two Nerdy History Girls a gander, check out this video from the beloved Pinsent Tailoring:
The breeches of the '90s shifted from silks and satins to that outdoor theme we're seeing in all other aspects of the suit--buckskin being the most popular fabric. Wearing buckskin breeches was akin to wearing denim jeans. Not just for riding, fashionable gentlemen would have been opting for buckskins for daily wear. The material wasn't the only thing to change, although this had as much to do with the material change as it did the "look," namely the fit. The breeches of before were fairly loose and baggy. This had as much to do with comfort and practicality as anything else--ever tried moving freely in skin-tight satin, especially sitting and standing? The flexibility of the buckskin fabric allowed for a closer fit, and so we begin seeing that trend towards form fitting suits which will soon be taken to the extreme during the Regency era, especially as we introduce pantaloons and trousers--better have nice legs to get away with wearing Yoga leggings everywhere!
The breeches of the '90s were still short, as ankle-length trousers wouldn't become popular until the turn of the century. That said, "short" took on a different meaning, as the breeches now extended past the knee. Not only did this change the look of the breeches themselves (reaching almost to the tops of those Hessian boots!), but also the wear of the stockings. Rather than the fashionable knee stockings one would show off with the heeled shoe, stockings were more practical than fashionable, extending under the breeches, all the way to just below mid-thigh where they would then be secured by a garter. In the image shown of The Young Squire's Wedding, the bridegroom is wearing the older style of breeches with the stockings pulled over the edges of the breeches rather than under. Compare that painting to the image of the buckskin breeches--quite the difference, eh?
A great article on the transition from breeches to trousers and pantaloons as we move into the Regency era can be found here at Jane Austen's World. For this post, however, we'll just focus on the breeches of the '90s, which took quit a turn in fashion in a multitude of ways. In addition to material, length, and fit, a significant change was a practical one for decency. We've already covered that the coat and waistcoat both changed in cut to be above the waist. This exposes the breeches to obvious view, namely the front. The breeches we're accustomed to in the Regency era are the ones with the front fall, aka fall flap or drop front, where the private bits are covered by a flap that buttons to either side and at top, but can then open easily when nature calls. Well, there was not much need for this when the waistcoat and coat were both mid-thigh, so rather than the front fall, it was more common to see a fly front, aka French fly, which resembled exactly what we have today in gentleman's attire except there was no zipper to hold the fly closed. There was no worry that things would *ahem* peekaboo because everything was neatly tucked in by the shirt, and the breeches themselves would usually (not always) have buttons along the fly. That said, there's still quite the difference between a fly front and the more decent and fashion-conscience, concealed front fall. With the shorter waistcoat, the front fall was the best choice (although the French disagreed). Included here, we have several images for comparison to observe the differences between the fly front and the new front fall. The images of the fly front are a British made set from the 1750s courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The images of the front fall are from a set made using a 1795 pattern by The Antique Sewist.
Now, once we establish that everyone is wearing the front fall or drop front style, we do have two choices of a wide fall or a narrowed fall, that is a fall that buttons near the hips or one that buttons more narrowly at the thigh.
This is a side-by-side image of the wide vs narrow fall. Which one chosen was the personal preference of the gentleman, nothing more.
Comfort was the going "look" of the decade. We move away from the opulence of the previous generations and more towards comfort in the '90s. The sporty fashion would have been worn everywhere and anywhere except for the most formal of occasions. At home, however, a different look was opted for, one that became so popular, portraits increasingly portrayed gentlemen in this look. It was almost as though artists asked their patrons, "Would you like the outdoor Corinthian look or the indoor studious look?" The indoor look when a gentleman was at home, alone or even with company, was for the comfortable, studious look. How about this painting of Benjamin Rush to set the scene?
While still adorned in his shirt, waistcoat, stockings, and slippers, the 1790s gentleman would forego his tailcoat for a banyan (and possibly a cap, with or without tassel). There were quite a few different styles of banyans, most fitting like a kimono, but there were banyans that buttoned, banyans that merely hung open, banyans that were tied at the waist similar to our modern robes, and still others. A fabulous post on the banyan can be found from Two Nerdy History Girls. The most popular was the button-down banyan. If you're thinking he would wear this just when there were others in the house, you'd be wrong. Even if he were home alone (i.e. alone with his full house of staff), he would opt for that attire, for a gentleman to be without his waistcoat would be considered indecent and as though he were walking about partially nude. While the modern gentleman may see nothing wrong with chatting with his butler in his boxers, our Georgian era gentlemen never would have been in "undress" outside of his dressing room.
Undergarments and Shirts
No fashion post is complete without a look at the unmentionables (is it just me, or is this the longest section of the post? Oh my.) Your immediate thought before reading this section might be, "Oh, but our heroes didn't wear underwear." Well, there's more to it than that. For instance, would you be shocked to read that the shirt was considered an undergarment? Let's dig into why it's a little more complicated than simply not wearing underwear (as we now define it).
Prior to 1870, the word "underwear" didn't exist. Even the concept was new to that time. What we think of as undergarments or underclothes now is quite different than what our heroes and heroines would have thought of as undergarments. For a gentleman to be in his "undress," it meant he was wearing his shirt and breeches. This would have been considered undergarments and would have been the height of inappropriate. No self-respecting gentleman would even wander about his home in just his shirt and breeches. He would have his waistcoat and a banyan, as well, to be considered dressed enough to leave the dressing room. Obviously, I've taken some liberties with this in my novels, as there are several scenes in which we find our heroes adorned in only breeches and shirt, but the truth of it was that simply would not have happened (shame on me for my anachronistic heroes in undress!).
Interestingly, a gentleman in a state of undress (sporting his undergarments, i.e. the shirt and breeches) was said to be wearing his "small clothes," or his "smalls" for short. Small clothes, or smalls, weren't a reference to boxers or briefs but the breeches-and-shirt state of indecency.
Let's take a moment to appreciate the practicality of underclothes at the time. For the Georgian gentleman, the primary concerns would have been hygiene and practicality. Underclothes, such as the shirt, would protect the skin from the scratchy fabrics of the waistcoats, would wick sweat, and would disguise sweat smells, all without interfering in necessities. The shirt was essentially the gentleman's chemise. Although the cut was different than a woman's chemise, the length wasn't all that different, reaching to about mid-thigh. With this in mind, the shirt was not thought of as a shirt, and in fact, society doesn't consider the shirt anything other than an unmentionable undergarment until the 1950s when rebels defied society by wearing their unmentionables uncovered, sporting about in their undershirts. Until then, the shirt (in this case, the long-sleeved, shift-length, billowing blouse our heroes wear beneath their waistcoat) is considered underwear just as we think of boxers and briefs today.
These two images show the linen shirt styling our heroes of the 1790s would have worn. The first image is of a 1790 shirt, while the second image is at the turn of the century.
The shirt was exceptionally long because it served the purpose of "underwear" as we know it today. Our hero would tuck the shirt snugly around the sensitive areas before donning the breeches. Perfect for those aforementioned purposes of protecting the skin against scratchy fabrics, wicking sweat, and disguising sweat smells, while also not interfering with necessities. Before you think that our heroes would not have had to worry about sweat and all that if they were not wearing so many layers, know that the fabrics of the time were lightweight and thin, which despite the many layers, made everything cool, light, and comfortable, more so in many cases than the heavy and tightly-woven fabrics we wear today. One poly-cotton t-shirt would be far more sweat-inducing than an entire 3-piece suit worn by our Georgian heroes. This is a point made frequently by modern tailors, reenactors, cosplayers, costumers, etc. The clothing of our heroes was wonderfully breathable.
Shirts of the era, and increasingly so into the 19th century, were white, if one could manage, since this was a sign of cleanliness. Hygiene was a status symbol and a symbol of good morality, and white linen was the ultimate "proof" of good hygiene. Only the wealthy could afford frequent laundering, frequent bathing, and multiple changes of clothing. If you missed the old research post on hygiene, check it out. The hygienic practices might surprise you. Contrary to popular belief, this era was not stinky and unclean. There were certainly stinky and unclean aspects about it, but our heroes and heroines were not one of those aspects.
If the shirt doubled as "underwear" as we know it today, where did the concept of underdrawers come from? Underdrawers, or just "drawers," were used in the winter months for added warmth. They would not have been worn any other time, as they would have added an undesired extra layer beneath the extra-long shirt and already snug breeches, thus creating excess bunching and another barrier to necessities. There were two types of underdrawers. For those who could afford it, an extra layer of linen could be tailored directly into the underside of the breeches for the perfect fit and avoidance of the discomforts like bunching and chafing.
Alternatively, they could purchase a separate pair of linen breeches to wear during the winter months, this pair being of the same cut as the breeches and fitting as closely as possible so when worn beneath the breeches, they wouldn't bunch. These would have a drawstring waist (thus the term "drawers") for fit, a two-button front closure with a French fly, seams hemmed outside to prevent chafing, and ties at the ends to help secure stockings in place of the usual garters. The Metropolitan Museum has a small collection of 18th century drawers, the image shown here being one of them--you'll notice, of course, that they look just like breeches except with the fly front instead of the drop front and of much thinner material.
Would our heroes have worn drawers? Only in winter months for extra warmth, and even then it was a matter of personal preference. I'd wager maybe 1 out of 100 opted for drawers since the shirt served the purpose they needed, and extra layering meant more restriction, less convenience, more expense, more laundering, and less comfort. When did gentlemen finally start wearing underwear as we know it today? Not until the 20th century, circa the '20s. There were some interesting variations for those winter months at the turn of the 20th century, but not only did they not catch on in popularity, they didn't resemble our concept of undergarments, not until the 1920s. So while our heroes would not have been wearing boxers, briefs, or anything similar beneath those buckskin breeches, they would have been wearing their practical chemise, i.e. the super duper long shirt that wrapped everything neat and tidy for comfort, modesty, and hygienic purposes.
My 1790 heroes all vary in style, as you've seen through the novels, with some embracing the new sporty look that is the precursor to the Regency fashion we're most familiar with, and with others clinging to the lace and embroidery of the previous generation. None of my 1790s' heroes wear wigs or powdered hair, even to the most formal of balls, which would have been in keeping with the time for all books set in and after 1795. For those books set more towards the early half of the 1790s, it would not have been unusual or shocking not to wear powder, but they would have likely been in the minority since it was still popular for formal occasions. Usually, we see my heroes in a variety of settings, from lounging at home to dancing at balls, so in many instances we have the opportunity to see them wearing a Corinthian day look, and then a vibrant evening look for the ball, showcasing that meeting of two fashion worlds. I hope you enjoyed this foray into gentlemen's fashion in the 1790s! Only in this decade, after all, can we have the best of both worlds--form fitting buckskins and Hessian boots plus silk embroidery in vibrant sapphire blue. Dreamy sigh.