Monday, March 21, 2011

Breaking the Rules

Very little in Victorian menswear is more iconic than the frock coat. From Wyatt Earp to Mr. Rochester, it's everywhere.

So it seemed like a marvelous idea to make one for the Fancy Dress Ball of the 1880s, coming up in just a couple of weeks.

Silly us.

My dress is a perfectly correct ca. 1870 evening dress. It's certainly not fancy dress, but I'll put something bizarre on my head and call myself "a lady dreadfully behind fashion" and be content for this year.

For him, we selected the Laughing Moon Frock Coat pattern.

"But wait!" you say. "Isn't the frock coat dreadfully informal??"

Yes. Yes it is.

The Manners that Win, from 1880, describes a frock coat as part of morning dress - "A black cut-away coat, or a frock coat and dark vest, with lighter trowsers, silk tie, either black or of some neutral color, and gloves of a medium or neutral shade -- is the proper calling costume for a gentleman."

For different occasions, you can add some variety - "Gentlemen, at a kettle-drum, wear the usual morning dress; a black cutaway, or a frock coat, dark trowsers, black silk necktie, and a medium or neutral shade of gloves, if gloves are worn at all. In warm weather, light gray or colored trowsers, colored neckties and white vests may be worn.... Neither white tie nor dress coat... must appear at a day reception of any kind."

For a morning wedding: "full morning-dress is worn by the groom and groomsmen... a dark blue, or black frock-coat and vest, light tie, and light trowsers. The groom wears white gloves, the ushers light gloves of some delicate shade. White ties are never worn with frock coats. At an evening wedding... all wear full evening-dress."

So, it doesn't get much clearer than that. Dear Boyfriend will be woefully underdressed.

Of course, I've now gone down the rabbit hole into 1870s and 80s etiquette manuals, and it seems like such a shame not to round out this post with some corroboration.

Sensible Etiquette of the Best Society, Customs, Manners, Morals, and Home Culture (1878) has the following tidbits to share:

"A dress-coat at a morning or afternoon reception, on any one but a waiter, is as much out of place as a frock-coat would be at a large dinner. The frock-coat and gray trousers, make quite as becoming a costume, and one that is established for morning dress by the same regulations which prescribe our evening dress."

"Much confusion has prevailed in the minds of some American men as to the occasions when a dress-coat is to be worn. It has been shown that morning dress and evening dress for men varies as decidedly as it does for women. A gentleman in a dress-coat and white tie feels as uncomfortable in the daylight as would a lady in low neck and short sleeves. The gas should be lighted, and the shutters closed, on ceremonious occasions where evening dress is desired in daylight. Frenchmen are married in dress-coats at morning weddings, Englishmen in frock-coats."

Sensible Etiquette and Good Manners of the Best Society, For Those About Entering and Those Who Desire to Become Educated and Polished in General Society. Containing Nice Points of Taste, Good Manners, and the Art of Making One's Self Agreeable - A Manual of Manners and Customs at Parties, Balls, Dinners and Sociables... To Which is Added the Art of Writing (1882) - which, by the way, is one of the more entertaining of these that I've yet read - offers these prescriptions to weigh into our debate:

"There is a scale of honor among clothes, which must not be forgotten. Thus, a new coat is more honorable than an old one, a cut-away or shooting-coat than a dressing-gown, a frock-coat than a cut-away, a dark blue frock-coat than a black frock-coat, a tail-coat than a frock coat. There is no honor at all in a blue tail-coat, however, except on a gentleman of eighty, accompanied with brass buttons and a buff waistcoat. There is more honor in an old hunting-coat than in a new one, in a uniform with a bullet-hole in it than one without, in a fustian jacket and smock-frock than in a frock-coat, because they are types of labor, which is far more honorable than lounging."

So it's pretty clear we're breaking all the rules... That being said, if Other Half should happen to die from shame, he'll be set...

From The Cynic's Rules of Conduct (1905): "At afternoon funerals, wear a frock coat and top hat. Should the funeral be your own, the hat may be dispensed with."


  1. It's a fancy dress ball, perhaps it will not be a major issue considering he could say his costume is for a morning stroll in the park. I also find it unlikely that there will be complaints since you two are putting a real effort into getting him properly attired at all. Not everyone will put that much work into it, I'm sure.

  2. Someone complains, tell them to take it up with Queen Victoria's wig maker.

  3. Well if you are in evening dress, then he should accommodate and wear evening attire as well. Not trying to be a stickler for rules or anything, but think, there you are dressed in your finest and he looks like he's just gotten off his horse *gasp!* what would the Rockefeller's think? LOL

    I honestly think that a Frock-coat (or any body-coat) be saved for when the student has mastered trousers and waistcoats. Never-the-less since no one likes to listen to me, look on pages 102-103 of my book. This gives a dress coat from 1968. For a 70's look thin down the sleeves a bit and presto, you're golden. Otherwise, you can cheat *shudder*. Take the LM pattern, select a pattern of the single breasted frock- one size smaller than your man (as commercial patterns run large) use the pages 102-103 as a reference for styling the pattern pieces. Style points to bear in mind. Cut back the front edge as dress coats are not to be buttoned. If you cut back the front edge you will prolly have to adjust the front balance by making it shorter so it may lay fair with out swinging out. Cut the skirt ala page 102. Match with trousers and evening vest from 103 and done. Post pics. :D