1700 - 1900

The Elegant: Men’s Fashion of the 18th and 19th Century

Kunstgewerbemuseum, National Museums in Berlin

Discover the gentleman’s elegant garments of the 18th and 19th century through the dress collection at the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin

The Kunstgewerbemuseum - 300 years of European fashion history
As the oldest of its kind in Germany the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin established in 1867 holds one of the most important collections of historical garments in Germany. Spanning three centuries, the collection documents 300 years of European fashion history with exceptional objects from the textile and costume arts. In the galleries women’s, men’s and children’s apparel as well as accessories—from hats to shoes and including men’s and women’s undergarments—can be discovered.

The Elegant: Men’s Fashion of the 18th and 19th Century

Garments of the 18th century, a time when men and women alike dressed resplendently, are often vestments of an aristocratic origin, for fashionable dress was a luxury. To the end of the 18th century technological changes triggered by the French Revolution affected the processing of materials, woollen fabrics in muted colours replaced the patterned silks and paved the way for modest and rational attire. In the realm of men’s fashion, the bourgeois age of the 19th century brought about the permanent abolishment of gloriously coloured silk attire in. The dress coat was gradually replaced by the frock coat that was in turn edged out by the more fashionable jacket after 1870. Thus the development of the men’s suit, as it is ultimately still worn today, was complete.

The Habit à la Française

18th century men’s attire was the habit à la française, which consisted of a jacket, breeches and a vest. This costume varied in material and design according to the social status of its owner.

Men’s Coat – Justeaucorps
France or England, ca. 1750

Up until the middle of the century the jacket, called justeaucorps, was worked to be collarless and cling down to the waist. This simple collarless men’s coat, made from wool twill is a rare item. Its still very bell-like coat skirts, still fashionable in the 1750’s, correspond to the basic cut of the justeaucorps, but differ from the elegant cuts of the nobility in the rustic material and the very simple features.

Men’s Waistcoat
France/the Netherlands, 1740–50

The likewise long vest, or veste, incorporated the slightly tapered silhouette of the justeaucorps. This hip-length waistcoat has a long and slightly curved shape that was fashionable up until 1750.

Magnificently designed waistcoats were an essential part of the fashionable man’s wardrobe. This waistcoat has an artistic embroidery of ascending vines with exotic flowers and fruit clusters which was inspired by Delftware designs that can be traced back to Asian motifs.

Men’s Nightgown - Banyan
England, ca. 1730

Nightgowns, which were worn over a shirt, breeches and waistcoat, provided elegance and comfort for men in indoors. The name Banyan points to this article’s Indian origin, they had been imported from India by the East India companies of England, France and the Netherlands since the 17th century.

The simple design, derived from the Japanese kimono, highlights the large repeat pattern of the bottle green silk damask. This housecoat was previously owned by ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (1938–1993).

Men’s Waistcoat
France, ca. 1760

This collarless waistcoat with its à disposition woven decoration demonstrates the artistry of the French silk industry. The course of the arching guided edges, the measurements of the future owner and all other components of this piece—even the pocket flaps—had to be taken into consideration before the weaving process began.

This remarkable pattern includes flower stems and coloured silk and leaves made of flattened silver wire that are held by a ribbon, also woven from flattened silver wire.

A matching variation of the pattern appears on the pocket flaps.

Portrait of an Unknown Person (presumably Henri Alexandre de Catt 1725-1795)
Joachim Martin Falbe, ca. 1763

Three-piece Men’s Suit
France, ca. 1765

Between 1730 and 1750 the jacket tails were cut to be less voluminous and the vest was truncated. Around the middle of the century the term justeaucorps was abolished, and the jacket was now named for the full ensemble: habit. It was worked to be continuously slimmer and tighter and the front components were cut back more and more.

Silk fabric with a small repeating pattern, or so-called droguet, was a popular material for elegant suits in the 1760’s because its pattern need not be considered when tailoring the various suit parts.

Men’s Waistcoat
France, ca. 1780

Waistcoats were worn increasingly shorter and straighter during the second half of the 18th century. Of particular splendour is this sleeveless waistcoat made from gold lamé, a fabric in which metal filaments, or flattened metal wires, are worked from selvedge to selvedge.

The front edges of the waistcoat and the pocket flaps are set down simply, but very effectively, with a red and white striped trim made of faceted glass stones and contoured in curves made of blue sequins.

Men’s Waistcoat – Gilet
France, 1775–90

After 1780, white vests, now called gilet, with multi-coloured embroidery became fashionable. In 1787 The Baroness d’Oberkirch said of the fashion of the many various vests that: “It was absolutely trendy to own dozens, even hundreds of gilets if one wanted to be fashionable. They were masterfully embroidered ...” (Oberkirch 2010: 652)

Pattern drawers drafted new motifs, by which pattern pieces were created and presented in the capitals of Europe each year and customers could thus always order the newest designs. The design for this embroidery pattern has been preserved and is located in the Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs in Lyon.

Men’s Coat
France, ca. 1780

This elegant men’s coat from black silk tricot is unusual. Its seldom preserved material gives it a casual note that is balanced by the military inspired trim, so-called brandenbourgs, made from braided passamenterie trim and tassels.

Count Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst of Schaumburg-Lippe (1724-1777)
Johann Georg Ziesenis, after 1764

Buttons of Striped Men’s Jacket
France, ca. 1780

Another crucial decorative element for men’s attire was richly designed buttons. These could be wrap-spun, embroidered, underlaid with colourful metal foils or lined with rhinestones. After 1780 buttons were worn larger and more extravagantly on increasingly more plain jackets. This highly stylish, ornamental buttons, which are particularly eye-catching, are covered with the primary fabric and equipped with mother-of-pearl. In 1787 Baroness Oberkirch commented on this fashion: “The buttons of men’s jackets were no less bizarre. They showed ortraits, such as that of the kings of France, the twelve Caesars and sometimes family miniatures” (Oberkirch 2010: 652).

Three-piece Men’s Suit
France, 1785–90

During the second half of the century also rich border embroidery on hems, pocket flaps, sleeve cuffs and buttons of the habit à la française was established.

With every movement, such suits reflected the ambient candlelight and granted their wearers a befittingly grand entrance into the highest society.

The Habit de Ville

Three-piece Men’s Suit
France, ca. 1790

This simple suit of iridescent silk velvet shows the colour scheme popular in the late 1780s, bottle-green and bronze. Its stylish cut with high, upright collar, deeply drawn neckline and far set tails shows it to be a so-called half suit, habit de ville.

Men’s Waistcoat with Pinwheels Adorned
France/Italy, ca. 1790

During the 1780s men’s fashion became more narrow and slender. The waistcoats, now called gilets, were no longer coordinated with the suit, but were now stylishly independent items of négligé clothing.

From 1790 on the stand-up collars, which initially remained short, became higher and gilets were provided with small lapels.

The front panels were entirely decorated with small-scale patterns and the bottom portions were accented with special illustrations. Subjects were diverse, important political and social events were depicted as well as motifs from theatre, opera and antiquity.

Striped Men’s Frock
France, 1785–90

In terms of tailoring, this frock displays all crucial fashion hallmarks of its time: a high turndown collar that is pointed at the back, fronts that cut sharply back and oversized buttons covered with the top fabric, of which only two can be fastened. The fitted, high set sleeves with slim cuffs were also in vogue in the late 1780s.

Elegant Gentleman
Journal des Luxus und der Moden, 1788

The image of an elegant gentleman en chenille (or “colourful as a butterfly caterpillar”) in the Journal des Luxus und der Moden, of August 1788 shows how such a striped tailcoat would be worn: “A stylish modern gentleman ‘en chenille’. He is wearing a lowcut tailcoat of red, grey, and yellow striped cloth en rayes ombrées fringed down with red and mottled tassels. With either identically coloured multicoloured buttons or boutons à l’architecture”.

Bead-Embroidered Braces
England, 1830–40

With the arrival of long trousers, or so-called pantaloons, braces for men became fashionable.

Self-embroidered, they were a popular gift from young brides to their future husbands. The romantic flower pattern of roses and lilies as a sign of love and purity was deliberately chosen as symbol fitting commitment.

Prince Wilhelm in Company of the Artist
Franz Krüger, 1836

In the realm of men’s fashion, the bourgeois age brought about the permanent abolishment of gloriously coloured silk attire in. Woollen fabrics in modest hues established themselves, and long trousers were worn in place of breeches.

Men’s Summer Tailcoat
England, ca. 1865

If, during the first half of the 19th century, a gentleman wore a dress coat during the day in addition to his pantaloons and vest, this was gradually replaced by the frock coat that was in turn edged out by the more fashionable jacket after 1870.

Men’s Stovepipe Hat
Carl Oberer and Lor. Gutseel
Vienna, ca. 1820

At the end of the 18th century the revolutionary top hat replaced the aristocratic tricorn and continued on as typical men’s headwear until the middle of the 19th century. The material was altered according to season. In summer, a lighter hat of woven cane was favoured.

Smoking Cap
Europe, ca. 1850

A comfortable stay time in the home provided this soft men’s cap. Gold coloured wire is set in a floral pattern and the seams are marked in gold coloured cord.

Bowler Hat
England, ca. 1900

In 1850 the bowler hat, or bowler, was introduced by Englishman Thomas William Bowler. The rounded head rendered it as a compromise between the now conservative top hat and the casual floppy Calabrian hat popular among artists. The bowler hat was worn to semi-official occasions and still belongs in among the wardrobe of an elegant English man.

“Boater“ Straw Hat
England, ca. 1900

Around 1900 the informal boater, matelot in French, became popular as summer headwear as a result of increased participation in sporting activities and outdoor events. Worn by both women and men, the name “Bruce” on this one indicates a male owner.

Portrait of Dr. Wilhelm Bode
Max Liebermann, 1904

The dress coat was gradually replaced by the frock coat that was in turn edged out by the more fashionable jacket after 1870. Thus the development of the men’s suit, as it is ultimately still worn today, was complete.

The painting shows the Director General of the Royal Museums, which later became the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin).

Kunstgewerbemuseum, National Museums in Berlin
Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Christine Waidenschlager in: Fashion Art Works, Michael Imhof Verlag, Petersberg 2014

Concept / Editing / Realisation: Merle Walter

Translation: allround Fremdsprachen GmbH von der Lühe, Berlin

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz www.smb.museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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