This week, we’re switching gears from wedding dresses to the origins of the tuxedo. Our Visitor Services Coordinator, Tyler Dodson, wrote the following article, placing the revered evening wear in a Western European historical context. Curator Ashley Webb follows up with the next installment in this series: an 1860 frock coat.
The first threads that resembled modern formalwear emerged in early sixteenth-century Europe in the form of the doublet. This waist-length coat with buttons that ran down the entire length of the front made its debut in southern Europe, but quickly spread north. Usually worn with stockings and puffy breeches and a plush, robe-like garment called a jerkin over the doublet, this ensemble was considered the original three-piece suit. The most recognizable garment of this time was the ornate lace collar commonly seen in paintings of the Renaissance era.
In the mid-seventeenth century another major event in the formalwear saga transpired when the doublet and jerkin were replaced by the justaucorps and waistcoat. The justaucorps was a knee-length, collarless coat with cuffed sleeves that saw its first action in military uniforms before it was adopted for civilian dress and was still worn with breeches and stockings. The new coat and vest were codified in the French court. Meanwhile the precursor to the necktie, the cravat, also started to replace the collar of the previous century.
From the English countryside the informal frock coat became a popular alternative to the justaucorps by the 1770s and marked the transition to somber style and color. Distinguished from its more formal counterpart by the collar and buttons that stop at the waistline, the frock coat was originally worn for sports. But by the nineteenth century it was a common part of formalwear in continental Europe and the United States, and featured a double-breasted option. Some versions of the frock coat had longer collars similar to the modern lapel. It was also at this time that trousers started toreplace breeches and stockings.
At the turn of the nineteenth century men had a couple more alternatives to the frock coat for formal occasions. Most notably and iconic was the tailcoat with the front of the skirt cutaway completely and only the fabric at the back of the coat left knee-length, which was called a “tails.” A more subtle variation was the morning coat with the front cut to slope gradually away to the sides. In the next century neckties and bowties gradually came to replace cravats and ascots.
Then in the 1880s the tail-less dinner jacket appeared on the scene with the combination of bowtie and trousers and set the stage for men’s formalwear to this day. The legend was that the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, originated the style in the 1860s as an informal option to the “tails.” And when on a visit to England James Brown Potter, who co-founded the Tuxedo Park resort in New York, saw the style on the prince, he commissioned his own and debuted it at a resort gathering. Another claim was that Griswold Lorillard, also of Tuxedo Park, and friends invented the jacket on a whim. However it happened, the tail-less dinner jacket was forever associated with the park and lead to the name “tux.”
As Tyler outlined the origins of the tux above, I’m back to talk about one of the History Museum’s examples of evening wear within ‘Happily Ever After. ’ Some sharp, some dapper, the History Museum has a variety of examples of evening wear within the exhibit, and you’ll just have to come visit to see more. The one I’ll be discussing today is Cleo Doosing’s frock coat from 1860.
The double breasted versions of this style coat were known as a Prince Albert frock coats, made popular by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. While it’s not double breasted, the coat does feature the ability to button the coat past the lapels, all the way to the neck- an interesting feature that enables the wearer to continue the life of the coat throughout the winter months.
Cleo purchased this coat around 1860, but didn’t get married until 1871. As Tyler mentioned above, frock coats fell out of favor in the 1880s, giving way to tails and morning coats. Both of the buttons are missing from the front of the jacket, suggesting lots of wear. This coat was extremely well made, tailored to fit Cleo (as most jackets were in the 19th century), and could withstand fancy occasions over a twenty year period. The pictures really don’t do this coat justice-they make it look drab, but I’m here to say it’s way sharper in person!
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