The Writer’s Guide to 1850s Men’s Fashion

In previous decades men’s clothing had followed the basic shape of women’s fashion. Yet during the 1850s men’s styles remained slim despite the growing width of women’s dresses. Increasingly, men’s suits were looking more and more like those we see today.

For an overview of fashion for the entire 19th century, please read my Writer’s Guide to 19th Century Fashion.

Silhouette

The first half of the decade continued with the lean silhouette from the previous decade. Around 1855, everything became roomy and more relaxed. Sleeves became looser and coats became longer. Trouser legs became more generous and were either straight tubes or wide in the hips while tapering to the ankle. [1] Overall, the style became less restrictive and more comfortable.

An 1852 fashion plate showing, from left to right, a tailcoat, frock coat, and morning coat. Also, notice the plaid pants. Photo source.

The Rise of the Readymade & Casual

The adoption of the sewing machine had a massive impact on the availability of readymade clothing. [2] Most men’s items could now be purchased ready-to-wear from shops such as Brooks Brothers rather than going to a tailor and having a garment made. Sewing machines dramatically cut production time. A machine-sewn shirt could be turned out in a little over an hour compared to fourteen and a half hours if sewn by hand. A frock coat could be done in two and a half hours instead of seventeen. [3]

This availability also meant even lower-class men could dress well and in fact, there was some complaint that it was now impossible to tell the classes apart by their clothing. [4]

This decade also saw the invention of the blue jean by Levi Strauss in San Francisco in 1850. Seeing the demand for hard-wearing work pants, he first began using the canvas he had originally intended for tents and wagon covers. Within a few years, he switched to denim dyed blue with indigo. [5]

Levi Strauss advertisement. Photo source.

Underwear

The white cotton or linen shirt was still standard with either a standing or turned over collar. Detachable collars and cuffs became all the rage. [6] It is likely the men’s corset began to fade from use with the more relaxed silhouette.

A man wearing a white shirt with a turned over collar and a black necktie. Photo source.

Daywear

The frock coat was still the standard for daytime formal events. It had full tails and a waist seam and was usually single breasted. [7] The morning coat, also known as the cutaway for how the waistline “cut away” sharply to the back, was another formal option. The sack or lounge jacket from the previous decade was popular for informal occasions. It lacked a waist seam, had small lapels, and was cut straight. [8] Although usually made in dark wool, summer coats of light-colored linen were worn in summer.

Vests were increasingly dark colored and matched the coat. [9] However, colorful or patterned silk vests were still seen. It became fashionable to leave the bottom button undone.

Trousers were often light colored for daytime although patterns such as stripes, plaids and checks were popular at the begin of the decade. The fall front had completely been replaced by the fly front and the in-step strap disappeared. Increasingly though, plain black was becoming more common. Breeches or pantaloons paired with tall boots were still worn for riding or country pursuits.

Liberian politician Edward James Roye wearing a frock coat and waistcoat. Photo source.

Eveningwear & Court Dress

The dress coat or tailcoat was necessary for formal evening events. At the beginning of the decade, it was still occasionally seen at formal daytime affairs but by the end it was limited to nighttime only. [10] Both the tailcoat and trousers were commonly black and paired with a white cravat.

The 18th century inspired embellished coat, waistcoat, breeches, white stockings, and buckle shoes were still required to be seen at court.

Left: evening wear composed of a black tailcoat and breeches. Middle: court dress. Right: Appears to be an outfit for a costume ball. Photo source.

Outer Garments

The greatcoat was still the standard outer garment.

Hairstyles & Headwear

The popularity of facial hair came roaring back during this decade and remained popular into the 20th century. I recommend you look at the photographs of the day to see the wide variety of styles.

Most hairstyles involved a side part. [11]

The top hat was still king and growing in height. It usually had straight sides.

During this decade, Locke’ of St. James, a London hatter, introduced the bowler hat. While it would go on to challenge the top hat’s supremacy in time, during this decade it was mainly worn by working class men. [11] Wide brimmed hats were also worn outdoors in sunny locals.

Sam Houston wearing a wide brimmed hat. Photo source.

Footwear

Flat black shoes and boots were common although some shoes did have a low heel.

Accessories

Cravats slimmed out along with the rest of men’s styles. The four-in-hand knot that is still used for modern ties was popularized during this decade. Other styles included tying the cravat into a flat bow or a knot with the tails sticking out. [12]

Accessories such as pocket watches on chains and walking sticks or canes were still popular and practical.

A necktie tied into a wide bow. Tintype of John H. Copeland in an embossed leather case, 1850s. Photo source.
Painter G.P.A. Healy wearing a cravat tied into a knot with tails. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 31-33.
Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 104-105.
[2] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 358.
[3] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 92.
[4] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 85.
[5] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 356.
McNeil, Peter and Vicki Karaminas, ed. The Men’s Fashion Reader. Oxford: Berg, 2009 p. 331.
[6] Chenoune, Farid (1993). A History of Men's Fashion. Paris: Flammarion. pp. 99–105. ISBN 2080135368.
[7] Cumming, Valerie ed., The Dictionary of Fashion History. New York: Berg, 2010 p. 87.
[8] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 370.
Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 31-34.
[9] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 105.
[10] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 370.
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1850s_in_Western_fashion#Men's_fashion
[12] Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 32.

1 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to 1850s Men’s Fashion”

  1. Excellent post. I used to be checking constantly this blog and I am impressed! Extremely useful info particularly the remaining part 🙂 I handle such info much. I was seeking this certain information for a long time. Thank you and best of luck.

    Like

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