Research Rabbitholes: Men’s Suit Coat Designs

Today’s Research Rabbithole is men’s suit coats, particularly those worn in the Edwardian era. This was inspired by Emily Post’s many comments on appropriate dress in the original version of Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home. I’m well versed in the history of women’s fashion, but far less so on the history of men’s fashion (especially since men stopped wearing colors and breeches and heels). Emily Post discusses dress often in her book giving pointers on what kinds of clothing is and is not appropriate to many situations. It inspired me to find out more about different men’s suit coat styles that I was not so familiar with the terminology of.

Frock Coats

Frock Coats are an old style of suit coat that predate the Victorian era by quite a bit. They were cut with long, fairly full skirts that fell to a man’s knees all the way around and were often known for tapering in at the waist to create a more hourglass shape. These were worn formally with knee breeches in the 1700s. They often have a lining of a separate fabric that is sometimes visible on the turned out collars. In the Victorian era, this could sometimes be a contrasting fabric (like in the image here), but later was almost always a satiny lining fabric of the same color as the heavier outer fabric. They were a common men’s style throughout the 1700 and 1800s. These are rarely seen now, but when they are, it’s generally for very formal occasions such as weddings.

Morning or Cutaway Coats

The more common wedding style today, however, is the morning or cutaway coat. These were coats where the front tapered from just below the waist in front to fall gently to almost knee length in the back. The style allows for easier movement and certainly a lot less fabric was required to make one. They were still fairly formal, but as the name suggests, for a while they were considered proper styles for men to wear in the morning and daytime hours. By the time Emily Post was writing in the 1920s, they were among the most standard wedding styles for men and remain a popular groom look today. The term “cutaway” coat appears to be primarily an American term.

Tailcoats

Tailcoats are basically a more severe version of the same idea as a morning coat. They have long tails in the back that hang down to the wearer’s knees or just above, but instead of the gentle falling away from the front to reach that length, they are cut sharply across the waist or just above in the front with a severe fall in the back for the tails. The style was originally conceived to facilitate easier horseback riding, since it involves much less fabric and the bulk of it is in the back and thus out of the rider’s way. They were a popular style for military officers all over the western world for a long time. During the Regency/Federalist period, this was the favored coat style of any fashionable or well to do man and they were worn in a variety of colors with tight knee breeches. The style continued into the Victorian ages because it remains flattering even with long pants. Today they are almost exclusively worn at very formal events or as livery by servers in formal venues.

Sack Coats

The sack coat was developed in the Victorian era as a less formal alternative to the frock coat. It was easier to construct as it used only two pieces in the back instead of four. It was also much easier to fit and often to wear, since it had a much looser fit that allowed for easy movement and more forgiving tailoring. They tended to have buttons that went higher on the torso than cutaway or tailcoats did – most often three or four buttons from chest to hips. They were often worn with only the top button done up (see the image), which I personally think looks a little odd, but was probably very comfortable and practical. These were not formal garments, but they did keep men looking put together and professional during the day without sacrificing comfort as many fashions of previous eras did (this is something women clearly had not learned to favor yet, but that’s a different story).

Lounge or Sport Coats

Lounge coats were originally worn by working men and were basically a less loose, often shorter cut suit coat option. They were distinctly less formal than most men’s styles (including any of the above), but they had a lot of practicality. The narrower cut meant they were often lighter for summer or for active wearers. The front could button near the neck like a sack coat or dip much into a much deeper V more like what a morning coat tended to have. As you can see from the image, they were often worn with less casual hats and out doing more recreational things. Emily Post references them as what men wear for “roughing it” and more casual events such as summer picnics or weekends in the country.

There are, of course, more styles of coat than these, but I chose to research these ones because they were the styles referenced by Mrs. Post throughout her book. I hadn’t quite known how many different nuances there were in Victorian and Edwardian suit designs before digging into this. I still don’t feel like men’s fashion allows for as much fun and creativity as women’s fashion, but I’m pleasantly surprised how many more variations there are of this simple concept than I had realized!

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