Researching the past

A Look into Fashion of the 1850s:

We've already explored the elements of an 1850's lady's wardrobe, so now it's the gentlemen's turn! The 1850s was perhaps the decade in which men's and women's silhouettes contrasted the greatest; the full, shapely skirts of the ladies were a stark contrast to the slim, fitted cut of men's suits.

We'll examine a gentleman's underclothing, before moving onto what he'd be wearing if he was going about his day-to-day business. We will also look at mourning and evening wear.


A gentleman's hair was parted down the middle or side. Men of the period often looked to Prince Albert when it came to fashion, and facial hair was no exception, with large mutton-chops and moustaches being in vogue. Towards the late 1850s, more men were sporting beards, thanks to the influence of solders retuning from the Crimean War.


A plain white cotton or linen shirt would be the first garment a man donned when dressing. Shirts were fairly loose and would be tucked into the trousers, and fastened with a row of buttons down the front. Note that the collar was separate from the shirt, and would be attached later. Starched, upstanding collars were typical of the decade.


Knee-high stockings were a precursor to modern socks. As trousers grew longer and breeches vanished during the nineteenth century, stockings also grew gradually shorter.


Full-legged drawers were standard until the turn of the century, although drawers gradually became shorter as trousers became more closely-fitting.

By the mid-19th century, 'knitted fabrics had all but replaced the traditional woven linen and cotton used for men's drawers' (V&A, 2021), thanks to the innovation of the power-operated knitting frame.


Menswear aimed to create a slender silhouette for most of the decade, although by the late 1850s, men's clothing became loosely cut and therefore more comfortable, as more casual garments became acceptable for wearing at home or for leisure (a bit like how many of us revert to baggy jumpers and tracksuits when we're at home).

Top hat

Nothing says "I am a gentleman" like a silk top hat! Of course those nearer the top of the social pecking order needed a hat to tower over the caps and bowler hats of the working and middle classes. Top hat crowns were approximately 16-17cm (compared to 12-13cm today). Hatbands were typically made of silk ribbon.

The bowler hat was invented by Lock & Co. Hatters in 1849, but was generally seen as a working class hat.


The waistcoat was the garment where a gentleman could show a little personality. Day waistcoats were often double-breasted, and made from silk, cotton or wool. Waistcoats were made from similar fabrics to those used for women's fashionable dresses. Tartans and checks were favoured in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Some more extravagant gentleman wore richly embroidered or printed waistcoats, with the 'Paisley' pattern being popular. However, other men preferred more sombre fabrics.


Neckties were typically fastened in a bow. Bowties came in rich coloured silk, and could be plain or patterned. They added a splash of additional colour to a man's outfit.


Nowadays we'd probabaly call this a 'suit jacket' rather than a 'coat'. The frock coat, as in the 1840s, was the fashionable garment for formal daywear. The frock coat could be single-or double-breasted, with a short skirt that ended above the knee. Frock coats were usually sombre-coloured, with black being a popular choice.

The main alternative to this was the morning or ‘cutaway’ coat, ‘with front edges that curved sharply backwards’ (Shrimpton, 2016:31).

The sack coat was growing in popularity around this time, and gradually replaced the frock coat as the informal coat of choice over the next few decades. This coat lacked the frock coat's skirt, and is what we'd recognise today as a suit jacket.


Trousers had superseded breeches by the 1850s, both for daywear and evening wear. Trousers were narrow and close fitting (although not so much as modern skinny jeans).Some men wore plain trousers that matched their coat, although others favoured bold, checked patterns – which could be made bolder thanks to the development of aniline dyes.

Bonus Fact: A suit of clothes (i.e. coat, waistcoat and trousers) made of the same material and colour throughout was called a 'suit of dittos' or simply 'dittos'.


Black of brown leather boots with a short box heel and pointed toe were the standard footwear.


Like with the ladies, a gentleman's head and hands must be covered when in public. Leather or cloth gloves would be worn outdoors.

A gentleman might have such accessories as a gold or silver pocket watch (of course), a jewelled necktie pin, and a rosewood cane.


Men in deep mourning wore black or dark suits, with the addition of black gloves and a black hatband, and perhaps a black cravat.


A black tailcoat and trousers were appropriate for eveningwear, and would be worn with a white, plain-fronted shirt. Waistcoats were usually single breasted, with black or white both being acceptable colours at this point in time. Light-coloured kid gloves were worn when attending dinners, while white kid gloves were appropriate for balls.

Further reading

  • Huntsman. [2017]. Top Tips for Top hats. [Online]. [Accessed 31st January 2021]. Available from:
  • Mimi Matthews. 2016. A Century of Sartorial Style: A Visual Guide to 19th Century Menswear. [Online]. [Accessed 31st January 2021]. Available from:
  • Shrimpton, J. 2016. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications
  • Victoria and Albert Museum. 2021. History of Fashion 1840 – 1900. [Online]. [Accessed 31st January 2021]. Available from: