A Proper, Psychedelic Gentleman: Fashionably Fancy 1840s and 1850s Waistcoats

April 15, 2014

Surprisingly 70s

In the 1850s, every gentleman needed a proper waistcoat. White, black, and brown were all popular, but what if you didn’t want to blend in? Black and white photos aren’t very good sources of color inspiration because, well, they don’t show color at all and can even alter how dark a color actually is:

Tintype Photograph

Digital Color Photo of the Same Dress!
These photos are from Rebecca and Ashley’s blog, A Fashionable Frolic. Even modern photographs sometimes fail to portray a color true-to life. Depending on the light, this particular dress photographs a very light, butter yellow to a bright sunshine yellow.

While Victorians did love their somber colors, they also loved the full spectrum of colors just like we do today. In the late 1850s, synthetic dyes in wild, never-before-seen colors opened the doors to new color combinations and experimentation. However, even before those man-made dyes came into the picture, Victorians were creating unabashedly bright fabrics. Just because a dye is naturally-based doesn’t mean it’s washed out, dull, or boring, and ladies took full advantage of boldly colored prints to make striking dresses. Were gentlemen left out of all the color fun, locked into the black/blue/brown standard the seems to be the norm?

Daguerreotype of a Man in Straw Top Hat, circa 1850

Of course not! While such colors were popular, there were plenty of adventurous men who swathed themselves in richly colored patterns, too, especially during the 1840s. Much like neckties today (and indeed many 1840s patterns are still used for modern tie silk), waistcoats were a favorite place for a pop of color and some of them look like they would be right at home in a 1970s disco:

Embroidered Vest/Waistcoat, circa 1835-40

Wool Waistcoat, circa 1840
Wool might not be the first fabric that you think of to be brightly patterned, but paisley printed wool imported from Asia was hugely popular in the 1840s and 50s. It was much thinner than your wool coat, akin in weight to cotton flannel.

Wool Waistcoat, circa 1840

Man’s Vest/Waistcoat, circa 1845
Who ever said blue, brown, and white had to be boring? This waistcoat turns up the volume with bold blue and brown burnout silk velvet.

Jacquard Silk Satin Waistcoat, circa 1845-50
For a finely feathered fellow!

Embroidered Waistcoat, circa 1845-59
Solid swirls of embroidery (I have some vintage pillows embroidered similarly) add in-your-face punches of color to this basic black silk waistcoat. The flower edging has an 18th century vibe and recalls waistcoats of the previous century. 18th century textiles saw a resurgence in popularity during the 1840s and 50s and there are examples of antique textiles and entire rococo gowns re-made into fashionable 19th century dresses.

Waistcoats weren’t the only place gentlemen wore color. Beaded tobacco bags were a popular gift for a wife to give her husband, as were embroidered braces (also called suspenders) and house slippers:

Man’s Tobacco Pouch, circa 1820-30

Embroidered Silk Braces, circa 1847
Embroidered braces were actually quite popular throughout the 19th century. Possibly the most famous pair can be found in the pages of  Little Town on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls and her sister Carrie buy Pa pair of fancy floral suspenders for Christmas in the 1880s.

Berlin Work Men’s Slippers, 1855
Patterns for slippers like this would be printed in ladies’ journals and the tops were embroidered at home. The sole could also be added at home, or sent to the local shoemaker to have a leather sole stitched on. These homemade embroidered slippers were popular into the 20th century. Here are some patterns if you’re handy with an embroidery needle: Mid-Victorian Men’s Slippers and 1912 Lady’s Slippers.

Even if a gent wasn’t inclined to wear bright colors out of the house, he could still indulge in them at home. Along with his slippers, he could toss on a nice dressing robe and have himself a nice pipe!

”Wiener Moden (Viennese Fashion)” Illustration, circa 1841
Gent at Right: “Donald, you’re already mixing plaids and florals, don’t you think the pipe is a little much?”
Donald: “Temper your negative waves, sir! Your curmudgeonly commentary is disrupting my groove.”

2 Responses to “A Proper, Psychedelic Gentleman: Fashionably Fancy 1840s and 1850s Waistcoats”

  1. Melanie S. Says:

    The image of the braces strikes me right away, as I just saw a very similar pair, in very good condition and with lavish silk embroidery like these, for sale at an antiques dealer in New Hampshire, with a price tag just under $2,000!
    And, as an historian and first-person interpreter specializing in Laura Ingalls Wilder circa 1895-1898, you get huge bonus points for the LTOP suspenders reference. :)

  2. bellaretti Says:

    Really enjoyed your men in colour feature! So inspiring!

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