Lords of Lapels: Flamboyant Tailcoats and Frock Coats of the Early 19th Century
December 8, 2014
Reveling in Revers
The 1970s only dreamed of being this flamboyant!
I love lapels and collars. The bigger they are, the better! Toss in some velvet or fur and I will swoon!
Trompe l’oeil lapels by Hermes?
And this one?
We’ll call this the “Margarita collar” because I’d wear it, but it might take a few margaritas to get me there!
Ladies have a large variety of fabulous lapels to choose from, but most men usually only wear lapels on business or formal suits. Apparel prior to the late 18th century was also seriously lacking in the lapel department. The 1780s decided that this lack of lapels was a crime and by the 1790s, men were wearing lapels so large they dwarfed the coat they were attached to! Not satisfied with just a single magnificent lapel, gentlemen and dandies layered lapels. A coat might have double lapels, resting over a waistcoat (or even two), also with lapels! Incroyables, fashion-obsessed youth with a flair for the outrageous, wore the largest and most ostentatious lapels of all:
Tailcoat, circa 1795-1800
“Ha! Those lapels are so puny and insignificant I need an eyeglass to see them!”
A close up of an Incroyable sporting a jaw-dropping set of revers/lapels in an original engraving by Carle Vernet.
Thus began a golden age of menswear–the Age of Lapels!
Silk Tailcoat, circa 1790-95
“Portrait of General Louis Charles Antoine Desaix de Veygoux” by Andrea Appiani, circa 1800
While teh lapels themselves are rather tame, the layering makes them pop.
Wool and Silk Velvet Frock Coat, circa 1820-30
Man’s Dressing Gown, circa 1820
Even at home wear in the 1820s had lapels! How sexy is this toile dressing gown?!
Wool and Silk Velvet Frock Coat, circa 1830-38
Modern menswear is all about making a man look as angular as possible, boxy, even. In the early 19th century, men’s fashion was all about the inverted triangle. Layers of high collars on coats, waistcoats, and shirts –not to mention the massively wide stocks and cravats– combined with tight-fitting boots, breeches, and trousers further enhanced the top-heavy shape, which, admittedly, is not unlike an old-fashioned Barbie doll. Indeed, by the 1830s, you might even say the ideal male shape matched that of his female counterparts:
Fashion plate, circa 1829
Pouf sleeves made the shoulders look larger and nipped-in waists look even smaller. King George IV was rather barrel shaped, so he relied on a belt-like waist cincher to help firm up his middle for a more fashionable appearance. For other fashionable men, even wide lapels and pouf sleeves were not enough, so they, too, turned to corsetry to get the popular pigeon-breasted look. Many cartoonists enjoyed lampooning dandies, poking fun at how similar a man’s dressing routine was to a lady’s. Indeed, a fashionable man during the 1820s wore just as many layers as his female counterpart and put equal effort into his hairstyle, accessories, and cosmetics:
“Dandy’s Toilette: Stays” by an English Satirist, circa 1818
I don’t think a dandy would put his stays over the top of his trousers since it would make unbuttoning them impossible and block access to his fob pocket. However, he was quite wise to put on his boots before lacing up!
“Dandy’s Toilette” by an English Satirist, circa 1818
The final look, though sadly lacking in lapel eye-candy. Still, he cuts a figure anybody, man or woman, might envy! The tailor/manservant is brushing down the tailcoat with a garment brush to remove any loose hairs or dust. Until sticky lint rollers were invented in the 1950s, no wardrobe was complete without a good garment brush (as this 1940s video will tell you).
The ultimate Lord of Lapels was none other than the dashing young Napoleon Bonaparte. Besides sporting large lapels, Regency, Napoleonic, and Romantic era coats were usually coated (Ha ha ha! Coated.) in buttons. A gentleman could decide for himself just how much lapel he thought was appropriate for the occasion. For example, Napoleon’s coats were often worn buttoned to the neck for formality and warmth, but most were also decorated on the inside so he could fold back the lapels for some extra pizzazz!
“Bonaparte, First Consul” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (based on a portrait by Antoine-Jean Gros), circa 1804
This painting has an interesting history (which you can read here).
“Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, full-length, as First Consul” either by or copied from Antoine-Jean Gros, circa 1803
He must have really loved this particular coat/style because he is frequently painted wearing it in various states of un-buttoned-ness. Coat fronts designed to fold back into lapels displaying a fancy lining like this are called “revers.” Wikipedia credits the term to the 1860s, but the technique was used long before then. The fanciest revers were worn by the French officers in the Napoleonic wars. Military fashion has always influenced civilian fashion trends and the luscious lapels of the upper military echelons made their way into the formal wear for non-military personnel soon enough. After all, who wouldn’t want lapels/revers like these?
“Portrait of François Paul de Brueys d’Aigaliers” by an unknown artist
From the 1790s to the 1820s, the tailcoat was the go-to men’s garment. Frock coats became fashionable in the 1820s and 30s. They are called frock coats because they have a full skirt around the bottom, unlike a tailcoat which is cut away at the front. “Frock” was originally a general term for loose outerwear for both men and women, but over the years, it developed feminine connotations. Indeed, many modern women’s coats look identical to early 19th century menswear! Modern men’s frock coats are still available, but they are more columnar than their 1830s predecessors. If you are a slim-shouldered gentleman, you might be able to find the perfect Georgian frock coat in the lady’s section of your local department store!
Lady’s Fit and Flare Coat by Next
The 1820s and 1830s style of frock coat is now known as a “fit and flare peacoat” and if you find one with buttons that end at/above the waist and big, bold lapels–JACKPOT!
Many modern coats can be quickly modified to look more antique by “down-dating” the lapels. For example, a coat styled like the one above can be left unbuttoned at the top just like Napoleon’s uniform. Add some decorative braid or velvet to the inside edges for glorious Napoleonic-style revers! A stunning fur shawl collar is another easy way to dress up a frock coat for late-Georgian costumes. You can simply tack a crescent-shaped piece of faux fur or a vintage fur collar to an existing coat to mimic the look of an elegant Georgian frock coat:
Winter Frock Coat with Fur Shawl Collar, circa 1828-30
Men weren’t relegated to dark colors, either! While the most popular 19th century colors for men’s coats were blue, brown, and black, there were exciting coats out there, too:
Silk Dress Coat, circa 1825-30
Day coats were generally subdued, but evening wear and dressing gowns were frequently bright and colorful.
By the time Queen Victoria inherited the throne in 1837, lapels had calmed down considerably. Large shawl collars stuck around, but the true golden age of ostentatious lapel tailoring lasted from about 1790 to 1835. If you aren’t as enamored with giant lapels as I or an Incroyable might be, don’t fret. There were many styles and sizes of lapels to choose from and many modern coats will work just fine as-is. For example, for Christopher’s Georgian Picnic outfit, he just wore his everyday modern wool coat:
Large, full-length coats like this were called “great coats.” They were often worn over tailcoats during the late 18th and early 19th century for extra warmth until frock coats came into fashion. You can read more about Chris’s 1820s outfit here.
Honestly, a coat, waistcoat (vest), pair of slacks or trousers, and dress shirt is all a gentleman needs to start putting together a handsome Regency outfit. So go big, go small, or wild but don’t go home because, seriously, ladies love a man in costume! Fancy lapels are just a bonus.
Aaaaannnd….bonus picture of Alison’s awesome Marat cosplay/costume with the most redonk set of leopard print lapels!
Also, here’s a great suit-coat-to-tail-coat tutorial.