I’ve been watching the 1995 BBC Edition of Pride and Prejudice (for like the 1000th time) and had plenty of time to focus on fashion and details, especially
men's dress. Therefore, I decided Epochs of Fashion needs a chapter on Regency gentleman's attire.
In the chapter on Empire/Regency ladies clothing you will have become acquainted with the terms “Full Dress”, “Half Dress” and “Undress”. This applies to gentlemen as well.
“Undress” would mean wear informal clothes and to take of the cravat, in short what was worn around the house and in a close family circle. Clothing for everyday life was “Half Dress”, in which men would go out, receive company and attend not too formal events. The cravats were not tied so elaborately and the fabrics were simpler. The height of attire, “Full Dress”, as being the most formal and most elegant attire, can perhaps be compared to a modern black or white tie event.
Basically, the wardrobe consisted of shirts, pants, waist coats, coats, cravats, socks, shoes and hats (top hats usually). The colour palette of a Regency gentleman (excepting officers of course who as Lydia Bennet would inform us look charming in their red regimentals) comprised rather sober colours: dark blue, brown, black, grey, green shades from dark to olive green, beige/cream and white.
Let’s begin with the shirts. Everybody knows the scene when Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) swims in the lake at Pemberley and then stumbles into Elizabeth Bennet (which though very famous is rather out of character with the book and Regency era decorum…). Shirts were made of white muslin or fine linen. The sleeves could be ruffled/gathered. Regency shirts were buttoned for several inches down the front but not all the way down. The buttons were usually covered with the same white fabric. Consequently the shirts had to be pulled over the head. They had collars which, when starched, would stand up and reach the chin and frame the face a little. The collars were not folded down.
Pants were rather high cut, reaching up to over the hip bones. They were generally of cream or light brown coloured fabric and had a flap in the front that was fastened with buttons. This flap was also called “fall” and could be either a “broad fall” or a “narrow fall”. For indoor events like balls and evening parties breeches were the dictate of the moment.These breeches just covered the knee and were buttoned with same-fabric buttons either in dark shades like black, blue or green or (cream-)white. They were worn with white knee-length stockings.
Over the shirt the waist coat is worn. These vests were rather close fitting, fastened double or single breasted with buttons in the front and could be laced at the lower back to fit at the small of the back. They had standing collars that framed the elaborate cravats. The snow-white cravats were a scarf-like long recticular piece of fine fabric tied closely to the neck in more or less complex knots. They even prevented turning the head because they sat so close. Today cravats are still not very comfortable but back then it must really have been agony. Beau Brummel, the absolute Regency gentleman and dandy loved white cravats.
The waist coat was followed by a tailcoat when the gentleman left the house. This coat could be either single or double breasted and had long tails. Travelling coats or those for horseback riding had to brave the rain and were thus often reinforced by several cape layers over the shoulders. As Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey thinks about Henry Tilney when driven by him in his carriage: “And then his hat sat so well, and the innumerable capes of his greatcoat looked so becomingly important!”.
Regency gentlemen had different shoes for different occasions. For outdoor activities like promenading, transacting business or travelling boots were worn.
Very popular were boots reaching to the knees made of two tones of leather: about the foot and halfway up the calf it was black, then followed a caramel brown or auburn section.
Another common type of boots were "Hessians". At first the footwear for members of the military Hessians made their way into fashion. These black boots reached to the knees and had very low heels. The semi-pointed toe made horseback riding and using stirrups uncomplicated. At the top of each shaft in the front sits an ornamental tassel, normally cream-white or silver in contrast to the dark shoe.
Dancing required light footwear that moreover had to fit perfectly to prevent the shoes from flying off when dancing rapidly. Men's footwear for balls was very like to ballet shoes with no heel and made of light material. Slippers were the common footwear for other evening or indoor events. Generally black, these slippers were buckled (for formal occasions) or tied with bows.
Like the ladies, gentlemen carried a variety of accessories with them. Canes were established accessories for promenading and walking
about the town, they had emerged from the period when men carried swords with them.
Besides gloves and a wallet a Regency gentleman generally carried a pocket watch with him. The ornamental task of watches was quite as important as the practical function to check the time. A watch indicated wealth and it was carried on a watch chain or string in a small fob pocket on the right to protect the delicate timepiece. This fob pocket in the pants has survived to the present day where many pairs of jeans still have tiny pockets inside the normal pockets.
Watch chains made of precious metal or satin watch strings enabled the men to get out their watches quickly and prevent him from fishing in the tiny pocket for it. The colours of watch strings were either dark ones like black or grey or scarlet red. Watch strings were by far more common among gentlemen than chains. These watch chains or strings were long enough to show for several inches from under the waistcoat and had not only a watch attached to them but normally also a seal and dangling little trinkets. Tassels, a locked with the beloved’s hair or a miniature portrait can be frequently seen.
The word "fob" (not to be confused with "fop" which would relate rather to the wearer) meant at first only the pocket, then the whole watch chain, or string, and ultimately the whole lot of ornaments dangling from the end of the visible string or chain.