Let’s start with a brief background–
Gentlemen’s fashions of the Regency Era – broadly 1795-1825 – arise from the equestrian clothing of English “country gentlemen” of the late 18th century, and a melding with the radical new designs which came out of the French Revolution. To us, the clothing of the era appears to be conservative and very formal, but in actuality, it was an abrupt departure from the prior century and a half during the Baroque and Georgian periods.
For example, breeches, the standard for some two centuries, were gradually abandoned in favor of pantaloons and trousers. Bright colors, matching suits, and gaudy accouterments gave way to the new concept that a gentleman of taste ought to be subtle and subdued. We can thank dandy Beau Brummell, in large part, for ushering in this ideal, thus leaving brilliancy in color and accessories to the ladies, an idea generally held to this day. The images below reveal what I mean:
Lace, embroidery, and other embellishments disappeared during the Regency. Cut and clean tailoring was the sign of quality and value. The “dandy” arose in the 1790s as the term for a clothes-conscious gentleman who preferred refined, elegant, sober attire over the “fop” or “macaroni” who went for extravagant ostentation.
The misconception that a dandy was a powdered, effeminate caricature is untrue. Being flamboyant or attracting attention was not the goal. Being understated with immaculate cleanliness of person and clothing was a hallmark of the dandy, hence the abandonment of the wig in favor of cropped hair. It was a move toward a classical silhouette, just as seen with women’s fashion. To the left is a drawing of Beau Brummell.
Like everything in history, especially fashion, it was constantly in flux and varied from place to place and person to person. Design “fashion plates” and the magazines of the day give us ideas, as I am sure they did to the Society folk who wanted to look as trendy as possible. Those gowns and garments that have survived aid in painting the image of a Regency Era lady and gentleman. Personally, I have always wondered if people 200 years in our future will grab hold of a collection of vintage year-2014 Vogues and think that is how everyone dressed!
The tailcoat was the standard article of clothing for any man of at least middle class standards. It was high in the back of the neck, fitted in the back, chest and abdomen, had tails reaching the knee, and the wide “M notch” lapels so distinctive of the period. Either single or double-breasted, it could be worn open or closed, but always so that the waistcoat could be seen beneath.
The tailcoat was usually made of wool though sometimes of linen for warm climates and seasons, and sewn with few seams. There were many color options for daywear but for evenings conservative darker ones such as black and navy were most fashionable. Buttons could be self-fabric covered or of brass or pewter. For some reason, blue coats were always outfitted with gold buttons, while all other colors had self-fabric buttons. Go figure.
Never called a “vest” – let’s get that straight right away! The waistcoat was made from wool, linen or silk and could be a solid but was often a brocade, stripe or pattern. It had a high, stand-up collar and sometimes wide turn-back lapels, especially earlier in the period. The waistcoat extended below the front of the tailcoat and covered the top of the trousers or breeches. It was most often single breasted but could be double breasted as well, with a small pocket to hold the man’s accoutrements.
The shirt was usually of linen or cotton, loose fitting with off the shoulder sleeves and a high standing collar that extended up sometimes even above the jawline. The shirt had a slit in the front and pulled on over the head. It fell to mid-thigh or even knee length, tucked into the trousers and serving as the undergarment. Ruffles at the sleeves were unpopular during this period but ruffles at the chest were still an option.