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In the middle of the seventeenth century, a strange costume prevailed among fashion addicts. Extremely full breeches adorned with sometime hundreds of yards of ribbon called Rhinegraves or petticoat breeches came into style in the 1650s and spread throughout Germany and the Low Countries. In France they reach their height of fashion, becoming even more ostentatious and being worn with a cropped form of doublet that showed the white shirt at bottom. Upon the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, this style reached England and Charles II can be seen in petticoat breeches in his coronation portrait. It is preserved extant in the Verney Costume housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This outfit dates to 1660 and demonstrates the typical cut of doublet and petticoat breeches at that time.
But this style was not to last. In 1666, Charles II attempted to introduce a costume based on flowing Eastern robes. Some say he was inspired by the clothing of a recent Polish delegation. Others claim his attempt failed completely. Nonetheless, a new silhouette came onto the scene at this time.
The Justacorps is a long, waistless coat that can be thought the progenitor of the 18th century frock coats. As mentioned above, some claim it is based on Eastern robes and brought to Western Europe by Charles II. The French draw our attention to a gentleman in the Gobelin Tapestry wearing a Justacorps over his petticoat breeches in 1660s surrounded by others wearing short doublets. The Danish might point at King Frederick II’s costume dating to 1655 which includes a long coat split up the back. And costume historians will remind us that the
Justacorps in the 1660s is not unlike the Soldier’s Coat and Cassocks worn during the English Civil War.
By the first decades of the 18th century, the ubiquitous flared-skirted frock coat was being worn by all levels of society. However the most fashionable men started to wear coats with the cut that would become synonymous with fashion in the 18th century. Deep large cuffs, often extending over the elbows, curved front openings, and ever-widening skirts were indicative of things to come.
In the middle of the 18th century, it was not unusual for frock coats to have skirts that were nearly circular, their width controlled by pleats at the side-back seams. Indeed this is why we call them “frock coats” – because the skirts were so full that they resembled a lady’s frock.
Mid-century frock coats were not just full in the skirts. They were also made from stunning materials and, if the wearer could afford it, elaborately embroidered. The amount of real gold and silver embroidery on the frock coats of the aristocracy rendered them more fitting to be kept in a vault than in a wardrobe. This expensive extravagance was not within the budget of even the wealthiest commoners, but all men wore frock coats made from the most expensive materials they could afford. It was literally the way to advertise your financial status to the world!
By the middle of the 18th century, the wide skirts of the frock coat were narrowing again, following the inevitable ebb and flow of fashion. Cuffs decreased in size, sleeves extended to wrist length, and openings curved further away from each other. Decoration was still as elaborate as ever and embroidery was often executed before the garment was cut.
By the end of the 18th century, the frock coat had transformed. Not only did the skirts continue to narrow until they didn’t show in front at all and the cuffs become smaller, but the materials and decoration of the coat became dark and sober. In a reversal from the previous decades, the front no longer only hooked over the breast, but closed in front along a straight edge. Double-breasted coats also came into use. Padding in the chest had disappeared. Fronts were cut away in gentle slopes as well as dramatic straight waistlines. Decoration was gone; coats relied on the beauty of well-made wools in dark somber colours. Collars were sometimes ridiculously high and coat fronts were turned back into large revers (lapels), but the overall look of the Regency frock coat was one of restraint.
In the 1820s, men’s coats split into two groups: the frock coat and the dress coat. The dress coat (shown at right) was a coat with cut away skirts (what we would call a tailcoat today) intended for formal occasions. The frock coat, by contrast, was a less formal coat with skirts that closed in front. In the 1820s, the dress coat fronts were cut not to meet at all. Alternately, the frock coat was cut to close and was often double-breasted (shown at left).
At this point in time, the dress and frock coats split in another way as well – the skirts of both the frock and dress coat, which had been cut in one piece in previous centuries, now came to be cut separately. This allowed the frock and dress coats to depart even farther from each other. Separate skirts allowed the dress coat tails to become slimmer and more tailored while the frock coat skirts could again aspire to the widths of the mid-18th century. Indeed, by the 1830s, the skirts of men’s frock coats again competed with the width of ladies’ skirts.
Once again the ebb and flow of fashion proceed and by the mid-19th century, frock coat skirts were again approaching a conservative width. But the evolution of the frock coat was far from over.
Next time… The Victorian Frock Coat and Beyond
© 2006-2011 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.