Fashion Flashback: Given that fashion was instrumental in the creation of Canada, this blog series explores the development of what Canadians wore one era at a time.
“Man’s Tailcoat. Probably England, 1825-1830. Wool plain weave, full finish, with silk cut velvet on twill foundation” [Source]
When it comes to timelines and the Regency Era, things get a little messy. Technically the era only lasts nine years. When “mad” King George III was declared unfit to rule, the Regency Act was passed and his son George, the Prince Regent, ruled in his place. When George the III died in 1820, the Regent became King George IV. However, there is a certain “romantic feel” to the Regency Era that goes beyond that short time frame and most slap on another decade or so when establishing a timeline. (1837 is the farthest the Regency Era extends on both sides of the Atlantic however, given that’s when Queen Victoria’s reign begins and the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions occurred). In terms of fashion, Romanticism and the influence of “dandies,” had a major impact on western men’s clothing during this time.
Upper-Class Men and Liberal Professionals
In British North America, the Regency Era covers the War of 1812, early Industrialization, the completion of the Lachine, Erie, and Rideau Canals, the first half of the Great Migration (roughly 800,000 migrants moved to the British colony between 1815 and 1850), and the rise of Responsible Government. British North America reached the midway point of British colonial rule and 60% of those aforementioned immigrants came from Britain. Hence, it should be no surprise that our fashion cues were taken directly from England–although the time lag between European fashions and their appearance in Canada and the United States was still at least roughly a year at this point.
Side Note: Interested in War of 1812 military uniforms? Click here.
These two photos are an example of an English gentleman’s Tail Coat (c. 1820). Wool plain weave, full finish, and silk velvet with wool braid trim and metallic buttons [Source]
The style in London for men was becoming more and more refined and this was due to the influence of two things: the dandy and the romantic movement. The dandy (a man who placed high importance on personal aesthetics and hobbies, but wanted to seem totally nonchalant about it) arguably emerged as early as the 1790s. The definition is a bit weird. On the one hand, there have always been fashionable men who deeply cared about their appearances and that exists to this very day. What was special about the early 19th century dandy was that they had a certain look. Dark colors were all but mandatory. (Dark doesn’t necessarily mean dreary though, many items, particularly vests and coats were cut from rich, vivid fabrics.) Blue tailcoats with gold buttons, like the one above, were everywhere. White muslin shirts (sometimes with ruffles on the neck/sleeves) were extremely popular. Breeches were officially on their way out, with pants/trousers taking their place. Fabrics in general were becoming more practical silk and more wool, cotton, and buckskin. Also, dandies garments were also quite tight-fitted as well.
Three examples of dandies. The most famous is the one in the middle. Beau Brummell, the prototype for Regency men’s fashion (Brummell was a British fashion icon during the early 1800s, but fled the country to escape debt in 1816), considered himself an expert on fashion and elegance. Outlandish, flamboyant fashion was a major no-no for him. His overall opinion on both subjects can be summed up as follows:
“To be truly elegant one should not be noticed.”
Men’s Three-piece Ensemble. England (c. 1830s). “Dark brown tail coat of wool broadcloth with velvet collar; vest of black silk satin with cut-velvet woven floral pattern; trousers of plaid cotton twill; silk pongee scarf.” [Source]
The Kyoto Costume Institute explains, “the gloss of high quality fabric without decoration accentuates the elaborative tailoring of these tight-fitting clothes. Plain but elaborately tailored in details, simple and functional men’s clothes were made on the basis of the esthetic values of the “dandies,” who emerged at the beginning of the 19th century. As a result, men’s clothes became simpler and more stylized, and their designs established a standard that is still relevant today.” [*]
The ongoing influence of romanticism cannot be understated though. From the end of the 18th century up until 1850, romanticism was a transatlantic movement that influenced art, literature, music, politics and fashion. Romanticism was a slap in the face of modernity. It embraced the past, the sublime, and the natural world; shunning the social, political, and scientific ideals of the Enlightenment. Romanticism was a reaction to the rise of the industrialization and urbanization and championed both individualism and emotion.
What did all this mean for men’s fashion? Well, it was the inspiration behind everything and why some of these fashion changes started to get underway as early as the American and French Revolutions. One of the biggest changes was the aforementioned introduction of trousers, the traditional clothing of sailors and sans culottes, into the wardrobes of upper-class men and professionals. Romantic masculinity was expressed through symbolic solidarity with the common man. Alexandra Palmer’s 2004 book, Fashion: A Canadian Perspective, describes the late Regency era as follows: “By the 1830s Lower Canadian professionals were spending a greater proportion of their income (some 20 percent) on attire. This was more than any other class, making them leaders in fashion as well as politics. They were, for example, early purchasers not only of trousers but also the stylish Wellington and Brunswick boots advertised in Lower Canadian newspapers after 1815. […] These men went from wearing wigs or tying back their own long hair […] to short natural styles.” Palmer also describes how portraits from the time show Louis-Joseph Papineau (leader of the Lower Canadian Rebellion) and other liberal professionals of the 1830s in British North America exemplified romantic masculine fashion. “In Papineau’s day such styles were not dull but dashing. Wearing them, young lawyers, notaries, politicians, and physicians nurtured romantic sensibilities inspired by Goethe and the English poets, the barricades, and the star-spangled banner.”
Another change was the rise of the black silk top hat. “Toppers” became fashionable in England by 1815. Its arrival on Canadian shores cast the old top hats which were lined with beaver fur aside. Given that hats were the number one item of the fur trade, silk top hats had a negative impact on the trade. Beaver-lined top hats did not completely vanish at this time, however.
French Gentleman’s English-Style Greatcoat and Hessian Boots by Carle Vernet (from Journal des Dames et des Modes, Paris, March 31, 1811). [Source]
Other popular accessories of the regency era include cravats, gloves, canes, pocket watches, and monocles. Finally, probably the most flamboyant wardrobe item of regency men’s clothing would have been the greatcoat. A warm, long overcoat that was great at protecting its wearer from inclement weather, it was like a trench coat, but with several capes on it usually. Also hessian boots were still popular during this era.
Joseph Légaré (19th century Canadian artist) by John James (c. 1835). [Source]
Louis-Michel Viger (Lower Canada lawyer) by James Duncan (1833) [Source]
Before moving on, no post on men’s Regency fashion is complete without mentioning the most famous fictional male character from the era and who kept popping up whenever I tried to find authentic clothing examples…
Shout out to Jane Austen for writing Pride and Prejudice. Filmmakers’ inability to leave the novel alone means we will always have different examples of men’s clothing from this era thanks to the iconic Mr. Darcy.
Men from the Lower Classes
Canadians of the Upper Provinces near Montreal by George Heriot (1815). [Source]
Lower Canada Patriote (c. 1837) by Henri Julien (1904)
You’re not wrong in thinking that Canadian men’s fashion in the lower classes look the same as they did in the decades prior. Before the full the “democratization” of fashion thanks to the Industrial Revolution making fashionable clothes more accessible to the lower socioeconomic classes, looking “fashionable” was a privilege that only those with a disposable income could fully partake in. If a farmer saved up his money, yes, he could have bought something fancy for a special occasion but generally farmers and artisans (still the largest portion of the population at this point) had little use for anything but durable, work-friendly clothing.
That being said, everyday clothes was modeled after more fashionable garments. Also, this time period marked the end of 100% home-spun clothing. Imported cloth from England greatly increased. Poorer families would still make their own clothes however; going to a clothing store was still a few decades away. As you can see by the pictures though, breeches were long dead. Pants/trousers were everywhere.
A comparison between a more traditional capote and a recreation capote that was inspired by great coats.
The Indigenous influence (domestically-made leather attire, moccasins, etc), particularly on Habitants and fur traders, was still strong and meant to fight off the harsh weather. The voyageurs’ blanket capote was influenced by the Regency era great coat however–they added a cape. Buttons and epaulettes were added too.
Are you a fan of men’s fashion from the Regency Era? Miss the colours from the earlier eras or are you waiting for fashion to spread to the masses? Do you have a favorite Mr. Darcy?
Next time we’ll be looking at women’s fashion. Thanks for reading!
Matthew Macfadyen is the best Darcy. Come at me.
Beaudoin-Ross, J. R., Clothing. The Canadian Encyclopedia. (2013). Accessed from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/clothing/
Koster, Kristen, “APrimer on Regency Era Men’s Fashion.” (Nov 8, 20110. Accessed from: https://www.kristenkoster.com/a-primer-on-regency-era-mens-fashion/
Kyoto Costume Institute Digital Archives. Accessed from: http://www.kci.or.jp/en/archives/digital_archives/
Los Angeles County Museum of Art Online Collection Database. Accessed from: http://collections.lacma.org/
Palmer, Alexandra. Fashion: A Canadian Perspective. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (2004).