Fashions in everyday menswear evolved slowly and there were not the same changes or distinct fashion eras in men's wear as there were in ladies wear.
During the first half of the 18th century wool or silk was used for fashionable men's wear. Fustian (a mixture of linen and cotton twill) was used for coats and jackets for everyday men's wear because of its hardwearing durability. Coats were also called frocks at that time. Dick Turpin, the notorious highwayman, ordered a new fustian frock for his execution at York Castle in 1739. Breeches and trousers were also made of fustian though cotton corduroy (known as Manchester velvet) was becoming more popular. Waistcoats were often made of dimity (lightweight cotton fabric with raised warp). Shirts were linen and doubled as night shirts and underwear. Underpants were not worn by men before around 1800 but shirts were usually long enough to wrap between the legs and so offer some protection.
During the later decades of the 18th century cotton became widely available and was of a good consistent quality. Cotton corduroy took over from fustian as the chief material for working class breeches and trousers. About 1800 close narrow fitting trousers became fashionable and men wore 'linings' underneath for reasons of protection, modesty and hygiene. This style, together with the complementary cut-away jackets, lasted until around 1820. For working people jackets continued to be made from fustian and cotton twill because of durability. Cotton shirts and nightshirts were popular and cotton neck 'kerchiefs were often worn during the day. Banyans, cotton morning gowns (rather like a full length modern dressing gown), came into fashion for the middle and upper classes.
Until about 1840 many men wore corsets to support their chests and stomachs. These were called either the Cumberland Corset or the Brummell Bodice. After the 1820s underpants were full length, sometimes with feet, usually made of a knitted cotton fabric like pink stockinette. Those for boys or men wearing breeches were knee length, tied with ribbon at the knees and fastened with buttons. Fustian continued to be the main material from which working class men's coats, jackets, breeches and trousers were made in the early part of the 19th century; although corduroy, velveret and moleskin were becoming popular for leg wear. Colours for fustian materials ranged from white and buff to rich brown and bright blue.
Shirts were of heavy cotton materials. It became the custom for manual workers to wear coloured cotton shirts, checked or usually striped (as was mostly the case with textile workers): 'the distinct badge of the working man', and for clerical, professional or managerial staff to wear white shirts: 'the distinct badge of the professional middle class'. This practice gave rise to the phrase 'white collar and blue collar workers' which is still used in the 21st century to differentiate office workers from manual workers. The most memorable innovation of this period came around 1830 with the introduction of the cloth cap (initially made by Jewish workers) which was to become a symbol of the working class man for the next 150 years.
Towards the very end of the19th century the uncomfortable stiff starched white collar became popular with white shirt wearers. During the 1880s combinations for men and boys evolved from vests and long johns (full length underpants elasticated at waist and ankle). These were usually made of cambric or flannel. Men wore separate cotton nightshirts. Pyjamas did not come in until the 1890s.
There is a list of garments (which does not include foot wear or outer wear) which could be worn by working men at the end of the 19th century that is remarkable for the number of different items:
" sleeveless vest usually of white flannel
" flannel body belt (about 45cm wide) tied with tapes
" flannel shirt with elbow length sleeves
" top shirt of striped flannel
" waistcoat lined with red flannel - in winter
" cotton shirt with underarm gussets
" long johns of flannel or twilled calico
" garters - (68cm in length) wound over top of long john legs to knee height
" trousers in corduroy or moleskin
Tweed suits and trilbys, initially worn as best clothes, were popular with men in the early years of the 20th century when they were not in serge or khaki military uniforms. Around this time the tie, 'the only fancy touch a man is allowed to indulge himself.' evolved from the necktie, but the basic masculine ensemble of shirt, trousers and jacket had changed little for about 200 years. In 1919 jumpers came into fashion and have remained there ever since. In the 1920s two piece suits (matching jacket and trousers) or three piece suits (matching jacket, trousers and waistcoat) became normal dress for men. During the 1930s and 1940s a sleeveless jumper, known as a pullover, often replaced the waistcoat for less well off men.
The second half of the 20th century was dominated by denim jeans and cotton t-shirts as casual wear for men but for work or formal wear a shirt and suit are mostly still required. Smart jackets are now of leather, wool or man-made fibres, and not fustian or cotton. The biggest change, however, is men's underwear. The concept of underwear flourished with the growth of the cotton industry because cotton was cheap and easy to wash. It was also an extra source of warmth and protection. However many men today, not wishing to appear 'like a big girl's blouse' wear only the briefest of y-fronts, a return to the early 19th century days of a brief lining to protect the trousers. Corsets, combinations and flannel long johns have had their day.
Anthea Jarvis, editor
Glynis Greenman, writer and researcher
Cunnington, Willet C. and Philis.
Handbook of English Costume in the 18th century
Handbook of English Costume in the 19th century (1959)
Cunnington, Willet C. and Philis.
History of Underclothes
Michael Joseph, 1951.
Marly, Diana de. Working Dress - a history of occupational clothing.
Batsford, 1986. ISBN 0 7134 5028 2
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