How to Dress Like a Gentleman—or Gentlewoman—From an 1880s Manual on Etiquette and Good Manners

How to Dress Like a Gentleman—or Gentlewoman—From an 1880s Manual on Etiquette and Good Manners
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Epoch Inspired Staff

TO dress well requires good taste, good sense and refinement. A woman of good sense will neither make dress her first nor her last object in life. No sensible wife will betray that total indifference for her husband which is implied in the neglect of her appearance, and she will remember that to dress consistently and tastefully is one of the duties which she owes to society. Every lady, however insignificant her social position may appear to herself, must exercise a certain influence on the feelings and opinions of others. An attention to dress is useful as retaining, in the minds of sensible men, that pride in a wife’s appearance, which is so agreeable to her, as well as that due influence which cannot be obtained without it. But a love of dress has its perils for weak minds. Uncontrolled by good sense, and stimulated by personal vanity it becomes a temptation at first, and then a curse. When it is indulged in to the detriment of better employments, and beyond the compass of means, it cannot be too severely condemned. It then becomes criminal.


Consistency in regard to station and fortune is the first matter to be considered. A woman of good sense will not wish to expend in unnecessary extravagances money wrung from an anxious, laborious husband; or if her husband be a man of fortune, she will not, even then, encroach upon her allowance. In the early years of married life, when the income is moderate, it should be the pride of a woman to see how little she can spend upon her dress, and yet present that tasteful and creditable appearance which is desirable. Much depends upon management, and upon the care taken of garments. She should turn everything to account, and be careful of her clothing when wearing it.


Dress, to be in perfect taste, need not be costly. It is unfortunate that in the United States, too much attention is paid to dress by those who have neither the excuse of ample means nor of social culture. The wife of a poorly paid clerk, or of a young man just starting in business, aims at dressing as stylishly as does the wealthiest among her acquaintances. The sewing girl, the shop girl, the chambermaid, and even the cook, must have their elegantly trimmed silk dresses and velvet cloaks for Sunday and holiday wear, and the injury done by this state of things to the morals and manners of the poorer classes is incalculable.
As fashions are constantly changing, those who do not adopt the extremes, as there are so many of the prevailing modes at present, can find something to suit every form and face.


Indifference and inattention to dress is a defect of character rather than virtue, and often denotes indolence and slovenliness. Every woman should aim to make herself look as well as possible with the means at her command. Among the rich, a fondness for dress promotes exertion and activity of the mental powers, cultivates a correct taste and fosters industry and ingenuity among those who seek to procure for them the material and designs for dress. Among the middle classes it encourages diligence, contrivance, planning and deftness of handiwork, and among the poorer classes it promotes industry and economy. A fondness for dress, when it does not degenerate into vain show, has an elevating and refining influence on society.


To dress appropriately is another important matter to be considered. Due regard must be paid to the physical appearance of the person, and the dress must be made to harmonize throughout. An appropriate dress is that which so harmonizes with the figure as to make the apparel unnoticeable. Thin ladies can wear delicate colors, while stout persons look best in black or dark grey. For young and old the question of appropriate color must be determined by the figure and complexion. Rich colors harmonize with brunette complexions or dark hair, and delicate colors with persons of light hair and blonde complexions.


Gloves are worn by gentlemen as well as ladies in the street, at an evening party, at the opera or theatre, at receptions, at church, when paying a call, riding or driving; but not in the country or at dinner. White should be worn at balls; the palest colors at evening parties and neutral shades at church.


The evening or full dress for gentlemen is a black dress-suit—a “swallow-tail” coat, the vest cut low, the cravat white, and kid gloves of the palest hue or white. The shirt front should be white and plain; the studs and cuff-buttons simple. Especial attention should be given to the hair, which should be neither short nor long. It is better to err upon the too short side, as too long hair savors of affectation, destroys the shape of the physiognomy, and has a touch of vulgarity about it. Evening dress is the same for a large dinner party, a ball or an opera. In some circles, however, evening dress is considered an affectation, and it is as well to do as others do. On Sunday, morning dress is worn and on that day of the week no gentleman is expected to appear in evening dress, either at church, at home or away from home. Gloves are dispensed with at dinner parties, and pale colors are preferred to white for evening wear.


The morning dress for gentlemen is a black frock-coat, or a black cut-away, white or black vest, according to the season, gray or colored pants, plaid or stripes, according to the fashion, a high silk (stove-pipe) hat, and a black scarf or necktie. A black frock coat with black pants is not considered a good combination, nor is a dress coat and colored or light pants. The morning dress is suitable for garden parties, Sundays, social teas, informal calls, morning calls and receptions.
It will be seen that morning and evening dress for gentlemen varies as much as it does for ladies. It is decidedly out of place for a gentleman to wear a dress coat and white tie in the day-time, and when evening dress is desired on ceremonious occasions, the shutters should be closed and the gas or lamps lighted. The true evening costume or full dress suit, accepted as such throughout the world, has firmly established itself in this country; yet there is still a considerable amount of ignorance displayed as to the occasions when it should be worn, and it is not uncommon for the average American, even high officials and dignified people, to wear the full evening costume at a morning reception or some midday ceremony. A dress coat at a morning or afternoon reception or luncheon, is entirely out of place, while the frock-coat or cut-away and gray pants, make a becoming costume for such an occasion.


It is not considered in good taste for men to wear much jewelry. They may with propriety wear one gold ring, studs and cuff-buttons, and a watch chain, not too massive, with a modest pendant, or none at all. Anything more looks like a superabundance of ornament.


Evening dress for ladies may be as rich, elegant and gay as one chooses to make it. It is everywhere the custom to wear full evening dress in brilliant evening assemblages. It may be cut either high or low at the neck, yet no lady should wear her dress so low as to make it quite noticeable or a special subject of remark. Evening dress is what is commonly known as “full dress,” and will serve for a large evening party, ball or dinner. No directions will be laid down with reference to it, as fashion devises how it is to be made and what material used.


Ball dressing requires less art than the nice gradations of costume in the dinner dress, and the dress for evening parties. For a ball, everything should be light and diaphanous, somewhat fanciful and airy. The heavy, richly trimmed silk is only appropriate to those who do not dance. The richest velvets, the brightest and most delicate tints in silk, the most expensive laces, elaborate coiffures, a large display of diamonds, artificial flowers for the head-dress and natural flowers for hand bouquets, all belong, more or less, to the costume for a large ball.


The full dinner dress for guests admits of great splendor. It may be of any thick texture of silk or velvet for winter, or light rich goods for summer, and should be long and sweeping. Every trifle in a lady’s costume should be, as far as she can afford it, faultless. The fan should be perfect in its way, and the gloves should be quite fresh. Diamonds are used in broaches, pendants, ear-rings and bracelets. If artificial flowers are worn in the hair, they should be of the choicest description. All the light neutral tints, and black, dark blue, purple, dark green, garnet, brown and fawn are suited for dinner wear.


The dress of a hostess at a dinner party should be rich in material, but subdued in tone, so as not to eclipse any of her guests. A young hostess should wear a dress of rich silk, black or dark in color, with collar and cuffs of fine lace, and if the dinner be by daylight, plain jewelry, but by gaslight diamonds.


The glaring colors and “loud” costumes, once so common, have given place to sober grays, and browns and olives; black predominating over all. The light, showily-trimmed dresses, which were once displayed in the streets and fashionable promenades, are now only worn in carriages. This display of showy dress and glaring colors is generally confined to those who love ostentation more than comfort.


If a lady has a special day for the reception of calls, her dress must be of silk, or other goods suitable to the season, or to her position, but must be of quiet colors and plainly worn. Lace collars and cuffs should be worn with this dress, and a certain amount of jewelry is also admissible. A lady whose mornings are devoted to the superintendence of her domestic affairs, may receive a casual caller in her ordinary morning dress, which must be neat, yet plain, with white plain linen collars and cuffs. For New Year’s, or other calls of special significance, the dress should be rich, and may be elaborately trimmed. If the parlors are closed and the gas lighted, full evening dress is required.


The material for a dress for a drive through the public streets of a city, or along a fashionable drive or park, cannot be too rich. Silks, velvets and laces, are all appropriate, with rich jewelry and costly furs in cold weather. If the fashion require it, the carriage dress may be long enough to trail, or it may be of the length of a walking dress, which many prefer. For driving in the country, a different style of dress is required, as the dust and mud would soil rich material.


Visiting costumes, or those worn at a funeral or informal calls, are of richer material than walking suits. The bonnet is either simple or rich, according to the taste of the wearer. A jacket of velvet, or shawl, or fur-trimmed mantle are the concomitants of the carriage dress for winter. In summer all should be bright, cool, agreeable to wear and pleasant to look at.


Morning calls may be made either in walking or carriage dress, provided the latter is justified by the presence of the carriage. The dress should be of silk; collar and cuffs of the finest lace; light gloves; a full dress bonnet and jewelry of gold, either dead, burnished or enameled, or of cameo or coral. Diamonds are not usually worn in daylight. A dress of black or neutral tint, in which light colors are introduced only in small quantities, is the most appropriate for a morning call.


The morning dress for the street should be quiet in color, plainly made and of serviceable material. It should be short enough to clear the ground without collecting mud and garbage. Lisle-thread gloves in midsummer, thick gloves in midwinter, are more comfortable for street wear than kid ones. Linen collars and cuffs are most suitable for morning street dress. The bonnet and hat should be quiet and inexpressive, matching the dress as nearly as possible. In stormy weather a large waterproof with hood is more convenient and less troublesome than an umbrella. The morning dress for visiting or breakfasting in public may be, in winter, of woolen goods, simply made and quietly trimmed, and in summer, of cambric, pique, marseilles or other wash goods, either white or figured. For morning wear at home the dress may be still simpler. The hair should be plainly arranged without ornament.


The dress for the promenade should be in perfect harmony with itself. All the colors worn should harmonize if they are not strictly identical. The bonnet should not be of one color, and parasol of another, the dress of a third and the gloves of a fourth. Nor should one article be new and another shabby. The collars and cuffs should be of lace; the kid gloves should be selected to harmonize with the color of the dress, a perfect fit. The jewelry worn should be bracelets, cuff-buttons, plain gold ear-rings, a watch chain and brooch.


Opera dress for matinees may be as elegant as for morning calls. A bonnet is always worn even by those who occupy boxes, but it may be as dressy as one chooses to make it. In the evening, ladies are at liberty to wear evening dresses, with ornaments in their hair, instead of a bonnet, and as the effect of light colors is much better than dark in a well-lighted opera house, they should predominate.


A lady’s riding habit should fit perfectly without being tight. The skirt must be full, and long enough to cover the feet, but not of extreme length. The boots must be stout and the gloves gauntleted. Broadcloth is regarded as the more dressy cloth, though waterproof is the more serviceable. Something lighter may be worn for summer, and in the lighter costumes a row of shot must be stitched at the bottom of the breadths of the left side to prevent the skirts from being blown by the wind. The riding dress is made to fit the waist closely, and button nearly to the throat. Above a small collar or reverse of the waist is shown a plain linen collar, fastened at the throat with a bright or black necktie. Coat sleeves should come to the wrist with linen cuffs beneath them. No lace or embroidery is allowable in a riding costume. It is well to have the waist attached to a skirt of the usual length, and the long skirt fastened over it, so that if any accident occurs obliging the lady to dismount, she may easily remove the long overskirt and still be properly dressed.
The hair should be put up compactly, and no veil should be allowed to stream in the wind. The shape of the hat will vary with the fashion, but it should always be plainly trimmed, and if feathers are worn they must be fastened so that the wind cannot blow them over the wearer’s eyes.


The material for a walking suit may be either rich or plain to suit the taste and means of the wearer. It should always be well made and never appear shabby. Bright colors appear best only as trimmings. Black has generally been adopted for street dresses as the most becoming. For the country, walking dresses are made tasteful, solid and strong, more for service than display, and what would be perfectly appropriate for the streets of a city would be entirely out of place on the muddy, unpaved walks of a small town or in a country neighborhood. The walking or promenade dress is always made short enough to clear the ground. Thick boots are worn with the walking suit.


For women who are engaged in some daily employment such as teachers, saleswomen and those who are occupied in literature, art or business of some sort, the dress should be somewhat different from the ordinary walking costume. Its material should be more serviceable, better fitted to endure the vicissitudes of the weather, and of quiet colors, such as brown or gray, and not easily soiled. While the costume should not be of the simplest nature, it should dispense with all superfluities in the way of trimming. It should be made with special reference to a free use of the arms, and to easy locomotion. Linen cuffs and collars are best suited to this kind of dress, gloves which can be easily removed, street walking boots, and for jewelry, plain cuff-buttons, brooch and watch chain. The hat or bonnet should be neat and tasty, with but few flowers or feathers. For winter wear, waterproof, tastefully made up, is the best material for a business woman’s outer garment.


The ordinary evening house dress should be tasteful and becoming, with a certain amount of ornament, and worn with jewelry. Silks are the most appropriate for this dress, but all the heavy woolen dress fabrics for winter, and the lighter lawns and organdies for summer, elegantly made, are suitable. For winter, the colors should be rich and warm, and knots of bright ribbon of a becoming color, should be worn at the throat and in the hair. The latter should be plainly dressed. Artificial flowers and diamonds are out of place. This is both a suitable dress in which to receive or make a casual evening call. If a hood is worn, it must be removed during the call. Otherwise a full dress bonnet must be worn.


For the social evening party, more latitude is allowed in the choice of colors, material, trimmings, etc., than for the ordinary evening dress. Dresses should cover the arms and shoulder; but if cut low in the neck, and with short sleeves, puffed illusion waists or some similar device should be employed to cover the neck and arms. Gloves may or may not be worn, but if they are they should be of some light color.


The dress for church should be plain, of dark, quiet colors, with no superfluous trimming or jewelry. It should, in fact, be the plainest of promenade dresses, as church is not the place for display of fine clothes.


The promenade dress with the addition of a handsome cloak or shawl, which may be thrown aside if it is uncomfortable, is suitable for a theatre. The dress should be quiet and plain without any attempt at display. Either a bonnet or hat may be worn. Gloves should be dark, harmonizing with the dress.


For the lecture or concert, silk is an appropriate dress, and should be worn with lace collars and cuffs and jewelry. A rich shawl or velvet promenade cloak, or opera cloak for a concert is an appropriate outer garment. The latter may or may not be kept on the shoulders during the evening. White or light kid gloves should be worn.


Croquet and archery costumes may be similar, and they admit of more brilliancy in coloring than any of the out-of-door costumes. They should be short, displaying a handsomely fitting but stout boot, and should be so arranged as to leave the arms perfectly free. The gloves should be soft and washable. Kid is not suitable for either occasion. The hat should have a broad brim, so as to shield the face from the sun, and render a parasol unnecessary. The trimming for archery costumes is usually of green.
An elegant skating costume may be of velvet, trimmed with fur, with fur bordered gloves and boots. Any of the warm, bright colored wool fabrics, however, are suitable for the dress. If blue or green are worn, they should be relieved with trimmings of dark furs. Silk is not suitable for skating costume. To avoid suffering from cold feet, the boot should be amply loose.


Flannel is the best material for a bathing costume, and gray is regarded as the most suitable color. It may be trimmed with bright worsted braid. The best form is the loose sacque, or the yoke waist, both of them to be belted in, and falling about midway between the knee and ankle; an oilskin cap to protect the hair from the water, and merino socks to match the dress, complete the costume.


Comfort and protection from dust and dirt are the requirements of a traveling dress. When a lady is about making an extensive journey, a traveling suit is a great convenience, but for a short journey, a large linen overdress or duster may be put on over the ordinary dress in summer, and in winter a waterproof cloak may be used in the same way. For traveling costumes a variety of materials may be used, of soft, neutral tints, and smooth surface which does not retain the dust. These should be made up plainly and quite short. The underskirts should be colored, woolen in winter and linen in summer. The hat or bonnet must be plainly trimmed and completely protected by a large veil. Velvet is unfit for a traveling hat, as it catches and retains the dust; collars and cuffs of plain linen. The hair should be put up in the plainest manner. A waterproof and warm woolen shawl are indispensible, and may be rolled in a shawl strap when not needed. A satchel should be carried, in which may be kept a change of collars, cuffs, gloves, handkerchiefs, toilet articles, and towels. A traveling dress should be well supplied with pockets. The waterproof should have large pockets, and there should be one in the underskirt in which to carry such money and valuables as are not needed for immediate use.


A full bridal costume should be white from head to foot. The dress may be of silk, heavily corded, moire antique, satin or plain silk, merino, alpaca, crape, lawn or muslin. The veil may be of lace, tulle or illusion, but it must be long and full. It may or may not descend over the face. Orange blossoms or other white flowers and maiden blush roses should form the bridal wreath and bouquet. The dress is high and the arms covered. Slippers of white satin and white kid gloves complete the dress.
The dress of the bridegroom and ushers is given in the chapter treating of the etiquette of weddings.


The dresses of bridemaids are not so elaborate as that of the bride. They should also be of white, but may be trimmed with delicately colored flowers and ribbons. White tulle, worn over pale pink or blue silk and caught up with blush roses or forget-me-nots, with bouquet de corsage and hand bouquet of the same, makes a beautiful costume for the bridemaids. The latter, may or may not, wear veils, but if they do, they should be shorter than that of the bride.


This should be of silk, or any of the fine fabrics for walking dresses; should be of some neutral tint; and bonnet and gloves should match in color. It may be more elaborately trimmed than an ordinary traveling dress, but if the bride wishes to attract as little attention as possible, she will not make herself conspicuous by a too showy dress. In private weddings the bride is sometimes married in traveling costume, and the bridal pair at once set out upon their journey.


At wedding receptions in the evening, guests should wear full evening dress. No one should attend in black or mourning dress, which should give place to grey or lavender. At a morning reception of the wedded couple, guests should wear the richest street costume with white gloves.


The people of the United States have settled upon no prescribed periods for the wearing of mourning garments. Some wear them long after their hearts have ceased to mourn. Where there is profound grief, no rules are needed, but where the sorrow is not so great, there is need of observance of fixed periods for wearing mourning.
Deep mourning requires the heaviest black of serge, bombazine, lustreless alpaca, delaine, merino or similar heavily clinging material, with collar and cuffs of crape. Mourning garments should have little or no trimming; no flounces, ruffles or bows are allowable. If the dress is not made en suite, then a long or square shawl of barege or cashmere with crape border is worn. The bonnet is of black crape; a hat is inadmissible. The veil is of crape or barege with heavy border; black gloves and black-bordered handkerchief. In winter dark furs may be worn with the deepest mourning. Jewelry is strictly forbidden, and all pins, buckles, etc., must be of jet. Lustreless alpaca and black silk trimmed with crape may be worn in second mourning, with white collars and cuffs. The crape veil is laid aside for net or tulle, but the jet jewelry is still retained. A still less degree of mourning is indicated by black and white, purple and gray, or a combination of these colors. Crape is still retained in bonnet trimming, and crape flowers may be added. Light gray, white and black, and light shades of lilac, indicate a slight mourning. Black lace bonnet, with white or violet flowers, supercedes crape, and jet and gold jewelry is worn.


The following rules have been given by an authority competent to speak on these matters regarding the degree of mourning and the length of time it should be worn:

“The deepest mourning is that worn by a widow for her husband. It is worn two years, sometimes longer. Widow’s mourning for the first year consists of solid black woolen goods, collar and cuffs of folded untrimmed crape, a simple crape bonnet, and a long, thick, black crape veil. The second year, silk trimmed with crape, black lace collar and cuffs, and a shorter veil may be worn, and in the last six months gray, violet and white are permitted. A widow should wear the hair perfectly plain if she does not wear a cap, and should always wear a bonnet, never a hat.

“The mourning for a father or mother is worn for one year. The first six months the proper dress is of solid black woolen goods trimmed with crape, black crape bonnet with black crape facings and black strings, black crape veil, collar and cuffs of black crape. Three months, black silk with crape trimming, white or black lace collar and cuffs, veil of tulle and white bonnet-facings; and the last three months in gray, purple and violet. Mourning worn for a child is the same as that worn for a parent.

“Mourning for a grandparent is worn for six months, three months black woolen goods, white collar and cuffs, short crape veil and bonnet of crape trimmed with black silk or ribbon; six weeks in black silk trimmed with crape, lace collar and cuffs, short tulle veil; and six weeks in gray, purple, white and violet.

“Mourning worn for a friend who leaves you an inheritance, is the same as that worn for a grandparent.

“Mourning for a brother or sister is worn six months, two months in solid black trimmed with crape, white linen collar and cuffs, bonnet of black with white facing and black strings; two months in black silk, with white lace collar and cuffs; and two months in gray, purple, white and violet.

“Mourning for an uncle or aunt is worn for three months, and is the second mourning named above, tulle, white linen and white bonnet facings being worn at once. For a nephew or niece, the same is worn for the same length of time.

“The deepest mourning excludes kid gloves; they should be of cloth, silk or thread; and no jewelry is permitted during the first month of close mourning. Embroidery, jet trimmings, puffs, plaits—in fact, trimming of any kind—is forbidden in deep mourning, but worn when it is lightened.

“Mourning handkerchiefs should be of very sheer fine linen, with a border of black, very wide for close mourning, narrower as the black is lightened.

“Mourning silks should be perfectly lusterless, and the ribbons worn without any gloss.

“Ladies invited to funeral ceremonies should always wear a black dress, even if they are not in mourning; and it is bad taste to appear with a gay bonnet or shawl, as if for a festive occasion.

“The mourning for children under twelve years of age is white in summer and gray in winter, with black trimmings, belt, sleeve ruffles and bonnet ribbons.”

The above is an excerpt from “Our Deportment,” a code of manners for refined society by John H. Young A.M., published in 1881. We offer it in hopes of promoting gentlemanly conduct among men—young and older—in today’s often unbalanced world.
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