F R O C K C O A T S
Frock coats were semi-formal suit coats commonly worn by the more well-to-do members of Victorian society and up until approximately the 1920's. They were considered less formal than a traditional cutaway tuxedo, but not as casual as sack coats and other informal daily or business attire. These coats, though mostly thought of as daywear, were a sort of all-occasion garment and it is likely that a Victorian gentleman may have been able to get away with sporting a frock coat in most situations without appearing under- or overdressed. Presently, frock coats have come back into fashion in some social circles, and there appears to be much confusion currently as to what actually qualifies as a frock coat, as opposed to a morning coat (sometimes mistakenly referred to as a 'mourning coat'), swallowtail, or cutaway tuxedo coat.
There are often coats listed as frock coats that aren't frock coats at all, so this guide is meant to assist those interested in buying a genuine Victorian frock coat in knowing what to look for before placing a bid on something that isn't what they want.
A frock coat is most often black, double breasted, and cut to fit close to the body down to the waist, where it falls away in a 'skirt', and ends in a straight, even cut the whole way round, normally just above the knee of the wearer. Single breasted frock coats are rarer, but do exist. Aside from how they close at the front, however, they are the same as their more common double-breasted cousins in every way. Frock coats, like morning coats and cutaways, also have a back vent, with a pleat on either side, and with two decorative buttons at the waist just above the start of the vent. The decorative buttons are always placed about 4 inches apart, regardless of the size of the coat. A gray, green, blue, or brown frock coat is often just a formerly black one with aged, faded dye, so don't be fooled into paying more for one of these, believing it to be special. They are always lined, and normally have pockets located in the 'tails' created by the back vent. The lining is frequently either a black horsehair fabric or silk in the body of the coat, with ecru cotton or silk lining the sleeves, often with pinstripes of some darker colour. Double breasted frock coats usually close to both the right and left side, and the buttons are invariably metal covered by fabric. Occasionally, older frock coats may have an unfinished bottom edge, which should not be considered a flaw but can be hemmed by a tailor if need be.
Antique frock coats do not classically have any pockets on the outside. There may be some in existence that do, but this reviewer has yet to encounter one. Many modern replicas have flap pockets located at the waist and another pocket at the chest, but these in fact were not as common on frock coats as on sack coats or morning coats.
In this article you will find a photo of a modern gentleman wearing a traditional double breasted Victorian frock coat. Note the fit of the coat as opposed to that of a modern-day replica--this is the way a frock coat should fit its wearer. It should have minimal shoulder padding, and the shoulders should slope downward from the collar. The upper part of the coat should fit close to the chest and be noticeably narrower at the waist, and the 'skirt' part should fall away from the wearer from the waist down and should not fit tightly or taper in toward the body.
Remember: Any coat possessing of a bottom edge that isn't the same length all the way round the coat is NOT a frock coat. If it is slanted upwards toward the waist at the front, it is a morning coat and if it is sharply cut away at the front waist it is, of course, a cutaway.
NON-CIVILIAN FROCK COATS...
Another type of frock coat that should be discussed in this guide due to its prevalence here at auction is the fraternal, military, or clergy sort of frock coat. This is a frock coat that closes at the front with a single row of several buttons, which possesses a stand-up collar, and often has religious, fraternal, or military symbols embroidered thereon. The back vent on these coats frequently has another set of decorative buttons placed further down the 'tails' as an added detail. Many of these frock coats are genuine antiques which are well worth purchasing and very desirable for those who prefer this style to that of the civilian ones previously discussed. Bidders should be aware, however, that these coats were produced in large numbers, particularly for fraternities, until comparatively recently, unlike the strictly Victorian/Edwardian-made civilian sort. As such, they are more widely available and occasionally are not as old as one might first suspect--dating from ca. 1940's or even later in some cases, so it is wise to pay close attention to what details may provide clues to the actual age of the garment aside from simply relying on the general appearance. If age is not a concern, of course, it is then solely up to the individual seeking one of these frock coats to determine the price he or she is willing to pay, and it is not impossible for such a coat in mint or near-mint condition to fetch as much as a comparably well-preserved civilian frock coat.
SOME UNSOLICITED COMMENTS & OPINIONS...
Cutaways and morning coats are still very popular formalwear even today, as are somewhat modified (usually boxier and not historically accurate) frock coats. However, the Victorian originals retain all of the charming details that differentiate them from their modern counterparts and give them a more striking, dashing appearance when worn that immediately sets them apart from anything available today.
It would be fabulous should some designer endeavour to reincarnate the REAL thing and bring it fully back into fashion for the masses, but till that wonderful day arrives, those of us who appreciate the handsome lines of this classic style of coat must continue to wear those which have somehow managed to survive the decades of disuse and find their way into shops such as the one the author of this piece pilots.
The price of a genuine antique frock coat at auction, in average condition, is normally from just under $100 to around $200. Retail prices are usually a bit higher, and if an item is exceptional in some way, it can be more expensive as well. Also worth mentioning is that if a coat is being advertised as having been made any earlier than the mid to late 1850's, it should be completely handsewn, as sewing machines weren't in mass production until this time. Details like plain ecru lining in the sleeves or a fabric that has a slight velvet-like knap to it are often seen in older coats as well, as are fuller, shorter skirts and more steeply sloped shoulders. However, it is always a good idea to be cautious of items listed as being older than the late 1800's, as any of these details could also be found in a newer coat, even handsewing. Always go with your intuition, especially if a seller responds rudely or refuses to answer any questions you have, and be wary of anyone who won't allow returns.
Alright then, folks: If you have read this guide and perhaps done a bit of your own research, you can be confident that you are well on your way to finding the perfect Victorian frock coat to add to your wardrobe!
*Do you want to do a bit more research? Would you like to see some people in frock coats just to ascertain that they're your style? We suggest looking for frock coat patterns; these will show details that a photograph of an actual coat cannot, such as precisely how it is constructed inside and out. People who are often pictured wearing a frock coat include Lewis Carroll (whose many excellent photographs also show his contemporaries in their frock coats), Ludwig van Beethoven (you will find this well-known character wearing a frock coat in numerous portraits as well as in modern films about him), and Oscar Wilde (who had a very original sense of style; not one you want to imitate if you prefer to appear a more conservative Victorian gentleman). Of course, a search for old photographs--albumen prints or ambrotypes (collodian), CDV's, callotypes, daguerreotype, and cabinet prints here on eBay or elsewhere may turn up some excellent pictures of frock coats as well--they were quite popular when photography was first in vogue, so this might be a good place to start.*
Anything needed in this guide? Please contact me and let me know! Thanks!