Cummerbunds and Dickies: Male Fashions in the Victorian Era

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Both the cummerbund (NOT spelt ‘cumberbund’) and dickie are clothing items with their origins in the Victorian era, as part of a gentleman’s more formal kit. The masculine dress of Victorian era wasn’t quite as over-the-top as in previous eras, but it wasn’t for the want of trying.

The cummerbund began in colonial India around 1850, as part of the formal dining outfit for the British military personnel. For these formal dinners, the British army wore waistcoats under their jackets, which could be stifling in the summer heat.  The local male fashionistas often wore sashes around their waist called kamarbands.  As the British personnel were keen to find a cooler dining uniform, they quickly adopted the pleated sash to replace the vest, and retained the dashing style of their dining outfits.

Officers 17th Lancers India 1870-1890 By Chris Rothero. Originally published in Military Modelling Magazine

Officers of the 17th Lancers in India, circa 1870-1890, by Chris Rothero.

Cummerbunds were added to formal attire as the British military personal returned to the home country.  They found the cummerbunds stylish, fabulous crumb catchers and an excellent substitute for pockets for small items. (And just so you know, the pleats are meant to face up.) An U.S. newspaper reported that the Prince of Wales first imported the garment to England, following his visit to India in 1875-1876, and prior to that it was unknown to the European upper classes. The timing sounds about right, but I argue that he wasn’t the first to import the garment, but he did help to make them fashionable. So fashionable, women took to wearing cummerbunds too.

Walking suit ca. 1890s. Emerald green wool trimmed with soutache in foliate pattern. Pleated velvet cummerbund in front gives the impression of a jacket & waistcoat. Sadira's Vintage/ebay via Extant Gowns

Walking suit circa the 1890s

ANTIQUE VICTORIAN BLACK TWILLED SILK BUTTON DETAILED SUIT CUMMERBUND

Victorian-era silk cummerbund for a formal suit

In 1893, it was a particularly hot summer in Britain (as the British understand summer, which is comparable to a Queensland winter).  A New Zealand paper reported that in London some men were wearing items of clothing that resembled more of a belt than a wrap:  “It is a sash of thick, soft black silk, with pockets like those near the waist in an evening waistcoat.  It is kept up by bretelles passing over the shoulders, and is expected to ‘catch on’.” So a Steampunk writer who wants to be historically accurate wouldn’t have British gentlemen wearing cummerbunds before the 1850s, and can confidently make free with them after 1875. In the Antipodes, we can safely assume the fashion didn’t catch on until the 1890s.

And please note that Victorian-era cummerbunds were the same colour as the outfits’ trousers. Matching the cummerbund’s colour to the bowtie is a fairly modern practice, as far as I can tell.

The Victorian era was when formal clothing was worn more frequently, and yet laundering was a laborious and expensive process, with modern washing machines yet to be invented. As a result, for dressy occasions, middle class men wore special shirts with detachable collars and cuffs, and some shirts had removable bib fronts, the dickie. This allowed the gentlemen to maintain a neat appearance without requiring an entire shirt to be laundered.

Celluloid Dickie

Invented in the United States in the 1820s, detachable dickies, collars and cuffs were to become internationally popular by the late Victorian era, because they could be reversed when soiled in order to save on laundry costs. Of course, the upper class, who need never worry about the cost or effort that went into laundering a shirt, preferred shirts with everything permanently attached. Dickies were one of the first commercial uses of newly-invented celluloid, and were also made from cardboard and cloth. Dickies for formal wear have not remained part of the modern male fashion items, though their use lingered on into the early years of the 20th century.

Interlined Shirt Bosoms – as if the word ‘dickie’ wasn’t humorous enough.

As a writer in the Steampunk genre, until recently, I have tended to ignore men’s fashions for the Victorian era. This is a grave mistake to make for a writer who is trying to create a setting in a specific historical era. I am now working to rectify my oversight. And the humorous possibilities supplied by Victorian male attire hasn’t escaped me.

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6 Comments

Filed under Characterization, Fashion, Metaphors, Setting, Steampunk, writing

6 responses to “Cummerbunds and Dickies: Male Fashions in the Victorian Era

  1. I’m grateful for the pointer re cummerbunds. I’ve been making a dickie of myself by wearing mine upside-down!

  2. hmmm… there probably are a lot of ‘traps’ for people who havent made a lot of research in male fashion i guess, good luck on your researches then!

    • I’ve a few insights into Victorian masculine underwear that makes me thrilled to be living in the 21st century. I’m also lucky that I love to research! When deciding on my career route, the thought of being a historian tempted me sorely. But science was always going to win in the end.

  3. Not a writer, I have no use for these interesting tidbits. I do, however, enjoy learning such things just for the fun of it. Thanks for such an interesting post.

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