Overcoats and Undercoats
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the frock coat established itself as the correct form of day wear full dress coat, displacing the dress coat to the status of evening wear.
It should also be made explicit that the word ‘coat’ does not traditionally denote outwear or an overcoat for outdoor wear. Tailcoats such as the morning coat (day wear tail coat) and the dress coat (evening wear tail coat) are both coats, but are not outerwear. Coats can therefore be distinguished as either overcoats or ‘undercoats’ – although the latter archaic expression became obsolete some time in the early 19th century. Undercoats are worn under the overcoat, and overcoats are worn over the undercoat! The frock coat is an ‘undercoat’, and the top frock is an overcoat.
Origins of the Frock Overcoat
It is interesting that the frock coat may have evolved from a hybrid of overcoat and undercoat. In the earlier part of the 19th century, a particular subtype of frock coat existed called the surtout, that was half undercoat and half overcoat. Here is an example:
Notice that the wearer is wearing only a waistcoat under the coat, which is nonetheless three quarter length in the manner of an undercoat and worn without an overcoat ie it has features of both an undercoat and an overcoat.
As the frock coat became established as the Prince Albert for wear with daytime full dress, an overcoat known as either a “top frock”, or the “frock overcoat” emerged, cut to be worn over the frock coat. Cutting manuals state that a little measure should be added to the proportions of the client’s frock coat to make this overcoat.
The Frock Overcoat
It should be made clear that the frock coat is not an overcoat or outerwear. When outerwear was worn, the frock overcoat served this role:
As you can see, the wearer has on a shirt, a waistcoat, a frock coat and over that he wears his final outer layer, the frock overcoat. The fact that it is an overcoat is further highlighted by the fact that the garment has a velvet collar in a manner still commonly seen on Chesterfield coats today. Other characteristic features of the frock overcoat were that it often (but not always) had outer side pockets. In other respects, the basic cut and proportion of the frock overcoat are usually largely identical to that of the frock coat, although it is always cut to be a little longer than the frock coat underneath so as to fully cover the undercoat.
In this plate, it takes a little careful study of the coat to determine if it is an undercoat or an overcoat:
The things that give it away as an Albert top frock are that it has a velvet collar and the sleeves lengths are longer. Although the chest welt could occasionally be found on frock coats, it is much more common on top frocks. It is also notable that the construction of the vent is identical to that of standard body coats worn as undercoats such as dress coats or morning coats.
In this illustration, the overcoat has side pockets, and velvet lined sleeve cuffs – a feature never found on frock coats:
Alternative Construction Method for the Vents
Often, the frock overcoat had vents constructed differently to that of the undercoat:
The fashion plate also shows the wearer from the front in the centre of the three figures:
The centre figure wears both a frock coat and frock overcoat. This makes it clear that the figure on the right shows a method of construction unique to the frock overcoat from behind.
This old German text describes in detail the construction of what it calls a Gehrock-Paletot or frock overcoat:
Notice the way that the back panel is cut without a centre seam, and how the waist seam has been extended all the way around to meet at the centre back. Further details of this alternative method of construction can be found here:
The Frock Overcoat and the Paddock Coat
One Apparel Arts/Esquire illustration that has engendered enormous confusion is this one. The wearers are in morning dress, and the overcoat of the figure on the right is incorrectly described as a “paddock coat”.
Let us examine in detail as to whether an error has been committed in calling this overcoat a “paddock coat”. The only detailed reference that explains what a paddock coat is can be found in Cunnington. The Cunningtons explain that some people in the late 19th century differentiated between the paletot and the paddock coat. The paletot properly had a side body, whereas the paddock coat lacks it. Cunnington states that the paddock coat is:
A long overcoat without a seam at the waist, made D-B or S-B and fly front
However, in common usage the term “paletot” was used for both. The important point is that the paddock coat (and paletot) lacked a waist seam.
Let us look carefully at the illustration in concern:
It is quite clear that this is a body coat. The button three/show six construction is identical to a frock coat except for the outer pockets – just as would be expected from a frock overcoat. Also, a frock coat is worn with morning dress – and morning dress is depicted in the illustration. The velvet collar is another typical feature of a frock overcoat.
It there was finally one thing that must cast grave doubts on the term “paddock coat” as used in that Apparel Arts/Esquire text, it must surely be the fact that a “paddock” would be a most peculiar place to wear such a formal full dress garment. The name automatically implies a country styled casual garment rather than a formal city garment.
The only logical conclusion is that the writers have committed a grave error in calling a frock overcoat a paddock coat. It is perhaps related to the fact that the garment had become increasingly rare at the time of printing, and the writers were unfamiliar with the correct terminology. The American writers in Apparel Arts/Esquire should have called it a surtout.
British English vs American English
The next question is whether there could be a difference in the usage of British and American English. The Cunnington’s always use British English. However, examination of texts from Croonborg (New York-Chicago, 1907) reveals no mention of a paddock coat. However, he does call an overcoat with a body coat construction like a frock overcoat a “double-breasted surtout”.
In British English, the word surtout became just another name for a frock coat in the later 19th century. Salisbury (New York, 1865) also calls such an overcoat with a body coat construction a double-breasted surtout:
(Notice that Salisbury’s pattern has separately cut lapels, whereas Croonborg shows a one piece front, as was becoming fashionable around this time. Also, note the presence of the centre back seam and that the waist seam does not extend all the way to the centre back)
It seems that in American English the word surtout was restricted to describing a frock overcoat, whereas surtout became an alternative phrase for a frock undercoat in British English. The divergence in the usage of the term “surtout” argues for the origin of the later Victorian frock coat from a coat that was half overcoat and half undercoat. Nonetheless, it is clear that there is no historical precedent in American English to call a double-breasted body overcoat a “paddock coat”.
The next question is where such a garment could be worn. Originally, the frock overcoat was strictly worn only with daytime full dress and could not be worn in the evening, when an opera cape or Inverness cloak was required. However, this 1902 British dress chart makes it clear that it increasingly became acceptable to wear a top frock with evening full dress:
Purists would have likely objected to this detail on this chart, insisting instead that a proper overcoat devoted to evening dress be worn such as an Inverness cloak.
A Modern Revival
Those interesting in cutting an Albert top frock should consider cutting a morning coat first – or perhaps even a frock coat. Once satisfied with the fit of the coat, a small measure can be added to the bodice pattern to cut the overcoat. The vents may be finished in the above discussed manner with a back panel lacking a centre seam, and the waist seam extended to meet at the centre back, according to taste.
A particularly striking variant of the frock overcoat was published by Croonsborg (who calls this variant a Newmarket coat):
The striking feature of this pattern is the way the waist seam goes only part way around the waist. The lapel is of the semi-cut on type with the dart at top centre.
Here is a modernised version made by Thomas Mahon: