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A Wisconsin man wearing a sack suit from c. 1876. WHi(X3)43706

A Wisconsin man wearing a sack suit from c. 1876. WHi(X3)43706

1878 Sack Suit
History of the 1878 Sack Suit and Notes on Late 1870s Men's Fashions

The men's sack suit pattern was drafted from J.O. Madison's Elements of Garment Cutting (Root and Tinker, New York, 1878, rev. 1880), a drafting system designed to be used by professional tailors. Unlike other systems that relied on proportions or block patterns, Madison believed in the direct-measure approach which used several measurements taken directly from the customer's body. According to Madison, the two most important dimensions were the upper and lower shoulder, since these "two combined govern the balance [or hang]" of the coat. He hoped that his approach would provide "a reform that simplifies and secures accuracy in measuring and drafting."


J.O. Madison from the frontispiece of his book Elements of Garment Cutting, 1878

J.O. Madison from the frontispiece of his book Elements of Garment Cutting, 1878

Like most authors of drafting systems, Madison assumed the reader knew tailoring construction techniques, including the shapes and placement of pockets, collars, and belts. For these details we used a sack suit located in the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society and worn by Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the reaper. McCormick's coat, vest, and trousers told us the shape of the lining, facing, interfacing, and collar pieces; pocket and belt placement; and interfacing, taping, and stitching details. Since McCormick was a large man, close to 300 pounds, his suit could not be used to draft pattern pieces for an average-sized man.

Cyrus Hall McCormick, c. 1870, Whi(X3)47123

Cyrus Hall McCormick, c. 1870
WHi(X3)47123


The sack coat, a loose fitting single-breasted garment without a waist seam, first appeared in American pattern drafting systems during the 1840s. By the late nineteenth century distinctive characteristics of this coat included a small collar, short lapels, a fastened top button close to the neck, moderately-rounded front hems, flap or welt pockets on the hips, a welt pocket on the chest, and a slightly baggy appearance. Our 1878 suit has many of the typical sack coat features, but Madison's coat pattern buttons slightly lower and has longer lapels than those pictured in fashion prints.
 A Wisconsin man wearing a Prince Albert frock coat from the 1870s.
Lot 537


Throughout the nineteenth century, the frock coat dominated men's wardrobes. Unlike sack coats, the frock had a waist seam, was fitted at the waist, and frequently padded in the chest. It had five vertical seams versus the sack which usually had three. The frock came in many different cuts including the cutaway, tails, or the Prince Albert. The latter, a knee-length coat with a full skirt, was especially popular with professional men.

Fashion illustration of two men in checked and plaid sack suits, 1880. Lot 4058

Fashion illustration of two men in checked and plaid sack suits, 1880. Lot 4058


At first men viewed the sack suit as an informal alternative to the frock suit that could be worn for sports or leisure activities at the seaside or in the country. By the 1860s they began wearing it for day wear. As Harper's Bazar wrote in their April 6, 1878 issue, "Until visiting hours gentlemen of greatest elegance wear [sack suits], which do not differ essentially from those worn by travellers and the habitues of the races." Later in the year the magazine noted that men were choosing the sack suit "for business, for travelling, and morning wear on the street."


Below
: Wool and linen fabric samples from the late 1890s. Note that the more expensive suitings have a denser, finer weave than the cheaper versions.

Fabric samples from the late 1890s.

Fabric samples from the late 1890s

Fabric samples from the late 1890s


Besides the loose-fitting coat, another informal feature of the sack suit was the fact that all three pieces were made from the same fabric. Fashion magazines listed plaids, small checks, or narrow stripes in dark color combinations, especially browns, as the preferred fabrics for sack suits. In 1875 Tailor and Cutter wrote that "the leading characteristic is narrow stripes and small checks," though soft wool Angolas "show a little more boldness of both colour and pattern, the general tone in the latter respect being quiet combinations of black, grey, and brown." However not all men wanted "quiet combinations," as evidenced when the West End Gazette of Fashion complained in 1876 that "Our fast young men will find something to be noisy in, in the shape of loud plaids, the patterns more striking than tasteful."

By the turn of the century, sack coats had become the dominant mode of dress for men, with frock coats regulated to formal occasions. The introduction of the tuxedo, a formal sack coat, eventually made frock suits obsolete. As early as 1878 Tailor & Cutter had predicted this future. They wrote: "We are rapidly degenerating into a slipshod state of things. After a time Frock coats and even Morning coats will be entirely a thing of the past and if things continue on in this way [these coats] will only be seen at museums where they will serve to amuse a wondering and awestricken group of sight-seers." Today men wear an updated version of the nineteenth-century sack suit.


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2002 Wisconsin Historical Society
Last updated April 02, 2002