History of the Fashionable Coat, the Spencer

The Spencer coat dates from the 1790s. It was originally a woolen double-breasted, short-waisted outer coat without tails that was “cut according to its cloth” and adopted by British military officers. Although there are varying elements in the story about exactly how the Spencer coat came about, most people claim the coat originated from a bet put forth by the British Whig and politician, George Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer, who is also the person for who the coat was named.

Lord Spencer by John Singleton Copley, 1800, Named for the Spencer coat
Lord Spencer by John Singleton Copley, 1800. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although the Earl was perhaps best known for his fine book collection, he was also known to indulge in a bet or two. One bet he indulged in occurred in 1795. While talking to friends, the Earl wagered he could create a useless and ridiculous coat that would become fashionable and be universally adopted. His friends being wagering enthusiasts thought it was a bet the Earl could not win, and they decided to accept it never thinking that such a coat would become fashionable.

It is unclear exactly how the Earl of Spencer came up with the idea for the coat. Some people say it occurred after he was standing too near a fire and the tails of his coat burnt off. Other people assert that while he was hunting he fell into a brier patch and ripped off the tails of his coat.

Spencer Coats Worn by Woman and Boy in Brown in the 1800s, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Spencer coats worn a woman and boys in brown in the 1800s, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Which story is true, and however the coat originated, Spencer designed a coat that was short with rear tabs below the waistline and no tails. When his wagering friends saw the coat, they agreed the coat was utterly useless and ridiculous. In fact, they laughed so hard, they were sure they had won the bet.

The Earl of Spencer was apparently more insightful than the wagers thought. He introduced the coat by purposely walking down Bond Street hoping one of the “men of modes” would see him, and that’s exactly what happened. Then, after one of the modish men adopted it, just as the Earl had predicted, every man who saw the new coat wanted one.

Wearers of the fashionable coat — now called a Spencer — also soon discovered the coat had a thousand conveniences and advantages. These features the Earl had not purposely designed, which made the coat all the more desirable. Thus, before long the Spencer coat was also adopted by women and worn on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

References:

  • Fashion-Pastime, 1823 
  • Norris, Herbert, Oswald Curtis, Nineteen-century Costume and Fashion, 1933 
  • Sala, George Augustus, The Life and Adventures of George Augustus Sala, 1898
  • Sporting Magazine, Vol. 5, 1795
  • “The Fashion, “in Staffordshire Advertiser, 7 March 1795
  • “To the Printer,” in Chester Courant, 17 March 1795

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