Dress Code: This Just in From the 1890s

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IT’S usually easy to distinguish between clothes and costumes: either you’re Spider-Man, or you’re not.

Drawing the line between polish and pretension is trickier, especially when last year’s costume can be this year’s classic, and next year’s yawn. Just consider the steady infiltration of 19th-century haberdashery into the 21st-century wardrobe. Garment after garment has arrived on the scene that one might think more Gilbert and Sullivan than Bergdorf and Goodman, only to be taken up by the young beards.

Not long ago, big brass-buttoned military coats looked a bit extreme. So did high-button, high-lapel vests and slim tweed trousers. And so did guys who tucked said trousers into high, old-fashioned hunting boots. Now these clothes (along with those ever-present beards and mustaches) look like downtown defaults compared with fall runway looks like cardinal-red tailcoats at Ralph Lauren, capes and bowlers at Alexander McQueen and knee breeches at Robert Geller.

As with home design, where curio cases, taxidermy and other stylish clutter of the Victorian era have been taken up by young hipsters, many of today’s popular men’s styles have their roots in the late 19th century. There are the three-piece suits once favored by mustachioed Gilded Age bankers; the military greatcoats and boots of Union officers; and the henley undershirts, suspenders, plaid flannel shirts and stout drill trousers worn by plain, honest farmers.

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