The earliest garments defined as opera coats which I have been able to find are from the late 19th century, and look quite close-fitting.
|Charles Frederick or Jean-Phillipe Worth, 1889|
|Couture coat, poss Worth, 1890s|
It was in the 20th century that opera coats really came into their own however, especially in the early teens and 1920s. By this time, the coats had become far looser, presumably to ensure that they did not crush the dress underneath.
|Poiret, 1912, from Met Museum|
|Poiret, 1911, from Met Museum|
Most of the coats of this period wrapped over and closed with a single, low fasten, which was often a major element of the coat’s decoration.
|Evening coat with tasseled fasten, Babani, 1910|
|Poiret, 1912, fasten detail|
However this coat by Lucile was designed to be worn open, to show off the dress underneath.
|Lucile, c1911, Museum of London|
To me, this rather seems to miss the point of a coat. There again, I don’t suppose that many of Lucile’s customers went to the opera by getting the Tube (London Underground) to Covent Garden station and then walking to the opera house, whatever this poster may suggest!
|London Underground poster by Horace Taylor, 1924|
It wasn’t just the front of an opera coat which could be decorated, the back was frequently embellished as well.
|1913 coat from Met Museum|
In the 1920s, collars of heavily ruched velvet seemed to become a frequent feature on opera coats.
|1928 beaded and embroidered velvet, from Phoenix Art Museum|
Metallic fabrics also appeared more, including that Art Deco favourite, assuit.
|1926, from Met Museum|
While opera coats may seem to belong to a bygone era, as this article shows, they are still sought after today. It seems that nothing conveys luxury like an opera coat, a thought which was presumably on Sir John Lavery's mind when he painted his wife, Hazel, wrapped in one.
|Hazel in Rose and Gold, Sir John Lavery, Walker Art Gallery|
If you too would like to revel in the sumptuousness of opera coats, I've collected lots more images of opera coats on this Pinterest board.