Sunday, 10 August 2014

Opera coats

What, exactly, characterizes an opera coat (also described as an ‘evening coat’) seems to vary depending on where you look. For some it must be loose fitting, whereas elsewhere a fitted coat is described as an ‘opera coat’. Some insist on floor or ankle length, others allow it to be shorter. All definitions agree on one thing however; opulence is a must. Luxurious fabrics, rich decoration, tassels, fur – all of these feature heavily.

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

Worth, 1894

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.


  1. Every time I look at look at haute couture from the 20s, I then go and look at what the designers are offering this year--all "minimalist" junk. And it goes double for jewelry. You can see these exquisite pieces in platinum and then look at today's designs and--ugh, there's no art in them. Thanks for the galleries.

    1. That's so true,The fashion of 19th and early 20th century are exquisite. The craftsmanship is astounding.