Warm in the Winter: A Look at Victorian Dolman Coats

December 01, 2017



I have to admit, I am lousy when it comes to making historical outerwear. It's not that I can't do it, it's just that I focus so much of my time and attention on the main ensemble that things like accessories, hairstyles, and outerwear just don't get made in time. This is a crime, really, because historical fashion offers so much fabulousness in outerwear!

For the upcoming Victorian Soiree in February, I've latched onto a particular dolman that was featured in the December 1874 issue of Gazette of Fashion and Cutting-Room Companion.

Don't feel bad if you're just hearing the term "dolman" for the first time. I didn't even know this was a thing until a few months ago, when a friend of mine mentioned it while talking about winter events. So what exactly is a dolman?

 
Dolman, 1860s, Met Museum
A dolman is sort of a hybrid between a cape and a coat. The word probably from the Turkish dolaman, which refers to a loose fitting garment with narrow sleeves that fastens up the front. We first start seeing the Western version of the dolman in the 1860s, where it began as a loose-fitting, cloak-style garment, with large hanging sleeves. They were often decorated with fringe and elaborate embroidery, or with fur, ribbon, and pretty much anything else you can stick on them. They were wildly popular, and changed in shape quite a bit during the decades that they were worn.

 
Dolman, ca. 1870, Met Museum
One of the key characteristics of the dolman is the way the sleeve is attached to the body of the coat. The back edge of the sleeve would be sewn as one with the side-back seam until the waist, where the sleeve back then goes on to attach to the sleeve front. The front of the sleeve sits in the armhole like a sleeve usually would, but since it can't attach to the sleeve in the back, it's only stitched in about 80% of the way. Confused yet? I only figured it out because brave costumers before me have tried and conquered this style.

 
Dolman, 1885, Met Museum
I've only found one example so far of a garment that was referred to as a dolman in period (I've found a couple in museum collections, but they may be misidentified, so I hesitate to include them) that didn't have the characteristic attached sleeve. It happens to be the one that I intend to make for the Soiree. I'm sort of sad that I don't get to tackle the crazy attached sleeve, but also kind of relieved, too. 
Gazette of Fashion and Cutting-Room Companion, December 1874
As time progressed, the general style of the dolman became much more fitted in the back, and was cut to fit the wearer rather than hang loose. The front of the dolman, however, remained unshaped, and rather boxy. The dolman sleeve shrank, but was still fairly loose fitting.

Left: Dolman, ca. 1870, Helen Larson Historic Fashion
Right: Dolman ca. 1880, Kent State Museum
In the late 1880s and early 90s, there suddenly was a trend for gown-length dolmans. Dolmans fell out of popularity after 1890, when sleeves of great enormity came into fashion, making it difficult to maintain the connected sleeve and side-back seam.

 
Dolman, ca. 1885 - 1890, Met Museum
 
Dolman, ca. 1890, Met Museum

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