Last night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was the most watched in American history, with as many as 100 million people tuning in. While the Clinton-Trump debates may achieve infamy, the most famous debates in American history are the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.
Needless to say, political debates have changed quite a bit since 1858. But since this is a clothing blog, I’ll start with the changes in costume. In the mid-19th century, the political uniform was different from the dark suit, white shirt, and solid tie worn last night by Mr. Trump. Men wore instead a black bow tie, waistcoat, and frock coat. The coats were usually in black wool, although one artist depicted Douglas in a brown coat and another put Lincoln in a white one (I don’t know if artistic choices have any grounding in historical fact).
But just as today, men had small opportunities to deviate from this seeming monotony of dress. In the photos above, Douglas has taken advantage of one such opportunity in the lapel of his coat. If you look carefully, you can see what looks like a little jagged tooth fighting its way out of the gorge, where the neck meets the lapel. This detail - called the “M” cut since it looks like a sideways “M” - enjoyed some popularity in the mid-19th century before finally going the way of breeches and powdered wigs (thanks to my Twitter buddy Mr. Claymore for the pics and information - pics from Cunnington’s Handbook of English Costume in the 19th Century).
Mr. Lincoln’s lapels would also look odd on a suit jacket today - they bear some resemblance to the Tautz lapel - but were quite common for frock coats. Here you can see Woodrow Wilson in a coat with similar lapels 60 years after the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
The clothing may now be the least outdated part of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Each Lincoln-Douglas debate started with one candidate speaking for 60 uninterrupted minutes, then the other responded for 90 uninterrupted minutes, then the first speaker concluded with another 30 uninterrupted minutes. Clinton and Trump debated for 90 minutes total, with frequent interruption.
Although Americans remember Lincoln as winning these debates with his arguments against slavery and becoming a great president, the Lincoln and Douglas were not vying for the presidency but Illinois’ Senate seat - a race which Lincoln lost to Douglas. But the debates brought Lincoln to national prominence, which eventually resulted in him winning the presidency in 1860, and becoming America’s most stylish president.