Clothing Guidlines
Actor Frank Chanfrau in his celebrated role of Mose the Fire B'hoy, 1848

    The following is meant to serve as a guide for developing your basic Daybreak Boy impression. As we will frequently portray gangs other than the Daybreaks (i.e. Native Americans, Dead Rabbits, Bowery Boys, etc.), some specific items may be necessary, but those will be announced on a case-by-case basis.

    In general, the local gang members did not look like the "Bowery bum" as he has been portrayed in the 20th century. Rather, they took pride in their appearance. However, financial considerations usually meant that he was behind the fashion by a few years, and would obtain his clothing second-hand. The second-hand clothing trade was a thriving business in New York during the 1850s, with some vendors going so far as to sell "infected clothing" from yellow fever patients for a 100% profit. Thus the average 1850s low life might resemble a tattered 1840s gentleman.

COAT: A frock coat would be standard daywear for a man of the period, either single or double breasted, with a skirt extending from the waist. It seems that these generally were without lower pockets. Material is usually a medium weight wool, and available in a range of solid colors, occasionally with a lapel of a dark velvet.

Alternately, a sack coat could be worn. This hangs loosely on the body, and was the forerunner of the modern sportjacket. Unlike the frock, this was very likely to have lower pockets, in addition to a breast pocket

TROWSERS: In the 1840s, trowsers could be of a "fall-front" style, giving way to the standard button fly by the 1850s. Materials are wool, jean, or satinet in solid or checked patterns. Proper braces, belts, or no suspension at all are encouraged. Gangs of New York  makes mention of "pantaloons, out almost as full modern Oxford bags."

VEST: This can be fun... The people of the mid-19th century were quite keen on gaudy colors, particularly in silks. Therefore, the wackiest and brightest plaid taffeta material is encouraged for a vest, with a polished cotton lining and back piece. Wool-silk blends are also known as well as embroidered silk. Knock yerself out, lad!

SHIRT: Yes, it's somewhat boring, but when worn under the aforementioned ensemble, it's best to keep with a white cotton or linen shirt, as this was the standard middle class "undergarment." Perhaps for the grungiest waterfront impression, a homespun shirt will be considered, but let's try to keep them white.

An alternative, though, is the fireman's shirt. Though the bane of the progressive Civil War movement, they have a rightful place on the backs of New York gang members. Many owed allegiances to local fire companies, and proudly wore their red flannel shirts underneath their jackets. Charles Dickens writes of a large contingent of fire lads in their red shirts dining in a downtown eatery. The fire shirt has its roots in Honey Bee Engine Co. 5 near lower Broadway.

HAT: Here again, you can have a lot of fun. Many period images show the gangs wearing everything from stovepipes to bellcrowns, to battered slouches to mechanic's caps. The choice is yours.

FOOTWEAR: As seen on "Fireman Mose" above, the tall leather boot was locally favored. The boot was both stylish and occupational; many gang members had 'legitimate' jobs as butchers, and the boots were useful for trudging about the killing floor, and didn't need to be changed when the alarm of fire was heard and he went off to "run with his machine." And later in the evening, there was nothing better for skulking around the docks. The legs of the trowsers are usually worn OVER the boots, but turned up to about mid-calf.

Correct civilian shoes, though, are welcome. Military brogans are discouraged.

HAIR: In describing a Bowery Boy,
Asbury writes "The hair on the back of his head was clipped close and his neck and chin were shaven, while his temple locks were daintily curled and heavily anointed with bear's grease or some other powerful, evil-smelling unguent." For others, large sideburns or "muttonchops" were just going out of vogue, though the chin beard was there to stay. Matt Caldwell has put up an excellent webpage illustrating the various forms of mens' facial hair in the 1860s. Please visit it for some ideas: Facial Hair Styles

VARIATIONS AND ACCESSORIES:  The various gangs all had their own ways of distinguishing themselves. In the case of the Daybreak Boys, it might be a piece of jewelry or a pocketwatch plundered from a vessel in the harbor. Gang colors included a red stripe on the trowsers for the Dead Rabbits, and a blue stripe for the Roach Guards. The Plug Uglies wore large hats stuffed with leather and wool which would be pulled down nearly over the eyes as helmets in battle. The True Blue Americans wore long black frock coats which would completely button down the front. Fire insignia was also popular, as one contemporary describes "the insignia of the engine company to which the wearer belongs, as a breastpin." "Long Nine" cigars are often referred to as one of the gang members' weaknesses.

WEAPONRY: When it came time for a good ol' knock-down, just about anything went. Fists, brass knuckled or otherwise, sticks, clubs, brickbats (chunks of brick or masonry flung in the air), knives, pistols, and even muskets would be pressed into service. It wouldn't be necessary (or wise, for that matter) to go swaggering about in public proudly displaying an arsenal of weapons, so it is recommended that members make a choice of only one or two forms of armament.

Kara Bartels & Brian Merrick , 214 Chambersburg St., Gettysburg, PA 17325 - (717) 337-2722: Kara is  a very talented seamstress whose civilian clothing is of excellent quality. Coats, trowsers, and vests, particularly. Brian is your source for all types of braces (suspenders) and leather belts.

Kay Gnagey, 8115 E. Old U.S. 33, Churubusco, IN 46723 - (260) 693-3598 - Website : Kay is a very knowledgeable person who can make just about any clothing item you need with variations available for those on a budget.

Myrtle Avenue Clothiers, 245 Henry Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201 - (917) 407-9180 - Website : Our very own mercantile establishment, please forgive the shameless plug. While we specialize mostly in military and womens' garments, we may be able to do a few items from the above list. We do reproduce the correct style fire shirts of red flannel with many customizations available. We have examined original shirts in the New York City Fire Museum and incorporate aspects of these in our reproductions.

Mattimore Harness, 509 South 2nd Street, Laramie, WY 82070 - (307) 745-8460 - Website : A great source for civilian style boots and shoes.

TP&H Trading Co. (Tim Bender), 121 Carriage Dr., Birdsboro, PA 19508 - (610) 582-0327 - Website : I have been in discussion with Tim, and he says he can make the proper tall stovepipe (and just about any other) hat you could possibly want for your impression.

C&D Jarnigan, P.O. Box 1860, Corinth, MS 38835-1860 - (662) 287-4977 - Website : Their sack coats, vests, and overcoats are not all that bad, however you should request the buttonholes to be left undone and hansew them yourself (or have someone who knows how do it.)


Last Updated: Oct. 5, 2002