Vintage Men’s Style
Feb 22, 2017 | by Ellen Dial
Sharp Dressed Man – Vintage Style
My fabulous friend Becky’s review of the bustle got me thinking – we, myself included, usually focus on women (fashion trends and the rational dress movement are all extremely interesting). Ladies fashion is dynamic, motivated by changing social norms and the desire of most women to be free and equal. The Suffragette and the more recent feminist fought valiantly for these freedoms – and we continue to fight. Women’s fashion is frequently used to make statements (we saw it recently at this years Fashion Week) and to push our agenda forward.
Good for us!
But what about men’s fashion? How much has it changed?
If you vintage mavens out there in interwebs-land are anything like me, there’s nothing more appealing and sexy than a well turned out gentleman. Beautifully cut clothing. Fine suits. French cuffs. Polished shoes. Well groomed hair. The resurgence of the mustache and beard is pretty exciting, to be sure… Like you, I’ve been pleased to see the reintroduction of manners and gentlemanly behavior – the image of the well-dressed, well mannered man is a good one.
So, how did men dress back in the day? Were their expectations as high as their female counterparts? Did they wear as many clothes?
Let’s take a ramble through manly men’s fashion from about a hundred or so years ago!
Vintage Men’s Style | What to Wear!
I love looking through old pictures – checking out what people looked like and how they dressed. Yes, the women are especially interesting, what with their elaborate hair and head gear. Tiny waists and intricate gowns. They look wonderful and so put together.
But the men – in high stiff collars and spiffy waistcoats. Add to that fantastical facial hair and a great hat – wow! They looked amazing! So dashing, well groomed and manly.
Men, back in the way back, primarily wore a dark suit, waistcoats, high collared shirt and a tie/cravat. Seems pretty basic, right? Wrong! There were, of course, certain types of jacket to wear at certain times of the day and for specific activities. The cut of one’s trousers was a thing. The type and cut of the waistcoat (vest) could make or break an ensemble – there were certain kinds for certain events.
Really, there were. Hard to imagine.
During the day, and while conducting business, the middle to upper class gentleman primarily wore morning clothes – morning coat or frock coat – usually black or charcoal gray. Longer in length with a cut-away silhouette. A two or three button waist coat. Trouser that were a bit tighter with baggy knees (for comfort). A starched shirt with a celluloid/or highly starched collar. Dark tie. Dark highly polished shoes (called “pencils” – with a slightly pointed toe). He would top it off with a short top hat or bowler. And gloves for street wear. GLOVES!
No gentleman would dream of being caught unawares of the weather; a top coat and umbrella would be brought along, just in case.
What type of top coat you ask? Think Sherlock Holmes – a caped ulster was common (though not as stylish), or a Chesterfield. If we’re looking at the 1920’s or 1930’s a trench coat would be the thing to have. These iconic overcoats gained popularity in the decades after WWI. Some were wool, or thick cotton or an oilcloth material for the damp. One mustn’t get damp, or who knows, they may have to assist a lady caught in rain! Read about these expectations here.
The suiting was wool – thick for colder weather, thinner “tropical weight” for warmer weather. Sounds hot doesn’t it? Wool is a wonderful fabric warm in the winter and very doable in the summer months (tropical weight). They weren’t as focused on comfort as we are now, looking fashionable and successful was the thing.
Plus, wool lasts a very long time.
For evening, or evening socializing and dinner? Tails. Black. White one button waist coats. Black or charcoal trousers, again slim fit with ease in the knees. White tie, white highly starched shirt. High collar. If leaving home, a top hat. Again with the gloves for street wear. The waist coat was cut in a flared open manner, to highlight the whiteness of the shirt underneath. This was a sign of prosperity.
In the 20’s and 30’s, things eased a bit. A dinner jacket was worn in place of tails for non-formal meals and events – like a stag party. This would be easier to wear, still fitted and tailored, but not as slim in the torso as it’s more formal brother.
Silk or satin lapels and lining. A must.
Even with the easement, men still looked fabulous!
What if our dashing gentleman was going to be outside and planning on being active? Why, there were appearance expectations here as well. Natch.
A lounge or sack coat would replace the morning coat. Looser fitting and less stuffy. A wider brimmed hat, like a homburg or boater would replace the top or bowler. Many times the suiting was cotton or linen if it was warm. Frequently lighter colored – fawn, light gray, pale blue, for example). Wider legged trousers (Oxford bags) for ease of movement and breezes. A high collar was still expected.
In the colder months or for rambling, our gentleman would wear tighter fitting woolen suiting. A Norfolk jacket and trousers. Or jodhpurs. High topped boots, up to the knee in some cases, laced and polished. Woolies all around! Think Downton Abbey shooting parties.
An oiled jacket was added in the damp.
At home? No butt-sprung sweat pants for this fine fellow!
A lounge or smoking jacket was put on over the daily costume. They may have removed their waist coat. Frequently kept the collar. Removed their tie/cravat, or not. Or gotten rid of all restricting neck wear and gone with a brightly colored neckerchief. The leather oxfords/laced boots were removed and woolen or velvet slippers donned.
He still looks awesome. Check out the handsome Sir Robert Burton. He’s quite casual, but still well-dressed. BTW? This hottie translated the Kama Sutra, just saying. Wonder if that’s what he’s reading…
Are you getting the picture? Men had as much fashion rigmarole as women, in this scenario, our hottie of yesteryear changed clothes up to FIVE times, depending upon what his plans were.
Vintage Men’s Style |Bling and Hair
One’s hair was parted in the middle and oiled back. Very short. Very groomed. Why the oil? Well, it usually smelled pretty good and like women, men didn’t wash their hair all the time, even after sport. They would just rinse it out. Plus, shampoos were harsh and made one’s hair a crazy fuzz mess. The oil tamed the hair – the scent tamed the funk .
Closely cropped and slicked back to show the shape of the skull. We see similar cuts on hipsters today.
Beardy beardiness! A large, lush horseshoe mustache was definitely a thing. As were well groomed beards. This was a sign of masculinity and the bigger, bushier the better. Older gentlemen tended to the big beards, younger to the big mustaches. They were nurtured, trimmed and shaped. Some of them are amazing, some are downright terrifying! Really.
A gentleman shaved his non-hair covered facial area daily and/or went to their barber for a close straight razor shave. They also got ALL their hair trimmed with great frequency. No stringy, too long hair – unless one was a bohemian and cultivated a non-cultivated look.
A quick word on bling. Three pieces. That’s it. Less is more. Ring (signet, school or wedding). Watch and chain. Cuff links/studs. More was considered tacky. Nothing too flashy. Just a few quality pieces.
Vintage Men’s Style | What Lies Beneath?
Since we’ve spent time contemplating women dainties, let’s look at the smalls of men.
Check out the vintage ad for one piece underwear! Boxers and undershirt in an easy onesie. Cotton, linen or wool. Buttons galore. Flaps to facilitate necessities. Can you imagine? One had to unbutton his trousers, pull up his long tailed shirt and unbutton his underpants. Seriously. Almost as many layers as the ladies! Hope it isn’t an emergency.
Why the buttoned flaps? Imagine trying to pull ones trousers down! Men would have had to basically undress – they wore suspenders to keep their drawers up AND everything was one piece – they would have had to remove their jacket, waist coat and pulled their suspenders off, THEN remove and pull down their underwear jumpsuit. Ridiculous.
Let’s hope they just unbuttoned their suspenders when necessary.
In the winter? A woolen union suit was worn by BOTH sexes- they even slept in them. Dead sexy.
When sport was planned? The jock strap was invented in the 1870’s to keep everything just so.
WWI brought about separate undershirts and underpants – much easier in the trenches. The under-drawers would have been similar to boxers or boxer briefs, not that I know anything about men’s underwear, Mom.
They wore suspenders to keep their clocked (embroidered) socks up as well, think Thurston Howell the third on Gilligan’s Island. A great look, to be sure. Methinks this is why they almost always wore long pants, so as to not look silly.
Vintage Men’s Style | Parting Comments
This is, of course, a generalization. Some men wore loud, brightly colored and patterned suiting in plaids, hounds-tooth and checks. Wildly colored and patterned waist coats and ties. Over the top socks. Some grew long hair, let it go wild or styled it in ringlets. Beards, as I mentioned, could be crazy long and bushy.
Even though polite society had certain expectations and rules, there were always mavericks. Men who wanted to make a statement – show the world they were different, free spirited and creative. This is how they could do it, by breaking down barriers. The artists, bohemians and rebels.
You gotta love it!
To our darling readers: What are your thoughts on how men dress today? Do you prefer the old school look?
The writer would like to thank: theartofmanliness.com, edwardianpromenade.com, the fashion historian.com, blue17.co.uk, victoriana.com
As well those who post their images freely on the internet.