The ideal image of a man in the 1900s was that of a strong, determined, affluent and protective family man. His clothing reflected these standards in the fit, color and function of his day to day fashion, especially his suit. Replacing the slim and fussy Victorian dandy with an American version of masculinity was a new suit of exaggerated proportions. Padded shoulders, barreled chested, strong arms and thighs created the new 1900s men’s suit. This look dominated the Edwardian era roughly from 1900 to the start of WW1, 1914.
Cutaway Frock Suits
Frock suits that had been the primary style of the Victorian era American men’s suit were loosing favor in the 1900s. They continued to be worn in Britain much longer because King Edward and George V favored the classic style.
The business frock suit was more formal than a sack suit but less formal than a cutaway morning coat. The business frock had cutaway sides with deep curves that extended from the belly button to the low hip. The notch lapels were high and snug against a man’s shirt collar and tie.
Either the top button or all buttons were closed on the jacket. Two pockets on the right and one of the left was common in the Edwardian era.
Black, dark blue, dark grey, brown and deep olive were about the only colors appropriate during the Industrial revolution era. Some fancy styles embraced large checks, windowpane or thin stripes in combinations of these dark colors. See examples of suit cloth swatches.
Waistcoats and trousers were made to match with a flat front and plain hem.
Fashionable Americans were done with the business frock suit by 1903. Formal daytime high-class events (tea, horse racing), Sunday attire and morning weddings continued to wear the formal cutaway suit or morning coat.
Black or dark charcoal grey worsted or vicunas wool were the fabrics used for the jacket, vest and trousers. Compared to modern suits fabrics were they very thick and heavy.
Single breasted frock coats were preferred over the sagging effect that double breasted coats had when worn unbuttoned. Lapels were faced in silk with an edging of worsted wool. Collars could be matching worsted wool or contrasting black velvet. A few Edwardian dandies or those with unique fashion taste choose frock coats with lapel edging, braid or full silk facings.
Trousers were traditionally grey striped worsted or cashmere wool. Matching jacket and suit trousers cast the morning frock coat into an semi-dress state- a look that was distasteful at a formal event but acceptable for business attire. More about morning suits and formal attire.
The walking frock coat also know as an English walking coat was the original business frock suit renamed and styled in bold patterns. Like a traditional frock coat it had a marked waist seem and a skirt that flared out slightly to the knee. The difference was in the cut of the skirt. From the waist to the middle thigh it was cut away with a continuous rounded edge. Flap pockets at the hip could be tucked in for a slimmer look or out for usefulness. An angled breast pocket was added as well.
Walking frock suit colors and patterns matched those of sack suits. Black or oxford grey were the most formal. Wide pin stripes, windowpane check in grey or brown shades of worsted sharkskin were also popular. Instead of a black silk top hat a derby / bowler hat was the correct pairing.
1900s Men’s Sack Suits
By 1905 the new padded sack suit (saque suit) replaced the Victorian slim suit. Small notched lapels in the suit jacket were cut short with 3-4 widely spaced and high buttons. This effect exaggerated the breadth of the shoulders. The jacket hung straight down the front ending at the fingertips, a longer length than previous decades. Sleeves were wide from shoulder to wrist. Jacket pockets featured large flaps at hip level.
Common suit colors were dark blue serge, dark grey or black and if wealthy enough worsted wool and soft vicuna.
Sack suit jacket backs were usually ventless skirts but vented backs remained an option for the tailor. The side pleat jacket added the most volume around the hips (great for skinny men.) Jacket hemlines were rounded on single breasted jackets but square on double breasted styles.
Three buttons for single breasted (6 for double breasted) were the most classic suits. Two (and four) button suits were designed for young, collage age men, called “varsity models.”
One trendy way to wear an Edwardian men’s suit jacket was with only the bottom button closed, even on double breasted styles. In the Victorian era and early 1900s the upper button was the one to be closed. This bottom button closure added width to the body was well as a conceited air of power (a look that would return with 1980s power suits.)
Suit Waistcoat vests
Suit vests or waistcoats were critical to a man’s three peice outfit. Vests were high buttoning with minimal space under the arms. They had wool front and backs to provide maximum warmth.
Early in the decade 5 and 6 button suit vests were matching with notched collar, shawl collar or no collar. The bottom hem slightly curved with small points. Four angled pockets were included, although the three pocket model was available too. Most were single breasted waistcoats. The double breasted vest with peak lapels was the dressiest style.
White vests could be worn with dark suits but never dark vests with light suits. Having multiple vests to pair with one suit was economical as well as a unique way to show off one’s personality.
Fancy vests emerged in the 1900s as a more flamboyant accessory. Vests were decorated in thin vertical stripes, dots, checks and other small figures. The mixing of dots and stripes together was also common patterning. As the decade moved along waistcoats grew more and more colorful with bigger and bolder prints. They were the subject of much fashion commentary and not always in a positive tone.
Stripes usually came on a white ground with colored mercerized stripes of blue, green and mauve. Dark ground vests had dots or figures of red, blue and green.
In one vest pocket was a gold pocket watch with a chain that draped across the belly or chest, though a button hole and hooked into the pocket on the other size with a watch fob. Placing the watch in the lower set of pockets was the most common placement although it was a matter of personal preference.
Sack suit trousers (pants) were made with a plain front waist that rose to slightly above the navel. The seat was dropped low to mid thigh to allow ample room. Trousers legs filled out around the hip and thigh and down to a tapered cuff at the ankle named the “peg-top” style. The pant width was 16 inches at the hem. The cuff was deep for most men, but plain, uncuffed trousers were a traditional cut.
When cuffed, the pant leg was a bit shorter than plain leg trousers so that it would not break on the shoe vamp and collect street dirt in the cuff. Plain hem legs extended down to the the shoe’s sole at the back but touched the shoe vamp with a slight rumple, the same as today’s fine tailored suits.
Summertime men’s Edwardian suits replaced worsted wool with flannel and linen. Upper-class men could wear a white, light grey or cream suit, distinguishing themselves from the working classes who could not afford to clean and replace white suits. White suits came in cutaway, sack and even Norfolk cuts.
Men living in southern states or tropical climates may have worn seersucker or light English worsted wool. They were prone to wrinkling but were significantly more cool.
The halftone yachting look, an upper-class resort or cruise fashion, paired white flannel trousers with a navy serge single or double breasted suit jacket was required summer fashion. The all navy blue double breasted suit was another option. More about this fashion.
Two and three piece suits of striped grey, blue, brown or olive flannel were also worn in summer and offered the wearer a break from dark and dreary winter colors. They were called “outing suits.”
Young men preferred the three button single breasted outing suits in more colorful hues and distinct prints. By 1907 summer trousers came with belt loops and leg cuffs.
Suit vest were optional. White “wash vests” were practical in plain, stripe, dot or check subtle patterns.
Paired with a straw panama hat or sailor/skimmer hat, the white summer look is one that would be fashionable for many more decades.
The sportscoat of the Edwardian era was the Norfolk jacket. It had many variations of the details but the overall look was the same: square front jacket, notch lapels, box pleats, belted waistline and two side pockets.
Every tailor offered the Norfolk jacket in several variations. Some had single-plait tucks in the front instead of box pleats in the back. Other back treatments such a single, wide box pleat or a gather line, were also common. Shoulder yokes and besom pockets instead of large patch pockets were other changes.
Traditionally Norfolk jackets were worn with knicker pants. However, in the Edwardian era they could be worn with matching long flannel pants. Long pants were preferred as sportswear (golf, tennis) and general outing clothes but for rugged sports (hiking, fishing, hunting) the knicker pant with tall socks and boots was better.
Breeches pants, knickers or short pants were mostly unchanged from the Victorian era with the exception of the knee button placement from front to side. The overall width at the hip was also reduced to less comical proportions.
Working Class Suits
While the above sections focus on the latest suit styles for upper class men, the majority of Americans were not part of high society. The suit was always a man’s best clothing, no matter what his place in society. Lower and middle class men strove to have at least one good suit in their wardrobes to wear on Sundays at Church or special events. Those that could afford only one suit, wore it only briefly removing it as soon as he was home. A suit was a prized possession and needed to last 10 years, if possible.
Lower class men were able to pick up a free charity suit from a Church or purchase second hand suits at local clothing stalls. These did not often come in complete sets, instead a jacket and vest were sold together but pants were separate. A key identifier of a working class man is his mismatched suit pieces. Because of their age they were also a few years out of style, shabby in high use places, and ill fitting.
Working class managers and middle class men could afford suits designed for the outdoor or factory working man. These were often made of corduroy, chamois, or a heavy tweed. Upper classes may have worn the same style of suits for sportswear and weekends in the country.
Middle class men who worked in a professional settings purchased new suits at low prices from ready-to-wear shops and mail order catalogs. They were not very good quality but were better than a mismatched suit.
Read more about 1900s working class men’s clothing.
1910s Men’s suits
The heavily padded 1900s men’s suit was replaced by slim, youthful lines in the 1910s. The all over silhouette was not fitted around the shoulders, arm and torso with trousers that were slender from hip to foot. This new fit forced men to walk, sit and stand with purpose, otherwise the suit would become uncomfortable and sloppy looking.
The 1910s men’s suit jacket had a natural shoulder without padding. Sleeves were narrow but not tight. The length of the jacket rose up a few inches.
Trousers too, were slimmed down to create a leggier lean look. The waistline rose up over the navel so that suspenders and belts were not needed (but most men worn suspenders/braces or belts.)
Continuing reading about 1910s men’s fashions.
Buy 1900s to 1910s style men’s suits
There are very few reproduction men’s 1900s suits available to buy ready made and only a handful of tailors who can make one custom. The 1900s men’s suit style is one that has been forgotten, favoring instead Victorian era suits and the 1920s.
For most of my costume and outfit needs I look to modern suits with the correct color and patterns, high buttons and baggy fit or wear a Victorian era suit and be slightly out of date. These are some reasonable modern suits and Edwardian inspired suits to consider:
- 1900s Edwardian Inspired Men’s Suits and Coats
- Edwardian Men’s Outfit Ideas 1890s, 1900s, 1910s
- Where to Buy 1900s and 1910s Men’s Clothing
- Edwardian Men’s Neckties 1900-1910-1919
- Edwardian Men’s Shirts, Vests, Sweaters
- Edwardian Men’s Pants, Trousers, Overalls
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.