1920s gangsters and mafia were men who controlled the illegal distribution of alcohol during the Prohibition. Just like neighborhood gangs today, 1920s gangster mobs controlled certain sections of larger cities.
Their territorial battles often ended in blood baths like that of Al Capone’s Valentine’s Day Massacre. Today, TV series like Boardwalk Empire and Peaky Blinders capture this violent time in history.
The 1920s gangster costume can be summed up as men in dark suit jackets (often striped, never black) with matching vests and pants, a white or black band fedora hat, a contrasting tie, and a fat cigar in his mouth.
Most respectable men avoided this look in the 1920s — however, by the 1940s, the Zoot Suit pulled inspiration from the “Era of Gangsters.” Because they are similar, men’s fashions of the 1920s and 1940s are often mixed up.
1920s Zoot Suits did not exist, although the style took roots in the very late ’20s among jazz musicians and entertainers.
1920s Gangster Costume
Gangster Suit – Single or double breasted striped gangster suit jacket with wide lapels. Jackets buttoned up high and fitted well in the early ’20s, but were a bit looser by the end of the decade.
The fabric was commonly a dark grey and white chalk stripe wool. Chalk stripes are wider than pinstripes. Brown stripes, plaid, or tweed may have been worn for casual day meetings and by lower ranking bootleggers.
Pants of the 1920s were mostly high-waisted (at or above belly button) with flat fronts until the late ’20s, when pleats were introduced. Pants were straight through the leg and cuffed at the bottom with a crease down the center. They fit narrow in the early ’20s and very wide by the end of the decade.
A matching 6 button vest with notch lapels was worn with each suit. Poor gangsters or working-class men may not have been able to afford a three-piece suit. They may have worn a suit without a vest or a vest and pants but no suit jacket. A suit’s jacket, pants, and vest were made of the same material.
Gangster Shirt – A basic button down dress shirt with white collar. Choose a colorful striped shirt for the most authentic ’20s look. Get a French cuff or double cuff shirt if you want to wear some snazzy cuff links as well. Read more about and shop for 1920s men’s shirts.
Gangster / Mafia Overcoat – A dark and ominous gangster spends a lot of time checking up on his hidden whiskey stills. To stay warm, 1920s men wore a heavy wool overcoat over their suits. They were quite long and plain, with simple notch lapels and a one- or two-button closure.
In heavy winter conditions, they were lined in fur. For your look, a black, grey, or dark brown long wool overcoat will be easy to find.
Gangster Hat – While most men of the 1920s preferred wearing bowler hats, the Gangster’s hat of choice was the fedora.
Hats were often white, grey or black with a contrasting band about 3-4 inches tall wrapped around the base. With the distinctive front pinch and wide, floppy, pliable brim, the Fedora will unmistakably set you apart from ordinary “gentlemen” of the day.
Another option is the black homburg, also worn in the 1940s and 1950s by The Godfather, a mafia legend.
In summer, the hat of choice for wealthy men, including gangsters like Al Capone, was the straw Optimo Panama. Capone owned several Panama hats and even imported a hat maker from Ecuador just to make them for him. For that extra gangster flair, wear your hat slightly tilted to the left.
1920s Gangster Accessories
Tie – Your tie should starkly contrast with your shirt color. A white shirt will need a dark colored tie, while a gray shirt would call for a white/light tie. Wide striped ties or small pattern ties in jewel tones were very common among trendy dressers. Gangsters and mafia men would never be caught wearing a bow tie.
Suspenders – Suspenders were less of a fashion statement and moreso a necessity to hold up one’s pants. If you wear a vest, then suspenders are unnecessary to be fashionable. If you are wearing a shirt without a vest, then the suspenders should match the shirt and suit.
Black or gray are the most useful. However if you are wearing a white tie, then matching white suspenders against a dark shirt would be most striking.
Gangster Shoes – Brown and white or brown and tan spectator shoes are the most iconic of the 1920s. Plain black or brown wingtip dress shoes would be a second choice, and better for darker suits. For a formal occasion, you can wear black dress shoes with white spats. Gangsters loved to wear spats! Buy 1920s men’s shoes.
Pocket Square – Also known as a handkerchief, the pocket square should coordinate with one color in your tie, but shouldn’t necessarily be the exact same material. Place it folded in your left heart pocket.
Watch chain with a watch – The chain dangles across the vest, from watch pocket to clip. No vest? You can place your pocket watch in your pants pocket and attach the chain to your belt loop.
Cane – Many wealthy men, including gangsters, chose to walk with a gold handled cane.
Cigar – Gangsters always have a cigar in hand and a shot of “bootleg” whiskey in a flask by their side.
Facial Hair – While most men, including gangsters, were clean shaven, a simple thin and straight mustache was a signature piece for some gangsters.
Need help with your 1920s gangster / mobster / mafia outfit and costume? Just ask.
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.