If you want to know what men really thought of fashion in the roaring twenties, all you have to do is look at the history of men’s 1920s suits. It is the one item of clothing every man wore on a daily basis. The rich had closets full of men’s suits of every style, color and material, while the working poor may have had only one to wear to church on Sunday. The 1920s fashion suit is one that is divided into not one but two styles that remained popular throughout the decade.
1920s Men’s Suit Styles
The Man of Conservative Style
All men’s fashion of the twenties was coming from Britain. Even Paris, the capitol of fashion, turned to Britain for menswear inspiration. Classy, refined, men of good taste shopped on Saville row where master tailors measured and handcrafted each suit to the owner. Men of means in the USA ordered suits by the dozens from these tailors for every season and with every trend in fashion. The British look was easing away from the morning suit and into the lounge suit (what we know as a suit today). The lounge suit had wide, natural shaped shoulders, hip length straight fitting loose jacket, two large pockets, and 1 to 4 buttons closed at all times. A double-breasted 6 to 8 button vest matched the suit with one or two slit pockets for a pocket watch on either side. Even if the man wore a wrist watch, having a vest without a pocket watch pocket was shoddy.
The suit trend for the British (and British-ruled countries) was a conservative double breasted jacket, with wide notch lapels, wide natural shaped unpadded shoulders, narrow sleeves, a high waist nipped in tight to the rib and then curved gently around the hip. The curvy silhouette was oddly feminine at a time when women’s wear was flat and masculine.
In the early years, 1920s suits often had half belts along the back which was a carryover from the military look in the teen years. With men returning from war in better physical fitness than ever, the suit was shaped to accentuate the lean and muscular physique. A shorter jacket accentuated a built torso and long legs. The very slim “jazz suit” disappeared after 1923. The natural body shape was the preferred fashion.
Suit pants favored the natural leg, too, which was about 17.5 inches wide at the cuff (cuffs were 2- 3 inches wide), very high waists, button crotch, large pockets, a single crease down the center, and hung around the mid ankle (revealing socks). It was a classic pant- not too wide and not too narrow. In Britain, suspenders or braces still held up most pants, however, they were adopting the American’s favorite leather belt by the mid 1920s.
Colors were still masculine and dark such as navy blue, medium grey and soft brown. They were made of wool- very heavy thick wool or lighter flannel in the summer months. I am always amazed by the thickness of suit material prior to the ’40s. It is no wonder men wanted softer, looser, lighter clothing after being stuffed into stiff suits for a century.
While the British liked their shapely suits the stubborn Americans demanded a more relaxed fit. Conservative American suits were cut straight from shoulder to jacket hem with slightly roomier sleeves and shoulders with jackets a tad longer. Colors were conservative but with more pattern in the materiel like stripes and checks.The suits by themselves were a bit bland but the accessories were full of flashy style. Shirts were white in Britain but striped in America, with colorful horizontal wide striped ties, two-tone shoes, wide brimmed Derbys and felt hats like the Fedora with brims turned down. The look was only conservative compared to the young men’s Ivy League look, but compared to the previous decade it was downright rebellious.
The Ivy League / Cake Eaters Suits
The conservative suit was for the British and for older business men in American. The rest of the men, mostly young men and middle class Americans, preferred a totally new style that was even more casual and more flashy than their fathers look. They acquired the “cake eaters” name when these new young kids frequented tea dances where tea cakes were served.
The style began at Oxford University and other Ivy league schools in Britain. Well-to-do young American students brought back the style to the USA where it was eagerly adopted by the majority of men. The Ivy league look was of a slimmer fitting, single-breasted jacket with slightly narrower notch lapels (2.75 inches), a longer jacket (30.5 inches), 2-3 buttons fasted high on the sternum and large patch pockets placed low on the front sides. Materials were still very heavy wool or worsted wool weighing in around 15 oz to the yard. By the mid ’20s the trend was for lighter shades of tan, grey, blue gray, gray blue with striped cheviot pattern being the most popular. The British loved their tweed suits, the Americans not so much. Diagonal tweed suits had a short lived trend with lighter shades called “ice cream suits.” Light tans, creams, blues, and pinks in pinstripes were made into 3-piece suits and sport coats. They dirtied too easily and lost favor.
What really caused the dramatic difference between conservative and ivy league style was the pants. The young Brits claimed they were widening their pants back to the Victorian age when men’s trousers fit looser than in the Edwardian teen years. While this is true they kept on widening pant legs until they formed the “Oxford bag” a extremely wide leg pant that conveniently fit over plus four knickers (that were banned at school.)
These baggy trousers were up to 40 inches wide at the cuff and pleated at the waist for an even fuller appearance. They roared into fashion in the mid ’20s and stayed till the ’40s when trousers returned to the conservative width. The 40 inch baggy pant was rare but overall trousers were wider in the ’20s for all who adopted the Ivy league style.
Non college kids and middle class Americans in particular loved the looser, softer Ivy league style. The 3 piece suits came with a single-breasted vest without pockets, exposed by the high buttons on the jacket. Button down shirts with dark ties (or no tie) and 8 panel flats caps complete this twenties suit.
1920s Suits in Boardwalk Empire
If you really want to see 1920s men’s suits in action, you should watch HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. The costume designer had suit fabrics recreated from original ’20s garments and then used authentic patterns from the era to produce several of each suit worn in the show. The historical accuracy brings the show to life as well as gives us an excellent reference to menswear in the ’20s.
Dressing in 1920s style clothing?
My other article about men’s suits will help you find the right modern does vintage 1920s style such as these: