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 suits of every style, color, and material, while the working poor may have had only one good suit to wear to church on Sunday and mismatched suit pieces to wear during the week.
1920s Men’s Suit Styles
The 1920s fashion suit is one that is divided into not one but two styles that span the decade. The first few years had men in narrow fitting “jazz” suits while the rest of the decade had men wearing wide fitting suits. By 1925 the transition from slim to wide was complete. “We are making them now. The shoulders are considerably wider; chest effects are fuller; buttons and pockets are higher; coats are snug at the hips and suggest height” said a 1925 Schaffner and Marx suit ad.
The Man of Conservative Style
All men’s fashion of the roaring twenties came from Britain. Even Paris, the capital of fashion, turned to Britain for menswear inspiration, especially the dapperly dressed prince of Wales. 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 changing trend in fashion.
The British look was easing away from the morning suit and into the lounge suit (what we know as a classic suit today). The lounge suit had wide, natural shaped shoulders, a 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 wristwatch, 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 that 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 clothing was flat and boyish.
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 shape than ever, the suit was draped 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 for most of the 1920s.
Suit pants favored the natural leg, too, which was about 17.5 inches wide at the cuff (cuffs were 2- 3 inches wide) with very high waists, a button crotch, large pockets, a single crease down the center, and hems that 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, men were adopting the American leather belt by the mid-1920s. Stout men (big and tall sizes) favored the belt over suspenders.
Suit colors were masculine and dark, such as navy blue, medium grey, and soft brown. They were made of wool, mohair, tweed or corduroy- very thick material compared to today’s lighter suiting. I am always amazed by the thickness of the suit material prior to the ’40s. It is no wonder men wanted softer, looser, lighter clothing after being stuffed into stiff, heavy suits for over a century.
In the summer, lighter wool suits, flannel suits, and linen suits were marketed as being lighter and breathable. Colors were light white, grey, ivory, tan, green and blue-grey. Overall, the colors were dull and earthy as they had been since before the first World War. Medium blue was the brightest color that grew in popularity throughout the 1920s as a compromise between old and new fashions.
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, hanging a tad longer, with slightly roomier sleeves and shoulders. Colors were conservative, but with more patterns in the material like stripes, windowpane 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, cap toe Oxford shoes, and felt hats such as the Homburg or Fedora. 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 businessmen in America. After 1922, the rest of the men, who were mostly young and middle-class Americans, preferred a totally new style that was even more casual and flashy than their father’s look. They acquired the “cake eaters” name because these new young kids frequented tea dances where colorful 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 (also called a drape cut or blade cut) 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.
The silhouette was one of a muscular man with natural, not padded shoulders, that appeared to be wide with rolled jacket lapels and a tapered shoulder to waist, with only a slight pull around the waistline.
By the mid ’20s, the trend was for lighter shades of tan, grey, blue-gray, and gray-blue, with a 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, however, and lost favor quickly.
Wool flannel was often used in summer suits, although it wasn’t very cool to wear. The very posh wore white flannel trousers with a navy blue flannel jacket at seaside resorts, while cruising across the ocean, yachting, or to attend upper-class sporting events. Pure white was difficult to keep clean, so most middle-class men choose ivory, oatmeal or putty-colored flannel trousers instead. They could also choose the new all-cotton “tub” suit which could be washed at home in the washing tub and hung to dry. Colors broadened to light grey, taupe, and tan as well as darker blue, green and brown. Read more about the vintage yachting/cruise/boating look.
The coolest fabric was linen, renamed Palm Beach cloth after the resort town of Palm Beach, Florida. They came in white or natural linen colors.
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 snug Edwardian teen years. While this is true, they kept on widening pant legs until they formed the “Oxford bag,” an 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 invert pleated at the waist for an even fuller appearance. There was only a light taper from knee to ankle, ending at a 2-3 inch cuff that broke just at the instep so as not to break the front leg crease. Wide leg pants roared into fashion in the mid ’20s and stayed till the ’50s, 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 suit came with a matching 6 button vest either with notch lapels or no lapels and 2-4 pockets. There was also a pocketless vest for those young men who preferred to wear a wristwatch instead of an old fashioned pocket watch.
In the late 1920s, there was also an explosion of many new styles of vests in contrasting colors and prints. Double-breasted, U shaped, and shawl collar vests made them a focal point under opened suit jackets. In the ad below, a grey plaid vest paired with a grey striped suit and a brown suit was complemented by a grey and white check double-breasted vest. Less extreme examples include a dark grey suit with a light grey vest or a brown suit with a tan vest. The working classes wore whatever vest they could afford to buy second hand, often in mismatched colors. In this regard, the poor were leading the fashion trends just as much as the rich.
Suits for Black Men
Were there different suits for men of color? This is a common question I receive and one which is tricky to answer. Most fashion history is written from an upper-class white perspective with clothing retailers marketing to whites only, although mail-order catalogs were used by all races. For the most part, American black men wore the same suits as white counterparts. Black men dressed as well as they could afford, often learning to sew and tailor their own clothing, and making minor adjustments to designs that reflected their personality.
Working-class men wore work clothes and uniforms 6 days a week, giving little need to dress up except to church on Sundays or Saturday night strolls in big cities. When black men did dress up in suits, they were exceptionally fine, often flashy, and much more colorful than conservative white men.
African American men took the fashion of upper-class white men and improved it with color and fit. In 1927, a young man in Chicago was seen strolling in a pearl grey hat, spotless gray suit, and a vivid pink and blue moire scarf. Another young man was immaculately dressed with a hatband of blue and white, shoes that were patent leather with white tops, and a flowered waistcoat. Stetson hats were the best brand to wear, angled to one side. Tweed or striped suits fit perfectly with pants that were extra tight in the early years and extra wide in the later years.
Some reporters called these flashy dressers peacocks or pimps and shamed them for spending their last dime on new clothes, gold jewelry, and diamond-studded teeth like the popular jazzman, Willie “The Lion” Smith. The more conservative pianist Earl Hines looked dapper in a bowler hat, tuxedo, Chesterfield overcoat, walking stick, and coiffed hairstyle. Stylish, expensive, and professional. Musicians were often selected to play at jazz clubs based on what they wore. Being impeccably dressed meant getting a gig that afforded the next wardrobe purchase — or not, and pawning it for half price the following week.
In some moderate communities, men might have worn pants and jackets that were mismatched with brightly colored shirts, scarves, ties, and shoes. Red, yellow, light green, light blue, and candy pink shirts were favorite colors. Even suspenders were “loud” and designed to be seen, not hidden, under vests.
Of course, not every African American man dressed flashy. The wealthier he was or when in the presence of white people, the greater the effort to blend in by wearing conservative suits with dark red, green, black and white accessories. College students, for example, were usually more dressed up but conservative, than the white students.
A modern-day vintage peacock is Dandy Wellington whose 20s-40s inspired style is impeccable.
1920s Suits on TV
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 giving us an excellent reference for menswear in the early to mid ’20s.
Peaky Blinders is another popular TV show with many men’s suits to admire, although not as accurately as Boardwalk Empire. See this article on creating a Peaky Blinders outfit.
The last two seasons of Downton Abbey were also set in the mid-1920s and have some British upper-class men’s fashions to enjoy.
The Great Gatsby movie (2013) is hardly accurate to the era, but it does show you what it looks like to adapt new clothing into an inspired ’20s style. The original 1970s The Great Gatsby movie is a little more accurate.
Choosing a 1920s Suit for You
Putting the very small vintage 1920s suit aside, your options for dressing in a 1920s suit today leaves you with either buying a reproduction 1920s suit ($500 and up) or a new vintage-inspired suit. Classic men’s suits will lack some of the details that make 1920s men’s suits unique but if you focus on the cut, color, and pattern you can achieve a similar look to the era at half the cost.
First, you must decide if you want an early ’20s slim suit or late ’20s wide suit. The early 20s look mimics the current slim fit trend today, so as long as you don’t go for the ultra slim fit/stretch skinny fit suits, you will not be too far off. The main difference is in the low rise of the pants and the lower V opening of the jacket. I have good luck finding classic fit suits at Brooks Brothers, Paul Fredrick, and Perry Ellis.
For a wide fit suit, you will need to look at imported Italian suits or urban men’s fashion suits (brand Stacy Adams and similar). They tend to look more “gangster” than classic fit suits, especially in dark colors and wide stripes. Online MensUSA, MensItaly and Stacy Adams will have some good options. Sometimes you can find them on Amazon too.
Colors/Textures of 1920s suits are what gives them the vintage look. I look for wide or thin stripes, windowpane, plaid, checks, tweed or textured wool. Choose navy blue, medium blue, dark to light tan, dark or light grey and medium or light green. Avoid solid black, skinny lapels, and pants that are too short. In summer, a good seersucker or linen blend suit is very cool and comfortable.
Finally, don’t be afraid of color. Choose accessories that do not match the suit. Brown or black shoes go with all suit colors. Hat colors can be any shade of brown, grey, blue, green, tan, cream or black. Shirts should have some color as well as a brightly colored tie. If color scares you, then choose shades of the same color family- i.e. navy blue suit, light blue shirt, medium blue tie, etc.
Here are some of the suits Oscar has worn to 1920s events:
Shop 1920s inspired men’s suits
These suits were chosen for either the cut/fit or the color/pattern that closely resembles vintage 1920s men’s suits. Wearing a suit with the right hat, shoes, and accessories will instantly take you back in time.