An evening out to the opera, getting married, dancing at a formal ball, or attending a lavish dinner party meant it was time for men to dress in their finest. 1920s men’s formal wear kept the traditional top hat and tailcoat as well as added an option for a dinner jacket called a Tuxedo coat today.
1910s men’s formal wear consisted of a black fitted jacket with long ‘swallow’ tails in the back, a white vest, trousers with silk stripes on the sides, and a white bow tie. While this “white tie” look continued to be fashionable in the 1920s, it was gradually losing favor.
Formal suits were almost always black, but dark navy blue saw a resurgence, too. The dark blue suit cut down on the appearance of dust, fibers and pilling that are problematic with black suits.
1920s Tuxedo Jacket
The dinner jacket or tuxedo jacket replaced the tailcoat as a more casual and comfortable attire for many formal occasions. The exceptions were traditional weddings and the most formal of wealthy parties.
The tuxedo jacket of the 1920s was still fairly long, falling below the hips. Thin notched or peaked lapels were the most fashionable, but even they got wider as the decade progressed. Some jackets were cuffed at the wrists, too, sometimes with contrasting material, such as shiny satin or faille. They were mostly single-breasted with two button holes on either side of the jacket held together by a coat link. The coat link is similar in appearance to cuff-links.
A double-breasted dinner jacket became popular in America in the late ‘20s. It was worn without a vest and eventually in the 1930s with an early form of a cummerbund. Two flap pockets were usually found on the front, and a slit breast pocket made room for a white pocket square.
1920s Formal Trousers
Matching pants were worn with the both tailcoats and tuxedo jackets. They were very high-waisted, coming above the natural waistline, and held up with suspenders. The trim on the side legs varied with the dress. For tailcoats, the trim was either two slim single or one wide double strip of silk braid. With dinner jackets, a single narrow braid was the only trim. Satin strips were the slightly less formal and more affordable trim.
Trousers had thin legs and cuffs turned up at the high ankle. Formal pants were worn very short – men’s black silk socks were visible, even while standing up. A sharp crease down the center gave a polished look to the relative informality of evening wear.
1920s Formal Shirts and Vests
The formal dress shirt traditionally was a white cotton or silk bib front button up shirt with detachable wingtip collar. Bib front shirts were starched stiff and smooth. Dress shirts buttoned up with shirt links made of white mother of pearl or black onyx. On the double cuffs (french cuffs) were a pair of initialed cuff links.
By the end of the 1920s, some young men (mostly Americans) tossed out the stiff bib front shirt in favor of a silk night shirt! These soft shirts with smooth or pleated fronts certainly were more comfortable and casual. They were only considered acceptable for summer time semi-formal occasions, although plenty of young men wore them to formal events, too.
Over the shirt came a single- or double-breasted white or ivory waistcoat (vest) that hung over the top of the pants. The double breasted waistcoats were rounded along the bottom. A single-breasted vest usually came to two points over the trousers.
White waistcoats were for the most formal occasions whereas ivory was the most common for everything else. Less prone to showing dirt, they were the more economical option and especially popular with a dinner jacket.
The Prince of Wales made the backless vest very popular in the late ’20s. It attached around the back with just two straps. The lack of back fabric made it cooler to wear in warmer climates. Fred Astaire copied the prince’s new fashion and also found the backless vest to be cooler while dancing.
1920s Evening Accessories
A silk tie or bow tie was worn over the shirt collar in white. The bow tie went from narrow to fat during the decade. Wingtip collars followed suit to accommodate the chunkier look.
White kid leather gloves were worn with formal suits, but they were always removed during dinner.
Black patent leather slip-on pumps were the evening shoe of choice, with a small stacked heel and a slightly pointed round toe. Patent leather lace-up versions (Oxfords) were becoming more and more popular throughout the decade. Shoes were often worn with white or grey spats – shoe covers. They were made from cotton canvas or linen and buttoned up the side. For evening, the buttons had to be elegant in silver, gold or shiny black onyx.
A black silk or satin top hat completed the formal wear look. The hat was quite tall and narrow with an inch or two thick brim.
Formal Morning Suits
Up to now we discussed evening wear, but there is one formal wear look that was worn early in the day: the morning suit. Like the name suggests, it was a formal suit worn in the mornings or afternoon by wealthy businessmen (usually older generations), grooms and for special British occasions like horse racing. American men never fully embraced the morning suit in the 1920s. Some older generations of businessmen and political parties continued to wear them daily as well as many wealthy grooms. Most weddings took place in the morning or early afternoon, so it was a natural fit for a groom to wear. It also was more flexible than the strict rules of the tuxedo. The outfit usually consisted of:
- Black morning coat. Similar to a tailcoat, it has long tails but a curved jacket with a single front button/link. Dark grey was also acceptable. (There was a brief trend to wear a Stroller, a longer black suit coat, instead of a morning coat.)
- Black and grey striped high waist trousers, no cuffs. Held up with suspenders.
- A single- or double-breasted light colored waistcoat, usually ivory or buff. Could also be black such as the one Mr. Coolidge wears. Grey was not common but possible.
- Wingtip formal shirt (see above)
- An ascot in solid or striped pattern is the most formal. A standard neckline is acceptable for business. Pocket squares were optional. A flower boutonniere on the suit lapel was for weddings and special occasions
- Polished black lace up Oxfords, smooth top or cap toe. Black boots and white spats were also worn.
- Top Hat- Black, silk (wool felt is easier to find)
- Accessories: White, ivory or yellow gloves. Walking stick or cane- black with a gold top or tightly rolled umbrella in inclement weather. Pocket watch on a chain hanging from the waistcoat. Cufflinks.
The morning suit trend is on the rise in America, especially for weddings. Unfortunately, American tuxedo and suit suppliers have not caught on yet. The best sources of morning suits are in England.
Dressing in 1920s Evening Wear Today
If you are attending a formal 1920s evening, then you will need a 1920s style tuxedo. Here are some tips to help you use readily available clothing for your ’20s look.
1. You can get either a modern a tailcoat or tuxedo jacket. Tuxedos should have notch or peak lapels with a single button closure. Avoid shawl collar tuxedos.
2. Bib front dress shirts are hard to find. A plain white wingtip collar dress shirt will be a bit easier to find and look just as well. Avoid pleated tuxedo shirts.
3. White or ivory waistcoats are also hard to find, especially double-breasted. A single-breasted backless vest will be the most comfortable, just don’t remove your jacket while wearing it.
4. Tuxedo pants with braids are impossible to find. Flat front tuxedo pants with satin stripes on the sides will work well. Order one size up if you want a higher waistline and hold them up with black suspenders. Avoid pleated tuxedo pants and very stretchy elastic suspenders (they stretch too much and your pants will fall down.)
5. Go the extra mile and add a white bow tie, pocket square, patent leather shoes, white gloves, and a top hat to your look.
6. If you need more help with your look, just ask.
You can find all of these formal clothes for sale here.