Those sharply dressed 1920s gangsters on Boardwalk Empire (HBO TV Show) and now Peaky Blinders are the envy of men’s fashion hounds and period costume admirers alike. If only I had the same budget as the costume designers who make custom wool suiting and hand tailored clothing for each actor. Alas, I don’t, and I’m guessing you don’t either. Fear not! You can get the classic 1920s men’s gangster clothing look with some carefully chosen modern suits and accessories.
1920s Gangster Men’s Fashion Suit
The award for the best-dressed male on Boardwalk Empire goes to the character Nucky Thompson. He is a style icon for all that wealth and prosperity could afford you in 1920. He and most of his associates were fond of striped wool suits — they weren’t quite pin stripes, as they were wider and more pronounced. Today, these wide stripes are called chalk stripes or shadow stripes. Blue stripes, grey stripes and brown stripes were all popular colors. The suits buttoned up with 3 or 4 single breasted and double breasted suit jackets, and the buttons came up quite high on the jacket, giving way to wide peak lapels. Suits always had a matching high V-neck vest and flat front trousers. Legs were narrow in the early ’20s but became extremely wide by the end of the decade. The pants came down to the ankles, which is very short by today’s standards. Read more about 1920s men’s suits here.
Tip: Find a striped suit that fits you a bit on the small size (the early 1920s suits were very well tailored – no extra room for unrefined movement) or the opposite, wide fit suit for a late 20s gangster. Pinstripe suits will work if you can’t find the wider 1/4 inch stripes. You can also wear colorful windowpane or plaid suits. Avoid black suits. The men on Boardwalk Empire wore suits full of color, and so should you.
Hopefully, the suit you chose has a matching vest. If not, then do your best to find one in the same color or shade. With all the changes to vests over the years, modern vests do quite well for a 1920s look. You could even skip the vest if you keep your suit jacket buttoned all the way up. If you go without a jacket, then you will certainly need to wear a vest. Shop here for 1920s style men’s vests.
Peaky Blinders characters also wore striped suits for the upper classes (the bosses) and neutral browns, tans, greys, and tweeds for the lower classes (AKA the muscle men). Men with money could afford a matching three piece suit. Poor men/working men wore second-hand clothes that didn’t always match. A similar but not matching shade of vest was often worn, or he didn’t wear one at all. Clothes didn’t fit too well (usually looser) and were not very colorful. Thomas Shelby also frequently wore shirts without an attached collar. Caps were worn instead of expensive felt hats. Learn more about Peaky Blinders outfits here.
1920 Men’s Shirts
Most men in the early 1920s were wearing colorful dress shirts with club or round collars. They were usually detachable white collars that were washed separately and buttoned on a small round collar shirt (similar to a Mandarin style shirt). Shirt collars were either lined in stiff material or left unlined. The unlined cloth collars could look a bit unruly, so a tie bar was used to keep them looking good. Nucky’s was custom made for the show, but you can find one at formal men’s stores or a local vintage /antique store.
Premier Clothing has an excellent tutorial on how to turn an attached collar dress shirt into a detachable collar dress shirt.
If you can’t find a club collar shirt, you can either make one by cutting off the points on a standard dress shirt or just wear a point collar dress shirt instead. Pointed collar shirts became common in 1922. 1920s collars were long point, often called the classic or straight collar today. The current trend for wide spread collars was briefly popular in the late 1920s.
Besides the contrasting white collar, the other element of the 1920s shirt was the contrasting white French cuffs. These thick white cuffs came with button holes for a pair of snazzy cuff links. If you wear a standard dress shirt and want to wear cuff links, simply poke a hole where the cuff button normally is.
The best part about 1920s shirts were the vivid color choices. White was boring. Pastel yellows, blues, greens, and even pink solids were common as well as a mix of these colors in 1/4 inch stripes. Bold and clashing with ties and suits was the way to go! Shirts always had white cuffs and collars until the late ’20s, when all solid color shirts became popular. Have fun choosing your shirt color!
Shop here for 1920s style men’s shirts.
1920 Men’s Neckties and Bow Ties
The other pop of color was a man’s necktie and pocket square (handkerchief). Neckties came in standard long silk ties or festive fluffy bow ties. I say fluffy bow ties because they are shorter and fatter than today’s pre-tied bow ties. Get a self tied bow tie and learn to tie it yourself for a more authentic 1920s look. Both neckties and bow ties were full of color and often clashed with shirts and suits. Small dots and thick stripes were two favorite bow tie and necktie patterns. In the early ’20s, paisley print ties were all the rage. Be bold, be daring, and show off your style with more color. Learn more about the history of 1920’s men’s ties.
Shop for 1920s style ties here.
1920 Men’s Hats and Shoes
Occasionally, you see a Boardwalk Empire man wearing a hat. Popular hats of the time were the Homburg, the Bowler (Derby), the Fedora, and for summer the straw Boater or Panama hat. Lower classes, working classes, and casual sporty outfits required an 8-panel cap instead, sometimes called a Newsboy or Gatsby cap. The Peaky Blinders gang almost always wore a cap instead of a felt hat, reflecting their social status. You can read all about 1920’s men’s hat styles here.
The iconic men’s shoes of the 1920s were two toned, brown and white spectator shoes. These were best with casual suits and sport clothes. In the opening credits, you see Nucky wearing dark two tone wingtip shoes – a sign of his class and fashion-forwardness. Get those exact shoes here.
The more common dress shoe was the cap toe Oxford in brown or black. Shoes featured the simple cap toe without all the fussy wingtip detailing that came in by the 1930s. In the summer, white Nubuck shoes were worn with white or ivory suits. Occasionally, two tone grey and white and even black and white shoes were seen.
Lace up boots were still worn by working classes and some older gentlemen, but if you were a high class gangster, then you wore spats. Learn the history of men’s shoes and spats here.
Shop for shoes on 1920’s men’s shoes page.
More Gangster Clothing Ideas:
Nucky Thompson and his gangsters are not the only styles you can emulate. Click on the photo above or here for more ideas on creating a 1920s men’s look.
Now that you know what to look for, you can raid your closet, head to the thrift store, or look at all of the new 1920s style men’s clothes I have found online for you. Use the 1920s menu above for more men’s 1920s clothing options:
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.