As full weekends and reduced weekday hours became more common in the 1930s, so did the desire to get out of work clothes, business suits, and uniforms, and into something sporty and casual. A man’s time off became a time to dress for comfort and leisurely pursuits inspired by the same movie stars and rich folk who set the tone for business attire as well. Stars vacationing on the Riviera or Palm Beach sported the latest fashion for summer which included short sleeve knit shirts (polo shirts), shorts, and swim trunks for the first time. These new designs were slow to catch on to the masses, yet the overall trend for lighter, more comfortable, sporty and casual clothing continued to expand for all classes.
Casual Men’s Suits
Despite potentially high summer heat, men wore suits, sport coats, long sleeve shirts, and long pants all year. Only during certain activities (such as playing sports, vacationing at the beach, or relaxing at home) was “casual” clothing worn. That didn’t mean men were in stuffy grey 3 piece suits in the thick of summer, although that was an option (without a vest). Mismatched sport coats and trousers became the preferred semi-formal style for men.
Men’s 1930s sport coats were quite cool, colorful, and bold with the use of big patterns and unique textures. The fit was large with padded shoulders, wide notch or peak lapels, and a slightly curved jacket at the high waist. Large pockets provided plenty of room to hold a case of cigarettes, a cigar, pipe, hanky, and some money.
Pattern sport coats were paired with solid light pants in ivory, grey, khaki tan, blue, or white. Solid jackets paired equally well with patterned trousers. Different textures could be mixed as well. A brown tweed sport coat pairs with subtle striped brown trousers below. The mix of solid and patterned or textured clothing introduced a new casual style to otherwise formal attire.
Men’s High Waisted, Wide Leg Pants
Most 1930s men’s trousers were quite wide compared to today’s slim-fitting trend. They came in solid colors as well as big plaids, checks, and windowpane that were more interesting and more casual than their dress pant siblings. In summer, white, ivory, light grey, and light tan were preferred over dark colors. Light wools were gradually being replaced by light flannels, linen, sailcloth, gabardine, and rayon blends. In fall/winter, the brown corduroy pant was a comfortable, soft and casual pant option.
Trousers belted about 3 inches or so above the navel and hung down in long column-like shapes. The crotch was a deep drop to mid-thigh for ample room. Pant legs cuffed at the bottom for more casual wear, and were straight hemmed for more professional attire. A strongly pressed pleat down the center completed the look in the mid to late 1930s.
The college kids set the fashion for men and inspired new styles seen in Hollywood movies. The wide “Hollywood” waistband appeared in the late 1930s and caught on with the young and trendy. It was not worn with a belt or suspenders.
Most casual pants were worn with a belt. Suspenders were still worn by some older men or working classes who purchased hand me down clothing with suspender buttons already attached. Suspenders were not meant to be seen, only worn under a jacket, yet Hollywood movies love to costume men with suspenders over a work shirt and pants (often with belt loops, too).
Blue jeans were usually sold as workwear for men. However, the popularity of TV stars and singing cowboys such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers made Westernwear something city slickers could wear on the weekends — Levi’s blue jeans paired with a brightly colored silk cowboy shirt, shiny silver buckle belt, cowboy boots, and big western hat.
Tennis shorts appeared on the courts of colleges and communities in the 1920s, but didn’t go mainstream until British Tennis champion Bunny Austin wore a pair of white well-above the knee flannel shorts or “ventilated pants.”
Knee length “walk shorts” were commonly worn in British ruled tropical colonies such as Bermuda, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. Americans copied these comfortable high waisted, straight leg shorts, making them the thing to wear on their own summer vacations. The length shortened up considerably for the bravest and trendiest of Americans. Common colors were light grey, white or ivory and khaki tan (a nod to British Army officers of India).
Shorts found their way onto golf courses when made of very bright patterns, paired with knee-high socks and polo shirts. Fabrics moved away from smooth finishes to textured weaves and meshes that matched the variety of sports shirts.
A few traditional American men continued to wear knickers on the golf course, at the beach, or while hunting. They were exceptionally long and slightly more narrow, bagging more around the mid-calf than the ’20s versions. Lighter fabrics and bold prints made them more comfortable to wear in spring and summer. Paired with a shirt and tie, tall socks, a cap, and a pullover sweater, the look is a classic for British Royals.
Men’s Casual Shirts
While the classic button down dress shirt remained a staple in a ’30s man’s everyday wardrobe, a new casual shirt started to make headlines. The Polo shirt came into vogue, and they haven’t left the fashion world since. The ’30s versions could be an open V neck, zip up, corded lace up or single button with keyhole (The Prince of Wales style) as well as multi-button traditional. A few polo styles experimented with the crew neck collar while many adopted the long and pointy spearpoint collar. Textures could be heavy knits, mesh weaves, “dishrag” cotton, peasant linen, ribbed cotton, terry cloth and other textured knits.
Sleeves and collar could be contrasting colors and textures, banded or open. A single chest pocket was common, as were pocketless polo shirts. Colors were usually solid natural hues but many came in stripes, diamond patterns, or two-tone combinations such as the yellow and brown below. For collared button-up models, a tie could be worn with a sport coat for a semi-formal occasion.
The Gaucho style short or long sleeve pullover shirt was made of linen or slubbed cotton, inspired by traditional shirts in South America. It featured loops rather than button holes, a wide fold out collar, ribbed cuffs, and a banded hem. It was to become extremely popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The 1930s version was sometimes called sports blouse.
Hawaiian print short sleeve casual shirts came into vogue by the late 1930s. These sport shirts featured colorful pineapple, coconut palm, and tropical flower prints. Most had a classic collar while some featured the iconic spearpoint collar. The length was long enough to be worn untucked but still usually tucked into high waisted trousers. Buy vintage 1930s Hawaiian shirts on eBay.
Bush shirts were another new fad, although they had been around for many years. Indiana Jones explored tombs and caves in this style of shirt along with safari hunters and jungle adventurers. Bush shirts were white with short sleeves and had four patch pockets on the front. A wide buckle or tie belt was worn around the shirt at the high waist.
In 1936, the Guayabera shirt was copied from those worn by sugar planters in Cuba and brought to America. It was made of linen in natural beige, dark navy blue, brown, and yellow. This style of shirt is easy to find today and very comfortable in hot climates.
Another similar shirt jacket is the Cuban jacket which had four oversized pleated shirt pockets, wide collar, and a long sack fit. It and most casual shirts or shirt-jackets were paired with a silk scarf tied like a neck bandana or wrapped and stuffed inside the shirt like a cravat. The pop of bright scarf contrasted well with plain colored shirts. Here are a few ways to tie a neck scarf.
Inspired by striped fishermen’s shirts on the French Riviera, the first T-shirt was born. Made of soft Egyptian cotton with wide blue or red stripes and a boat neck, it was usually long sleeve or elbow length, sometimes with a contrasting crew neck. Movie stars like Leslie Howard were frequently seen sporting striped shirts and wide leg linen trousers. Sleeves were eventually shorted up into the shirt length.
By the end of the decade the T-shirt was a weekend staple. White T-shirts were the most popular, sometimes with contrasting trim on the crew neckline, sleeves and breast pocket. Other color options were blue or yellow.
In winter, men turned to button down solid or plaid two pocket shirts. Wool weather shirts were made of wool, cotton, suede cloth, corduroy, gabardine, flannel, and mixed blends. There were summer versions, too, made of light silk, linen, or cotton in long sleeves. When the weather was hot, sleeves were rolled up to the arm to make them “short” and the neck was left unbuttoned to the mid-sternum.
Men could wear dressy shirts in the same fashion and often did. Casual dress shirts were more often patterned and in color. White based shirts were ideally worn for summer water sports such as sailing. Neckties were optional.
Men’s Sweaters, Cardigans and Vests
While sweaters were enjoyed mostly by the lower class, young men of the 1920s and the 1930s saw sweaters and sweater vests as a refined fashion element. Knitted crew neck, V neck, shawl, and turtle neck pullover sweaters and button-up or zip up cardigans sweaters were a winter to spring staple.
Sportier versions featured two-tone colorblocking, belts, and zips instead of buttons. Wide ribbed bands, cuffs, and collars contrasted with a textured knit design on the body. Popular colors were tan, yellow, light blue, and white for spring sports. Fall and winter knits captured patterns such as argyle plaid and Fair Isle as well a solid navy blue, all shades of green, brownish red, and dark grey.
Housewives took to knitting their husbands a new sweater every winter– a perfect Christmas gift for the handsome ’30s man. Meanwhile, college kids purchased knitted sweaters with college initials and insignias featured on the front.
Pullover sweater vests could be worn over dress shirts or casual polo shirt. They featured a wide ribbed bottom, oval neckline and a close fit around the arms. The bright colors added that springtime pop of color needed for an otherwise neutral outfit. Button down suit vests in the same cheerful colors were also an option, although usually worn with a sportcoat.
In summer, the white cable knit pullover sweater or sweater vest with contrasting stripe on the V neck continued to be tennis and cricket uniforms. Paired with white shorts or long pants, the look is unmistakably vintage.
1930s Men’s Jackets
The short jacket took inspiration from men’s aviation coats. Short leather jackets made of sheep or horsehide were worn for sports – horseback riding, motoring/motor biking, hunting, and everyday styles of college kids. Black or brown were the choices for all leather. Some had an open bottom, some with a knit banded hem and others with a buckle belt to pull them in snug above the hip line. Grey, cream, champagne, and light tans were added in suede finishes. Wool torsos with leather sleeves later became known as the baseball jacket when made up in school or team colors.
The all wool short jacket mimicked the leather aviator jacket. Plaid was especially popular, but solid colors and the occasionally two-tone colorblocked jackets were options too. The back featured a half belt “sport back” or shirred back for a tighter fit. Two to four slit or zippered pockets on the front kept a neat flat appearance while providing some space to hold small items. The overall length ranged from 22-29 inches. Shorted jackets in lighter colors were favored in the south and west, while longer jackets with wool lining were popular in the northern regions.
Heavy winter coats such as the plaid Mackinaw continued to be a crossover from workwear to casual wear. So did the sheepskin lined mid-length coat with oversized notch fur or shearling collar. These were frequently worn on college campuses with the young and wealthy. The outer layer could be moleskin, corduroy, or duck cloth.
Raincoats were another casual option worn by all classes of men in spring or rainy climates. The shorter the coat, the more casual it was. Knee length was about as short as they came in the 1930s, with longer style for more conservative dressing. History of the raincoat.
Men’s 1930s Swimwear
In the 1920s, swimwear for women and men made dramatic changes. In the 1930s, the beginning of the decade still embraced the one piece wool crab back swimsuit, which looks a little like a modern day wrestling uniform. Large armholes, deep round necklines, an open back, and short shorts made the bathing suit minimal yet still modest. A two-piece look was achieved with a striped top and solid color short and belt.
As with all other fashions in the 1930s, a well-built body couldn’t hide behind a tank top for long. Men’s swimsuits went shirtless. Now swim trunks, high-waisted shorts with a white webbed belt, were a new style. As the decade progressed, the trunks lost more leg coverage until they resembled underwear– or Superman’s briefs. Read more about the history of men’s swimwear.
With swim trunks being so skimpy, the need for a coverup up top was critical. Beach robes made of flannel and terry cloth in solid colors or vertical stripes were the answer. Some had prints of tropical or nautical themes, which reminded viewers that they were for the beach and not the bedroom.
Throwing on a striped T-shirt or polo shirt was an easier and cooler solution to the modesty dilemma.
Men turned to sunglasses in tinted grey, green, or amber lenses to help protect eyes from the sun. Up until the mid-1930s, sunglasses were not viewed as fashionable. Most were round frames, just like eyeglasses that could clip on regular glasses or be a separate pair of tinted glasses. In 1937, the Ray-Ban aviator glasses were being marketed to sports players, but quickly adopted by Hollywood stars. From then on, all sunglasses were designed with fashion in mind. Read more about the history of 1920s and 1930s sunglasses.
1930s Men’s Casual Shoes
The difference between formal and casual shoes was minimal in the 1930s. A pair of brown, black, or white Oxfords could be worn with suits or casual trousers and a sport shirt. Two-tone shoes, black and white, brown and white, or grey on grey were considered “sportier” looking shoes, perfect for watching sports or wearing with casual outfits. Two-tone shoes, including saddle shoes, became popular on the golf course as well as with boys and teens.
Red rubber-soled white buckskin shoes were a fad for resort and casual dress. Small holes perforated all over some white buckskin shoes and were worn without socks. All kinds of leather and canvas Oxfords also featured perforated bodies or mesh weaves to allow for maximum airflow. These were worn year-round except in wet weather.
Loungers were slip-on moccasins with a strap across the instep with a diamond cutout in the center. Weejuns were introduced in 1936, but it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that teenagers inserted a penny into the cutout and called them penny loafers. Moccasin loafers with laces on top were called Norwegian front shoes and often came in brown and white combination, while the Weejun was a solid brown. These were mostly an upper-class shoe fad until the 1940s.
Leather or crepe rubber sole sandals with leather straps crisscrossed over the foot and formed a genderless summer shoe (think fisherman sandals). Mexican huaraches with multiple thin straps across the foot but only one strap around the heel were another popular beach shoe.
Espadrilles from the Basque country, with wide rope soles, were for beachwear in bright canvas tops that laced up around the ankle (see them in the red swim short illustration).
Sports shoes like high top canvas Converse continued to be the athletic shoes for sports like Basketball. The canvas top and rubber sole ankle shoe were also worn for indoor and outdoor sports and casual summer days.
Men’s Casual Hats
Felt hats, even in summer, were worn year-round and with all styles of dress, from formal to casual. The trend for hatlessness was increasing, especially in very casual settings, vacationing, and with the younger set. The appeal of a suntan had a lot to do with not wearing a hat, at least for a few hours. When a hat was worn, it was usually a snap brim fedora type in felt or straw to match the season. Felt hats were usually light to dark grey with dark brown, tan, and green being nice alternatives.
The green Tyrolean hat (think Robin Hood) with a clipped feather at the back or side and a corded band was a casual sports hat with a comical personality. Rust brown, black, and chocolate brown were other options. The dark green shade found its way onto fedoras, pork pies, and caps. Green was the ultimate casual hat color.
Straw hats in the same shape as felt hats were worn in late spring and summer. Colors ranged from white, to tan, to light grey. The Optimo Panama (rolled crease down the center), sennit straw, and toyo continued to be favorites with vacationing upper classes. They came in narrow, medium, and wide brims, with the latter being the most practical. The round and flat top boater or sailor hat was a stylish hat for all classes in summer. It had a wide band with stripes matching a college, social club, or sport club’s colors.
The straw pork pie or telescope crown hat was the newest straw hat style with a low flat top and snapped down brim in the first half of the decade and a wider brim and back snapped up in the later years. The very wide planter hat (jipajapa) also had a slightly bowled flat top with rolled brim edges as did the leghorn hat. Summer straws came with perforated holes for breathability and a wide band in solid or striped colors.
Flat Caps, also knows as Ivy caps and newsboy caps among other names, became popular in the 1920s and remained popular throughout the 1930s. Everyone from young boys to working class men and casually dressed upper-class men wore caps. Tweed and Herringbone patterns in light colors were the most common caps. Checkered hats were a brief fad in the last years. Corduroy was another favorite material. Caps could be pieced together from 8 panels or a single “one piece” cap. 1930s men’s caps were quite wide and floppy compared to most caps found today.
Accuracy is not something that is often achieved in movies, but these costumes are a decent inspiration. (The use of suspender with pants that have belt loops bugs me.)
1930s Men’s Casual Outfit Ideas
Altogether, you can create a 1930s vintage casual look using reproduction (very few choices) or new clothing. Here are some outfit ideas:
- Simple. High waisted, wide leg trousers and a button-down shirt or polo shirt, belt, oxford shoes and a straw hat or floppy cap. This is ideal for warm weather, is simple, but may not read vintage enough. The high/wide pants will help as well as choosing a textured polo shirt that isn’t the normal classic polo shirt you can buy anywhere. Look for textured knit, a zip up front or fold out collar to gain more of a 30s style. Shop shirts.
- Three pieces. Add a sportcoat and tie or scarf to the above look for something a little more dressy. You could add a bright colored vest or pullover knit vest to really stand out from the crowd. Consider wearing a felt hat (fedora or Tyrolian) or nice wide brim straw hat too.
- Tennis. The classic shirt or polo with pullover white sweater/sweater vest and either white shorts or long pants, white oxfords is timeless yet easy to find today.
- Riviera. A blue and white or red and white striped shirt with white pants or shorts, belt and shoes is another easy 30s casual look.
- Tropical. A Hawaiian shirt tucked into light pants and canvas casual shoes (like Keds) is great for summer. I hesitate to recommend his because it associated more often with the 40s and 50s. Instead, wear a guayabera shirt either tucked in or untucked for a more unique 30s look.
- Winter. A fair isle sweater or sweater vest, trousers, oxfords, and a floppy cap is perfect for cool weather.
- Workwear casual – Roll up the sleeves of a cotton work shirt and pair with trousers, lace-up boots, flat cap and an unbuttoned vest for something casual for the working classes. Add a belt or suspenders. In winter add a heavy knit sweater or zip up short plaid jacket or leather jacket.
See some of these and more 1930s men’s outfit ideas here.
Need help with your look? Just ask!