The working classes — mostly poor farmers, miners, factory men, carpenters, mechanics, railroad engineers, and shop keepers — were the bread and butter of the 1930s. The clothing working class men wore in the 1930s is not often discussed in fashion history books, yet it made up the bulk of men’s everyday clothing. Even the upper classes adopted men’s 1930s workwear for sports, hobbies, and casual attire on the weekends. Every local shop and city department store carried the essentials: durable pants and overalls, flannel shirts, wool coats, and flat caps. The styles changed little from decade to decade as you can see here, yet improvements in materials, fit, and general style trends created new looks every season.
What a man wore for work in the 1930s (or all day) was determined by his occupation, position, income level, weather, and employer requirements. Mangers dressed in finer clothes, newer outfits, and donned felt hats instead of caps. They wore light shirts and neckties or a matching suit (made in sturdy workwear fabrics). The lowest of laborers wore whatever they could get their hands on, usually purchased secondhand or picked up from a church’s charity box. Most laboring men had a pair of trousers or overalls, a belt, work shirt, cap, socks, boots, and a winter coat. These items had to last for many years before being replaced. A new work shirt or cap was a frequent Christmas gift.
The following are examples of the types of clothing men wore. At the end, I’ll offer some suggestions on where to shop for vintage workwear so you can create your own looks.
Every working man’s outfit began with a shirt: cotton or chambray in warm weather; flannel, twill, suede-cloth, or wool in winter. The work shirt was different than a dress shirt in that it usually only buttoned down 2/3. The 1930s also saw zippered shirts come into style. The pullover workshirt was made up in neutral solid colors (grey, brown, red, burgundy, navy blue) or patterns such as checks and plaids. Two flap or patch pockets on the chest were fairly large with a center button closure.
Most photos show men wearing shirts with the collar button undone. In summer, sleeves were rolled up to the elbow as. Shirts were always tucked into pants and even underwear to keep them from riding up.
Some young men opted not to dress in work shirts, choosing a T-shirt instead. They were certainly cooler to wear! Plain white or blue as well as stripes made up the bulk of men’s T shirts. Knitted polo shirts could also be worn, but they were generally more expensive to buy.
Paired with shirts came a pair of work weight pants or trousers. Unlike dress trousers, they were usually flat fronted with straight wide legs. The waistband had belt loops, although suspenders could be worn instead. The pants could be cuffed at the hem, but more often were left unhemmed.
Work pants came in several fabrics such as covert cloth, cotton, moleskin, wool, twill, and corduroy. Most were solid dark colors with lighter greys and khaki for summer. Small patterns like blue and white pinstripes, checks, and light plaid would other options in the later 1930s. Workwear was becoming more fashionable, blurring the lines between work, casual and business clothing.
Although denim blue jeans had been around as workwear for a few decades already, it was the 1930s that began the cross-over from workwear to casual fashion. Hollywood’s leading men adopted the denim sailor pant with wide bell legs as a fashion-forward casual look. Men in turn wore them both on and off the job and as far away from the sea as one could get.
Most denim pants continued to be manufactured in designs like work trousers. The dark denim blue jeans were reinforced with copper rivets and sturdy contrast stitching. Cuffs were folded up wide as a place to keep small tools. Big front and back pockets held even more tools, rags and papers.
Overalls were probably the most common workwear item men choose, especially as farmers, railroaders, miners, and construction men. Easy to wear with any work shirt, they came in a range of blue denim colors and hickory stripes.
While coveralls continued to be a good workwear option for men into the 1930s, they picked up more interest in the late 1930s. Coveralls were worn by farmers, painters, mechanics, pilots, and factory men. Race car drivers such as the men below were frequently seen in white twill cloth coveralls with pegged legs and worn over a regular shirt and tie. Other fabrics were khaki, hickory stripe, blue denim, and grey covert. Most were heavy weight fabrics for durability. Lighter fabrics in summer were an option, but they wore out faster.
Combining a matching set of pants, shirt and sometimes jacket, the working men’s uniform was worn by jobs requiring public interaction. Gas station attendants were one of the lower occupations that wore coordinated uniforms. Delivery men, repairmen, mechanics, and some factory workers — especially managers — were required to wear a certain colors with their name or company embroidered on the chest pocket. A necktie or bowtie was also worn with these outfits to distinguish themselves from laborers.
Some uniforms required men to wear breeches instead of long pants. Chauffeurs were one such occupation but managers of a factory, movie directors or ranchers were other such occupations. They could be made of whipcord, twill, moleskin, corduroy, and even leather. The thigh ballooned wide and came into the leg above the knee. The seat was reinforced with a second layer of fabric or leather as well as the inner legs.
Breeches were not for general laborers. They were a distinguishing outfit reminiscent of military officers attire. Tall socks and boots or low shoes with puttees (leather gaiters) covered the lower leg.
Nearly any kind of jacket or coat would be worn for workwear. For most seasons, the hip length cossack/bomber type jacket with a button up for zip up front was the ’30s jacket to own. Suede cloth or buckskin was the best material for working men but any wool, leather, or corduroy fabric could be used.
Heavier winter jackets could be the belted plaid mackinaw jacket with sheepskin lining. Similar styles came in suede or leather. Matching suede vests with or without lining added another layer of warmth.
For rain and wet weather, the rubberized rain slicker with matching pants was the best at being waterproof.
White Coats, Aprons
Not all working men’s jobs were outside or messy. White, tan or speckled grey coats, smocks, and aprons topped men’s work attire. Doctors, shopkeepers, waiters, butchers, barbers, and chefs are a few of these occupations. Each had a signature style of coat or apron for his occupation.
Work boots and shoes
Men’s work boots and shoes have chanced little from the 1930s to today. All leather body with a lining on the inside, laced up part way with hooks on the last 3-4 rows. There were various thicknesses, linings, reinforced toes and colored soles that offered men choices while remaining nearly identical on the outside.
Working men’s Oxfords were a good choice for low impact and uniform jobs. Over the ankle boots were what most labor jobs required. Taller lace up boots were for rugged outdoor jobs (linemen, ranchers, hunters, military) and anyone wearing breeches.
For rain and snow, there were rubber or felt galoshes with 4 large buckles. Pull on rain boots were less flexible and best for a quick trip to the barn, not all day work.
Working Men’s Hats
Hats for working men needed to be durable and affordable. Common styles were as follows:
- Cap – The sporty 8 panel cap (newsboy, ivy, big apple) came in every fabric from wool to leather and cotton to corduroy. Most colors were medium to dark shades of grey and brown. Checks, tweed and small plaid were common patterns.
- Helmet – Men needing head protection as well as a wide visor turned to the “trooper” hat, also called a pith helmet or safari hat. Soft crown “duck cloth” hats were another option for summer.
- Service caps – For uniformed jobs, a service cap / police cap/ captain’s hat had a soft body with stiff shiny leather brim.
- Shop cap – Hickory striped caps were associated with factory workers and railroad men.
- Fedora hats – Most men had one nice felt hat. Last year’s nice hat turned into a work hat. Felt fedora hats had a center dent and side dents and at least a 2.5 inch brim. By the time they made it to work wear, they were usually misshapen. Straw fedora hats were an option, but unusual, because they could not hold up past one summer season. Instead, cloth “sport hats” similar to fedoras were a better option.
Western hats such as the classic Carlsbad, Columbia, or military hats had wider brims for the most sun protection.
Where to buy men’s workwear clothes?
There are few makers of reproduction men’s vintage workwear but a handful of vintage-inspired designers or new brand still using classic cuts. A few are:
- Levi’s Vintage line recreates men’s clothing, mostly casual or workwear, from their historic archives
- Pendelton – This very old brand still makes shirts and jackets based on original patterns.
- LL Bean – I like their button down shirts which have two chest pockets, a feature very hard to find in local/ trendy stores. Look at work boots, pants and jackets in the winter line as well.
- Warehouse & Co. – More men’s vintage workwear from Japan.
- Mister Freedom – Limited editions, some made in the USA, men’s vintage workwear, casual modern clothing, and swimwear.
- Standard and Strange – High quality, durable, workwear, jeans, casual, shoes, and accessories. Multiple brands.
- History Preservation – 1930s to 1950s military trousers, leather flight jackets, casual and work shirts, selvage-denim jeans, sweatshirts, army field jackets, and more rugged workwear.
- Knickerbocker Co. – Vintage style men’s workwear, casuals, sack suits, jackets, shirts, and caps made in New York.
- Pike Brothers (UK) – Vintage menswear, focused on workwear to casual menswear.
- Old Town (UK) – Made to order workwear clothing- trousers, jackets, shirts, vests and much more.
- Stanleybiggs.co.uk (UK) – A small but amazing line of casual/sport/workwear men’s clothing, trousers, caps, coveralls, and boots.
- Clutch Cafe (UK) – A mix of brands featuring denim, work-shirts, jackets, and knitwear in the vintage or classic style.
- Simon James Cathcart (UK) – Casual or workwear brand with a new line every season. Very high quality. Most styles taken from the 1930s.
- Bronson MFG – Has a full line of men’s workwear from the 1860s to 1960s. Clothing ships from China so expect it to take 2-4 weeks to arrive and run small in size.