So, you have bought your tickets to your next swing event and are planning what you are going to wear. You probably have taken some lessons and are more comfortable with the dancing, so now it is time to add some style to your craft without sacrificing comfort.
The main problem is that vintage dancing and swing dancing — whether it be Lindy, Balboa, collegiate shag, Texas Tommy, or East Coast swing — is an aerobic activity, which means two things: 1.) Heat will be created, and 2.) you will need mobility — especially for those of you doing aerials and swing outs.
The first thought on dressing for your event is probably to wear athletic shorts and a shirt that wicks away moisture. Wearing exercise clothes may be good for lessons or practice sessions, but how do you dress in vintage style and not be drenched in sweat or unable to move?
The other extreme is to go all out for an event in a 3 piece suit or ’40s zoot suit. I can assure you that it will be fun to strut around the room looking like you just stepped off the set of Boardwalk Empire, but a few dances in and you might be reduced to a t-shirt and pants.
There is a compromise, however, and an agreement between dressing for comfort and dressing in vintage style can be reached with a few things in mind.
First, let us talk about the type of event you are going to. Most events are held in some kind of ballroom, preferably with spring floors that may or may not have high ceilings. For most of the dances I have been to, the dance promoters like to hold them in vintage venues.
Since most of the vintage indoor venues do not have air conditioning, you can bet that as the night progresses it will be hot from all of the body heat created from people swinging themselves into a frenzy. For some people, this produces a lot of sweat.
Swing Dancing and Sweat (Yuck!)
I happen to be one of those guys who sweats a lot and from talking to the womenfolk (or followers, to be politically correct) and they don’t like to dance with a Sweaty McSweater. This limits your social opportunities to find a dance partner and you will be remembered as the sweaty guy.
I have tried a lot of things to reduce this sweating phenomenon, like putting deodorant on my face, taking a shower beforehand, going outside to cool down after every couple dances, trying to increase my aerobic ability to see if that makes me sweat less, changing shirts a few times, using a towel to wipe away sweat between dances, using a towel during dances, finding other sweaty partners, limiting the number of dances I do, using a cold towel, using a hot towel, and not drinking enough water to force dehydration.
All of these things mixed and matched will help out of course, but one of the main things I have found is to wear comfortable breathable clothes. Even though I wear comfortable clothes, though, it does not mean I have to look like I am at the gym.
Now that you all know where this article is heading, it is time to get down to what to do about it. First, you should look your best when walking into the venue, especially if you have a date or are in a well-dressed entourage. Nothing is better than that first feeling of getting to the venue and opening the doors to a big 14 piece band, dressed like you know your era and have spent a couple hours grooming and getting all of your ties, collar bars, watches, cuff links, hats, canes, two toned shoes, vests and jackets the best they could look. You will dazzle everyone with your sense of what it means to wear vintage or reproduction clothing.
This is the first impression you will create, and the one people will remember if you do not ruin it by being the sweaty guy. The most important thing to remember about this is layers. Enter with all of your layers on and pay attention to the details for each layer, so at any given time you will still look the part.
Swing Dance Clothing for Men
The era of swing spans the 1930s and 1940s, although the general vintage style spans the 1920s to 1960s. Men’s clothing changed little over these decades.
An example of some men’s swing dance outfits:
- Full dress: Overcoat, suit, vest, tie, dance shoes, fedora hat.
- Semi-dress: Dress shirt, vest, tie/bow tie, wide leg pants, dress shoes.
- Semi-casual: Dress shirt, suspenders, pants, dance loafers/shoes.
- Casual: Polos shirt or camp shirt, pants, belt, dance sneakers/Keds.
- Hipster casual: Jeans or skinny fit pants, t-shirt, newsboy cap, sneakers.
- By the end of the night: undershirt, pants, maybe shoes, and a lot of sweat!
Remember to always bring extra undershirts and dress shirts. I found this out from a guy once who went to a lot of dances and had similar problems. He would bring along extra Oxford shirts and undershirts (vests in the UK) and change them out as the night went on.
If you are really skilled, you could bring along different colors and different ties etc to make a fresh look. Hey, maybe you can get a second chance to make that first impression again.
Make sure you can move around in your clothes. The reason I think that you can wear your full suit for the first couple of dances is that they should be your warm-up dances.
Try to use it to do the moves that you are comfortable with, not the aerials you just learned in class in the previous week. Those moves come later, when you are down to your lower layers which are more maneuverable.
Do some light dances like a Balboa or a few east coast steps or something relatively light. I apologize to the Lindy crowd for that comment about doing east coast steps for the first couple dances. You guys that are exclusive high energy Lindy should go down to shirt/suspenders/no-tie for all dances.
Essential Clothing for Vintage Dancing
The most critical component of your dance outfit is your shoes. Beginners may choose a comfortable pair of dress shoes with a leather sole and be fine for a while. After that, moving up into shoes made specifically for swing dancing will keep you more comfortable and more flexible on your feet.
Capezio men’s ballroom shoes are what I have worn for decades because they are a timeless Oxford style that can work for Victorian to 1960s dancing.
Talk with other Lindy dancers and you will hear about wearing penny loafers, Keds champion classic sneakers, saddle Oxfords, ballroom dance shoes (Cuban/salsa shoes are very vintage), two-tone wingtips/cap toe Oxfords, or sneakers with a modified sole.
Basically, any pair of men’s shoes with a thin leather sole and heel that has a soft but not too stiff body can make good dance shoes. For practice, a pair of dance sneakers are also very popular.
Pants / Trousers
From the 1920s to the late 1950s, men’s pants were high waisted and wide leg (about 22″ hem, give or take). The style is unmistakably vintage, especially when you veer away from black and into bold colors and big patterns (checks, windowpane, pinstripes, plaid, herringbone, etc).
They are also comfortable to dance in since the high waist frees the hips and legs to move. Wearing pants at or above your natural waist does take some getting used to and they may also need help staying up with a thin leather belt or button on suspenders (clip on suspenders can pop off).
Wide leg and high waist pants can be hard to find. Here are some options online.
If you are into Disco, check out these bell bottom pants.
I would avoid jeans unless it is part of your 1950s “rockabilly” persona. Linen, cotton or seersucker is great for summer breathability in the 1920s and 1930s eras. Shorts could be worn for the 1950s or ’60s if they are high waisted and knee-length, but frankly just look out of place on the dance floor (practice is ok).
While wide leg pants span multiple decades, your choice of a shirt will set the time period the most. In general, a button-down long sleeve dress shirt can be worn for any decade (roll up the sleeves if you need to).
Vertical stripes and a white round “club” collar are ideal for the 1910s and 1920s. A long pointy spearpoint collar looks best in the 1930s and early 1940s.
A solid color dress shirt with one or two chest pockets fits the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s best. A loose fit is more vintage than a skinny fit and better for ease of movement. Choose cotton with an open weave or “summer weight” to beat the heat.
Never wear moisture wicking shirts for dancing. The sweat wicks to the outside where your partner must place her hand. It is slimy and gross. Don’t do it!
Besides dress shirts, casual shirt options are:
1930s: Polo shirts made of soft cotton jersey instead of textured pique. Guayaberas look like 30s bush shirts/safari shirts and are very light and breathable. Shop here.
1940s: Striped ringer T-shirts, knitted polo shirts, plain camp shirts, Hawaiian shirts. Shop here.
1950s: Camp shirts/ two-tone bowling shirts, zip up polo shirts, banded bottom shirt jackets, solid color t-shirts, classic western shirts, plaid button-up shirts (short or long sleeve.) Shop here.
1960s: Mod print or bright color mock neck knitted shirts / polo shirts. Black turtle neck shirts (hot!), striped ringer T-shirts, vertical striped dress shirts.
1970s: Slim fit paisley/geometric/tribal/hippie print long sleeve dress shirt with big collars, sequin/metallic/silk open neck disco shirts, denim shirts/western shirts, zip up knit polo shirts, retro t-shirts. Shop 1960s-1970s men’s shirts here.
If you won’t get too hot, consider wearing a sweater vest over a dress shirt in a plain cable knit, argyle print, or Fair Isle print for a vintage 1920s to 1940s look. A less hot option is a button down suit vest paired with matching trousers. This is a non full suit compromise for “dressy” events.
Most swing dancers do not conform to one decade. They mix and match vintage decades and modern clothing, creating their own unique vintage vibe. It is not uncommon to see men in modern skinny fit pants, shirts and suspenders or jeans and t-shirts with a fedora hat.
There are no fashion police at vintage dances (some people take this role upon themselves, please ignore them), so feel free to wear whatever you like. Granted, if you are going to a decade-specific themed dance, do your best to match the era.
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.