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January 24, 2024

Sean Toomey

In the long and varied history of 20th century menswear, there is no decade exhibiting such a consistent influence on past and present fashions quite like the 1930s. The 1920s, shucking off the old constraints of the generation that plunged them into the first World War, dominated by youth riots, flappers, and cake eaters, were too close to the Edwardian influences that birthed the rebellion of the decade; dangerously slim and leggy jazz suits. The 1940s presented their exciting post war vision with an exaggerated boldness of both cut and accessories; swing ties, square extended shoulders, dated cuts, the aftermath of a series of Robert Mitchum pictures. But, between these two decades of boldness, post-war exuberance, and rather opposite exaggerations of the human frame, we find a beautiful and lasting synthesis of the two trends: the 1930s.

Contrary to what one might assume, the Great Depression did not stop the great churning gyres of the transatlantic menswear scene, merely returning (a blithe commonality in human history) the great excitements—both economic and fashionable—to the rich. Instead of the Jazz Age suits marketed towards the young man tripping on down to New York to dance upon the tables with Constance Bennett, the 1930s saw menswear firmly in the hands of the upper mainline class of the Anglo-American world. One merely needs to look at the June, 1934 edition of Esquire magazine's list of “The Most Prominent Birthplaces of Style” to see this effect in action: 


1. Westbury, Long Island: Where the polo-playing set spend a great deal of time. 

2. Rye, New York: Where the Biltmore Country Club is one of the most important style centers in the U.S. 

3. New York Stock Exchange: The real birthplace of New York styles. 

4. Yale: The undergraduate, often with a Wall Street career in his future, already acts and dresses like the young broker type who haunts New York’s financial district. 

5. Southampton, Long Island: The watering place where sands are made of platinum and the waters of sapphire. 

6. Newport, Rhode Island: Has a decidedly high social caste that originated with the 400 in the Cay Nineties and has lasted down through the thrilling thirties. 

7. Park Avenue: Where young brokers live and play, in the after-dark twin of Wall Street. 

8. Palm Beach, Florida: To try to express the fashion significance of Palm Beach is like trying to explain the beauty of a woman

9. Princeton: Where a large portion of the student body are some of the top-rankers in American social, financial and diplomatic circles. They spend their vacation abroad and in general reflect the younger generation’s version of what is being worn and what is being done in the smart world of their elders.


The well-dressed gentleman of the 1930s was one of an elegant figure; rich with enough time to spend on his interests and business in town as well as pursue all of the various sporting activities available to the upper classes who need not to work. Such pursuits—shooting, hunting, tennis, polo, horseback riding, and various spectator sports like football, baseball, and the racetrack—had a decisive influence on American fashions from the 30s and beyond. Sportswear, with rougher fabrics and a more casual silhouette, was the defining characteristic of the decade. Suits were made from large pattern tweeds of Harris, Shetland, Cheviot, and Saxony. Coats were cut roomy and made with country and sporting pursuits in mind. Shirts lost their detachable starched collars as soft attached ones came in vogue in softer poplin and oxford cloths. Suede shoes, split toes, and derbys became the casual shoes of choice, the penny loafer made its introduction on the Ivy league campuses, and the black cap toe oxford replaced the balmoral and button boots of the past as the essential formal shoe. 


All of this casual, intensely studied carelessness was spearheaded by, without a doubt, the most influential character in all of men’s fashion: The Duke of Windsor, then Prince of Wales. Personal shortcomings (his horrendous politics and by all accounts being quite a dullard) aside, the man had an insane degree of influence on men’s clothing unheard of in today’s pluralistic world of fashion. The signature silhouette of the decade was defined by the Duke and his tailor Fredericke Scholte. Together they created a new type of suit, one that was structured but soft, moveable, and above all else, casual. With broad extended shoulders, a nipped waist, high armholes, and a generous amount of excess fabric – creating folds in the chest and back – the English Drape cut exuded the sporty and relaxed characteristic of the 1930s while crafting a silhouette becoming to men of all builds. The following passage from Esquire’s Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men’s Fashion more than explains the sheer power the then Prince of Wales had on the fashion scene:


Red ties were considered effeminate until the Prince of Wales chose to wear the reddest red tie he could find. Brown suede shoes were considered vulgar until he wore them. Singlehandedly, he relieved a depression affecting Fair Isle, in the Shetland Islands, when he chose to appear on the golf links wearing one of the fine hand-knit sweaters made there. In short order. Fair Isle sweaters were selling in American shops for as much as $35 each. When the Prince turned up at Belmont Park, Long Island, wearing a big panama hat of a type that had not been seen in the United States for a decade, almost overnight the panama hat was back in fashion. More than any other individual, he made London the men’s fashion capital of the world, and during the prosperous twenties, when increasingly large numbers of affluent Americans traveled abroad, British influence Suits affected the wardrobes of American men as never before


The Prince of Wales, exploring and pushing the boundaries of fashion like his grandfather did before him, created the framework for the popularization of the Anglo-American style during the decade: Hollywood.


If men’s fashion as we now recognize it came into its own in the 1930s, sound cinema did as well and the movie stars of their day took great advantage of this simultaneous revolution to sell the new styles of day (coming from the Prince of Wales and other fashion conscious Royalty or Society Men) to the general public, less inclined to follow every change seen in Esquire magazine and more to what their tailor or salesman knew to make. Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., to name a few, took the British-influenced look and added on a uniquely American strain of casualness in dress. Going beyond the already relaxed developments pushed forward by the Prince of Wales, the casual debauchery of Tinseltown in its golden age provided a breeding ground for sportswear and casual suiting with the developments of half norfolk belted back suits, triple patch pocket jackets, and lowered belt loop pants that expanded, and eventually during the following decade, exaggerated the limits of the Drape cut. Due to the fact that, provided it was not a period piece, the leading men of Hollywood in this era all dressed themselves (the only ear for aid a word or two about fabric choices from their tailor) the movie industry created the continuum of what trends could and would be marketed towards the common man of the time.


Back in Europe, but far south of the Saville Row, haunts of all the fashionable continental gentleman of the day, well to do art critic Gennaro Rubinnaci and tailor Vincenzo Attolini were creating their own spin on the popular drape cut sweeping men's fashion in the warmer climate of Naples. Taking inspiration from the draping developments occurring in London, Rubinacci and Attolini created a jacket that had the elegance and becoming silhouette of the English cut but with needed adjustments to make it more suited for the Neapolitan climate and lifestyle. Attolini took out most of the padding and and lining of the drape jacket – the shoulder, while still extended over the natural end of the shoulder, used minimal padding and  wadding to create the v shaped silhouette without the heaviness of the English construction – with a higher gorge of the lapel and the famous spalla camica (shirt-sleeve) style where the sleeve head of the jacket is sewn in under the shoulder. This collaboration created a more climate appropriate and casual style of the English suit with all the flair that neapolitan tailoring is known for. Rubinacci and Attolini created their own tailoring house, named London House, in homage to the advancements of the drape cut as well as their love of English fabrics that still services those looking for the classic Neapolitan suit today.


One must also acknowledge the contributions of the Ivy League campuses to the fashions of the day, serving as the other direct pipeline of English fashions to the general American buyer. While predating the heyday of the mid century “Ivy Style” look and its preppy descendants by about twenty years, the roots of that look began in the late 20s and early 30s, pushing the boundaries of the relaxed decade the furthest they could go. One of the most important and notable innovations of the Eastern school campuses was their lifting of the fashions of the students of Oxford University—often during crew trips, vacations, and the other various reasons young, well to do, gentlemen might go to England—into the mainstream; the most notable example being their lifting of the Oxford bags (extremely wide trousers worn to cover up the banned plus fours, a longer, baggier variation of the knickerbocker) and bringing them back to the states. As they pioneered this fashion the width of the pants slowly decreased until the standard opening of the pant leg was around 19.5 inches, a much wider silhouette from the narrow suits of the twenties. 

Compared to this day and age, the insularity of the developments of style are almost unrecognizable. Sure, celebrities and the remaining leading men of Hollywood still do influence fashion and hold sway over the general public, but their fashions are, seemingly universally, crafted by a stylist whose nose for the coming trends and whims of clothing comes not from Hollywood but elsewhere. This “elsewhere” might be precisely the difference between then and now, minus a good ninety years. Fashion is far more open to the common person than it was almost a hundred years ago. Instead of the pattern mixing of royals and talkie stars dominating the shifting sands of fashion we now see—aided by the proliferation of the internet and social media—a plethora of fashions, aesthetics, designs, and moods that one can access to dress in a way that feels most like themselves. While the romance of the era is nice to fantasize about, people interested in style and fashion are now in an era where they can directly partake and influence the direction of trends instead of merely getting the last few drops trickling down from popular media, a great victory for the actual recipients of fashion and not just the trend setters.


The tricky part here is this: how do we apply the lessons and the silhouettes in today’s day and age without venturing completely in cosplay (I myself have received a few snide remarks from people decked out fully in Brown merch for having the gall to wear a beret)? For starters, I would recommend fully following the fashion river round the bend into the wider fits and styles that have been emerging out of the desecrated grave of slim fit pants. Go for pants with ample room in the thigh so that the fabric hangs cleanly and comfortably; higher (a thirteen inch rise is my preferred length) rises, 9.5 inch leg openings, pleats, and heavy, drapey fabrics are all thirties hallmarks that can be easily applied to the current vogue. Aim for these more traditional and roomy fits in shirts, jackets, coats and basically anything else that has slimmed out in the past, shrinking, decade. For coats, follow the decade and go for roomy topcoats in large tweed patterns and camel hair and for blazers and jackets look for equally comfortable cuts in soft flannels, homespun fabrics, and various patterns in earth tones. A brown jacket in a check, windowpane, or herringbone is a great go to choice for one's first jacket, especially if you wish to avoid the more establishment aura that a navy blazer with brass buttons might give off. The 1930s were also a decade of great pattern experimentation with the most audacious of dressers often wearing four or five patterns in a single outfit. If you’re just starting out, I would recommend to cool off a little and stick to one or two at a time. Above all, don’t be afraid to dress up. While I don’t recommend trotting out the tuxedo or chalk stripe suit for a morning Ratty run, there’s nothing wrong with wearing a soft jacket and scarf or even a tweed suit for one’s daily campus errands. Maintain repose; don’t be a dandy, but don’t be scared to put on a nice shirt and sweater every once and awhile.


Below, I’d like to share some photos and illustrations that contain the essence of the stylistic developments of the thirties. I hope they may be as of much use to you as they are of me. 

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