Depression Era: High Style in Hard Times
Dressing for the
occasion is now a habit with the masses as well as the 'idle rich’.
tuxedo ad, 1930
Remarkably, the greatest
chapter in the history of evening wear – and
arguably menswear in general
– is the era marked by the Great Depression.
At a time of extreme financial hardship for so many, the
wealthy elite maintained an after-six wardrobe that was not only
elegant but sometimes downright decadent.
In 1935 a New York Herald
Tribune society writer calculated that a “well-attired”
New York gentleman’s evening kit could be
worth as much as $4,975 once his jewelry
and fur coat were accounted for, the equivalent of a staggering $80,000
today. It was this
glamorous lifestyle that Hollywood capitalized upon when catering to mainstream America’s desire
for inexpensive escapism and in the process elevated the tailcoat
and tuxedo to iconic status.
became more affordable to the average man thanks to
the increased availability of ready-to-wear tuxedos
which were first mass-marketed by Philadelphia tailors S.
Rudofker’s Sons, predecessor to industry
giant After Six.
Even more economical
was the newly established option of simply renting one's formal wear
on a daily basis. As a result,
Rudofker jubilantly advertised
in 1930 that the habit of dressing for the occasion previously confined to
the “idle rich” had now expanded to include the masses: “Business
Men, Truck Drivers, Collegians, Farmers, Office Workers, High School
Youths: They're All wearing Tuxedos!"
Classic Comfort and Style
Another primary factor in
the dinner suit’s surging appeal was surely its improvements in comfort.
Menswear historian G. Bruce Boyer explains that before the thirties
a gentleman’s evening dress kit consisted of a dress suit or dinner
suit of 18- to 20-ounce wool, a board-stiff shirt of heavy cotton
with a tall starched collar and extensive accessories and jewelry.
“It boggles the mind, nay the whole body, to understand how
any but the stateliest dances could ever have been negotiated.”
Then during the interwar years shirts became softer, waistcoats became
cooler and, most notably,
evening suits became lighter than regular
suits. As the After Six corporate history once summed it up,
“tuxedos were finally being made for dancing.”
Lastly, there was the impact
For nearly a century male apparel
had been focused on appearing respectably inconspicuous but the
youthful influence born of the jazz age
epitomized by the
eminently stylish Prince of Wales
liberated menswear from such
constraints in the 1930s.
For the first time since the Regency fashion was fashionable.
So it was that 1920s eveningwear trends which had been
originally confined to elite social circles began to
spread to the masses.
The Prince’s debonair color
preference for after-six attire was imported to
by Hollywood movie stars and was
all the rage by the mid-thirties.
Frequently described by enamored journalists and
advertisers as being “blacker than black”, it was at first limited
to the least formal variations of evening wear but its popularity
quickly expanded until by 1934 menswear periodicals were promoting
it for all types of evening dress.
In 1935 it was reported that mills making fabrics for formal dress expected sales of midnight
blue to equal or even exceed those of black that season.
Their predictions proved true and by the late
thirties etiquette and sartorial
that this previously alternative color was now the primary choice
for dress suits and dinner jackets alike.
"Waistcoats have become a
high style item,” observed Apparel Arts in 1933.
“No more of the thick ill-fitting affairs but today a suave
and sleek arrangement.”
Gentlemen continued to personalize their evening
suits through their choice of single-breasted or
double-breasted models, usually with a narrow V-shaped front opening.
They also had the option of the traditional full-back style
or the newer and more comfortable backless
design introduced in the previous decade by
England’s regal maverick.
By the time the Prince became king in 1936 Esquire
was reporting that his creation
preferred choice in London and
rapidly gaining favor in the
The 1920s fashion of wearing a full-dress waistcoat
with the informal dinner jacket remained popular in
London and France
at the decade's opening
its frequent appearance on the Prince at Continental
resorts. However, by
autumn 1933 the inaugural issue of Esquire
was reporting that “The white waistcoat has at last been
allowed to rejoin its lawful but long estranged mate, the tailcoat,
and the new dinner jackets are matched with a waistcoat of the
jacket material, with dull grosgrain lapel facing.”
The renewed popularity of the tailcoat in the latter part of
the decade further reduced the appeal of the mixed-breed combination
although some etiquette
experts would continue to recommend it as
a formal middle ground for
decades to come.
In the mid-1930s some of the
more avant garde dressers of the era chose to bypass the traditional
black and white options altogether and augmented their tuxedos with
colored silk waistcoats.
Not even the century-old
dress suit was immune from the sartorial exuberance of the
"Tailcoats used to be like Fords,”
wrote Esquire in 1936, “it
was a point of pride that the model was seldom changed.”
were being inundated
articles and ads
stressing the need to stay
abreast of the latest full-dress fashions
or risk social
In the early years there were two
distinct styles of evening tailcoats as summarized in a 1932 Men’s
Wear report. The British
style featured a high waistline and broad shoulders with lots of
drape (extra fullness on chest and over the shoulder blades).
In contrast, the American coat had a slightly lower waist,
natural shoulders and no drape.
The British look gradually dominated due in no small part to
its patronage by the Prince of Wales whose tailor also liked to
employ short stubby lapels to further create a vertically elongating
effect. False cuffs,
lack of a breast pocket and silk cloth buttons instead of bone were
other popular trends that emerged from London’s
exclusive West End during the early decade.
Also notable was the return of the dégagé shawl collar as an
allowable alternative to the peak lapel.
Some of the more extreme
developments began to fall out of favor in
the years following the Prince’s
1936 abdication. By
1937 broad, stubby lapels were losing popularity and by 1940 Esquire
was advising men to stick to tradition to avoid being mistaken for
bandmasters, “a tribe noted for wasp waistlines, barn-broad
shoulders and Himalayan high rise trousers”.
Throughout the decade full-dress trouser
two medium-wide stripes or one very wide stripe
although the former style was becoming more common.
Not content to simply
improve the comfort of the full-dress waistcoat, the Prince of Wales
also upped the ante on its style.
Like the full-dress shirt’s studs and links, the waistcoat’s
buttons were traditionally made of pearl in order to blend in with
the garment’s white fabric.
Consequently, when the Prince began appearing at London’s exclusive Embassy Club with black
waistcoat buttons well-dressed men took notice.
The fad quickly spread to America and soon other colors were
also allowable provided they were “not too showy.” Single-breasted models were
more popular than double-breasted ones at this time but His Royal
Highness was happy to modify both.
He not only exported day wear’s “W” shaped double-breasted
bottom to full evening dress but also introduced rounded
well as straight-bottom models
Above the waistcoat the
Prince favored a tall shirt collar which necessitated a wide opening
and very broad tabs that were slightly wider than
the bow tie.
Plain linen bosoms remained popular
during the era despite the growing trend
for the shirt front, waistcoat and bow tie to be made of matching
Informal Jackets and Shirts
Previously considered too
informal for evening wear due to its lack of accompanying waistcoat,
the double-breasted dinner jacket’s popularity skyrocketed in the
early thirties thanks once again to Britain’s royal paragon of
menswear. The future
Duke of Windsor invariably paired the swank coat with a soft-front
pleated evening shirt featuring attached turndown collar and French cuffs rather than the traditional starched front shirt with detachable wing collar and single cuffs.
The overall result, explains renowned haberdasher
Alan Flusser, was a look that “brought a new level of informality to
the traditional dinner jacket – but with no lowering of the
standards that separated those who dressed correctly from those who
simply dressed up.”
Although period etiquette
experts made sure to limit the appropriateness of these
innovations to the most informal of occasions – summer
evenings, in particular – the new jacket model nonetheless rivaled
the popularity of the single-breasted
standard by 1935.
It was often midnight blue and its lapels were usually
peaked. As for the
contemporary shirt style, the November 1937 issue of Esquire noted
that the turndown collar had superseded the traditional wing collar
by the mid thirties and was "now virtually standard for informal
shirtmakers devised a novel
variant that was dressier than informal
soft-front shirts yet more comfortable than the formal stiff-front
option. The resulting
marcella shirt was an elegant compromise consisting of a semi-stiff
bosom fashioned out of formal piqué with a matching turndown collar
Other Style Trends
There was seemingly no end
to the appetite for flourishes in thirties
evening fashion extending down to the smallest details:
dull or ribbed silk
facings became preferred as shiny satin lapels were increasingly
associated with ready-to-wear apparel
the semi-butterfly was
the favored bow tie shape although the
rounded tie, pointed tie and narrow straight bat tie were also
the black bow tie’s
fabric now matched the dinner jacket’s lapel facings
gardenia or carnation was the boutonniere of choice for
traditionalists but the Prince of Wales-inspired clover-red
carnation was increasingly popular among young men;
by the late 1930s the blue cornflower was added to the mix
for full dress the
pocket watch was worn with a key chain in the early years then
later "the old fashioned Georgian seal watch fob has returned"
the black or midnight blue homburg became standard headwear
with dinner suits in
England and the
Warm-Weather Black Tie
The decade's final
innovation of note is one of the few that were not inspired by the
Prince. Instead it was
originated by well-heeled Americans
seeking a cooler alternative to
the heavy, heat-absorbing black dinner
wintering in tropical
The Mess Jacket
In late 1931 fashion reporters at American tropical
resorts noted a new vogue among socialites for the white mess
jacket, a civilian counterpart to military formal wear that
resembled a tailcoat cut off at the waistline. Apparel Arts
the jacket originated
as evening wear for
British naval officers "but by its adoption by well-dressed Americans for wear aboard their
yachts and at smart Palm Beach evening functions, it is accepted as
being correct.” With the sanction of high society the
trendy garment soon became all the rage.
At first the
jacket was made either in gabardine, duck, or a washable
material and had self-faced peaked lapels and front buttons.
It was worn with a waistcoat of the same material,
collar formal shirt and high-rise dress trousers of black or
midnight blue without back pockets.
The bow tie and accessories were as per standard informal
evening wear. A couple
of years later a “smarter”, more informal shawl collar variation
appeared sans buttons or breast pocket.
It was appropriately paired with a soft-front turndown collar
shirt and the recently (re)introduced cummerbund.
Then, almost as quickly as
it had appeared, the mess jacket fell out of favor. Its
primary disadvantage was that the cut was unbecoming to anyone with
a less-than athletic build. Its second drawback was that it
was rapidly adopted as a universal uniform for bellhops and jazz
bands and few gentlemen of any fitness level wished to be mistaken
for hired help or entertainers.
White Dinner Jacket
White dinner jackets premiered alongside the
mess jacket in resorts like Palm Beach and Cannes, albeit with much
less fanfare. Constructed of cotton drill, linen or silk they were
originally worn with either black or white trousers
of tropical weight wool.
Their popularity at tropical locales grew slowly but surely and by
the time the mess jacket had become passé in 1936 they were as
traditional dark coats. In its August 1936 issue, Esquire
defined the quintessential warm-weather formal evening
This year, the big swing is
to single- or double-breasted [light colored] dinner jackets, collar
and self lapel facings. These are worn with
[black] tropical dress
trousers, patent leather oxfords or pumps, a white, soft shirt with
either soft or laundered collar and a black dress tie.
cummerbund was also required when wearing
a single-breasted jacket and although there were no specific rules
for lapel style, shawl collars were the norm.
The acceptance of white
jackets paved the way for other colors in summer evening coats and
soon hues such as plum, dark green, wine and bright blue were being
worn on the moonlit patios of Palm Beach.
The next logical development was coordinated accessories and
dark red was the favorite choice for bow ties, cummerbunds, hosiery
clocks and boutonnieres. Pocket
squares were also frequently used to add a splash of flair but only
when the boutonniere was white.
The addition of subtle
colored touches to the black and white summer palette was so
successful that many of these accessories began to migrate to
traditional dark dinner suits as the decade progressed.
The reappearance in the late
1920s of the newly modified cummerbund
fared much better thanks largely to its pairing with the popular
mess jacket. By 1937 The
New Etiquette was describing the
garment as a “popular and chic” waist
covering for informal evening wear at resorts.
“It is meant for hot weather to obviate the necessity of
having the harness of a waistcoat over the shoulder and back when it
might be uncomfortably warm.
On the right people at the right time it is decorative and
correctly in the spirit of colorful gaiety.”
As the author alluded, the
cummerbund could be used to infuse warm-weather formal wear with
color and even patterns.
Most often though, black silk continued to be de rigueur for waist
coverings worn with the white dinner jacket.
The pleated formal sash could also be correctly matched with
a black tuxedo according to the book’s author, but only when those
tuxedos were worn at resorts; the acceptance of cummerbunds year
round was still at least a decade away.
Classic Etiquette: Formal,
Semi-Formal and Informal
Formal Evening Wear
Paradoxically, while evening
wear’s attire grew more casual its protocol backtracked towards
pre-war formality as the Depression progressed. “The
traditional standard of a tailed coat and white tie being necessary
for wear to any formal affair attended by ladies holds true today”
reported the Fort Worth Star Telegram in September 1935.
“Undergraduates at the universities are responsible to a
certain extent for upholding again the cannon of correct dress.
Tailed coats reign at proms, and dinner jackets no longer are ‘made
to do’.” By January 1940
the Ivy League influence had become so prevalent that "tails have
pretty well replaced the dinner jacket at most places of
celebration" said Esquire.
Informal / Semi-Formal
By November 1936 Esquire
was instructing readers that the dinner coat was generally only
proper “on shipboard, in the tropics, for dinner parties at home,
theater parties and club and stag affairs.”
This return to Edwardian strictures may have demoted the
dinner jacket’s status in theory but in the pages of Apparel
Arts and Esquire the ensemble was promoted to the newly coined rank of
compromise categorization was fitting considering that the so-called
“informal” tuxedo had been appearing regularly at
relatively formal functions
since the end of the First World War.
Regardless of the
terminology employed, it was universally accepted that recent
innovations in evening fashions
had created a new sub-hierarchy.
At the top of the
tuxedo scale were the
single-breasted jacket of black or midnight blue
– the only correct colors for dressing in town – and the wing collar
shirt. At the
bottom of the ladder
were warm-weather jackets, suitable only for country summers and the
in between were the double-breasted jacket and turndown collar shirt
originally classified as casual but increasingly acceptable at all
semi-formal occasions thanks to their soaring popularity.
While British etiquette authorities acknowledged a similar dinner
suit hierarchy they continued to define evening wear as being either
“full dress” or a variant of “dinner dress”; in England there was no
such thing as being half formal.
A Black and White Code
Amidst the ongoing confusion
of exactly what constituted “formal” in this modern era –
some American sources were even
beginning to use it as a blanket term for all evening
wear – there arose a more colloquial designation for the tailcoat
and tuxedo. By focusing on the outfits’ obvious physical
differences White Tie and Black Tie circumvented the formal guessing
game and gradually became part of the common vocabulary.
conclusion of the 1930s the
tuxedo had reached its apex in both popularity and style. As
Alan Flusser summarizes in Style and the Man:
No other era could have
produced such a sartorial success. Each step of the
dinner jacket’s evolution was measured by the perfection of the
outfit it intended to replace – the grandfather of male elegance,
the tailcoat and white tie . . . The new dinner jacket projected a
level of stature and class equal to that of its starched progenitor,
albeit while providing considerably more comfort.
Just as the previous war had
ended the pre-eminence of the tailcoat, so too would World War II
bring a close to the dinner jacket’s golden age.
Although the tuxedo’s stylistic
innovations would safely
survive the ensuing conflict, its status
as standard evening attire would
continually erode in the increasingly informal world that emerged after