Wartime White Tie

In honour of Remembrance Day today we take a look back at World War II and the modest sacrifices made by men on the home front to support the men on the battlefield making the greatest sacrifice of all.

(Courtesy of A Tailor Made It)

(Courtesy of A Tailor Made It)

I had previously been aware of fabric rationing in the United States during World War II but didn’t realize just how dramatically it impacted men’s formal wear.

My initial research revealed that the War Production Board had limited the manufacture of garments with extraneous fabric, particularly wool, in order to supply the troops abroad.  Order L-224 pertained specifically to menswear and included a ban on double-breasted jackets (formal or otherwise) and formal-front shirts.  When the limitations were eventually lifted the garments in question quickly returned to, or even exceeded, their pre-war popularity.

What I did not know until recently was that frock coats and full-dress suits – evening tailcoats and matching trousers – were also banned according to the above page from Chicago Woolen Mills’ Style Trend Spring and Summer 1943 catalogue.  This goes a long way to explaining the decline of the tailcoat in America following the war.  Prior to the war it had slowly recovered its pre-WWI status as defacto evening wear, bumping the tuxedo back down to semi-formal attire.  However, after the war it found itself reserved “only for the most formal and ceremonious functions” in the words of a 1948 etiquette manual.  Certainly this was not the only factor in white tie’s post-war unpopularity considering that wars typically lower all aspects of formality in society.  But it could be a significant one nonetheless.

Intrigued by this new information, I searched for equivalent restrictions in the United Kingdom.  I found second-hand evidence of a similar ban on tailcoats under that government’s austerity directives.  After a little more digging I came across a copy of the official Canadian directives from the Wartime Prices and Trade Board.  The Board’s formal wear limitations (part of Administrator’s Order No. A-207) were significantly stricter than those of their American counterpart:

No clothing manufacturer shall hereafter . . . put into process or cause to be put into process any cloth for the manufacture of full dress suits, tuxedo suits, cutaway or morning coats or Prince Albert coats or formal or full dress vests.

Interestingly, despite the two-year gap between Britain and America’s entry into the war, both countries enacted their menswear rationing measures in winter 1942. (Canada’s went into effect in June of that year).  The opposite was true for the lifting of restrictions.  Most of the American constraints were lifted months before the war ended as evidenced by the Michigan newspaper ad below from November 10, 1944 while  Britain took much longer to recover, ending its rationing only in 1954.

(Cass City Chronicle)________________________________________


November 21, 2013

Subsequent research has revealed more British restrictions on the tailcoat, in this case royal precedents rather than government mandates.

First, in 1940 King George VI replaced his tailcoat with his dinner jacket as de facto evening wear and society followed his example:

1940-06-26_Evening_Times_(Cumberland,MD)Then in 1943 His Majesty banished the tailcoat from his staff’s wardrobe as well.  “There will be no more tailcoats and white ties for the servants at Buckingham Palace,” announced an Associated Press report in March.  “King George himself has ordered the customary garb discarded for ‘battledress’ to save materials – and [laundry] soap.”


  1. Duncan Pike

    Totally fascinating. I wonder if this contributed to the single breasted, no lapel vest becoming the standard option on business suits to this day? I know you mention that clothing returned to its former grandeur, but I was not sure if you were referring specifically to formal wear, or to clothing in general on that point.

  2. CharlesM

    I wondered the same thing. I also noticed the prohibition of “high rise” trousers. Considering that standard rise at that time was more or less to the natural waist, one wonders how high the “high rise” actually was.

    1. Peter Marshall

      After the restrictions were lifted double-breasted suits of all types became very popular as did wide shoulders and very baggy cuts, trends that continued well into the 1950s. High rise trousers were worn with mess jackets and were a trend in the 1930s in conjunction with truncated tailcoat fronts.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *