1920s men’s fashion was the start of menswear as we know it today. It was a time of classic sophistication with a level of fun that has gone by the wayside in favor of more and more casual modern clothing. 1920s men’s fashion colors were mostly neutral with patterns, but the accessories popped with vibrant colors– just like they did for women’s 1920s fashion. Popular TV shows, such as Peaky Blinders, Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey, have brought back the appeal for 1920s men’s fashion today.
Suits: Three-piece suits with wide lapels and high rise cuffed trousers in stripes, plaid, tweed and wool suiting
Shirts: Narrow stripe dress shirts with white or matching collars. Colored or plaid two pocket work shirts.
Coats: Long overcoats with wide lapels or shorter plaid mackinaw jackets
Sweaters: Pullover, shawl collar, cardigan knit sweaters and sweater vests for casual outfits
Hats: Derby, Homburg, Fedora, Boater, Panama and Newsboys (Peaky Blinders!) caps
Shoes: Cap toe oxfords, two-tone golf oxfords, lace-up boots and sport sneakers
Accessories: Neckties or bow ties, pocket watch or wrist watch, collar pin, cane, gloves, scarf, spats, cufflinks
1920s Men’s Suits
Dapper men in suits and boater hats
The essential part of a 1920s man’s wardrobe was his suit. For day, evening, work, or parties, a man always wore a suit. The only exceptions were for blue-collar workers, sport players or young teen and college men who dressed more casually, but even they owned second-hand and often mismatched suits and wore them with pride.
What sets 1920s men’s suits apart from other decades are the materials and how they fit. Suits were mostly made of thick wool, wool tweed, mohair, wool flannel and corduroy that made them heavier than today’s suit materials but lighter than the previous decades. Suit jackets were either single or double breasted and featured 3 or 4 buttons up the front. The top button came to the center of the heart, giving way to notch lapels that grew wider each year. The height of the suit lapels is what really sets 1920s suits apart from suits of other eras. When buttoned, jackets would completely cover vests exposing only the shirt collar and necktie.
Many 1920s men’s suits featured two sets of flap pockets, which is another characteristic missing from modern suits. The colors, on the other hand, were similar to previous decades: dark and light browns, medium blues, dark green and greys with the occasional pastel (pink!) as well as ivory or white linen and cotton seersucker for summer. Patterns were distinctive, which could be big plaids, checks, windowpane, and thick shadow stripes or thin pinstripes. Wearing tweed suits was popular in Europe year-round and winters in America.
1922 boxer Tut Jackson wearing a striped suit, bow tie and flat top felt hat
Despite what the usual gangster wore in TV and movies, one color a man’s suit was not was solid black. Black was a color for mourning. The 1920s gangster wearing a black pinstripe suit was one perpetuated by Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. Wealthy bootleggers and gangsters in the 1920s would have been impeccably dressed in the latest suit fashions, imported from Europe, and tailored to a perfect fit. Those devils would have wanted to show off their wealth and have a larger than life image perhaps to make the gangster life appealing to new recruits.
1925 Paul Robeson in a light wool suit with collarless vest
The 1920s suit fit changed from a snug slim fit in the “Jazz age” early years (1918-1923) to a looser boxy fit after 1924. The current trend for vintage-inspired menswear reflects the slimmer fit while women’s fashion has embraced the later years. Suit jacket lapels grew wider each year, the peak lapel became a new trend, and the slit pocket became a new feature to suits by the late 1920s. More colors in unique shades such as pink, light green, lilac, blue-grey and grey-green also emerged in America. So do not be afraid to wear those colors.
1927 Men’s Fashion Suits- Bold prints in single and double-breasted styles.
Cricket team wears striped blazers, white trousers, boater hats
Besides lighter and brighter colors, summer suiting while on vacation or in hot climates embraced the all-white suit. Ivory or bone were easier suit colors to keep clean. White trousers paired with a navy blue blazer was a common summer outfit for yacht owners and ivy league college kids. It was worn with a captains hat and either white nubuck oxfords or two-tone sport oxfords.
Some ivy league outfits embraced the traditional striped boating jacket made up in a college or gentlemen’s club colors. The rowing team started the look back in the 1860s but other team sports such as cricket and la cross wore them as well. Enthusiastic spectators also began wearing the blazers to sporting events.
The vertical striped blazer may have been adopted by musicians and barbershop quartet singers but probably not. Again it was one of those Hollywood (eh hem Disney) interpretations that put performers in more colorful costumes.
For evening entertainment, men would change out of a day suit and into a full tuxedo to attend the opera, a fancy dinner, the theater or to a high-end night club. Evening suits consisted of a traditional tailcoat, wide satin stripe dress pants, white wingtip collar shirt, black silk top hat, black patent shoes, and either white vest/bowtie for white tie affairs (most formal) or black vest/bow tie for black tie affairs (semi-formal.) The new dinner jacket (tuxedo jacket) began to replace the long tailcoat in the mid-20s as a more casual and comfortable option.
The other formal day outfit is the morning suit (not mourning as in funerals). It was worn for weddings that took place in the morning (get it?) as well as classy British events such as Ascot. Some older businessmen continued to wear them to work. A black morning coat paired over grey striped trousers with a buff, ivory or back vest, bowler hat, spats, and a cane. This outfit is experiencing a rival today as a unique groom’s attire. Learn more about 1920s tuxedos and morning suits here.
Tips for your 1920s suit: Two and three-piece suits can be found in thrift stores, department clothing stores and online. Good suits will start at $400 and go up. Modern suits are currently favoring a very slim fit which is not accurate to the 1920s. Look for a looser, classic fit instead in any neutral color except black for authenticity. Suits with large stripes or plaid or a tweed-like texture will also look more ’20s.
Authentic: Reproduction 1920s suits can be found, mostly in the UK, for $700 and up. A very worthwhile investment if you want accuracy and quality. Brooks Brothers is a good option in the USA for high end suits (modern).
Moderate: The classic suits in bold patterns from Paul Fredrick double as vintage and modern enough for daily wear. They have good shirts as well. $250 and up
Budget: Suits imported from Italy have a very ’20s wide fit as well as bold stripes and patterns. MensUSA and MensItaly have a good selection for under $200. Stock levels change frequently so you may not get the exact suit pictured, but something close.
Free: Use whatever suit you have and add a vintage hat and accessories. Or leave off the jacket and wear a vest and trousers alone to give yourself a ’20s inspired look.
1927 men’s wide leg pants and plus fours golf knickers
Men’s 1920s pants had a flat front or single inverted pleat and a sharp crease down the front of the legs. Pockets were slit on the side and welt on the back with one button closure. Front flys were button up until the zipper became more common in the later years. The Prince of Wales started the trend for a 2-inch fold up cuff which everyone followed (men followed everything he wore. He was quite a trendsetter!)
The pant legs were fairly narrow in the first half of the 1920s (the jazz look) and wide by the second half. Collegiate men took these new wide-leg styles to the extreme by wearing “Oxford bags”, which had leg widths of up to 16 inches! They were designed to be worn over knickers which were banned in classrooms. Mainstream fashions follow, reducing the width down to a comfortable 10-12 inches.
Looking at 1930s fashion illustrations or the leading ladies of the silver screen, one might question if there were women in “my size.” The ideal figure was tall and lean, as it was in the 1920s, but now with a defined upper waist and a small-medium size bust. Fashion illustrations emphasized these lines in unrealistic proportions. Women were drawn 3-4 times taller than her width which would be physically impossible to be. Comparing illustrations to photographs of a woman in the 1930s we can see major differences in how fashions realistically fit women of all sizes and ages.
Were there 1930s plus size fashions? Yes! Were there fashions for mature women? Yes? Short, tall, curvy? Yes, yes, yes! I have collected the following illustrations and photographs of women from average to “stout” sizes, young to old, and everything in between. I hope you find them inspiring to make or buy a 1930s wardrobe for yourself.
1930s Plus Size House Dresses
The simple house dress was identical for all ages and sizes. Small colorful prints in the wrap style Hooverette or the button down shirtwaist dress in dots or stripes dominated home fashions in the 30s. The fit was loose and untailored with an optional self-belt.
1930s Day Dresses
While many house dresses were worn out and about for shopping and visiting neighbors it was more common for women to put on a day dress that featured a little more tailoring in the waist, bigger collars and trim around the neck, a belt, and richer fabrics. Women were more likely to wear a corset when going out but not everyone did.
1930s Suits and Separates
Another going out option was to wear a 2 or 3 piece suit or ensemble of blouse, skirt and matching jacket. Some dresses were sold with matching waist length jackets. Sporty knit ensembles had matching skirts and cardigans with a contrasting knit top.
1930s Party, Tea and Evening Dresses
Light and airy floral prints were a big deal in the 1930s. In the 1920s stout women were told to avoid anything with ruffles or movement but in the 1930s they were to embrace them. Likewise, evening dress materials continued to favor draped velvets and soft satins as long as they did not cling to the body. The cape top or flutter sleeve, as well as long sleeves, provided the coverage many women desired and the modestly dictated by current fashions.
1930s Casual Fashion
Finding images of average to plus size ladies in casual /summer/pant outfits proved rather difficult. Retailers were not making them so most women had to sew fun beach pajamas and knit swimsuits for themselves. Shop beach pajamas here.
1930s Mature Women’s Fashion
Age had little to do with fashion in the 1930s. “Gracious ladies” were encouraged to wear the latest trends instead of wearing older styles (the 1920s drop waist look was not loved by mature women.) Instead, silver-haired women sported the same modest dresses, fancy hats and accessories their daughters wore. Having grown up in the late Victorian era they were more used to fancy dresses, lace, feathers and big hats. 1930s fashion gave them all of these again.
1938 July 4th celebration meant wearing their best
As full weekends and reduced weekday hours became more common in the 1930s so did the desire to get out of work clothes, business suits and uniforms and into something sporty and casual. A man’s time off became a time to dress for comfort and leisurely pursuits inspired by the same movie stars and rich folk who set the tone for business attire as well. Stars vacationing on the Riviera or Palm Beach sported the latest fashion for summer which included short sleeve knit shirts (polo shirts), shorts, and swim trunks for the first time. These new designer were slow to catch on to the masses yet the overall trend for lighter, more comfortable, sporty and casual clothing continued to expand for all classes.
1938 casual style
Casual Men’s Suits
Despite potentially high summer heat men wore suits, sportcoats, long sleeve shirts and long pants all year. Only during certain activities such as playing sports, vacationing at the beach or relaxing at home was “casual” clothing worn. That didn’t mean men were in stuffy grey 3 piece suits in the thick of summer although that was an option (without a vest.) Mismatched sport coats and trousers became the preferred semi-formal style for men.
Men’s 1930s sport coats were quite cool, colorful and bold with the use of big patterns and unique textures. The fit was large with padded shoulders, wide notch or peak lapels and a slightly curved jacket at the high waist. Large pockets provided plenty of room to hold a case of cigarettes, a cigar, pipe, hanky and some money.
Pattern sport coats were paired with solid light pants in ivory, grey, khaki tan, blue or white. Solid jackets paired equally well with patterned trousers. Different textures could be mixed as well. A brown tweed sportcoat pairs with subtle striped brown trousers below. The mix of solid and patterned or textured clothing introduced a new casual style to otherwise formal attire.
Men’s High Waisted, Wide Leg Pants
Casual summer pants with a polo shirt (L) and sportcoat over Hollywood pants (R)
Most 1930s men’s trousers were quite wide compared to today’s slim-fitting trend. They came in solid colors as well as big plaids, checks, and windowpane that were more interesting and more casual than their dress pant siblings. In summer, white, ivory, light grey and light tan were preferred over dark colors. Light wools were gradually being replaced by light flannels, linen, sailcloth, gabardine and rayon blends. In fall/winter the brown corduroy pant was a comfortable, soft and casual pant option.
Trousers belted about 3 inches or so above the naval and hung down in long column-like shapes. The crotch was a deep drop to mid-thigh for ample room. Pant legs cuffed at the bottom for more casual wear and were straight hemmed for more professional attire. A strongly pressed pleat down the center completed the look in the mid to late 1930s.
The college kids set the fashion for men and inspired new styles seen in Hollywood movies. The wide “Hollywood” waistband appeared in the late 1930s and caught on with the young and trendy. It was not worn with a belt or suspenders.
Most casual pants were worn with a belt. Suspenders were still worn by some older men or working classes who purchased hand me down clothing with suspender buttons already attached. Suspenders were not meant to be seen, only worn under a jacket yet Hollywood movies love to costume men with suspenders over a work shirt and pants (often with belt loops too.)
Blue jeans were usually sold as workwear for men. However, the popularity of TV stars and singing cowboys such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers made Westernwear something city slickers could wear on the weekends. Slim fitting Levi’s blue jeans paired with a brightly colored silk cowboy shirt, shiny silver buckle belt, cowboy boots, and big western hat.
Tennis shorts appeared on the courts of colleges and communities in the 1920s but didn’t go mainstream until British Tennis champion Bunny Austin wore a pair of white well-above the knee flannel shorts or “ventilated pants.”
Knee length “walk shorts” were commonly worn in British ruled tropical colonies such as Bermuda, Jamaica and the Bahamas. American’s copied these comfortable high waisted, straight leg shorts, making them the thing to wear on their own summer vacations. The length shortened up considerably for the bravest and trendiest of Americans. Common colors were light grey, white or ivory and khaki tan (a nod to British Army officers of India).
Shorts found their way onto golf courses when made of very bright patterns, paired with knee-high socks and polo shirts. Fabrics moved away from smooth finishes to textured weaves and meshes that matched the variety of sports shirts.
1936- Men in shorts in The Durrells in Corfu miniseries
A few traditional American men continued to wear knickers on the golf course, at the beach or while hunting. They were exceptionally long and slightly more narrow, bagging around the mid-calf than the 20s versions. Lighter fabrics and bold prints made them more comfortable to wear in spring and summer. Paired with a shirt and tie, tall socks, cap and a pullover sweater the look is a classic for British Royals.
1930s men’s knickers pants
Men’s Casual Shirts
While the classic button down dress shirt remained a staple in a ’30s man’s everyday wardrobe, a new casual shirt started to make headlines. The Polo shirt came into vogue, and they haven’t left the fashion world since. The ’30s versions could be an open V neck, zip up, corded lace up or single button with keyhole (The Prince of Wales style) as well as multi-button traditional. A few polo styles experimented with the crew neck collar while many adopted the long and pointy spearpoint collar. Textures could be heavy knits, mesh weaves, “dishrag” cotton, peasant linen, ribbed cotton, terry cloth and other textured knits.
1938 polo shirts, sport shirts
Sleeves and collar could be contrasting colors and textures, banded or open. A single chest pocket was common as well as pocketless polo shirts. Colors were usually solid natural hues but many came in stripes, diamond patterns or two-tone combinations such as the yellow and brown below. For collared button-up models, a tie could be worn with a sport coat for a semi-formal occasion.
1937 men’s sporty polo shirts- (UL) gaucho neck, (UR) Prince of Wales style
The Goucho style short or long sleeve pullover shirt was made of linen or slubbed cotton, inspired by traditional shirts in South America. It featured loops rather than button holes, a wide fold out collar, and ribbed cuffs and banded hem. It was to become extremely popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The 1930s version was sometimes called sports blouse.
Hawaiian print short sleeve casual shirts came into vogue by the late 1930s. These sport shirts featured colorful pineapple, coconut palm, and tropical flower prints. Most had a classic collar while some featured the iconic spearpoint collar. The length was long enough to be worn untucked but still usually tucked into high waisted trousers. Buy vintage 1930s Hawaiian shirts on ebay.
Bush shirts were another new fad, although they had been around for many years. Indiana Jones explored tombs and caves in this style of shirt along with safari hunters and jungle adventurers. Bush shirts were white with short sleeves and had four patch pockets on the front. A wide buckle or tie belt was worn around the shirt at the high waist.
In 1936 the Guayabera shirt was copied from those worn by sugar planters in Cuba and brought to America. It was made of linen in natural beige or dark navy blue, brown and yellow. This style of shirt is easy to find today and very comfortable in hot climates.
1938 John David sport shirts, jackets (Cuban and bush), pants and shoes
Another similar shirt jacket is the Cuban jacket which had four oversized pleated shirt pockets, wide collar, and a long sack fit. It and most casual shirts or shirt-jackets were paired with a silk scarf tied like a neck bandana or wrapped and stuffed inside the shirt like a cravat. The pop of bright scarf contrasted well with plain colors shirts. Here are a few ways to tie a neck scarf.
Inspired by striped fishermen’s shirts on the French Riviera the first T-shirt was born. Made of soft Egyptian cotton with wide blue or red stripes and a boat neck it was usually long sleeve or elbow length, sometimes with a contrasting crew neck. Movie stars like Leslie Howard were frequently seen sporting striped shirts and wide leg linen trousers. Sleeves were eventually shorted up into the -shirt length.
In winter, men turned to button down solid or plaid two pocket shirts. Wool weather shirts were made of wool, cotton, suede cloth, corduroy, gabardine, flannel and mixed blends. There were summer versions too of light silk, linen or cotton in long sleeves. When the weather was hot sleeves were rolled up to the arm to make them “short” and the neck left unbutton to the mid-sternum.
Men’s Sweaters, Cardigans and Vests
While sweaters were enjoyed most by the lower class, young men of the 1920s and the 1930s saw sweaters and sweater vests as a refined fashion element. Knitted crew neck, V neck, shawl and turtle neck pullover sweaters and button-up cardigans sweaters were a winter to spring staple. Sportier versions featured two-tone colorblocking, belts, and zips instead of buttons. Wide ribbed bands, cuffs, and collars contrasted with a textured knit design on the body. Popular colors were tan, yellow, light blue and white for spring sports. Fall and winter knits captured patterns such as argyle plaid and fair isle as well a solid navy blue, all shade of greens, brownish red and dark grey.
When embarking on an Edwardian era sewing project it is critical to look at fabrics, colors, and textures to re-create the most authentic outfit possible. Prior to 1910 finding color illustrations or swatches of fabrics is very difficult. My collection is growing but heavily favors the late teens when color printing was more economical. The following scans are from summer and winter clothing catalogs and tailor’s books spanning 1906 to 1918. The target audience for these books were women home sewers or men’s ordering suits from a traveling tailor. You won’t find much evening wear in these offerings but plenty of house dresses, day frocks, suitings, and nightgowns as well as fabrics for making children’s clothes.
“The Bride appears at her loveliest in the new fitted and moulded gowns with long, sweeping lines” Vogue, 1930. Gone were the drop waist short wedding dresses of the 1920s. In were bias cut gowns that slimmed the body in shiny silk, rayon or satin. Necklines were high, sleeves were long and accessories were regal. It was the time of high fashion weddings but on depression era budgets.
Famous 1930s Wedding Gowns
Most 1930s fashion was taking inspiration from the silver screen. Wedding gowns were no different. Wedding gowns featured in the movies were designer made and affordable only to the rich but that didn’t stop knock offs to be offered to brides at a fraction of the price. White or light colored party dresses were recreated as wedding gown patterns for brides to be making the latest designs attainable for all budgets. The other place to seek inspiration were the many Royal weddings taking place in the 1930s. Their designs were the opposite of what Hollywood was favoring but many elements were shared across of the pond.
Costumer designer Gilbert Adrian designed Joan Crawford’s white organdy party dress in Letty Lynton, 1932, which was widely copied as a wedding gown. The oversized ruffled sleeves are unmistakably ’30s.
Dedicated bridal magazines appeared in 1936. They helped perpetuate a mass-adoption of specialty wedding gowns, gift, flowers, and home goods. They also reported on Hollywood weddings such as Carole Lombard and Clark Gable in 1939 who wore a light two-piece suit. Lombard’s first wedding in 1931 found her in a sleeveless deco pieced bias gown with tie waist.
Princess Marina of Greece married the Duke of Kent in 1934 wearing an Edward Molyneux white and silver brocade gown with a motif of English roses. The neckline was a modest high V neck. The court train draped down the from the shoulders. The lace veil was extended with tulle to make in 10 feet wide. The veil was secured with a diamond tiara instead of traditional orange blossoms.
Wallis Simpson married the former King in a light blue modest bias cut long gown with a row of decorative buttons centered between bust and waist. She wore matching gloves designed to accommodate her wedding ring.
The depression made it difficult for brides to afford new wedding gowns. Many brides wore their “Sundays Best” dress or a new white dress that could be dyed a color after the wedding. A more popular option in the early 30s was a silk crepe or chiffon floral tea dress that could be worn any day after the wedding. Matched with a pretty white sun hat they were pretty and practical, especially in hot climates.
Another DIY option was to upcycle another wedding dress. An older style could be trimmed down, sleeves added and embellished with covered buttons and trim. A party dress could also be recycled into a wedding dress by modification or by reusing the material. A two piece suit could also be worn to a second wedding.
For those that could afford to handmake wedding gown, there were sewing patterns and fabric available to purchase from local shops or mail order catalogs. Common fabrics were shiny silk, satin, or rayon that draped beautifully down the body. Lace was also worn in the early 30s. The fit of wedding gowns was hardly the sculpted look seen on thin movie stars. Instead, most wedding gowns were cut a bit looser, fuller and even more modest than bridal illustrations depicted.
Skirts skimmed the hips and draped to the mid-calf for daytime weddings or to the floor for formal weddings. After a decade of short 1920s wedding gowns (ankle or calf), 1930s women were ready to return to the elegance of long gowns. Trains and veils were even longer, running down the aisle both long and wide.
No More Orchids, 1932, Carole Lombard’s cascading wedding gown
Art deco detailing such as Chevron, geometric (triangles) and long panels inserted into the gown offered subtle design details in the early 1930s. The middle years saw the waist to be accented with belts tied or slide buckled. The end of the decade saw the use of ruching, gathers, and pleats around the waist and neckline to define a more natural hourglass figure.
Wedding dress sleeves were always long- a requirement in most churches as well as a reflection of the fashion of the day. Some brides got away with a sleeveless wedding dress when worn with a short button up crop jacket for the ceremony. Another option were Butterfly sleeves that were a double layer of sheer fabric covering the arms like a small cape or wings. A longer sheer sleeve could be worn underneath or left out for non-church weddings. The split sleeve was another cheat where the sleeve was open around the elbow.
By 1938 and 1939 the Victorian ballgown returned to fashion. Thanks in part to the success of Gone with the Wind as well as visiting Royalty. These crinoline supported wedding gowns and bridesmaid dresses featured huge gigot/leg ‘o mutton sleeves, embellished skirts with garlands and ruffles, roses and bows, and matching bonnet hats. The fad was short-lived but influenced formal gowns in the 1940s.
Victorian inspired wedding/bridesmaid dresses
While a lace veil was traditional, tulle was gradually replacing it. Many brides choose a combination of family heirloom lace and tulle for a mix of the old and new. 1930s wedding veils grew longer, reaching the floor like a billowing cape from the back of the head or the shoulder line. Some brides still preferred the skull cap wedding veil which in the 1920s was heavily embellished. The 1930s version was simply the veil wrapped around the head snugly with large draping down the back.
Halo hat circles the head
Veils were usually accompanied by some sort of headdress. Instead of a traditional crown of orange blossoms, the new wedding headwear was the tiara. Some tiaras circle the head like a halo with diamonds or rhinestones that glimmered in the light. Colored gems in Art Deco designs also decorated many tiaras of the upper classes. Middle classes may have used starched lace or small pearls to decorate their fabric tiaras. Every tiara stood up a few inches and circled the head like a halo or royal crown. By the end of the decade, flower crowns returned sporting daisies, roses and gardenias.
Viscount and Viscountess Cowdray, 19 July 1939 wedding with a jeweled tiara
There was also a trend for hats instead of crowns. Small white hats were perched at an angle over one eye or large sheer sun hats shaded the bride’s face. The halo hat was shaped like a shower cap. Its round shape extended around the brides head creating the halo effect.
Jane Hamilton wears a round halo wedding hat with veil
Bobbed hair was gown out in the 1930s into waves that clung close to the head. Tight curls framing the neck was also popular in the later years. Longer hair was styled into a chignon at the nape of the neck with soft waves framing the face.
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 and now it is time to add some style to your craft without sacrificing comfort. The main problem is that vintage / swing dancing whether it be Lindy, Balboa, collegiate shag, Texas Tommy or east coast swing is that it is an aerobic activity which means two things. Heat will be created and 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. This for some people 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) 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, 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.
Swing dancing in vintage 50s/60s
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, 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
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.
1940s Swing Dance Clothing – high waisted, wide leg pants, button down shirts and optional tie.
Essential Clothing for Vintage Dancing
Capezio dance shoes
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, not too stiff, body can make good dance shoes. For practice, a pair of dance sneakers are also very popular. Find most of these dance shoes below or on this master list of vintage brands (shoes are at the end).
Pants / Trousers
Semi-casual swing dance men’s outfit
From the 1920s to the late 1950s men’s pants were high waisted and wide leg (about 22 inches 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 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 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).
Swing dancing in all white- wide leg trousers and a cotton guayabera
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.
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 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.
A pullover vest creates an ideal 1940s casual style.
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.
If you need a formal tuxedo for a dance read about men’s vintage formalwear by decade here: 1920s,1930s, 1940s, 1950s
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.
Dancing in 1946
Shop for a Swing Dance Clothing
Following the links in this article or the menu at the top of the page will get you started on finding the ideal outfit for your next dance. Here are some of our favorites shoes and clothes for dancing:
Shop in the UK for men’s vintage style 1950s clothing, hats and shoes. Find casual men’s 50s shirts such as the button down camp shirt, tipped polo shirt, Hawaiian shirt or shirt jacket. Add to it high waist pants or denim dungarees for a timeless Rock ‘n Roll style. Consider spectator oxfords or derby shoes, sporty plimsoles or Converse shoes, penny loafers and moccasins shoes. While hats were going out of fashion in the 50s, the vintage look can’t be complete without a felt fedora or straw Panama hat.
We selected some of our favorite men’s 1950s style clothing from UK shops below as well as a list of even more shops to browse through. Need help with your 50s outfit? Just ask us.
Second to gangsters, 1920s costumes for men in the form of a banker, ragtime piano player/musician /barbershop quartet singer or bartender are popular men’s outfits. These are fun, seemingly casual outfits that don’t need a full 3-piece suit to pull off the look. What they all have in common is the use of sleeve garters which historically were used to keep too long and baggy shirt sleeves out of the way. Shirts were sold by neck size not sleeve length so they were usually too long for many men’s arms. The addition of a vest or suspenders adds to the vintage outfit making a very simple and affordable 1920s men’s costume/outfit.
In reality, men who were bank tellers, bartenders or musicians did not wear this outfit. A 3 piece suit was the norm for most men’s occupations. A musician might have taken off his suit jacket to practice in but never preform, just as a banker would not be seen in public with only a shirt and sleeve garters. My grandfather was a banking man in the 1920s and this is what he wore:
My grandfather, David Scott, wearing an early 1920s striped suit to work at a bank.
The idea of men in these occupations being jacketless was perpetuated by Hollywood who needed more variety and distinction between men’s characters to read well on film.
A 1920s bartender is the only occupation where wearing a full suit was not always the norm. Fancy nightclubs would have had men wearing formal wear while most bars required bartenders to wear a formal shirt and vest, arm garters, bow tie/necktie and white apron. In this setting, arm garters were usually black or white to match the vest but in most other settings sleeve garters, called armbands in the 1920s, were quite colorful. Made of elastic webbing with an adjustable slide they came in pastel stripes- sky blue, purple, pink, yellow etc. They were often sold in gifts sets with suspenders and sock garters. Fancier designs had a ruffled edge or a bow tie. It was one hardly ever seen men’s accessory that could feature colors not seen in outerwear. Here are some examples.
History aside, where can you find all the pieces for your 1920s men’s outfits? Let me show you:
1920s Banker Costume
A 1920s banker outfit could also be a teller, accountant, clerk, casino dealer, office worker or professional business man.
Vest – A 6 button vest with notch lapels is the most 20s. Without lapels is ok too. Blue, grey or brown vest should match or at least coordinate with trousers. Add a pocket watch on a chain looping from the vest pocket.
Suspenders to hold up high waisted pants will not be seen under a vest.
Trousers– Flat font/high waisted with a classic or wide leg. Avoid skinny fit/ankle high pants. Ideally, they should match the vest.
Green visor- Optional green visors were worn to reduce the glare from bright overhead lights
1920s banker, teller, accountant, clerk or professional men’s outfit
Trousers to match the vest or in white or ivory for summer. Seated musicians will appreciate the higher waist as well as fishback trousers for a unique look on the backside. Order a size up (measure around your middle waist) and hold up with suspenders for comfort.
Shoes: White/ivory suede oxfords to match pants or two tone oxfords such as brown/white wingtips.
Hat– an optional summer hat is the flat top straw boater with striped hat band. In winter, choose a derby/bowler hat.
1920s barbershop quartet outfit
Authentic 1920s bartender outfit for a most types of bars.
Trousers– Black flat font/high waisted with a classic or wide leg. Avoid skinny fit/ankle high pants.
Apron– A long white half apron worn tied around the waist
1920s Bartender Attire
*** Many vintage bars opening today with an Art Deco or 20s era theme are asking staff to dress the era yet not sticking to traditional black or white outfits. Feel free to mix and match vests, trousers, bow ties and suspenders to your liking just don’t forget the sleeve garters.