This post focuses on fashion from the 1920s-1960s. If you want to read a detailed article on how you can have vintage style by mixing modern and true vintages pieces, read it here.
The above image from a Russian catalog shows how cuts of suits changed from 1923-1943. It’s these subtle details that show that not all vintage looks are the same. Each decade had their own ideas on fit, proportion and styling.
Vintage isn’t a blanket term. You don’t just put on suspenders and a flat cap and say “I’m vintage”. Heck, not all vintage is the same. Just like there are differences in styles between the 2000s and 2010s, there are plenty of differences within each vintage decade.
Here is a very general guide that Spencer and I put together that we feel is accurate to each of the different eras in vintage. This guide does not go into fabrics or labels/manufacturers, but is simply based on simple details like jacket design, silhouette/fit, and ties. This guide should be used if you ever want to dress vintage and need a particular look to style yourself!
Please note a few things before we start:
- At no point is it “vintage” to wear just pants, a vest, and flat cap.
- Not every style in each era is depicted here. A majority of this style is American and English.
- High-rise trousers were the norm in many of these eras.
- Yes, there is some overlap between eras.
- There are exceptions to each style as some people were fashion forward or had an eclectic style.
- Almost all jackets had high-armholes until the advent of mass production in the 1960’s.
- A tight Four-in-hand knot is widely used until the 1950’s.
- The Double Breasted Jacket was small in the 1920’s and rose in popularity during the 1930s to early 1950’s and fell out of favor by the 1960’s.
- Half-lined and zero lining suits were popular until the 1960s.
- People tended to keep their clothes for years. For example, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see a late ’20s or early ’30s suit worn out in the 1940s. However many people would alter their suits for the fashion of the times (ie, slim down a lapel).
- The cut of a Brooks Brothers Sack Suit No. 1 remained mostly unchanged from the 1910s to the 1970s- if you manage to find one, using this guide the details can be molded to fit any of these eras.
1920s – Odd, Yet Elegant
The 1920’s is what I consider to be the true start to what we know as “classic menswear”. While some of the examples are quite wild, you can see how tailoring changed from the dandy Edwardian era into some of the proto-forms we recognize today.
Tailoring: Suits were cut quite close to the body, especially in the early 1920’s. Jackets had high armholes, slim sleeves and chest, as well as a fitted waist with a slight skirt in the hip section; keep in mind that in contrast, the shoulders were narrow and relatively natural rather than padded. To my eyes, the silhouette was meant to be very elegant, which you can see in countless illustrations and photographs- it’s almost as if they embraced a vibe that we would currently see as feminine.
It was also the last period where there was a clear influence from the Edwardian era, making the early 20’s tailoring look quite anachronistic when you compare it to jackets today. Some jackets even had odd details like button-flap pockets or external belts attached, similar to what you’d see on a trench coat. These Norfolk style jackets with multiple pockets weren’t considered true sportswear, but simply an option for men to choose from. Many 20’s jackets had a high gorge and a high button stance. Some suits had a more utilitarian design, featuring multiple pockets and belts.
What’s interesting to really notice are some of the finer details. The lapels had high gorges; peaks tended to be upturned, flattering the already slim nature of the cut. Additionally, numerous jackets were designed to have all buttons fastened (another carry over from the 1910s and earlier) and even had a high button stance.
Plain suits were always available, but patterned suits and jackets did exist. Since this was a time where tailoring was supreme, gentlemen would standout by ordering tailoring with eccentric weaves, like diamond-patterned tweed.
Trousers: The slim, flat-front “stovepipe” trouser was one that characterized the early 1920s, especially with a plain hem and a slightly high hem. It wasn’t exactly skinny like we saw in the 2010s, but quite narrow nonetheless. It does go well with a slim top block! Dress boots were a great way to equalize this cut.
Of course, we still also had plus-fours and plus-sixes (knickers) which were seen as a sporting trouser, which really just means “not for business wear”. People like Walt Disney himself wore them all the time in lieu of normal pants during this time! And contrary to popular belief, Oxford Bags were not commonly worn, as they were seen as a novelty trouser rather than one you could order from your local tailor or haberdashery.
Shirts: Collars in the 1920’s were usually short and had featured a point or club style. These collars would continue into other periods, but the 1920’s is where I most associate them, especially if they were starched and detachable. However, this decade was where the “attached-collar shirt” would surge in popularity.
Ties: It’s a common (almost costume-y) mistake to think that bowties are the only form of neckwear in this period, because ties were definitely worn. Ties in the 1920’s were generally very slim or quite exaggerated, featuring wild batwing shapes cut from luxurious jacquard or brocade silks with abstract patterns. Knit ties could be found either plain or striped, but silk ties could be found in a plethora of different patterns.
Hats: Fedoras were probably one of the most common hats here, worn as an everyman’s hat, though these typically had a different shape than what we’d see in the more classic decades to follow. Stiff brimmed homburgs and bowlers were just as common, again as a holdover from the Edwardian times, whereas newsboy caps and boaters were worn to signify being casual.
1930s – Classic and Tailored
I consider the 1930’s to be my favorite era. Why? Because everything just seems so classic, being the middle ground between modern and vintage. This era’s attire has drape, classic proportions and design, with specific pieces involving a heavy use of pattern mixing that isn’t too much. Compared to the other eras, the 1930’s also seems to be the most moderate (besides the wider legs), which is why its ideas can influence style in the modern day. In short, this is where I get a lot of my ideas.
Suits: The fit in the 1930’s is a bit different than the 1920’s. Jackets retrained the waist suppression, but had a roomier chest and a slightly longer shoulder, harkening the beginning of the drape style. Through many illustrations, the 1930’s boasted the athletic figure in suiting: broad shoulders and chest, small waist, and long full legs. Sharp three piece suits were a great way to maintain this era of sharp, timeless elegance.
Lapels were mainly medium sized, with notches being placed slightly lower in the chest, which stayed in vogue until the 1950’s, with a few variations of course. If you look closely, the notches were much larger and featured blunted edges instead of being sharp, as they are today.
Button stance was quite moderate with the last button on the jacket on the same horizontal plane as the hip pocket. This ensured that the fastening point was a classic level, which wasn’t high like the 1920’s or low, as seen in later years. Basically, many jackets were meant to close near the navel or natural waist.
Trousers: The slim stovepipes of the previous decade were gradually replaced by a fuller leg, with a hem that came close to the shoe without breaking (this is known as the shivering break. This design combined with a closely fitted waist is what helped exude an athletic figure. Pleats and flat fronts were common during the decade, with a few novel dressers opting for a slightly flared cut, which would no doubt influence the late 60s-70s.
Shirts: This period is where the spearpoint collar came to play. Vintage collectors referred to it as so due to the teardrop point it provides. Men would wear it open or with collar bars or pins, which not only made the tie knot more prominent, but helped align the collar with the V-shaped negative space between the lapels. The points would vary in length dependent from brand to brand. And yes, other collars like button downs, tab, and club collars were still worn.
There was always variety in the colors and patterns offered, but many illustrations and advertisements made use of stripes.
Ties: Contrary to popular belief, ties during this time were actually quite restrained. Geometrics, foulards, and stripes were common to wear, especially with striped shirts and patterned jackets. I firmly believe that this era has the most “modern” of ties, not only through the pattern, but the design, being a middle ground between the wild styles of the 1920’s and the wide variations in the 1940s-1950s. The only notable details was that ties of the 1930’s were short, as they were meant to end at the navel.
Pocket Squares were also utilized in a lot of different tailoring outfits. Mainly white (though other colors and patterns existed), they were slouchy stuffed into the breast pocket, seemingly without care. A straight TV-fold would not gain prominence until later.
Hats: Fedoras and caps were the main hats of the time, with the homburg being more and more rare. Fedora’s in this era had a taller crown and a medium brim.
1940s – Wide and Swingin’
If I were to consider the 1930’s the era of elegance, then I’d consider the 1940’s as the start of the boldness and casualization. Some of the ideas of the 1930s carried over, but it was done with a bit more “oomf”, especially as we get into the prosperity of the post-war era.
Suits: During the Second World War, a lot of things in the United States was rationed, and this includes fabric. As a consequence, three piece vested suits and double breasted jackets fell out of favor during the war years. However, in response to both the years of fabric rationing, and new post-war prosperity, suits in the mid to late 1940s started to become a bit more exaggerated, both in fit and design. In general, the fit was looser in the chest and roomier in the trousers.
To overemphasize the “athletic figure” that suits could give you, tailoring in this time 1940’s had broader shoulders (with increased padding), a longer jacket length, wider lapels , and a lowered button stance. This lower buttoning point (which at times shifted the bottom button past the pocket line) created a deeper “V” down your body. This “bold look” would continue as the 1940’s went on.
Trousers: In the early war years, pants lost pleats and cuffs to fabric rationing. Then as the war (and rationing) ended, pleats and a roomier fit became more acceptable. Hollywood waist with “dropped” loops came in this period.
Shirts: Spearpoint collars were still worn here, alongside button down collars and point collar shirts started being used as well. A few collars were quite dramatic, but as time went on, spread collars became the fashionable choice in order to work with wider ties.
Ties: In addition to widening significantly, ties in the 1940’s became quite wild in their designs. While classic pattern ties (stripes, plaids, geometrics) were still available, crazy and large abstract patterns were a trend in this period, becoming known as the “swing tie”.
Hats: Newsboy caps started to fall out of favor significantly and fedoras became the main hat. Just as suits became more broad, 1940’s fedoras grew wider in the brim.
Early indications of the 1950’s style. Boxy cut, low buttoning stance, and longer jacket length, 1949.
1950s – Bold and Boxy
The early 1950’s simply took the 1940’s and exaggerated the features even further. Everything got bigger! However, things began to drastically change during the atomic era/Cold War and the desire to stand out was replaced with a more subtle style that would come to characterize the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Suits: The early 1950’s took the deep “V”, padded shoulders, and low buttoning point into a whole new level and went all in on the bold look, being most apparent in period advertisements and illustrations. As time went on, suits returned to moderate buttoning, while retaining the longer length and boxy fit.
While the early 50’s was popular in its kitschy take on menswear (atomic “fleck” wools were a novelty), it is important to point out that as the decade progressed, suits were becoming more plain and less patterned. The elegant checks and pinstripes of the 1930s and 1940s disappeared; they were now full of solids to reflect the post-war, atomic age of workforce conformity. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit comes to mind. At most, guys would wear a patterned sportcoat over plain trousers.
Trousers: In the early era, men embraced the extra fabric not only with pleats and a roomy fit, but by actually making trouser breaks acceptable. The louche Hollywood waist and dropped loops was a great way to take part in this relaxed tailoring period. It only began to slim up after the mid 1950s.
Shirts: Points and semi-spread collars were the norm due to the rising popularity of the half-windsor knot. Solids shirts would also outclass stripes as men wanted a cleaner look.
Ties: Despite the love for solid suits, it was in this department that men could express their style. Traditional patterns were always available but classic early 1950’s ties often involved a vertical abstract design. They were similar to the wild swing patterns of the 1940’s but significantly slimmed down, as ties regressed from being too wide. Other trending tie designs were even hand-painted (this started in the late 1930s) and often featured scenery. However, conservative business ties in “normal patterns” like stripes began to become popular again in the mid to late 1950’s. This is where the TV/Square fold for pocket squares came in.
1960s – Sharp and Slim
This was a pivotal moment in menswear as we see the drastic change from the Mad Men, and Ivy-Trad to the Mod Era. It was mainly due to the rise of casual style, which finally showed men that there was something to wear other than tailoring. The focus shifted from conservative tailoring to designers, which later led to eclectic suiting in the late 60s that would come to influence the 1970s.
Suits: Suits of the early 1960s were a reaction against the exceedingly wide silhouette of the 1940s and 1950s. The drape cut was replaced by the 3-roll-2 sack suit, which was quite minimal in appearance as it lacked darts. It was already a style worn widely by university students, but it grew in mainstream popularity, being available in classic worsteds, flannels, and corduroys.
By the beginning of the decade lapels had started to slim down and would continue to get skinnier until the mid ‘60s. These lapels were almost always notched with a considerably smaller opening and featured a high gorge. This style of lapel is what influenced much of 2010s #menswear resurgence.
In addition to the music, the British Invasion brought English inspired looks to suiting in the later 60s. Slanted pockets, double vents, Edwardian-inspired double breasted jackets, and wide lapels came back into style. English designer Michael Fish, who designed outfits for stars like David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Mohammed Ali, and Twiggy, was hugely influential when he opened a boutique, Mr. Fish, in 1966. The Beatles helped bring Nehru jackets into vogue, which only added to the variety of tailored styles to choose from.
Shirts: For the Ivy Leaguers, the oxford cloth button-down collar was king, which was soft and featured ample roll. Other than that, the most common shirt was plain white with a small collar, which was perfect for the slim ties of the era. Wide collars with bold patterns became fashionable later on and was a huge component of the decade which followed.
Ties: Like lapels, ties started out quite skinny, and by the mid ‘60s, ties as slim as an inch were being sold. The designs were very conservative with small scale foulards and repp stripes. As time went on however, they became much more bold during the late 60’s, with larger stripes and large geometric prints the closer we get to the disco era. A trend we can attribute to Fish is what he called the “kipper tie”: the ultra-wide ties, which were up to 5 or 6 inches.
Pants: The fashionable man in the 1960s wore his pants on the slim-straight side. They usually featured a flat front, and with a cuff. They were still quite high waisted until later in the era, where waistlines of trendy trousers became lower due in part to the ubiquity of jeans as a casual alternative, with men becoming accustomed to the fit of their Levis. As the Mod style became popular, you would see the return of flares and bell bottoms, no doubt inspired by the niche styles of the early 1930’s. It seems that fashion was doomed to repeat!
As you can see through suit design, tie pattern and width, and even general style, vintage fashion is widely different depending on which era you’re looking at. I hope that you look at vintage now with a new found appreciation and knowledge. Vintage style was never the clip on suspenders, baggy pants, and flat caps that everyone expects it to be. Instead, it is an art form, with subtle details and masterful tailoring and styling. The same could be said of all modern styles, whether it’s Americana, Minimalism, streetwear, or palewave.
In particular, I find inspiration from all of these eras. Yes, I do love doing period-correct 1930’s outfits from time to time, but I truly like mixing and matching my favourite aspects from each decade. If you do use this guide to make your own style or to start dressing in “true vintage” just make sure you know which look you’re going for!
Always a pleasure,
Ethan W. and Spencer O.
Pictures courtesy of The Fedora Lounge, Rank and File – A British Cinema Blog, and Golden Era Suits.