Who was the New Man who emerged after the Great War? He was young, untouched by fear, unwounded by trauma; he cast a wary eye towards authority and he disdained the mores and styles of his elders. And, it must be said, he invented his style, apparently putting himself together by happenstance. There was no unified vision or single designer guiding the New Man in his new wardrobe. There was no Chanel, only a group of tailors and rebellious impulses on the part of their clients. But like the new clothes for the New Woman, the changes to the wardrobe for the New Man were permanent—the frock coat with its swallowtails would be relegated to history and men would adopt the shorter jackets, and the more youthful less formal styles of the country squire and the aspiring college student would become the norm. 

It might be said that the foundation of the attire for the new man are sites that are private and personal—a country estate and a college campus. His grandfather would have worn public garments—the austere black suit worn in cities, marking the bourgeoisie gentleman off from the working-class males. In 2014, Deirdre Clemente wrote in her book Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style, “Scratchy film footage of city street scenes and sepia photographs only crack the surface of how formally we dressed at the turn of the twentieth century. Men wore bowler hats, bowties, buttoned vests, pegged pants, and ankle boots, but underneath these clothes were one-piece suits of knitted underwear–wool, most often, but cotton if weather permitted. Suspenders held up pants, and stringlike mechanisms called garter cinched onto a man’s calves, metal clips attached to them fastened on the tops of socks to keep them from slouching. Such was life before elastic. Shirt collars were heavily starched and detachable because most men only had a few shirt and multiple collars allowed for the illusion of cleanliness every day. There was no such thing as wash and wear..”

Equally obvious, then, is the very specific ethnic basis of the new styles—they came from the white privilege of upper class males, and it would seem that these changes would circulate within a narrow milieu. But that would not be the case. As Clemente explained, “..college students were the primary players in the creation and widespread adoption of the casual style..middle class collegians had the cultural muscle and demographic power  to command mass production of comfortable clothing. The strength of collegians was their numbers, and the allure of their clothing was its versatility..” The road from the uncomfortable clothes of the fathers to the causal clothes of the sons was a long one that wound through a War which led to a break between generations.

During the Great War, men shed their individual outfits and customary clothing and put on uniforms. Those who were not actively fighting had to show, by their outfits that they were involved in a necessary occupation. Men on the home front sacrificed fashion in favor of looking “shabby,” a corollary to the demise of ostentatious female outfits during the War. As  Laura Ugolini said in Men and Menswear: Sartorial Consumption in Britain 1880-1939, “Practices that were commonplace before  1914 were no longer acceptable during the war: to be too well-dressed, even (or perhaps especially) in privileged circles, could be morally suspect. Elegant leisure-time clothes, particularly when worn by young men of military age, became tainted with association of shirking and profiteering, as did any garments beyond the plainest working garb among the working classes..Firstly, menswear continued to be a matter of public assessment,and a way of constructing and reinforcing collective male identities, although ideas about which were the most desirable had inevitably changed, with military uniforms, even those of privates in obscure regiments, acquiring a new glamour..Secondly, acceptable sartorial standards continued to be enforced through ridicule, verbal abuse and on occasion violence, although, in a reversal of pre-1914 practice, the enforcing frequently seems to have come from outside male peer groups, often even female strangers.”

One can see that men’s clothing during the war became a site of social contention and even an occasion for psychological trauma. For four years, men had been subjected to an unceasing propaganda machine in Great Britain which shamed his manhood and pressured him to serve his country. Despite being so fraught–a battleground at home–men were eager to discard the khaki uniforms after the war and purchase new clothes. In England, as if by a subterranean signal from a collective unconscious, the ubiquitous  black suit for the “city man” in England disappeared to be replaced by flannels or tweeds and a soft collar and more causal attire. The post-war surge towards new clothing was presaged by male behavior during the War discussed in Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings, 1914 to 1928 by Nina Edwards who wrote “Despite the pressures on men of fighting age to be wearing uniform, there are accounts of the release they could feel on leave in civilian clothes again, reminiscent of children casting off their uniform at the end of a school day along with all their cares. The particular choices made of plus four golfing costumes or brocade dressing gowns ordered by post to await their return, of gifts bought from Parisian boutiques to send home..of Belgium silk embroidered..or of lace bought in Brussels..such purchases represent an imagined future beyond the single-minded parameters of warfare.” 

After the Great War, mass media, from movies to magazines to newspaper advertisements, announced the coming of the New Man, making it possible for his upper-class look of privilege to be circulated across classes and to be seen internationally. In an age of mass media and advertising, the elite fashions for the man of the 1920s could be disseminated to middle and lower class males whether via the iconic Arrow Shirt illustrations by J. C. Leyendecker and the Sears or the Montgomery Ward catalogs. Thanks to prêt-à-porter clothes for men, an affordable version of bespoke tailoring born on Savile Row and fashions found on college campuses could be copied by the aspiring middle class male. 

The first American firm to market ready-made suits to men was Brooks Brothers, followed by Schaffner & Marx and Hickey-Freeman. A full line of men’s clothing emerged, marked with modernity and aimed towards the growing affluence of the middle class during what the French called les années folles or “the crazy years.” There were suits for business, outfits designed for playing sports and there were informal ensembles and formal evening wear. Perhaps the most interesting innovation was the idea of outfits put together from mis-matched elements: a jacket that contrasted with the pants, which were different from the vest and so on, in counter-distinction with the old-fashioned formal suits with matching parts. The Roaring Twenties or the Jazz Age trained newly well-to-do males to be consumers and they looked to the internationally famous playboy, England’s Prince of Wales, as their style icon. Perhaps a country boy in rural America would order a new suit for Sunday from a catalogue or a nouveau riche male could purchase clothes far above his social station at a men’s store. 

As with the discourse on the New Woman and her self-transformation through clothing, the role of sartorial desire among men as well as their actions as consumers had scarcely been touched by scholarship. One of the few books on men as consumers, The Cut of His Coat: Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860–1914 by Brent Shannon noted the lack of documentation beyond the anecdotal on men and their attitude towards clothes. Women have been written about as consumers who were constructed by departments stores but the activities of men as buyers has been neglected. As Shannon wrote, “Men in fact were invited to participate vigorously in fashion and in the public display of their masculinity, sexuality, and class status through their clothing and other purchases throughout the nineteenth century. Rapid changes in styles and cuts of jackets, trousers, shirts, neckties, shoes, and hair–seldom recognized by historians–suggest that many men were just as preoccupied with fashionable consumption as women were. Men’s interest in fashionable display and their participation in consumption increased substantially in the late Victorian age, assisted by the development of the apparatuses of commodity culture, including advertising and the department store..The emerging department stores and urban shopping centers did not take long to recognize men’s consumer potential and to aggressively cultivate the once-dormant male market.”

Once the department stores learned how to cater to their male clients, the male as consumer of fashion could become part of the middle class ethos: a man needed to be well-dressed. No more was “shopping” defined by the upper class man’s visits to a bespoke tailor, the mass manufacture of clothing and the commensurate drop in cost in shirts, suits and ties enabled men with decent jobs to wear a well made business outfit. The next question is who were the trend setters? In America a very important “look” made it debut in the college campuses of east coast, a new style that is still dominant today. The fashion statement of the 1920s came from young men who were wealthy and privileged–the “Ivy”Look.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

15 + 1 =