After the Great War, the young men, just coming of age, turned away from the fashions of their fathers and fashioned themselves in their own image. The idea was to look young and fit and glamorous like a male movie star from Hollywood. It is at this point that the elaborate facial hair that characterized the War generation—the pointed mustaches and the fluffy sideburns or the neatly trimmed beard—disappear for the clean-shaven look, the look of a fresh-faced boy. These young men who would be tasked with creating a new world, with repairing that which had been torn asunder resembled the academic sculptures done by those who had repaired the faces and bodies of the soldiers—young and beautiful and untouched, fresh and unharmed. In the face of returning veterans without arms, legs, hands, feet, faces, it is possible to understand that the response of the next generation was to celebrate being alive. 

As with short hair and short skirts with women, some of these clothing changes for the New Man caused consternation among the older generation. The younger generation relaxed the formal styles and shifted the idea of what was acceptable for men to wear more casual clothing. On country estates, a hunting party would consist of men wearing short Norfolk jackets and plus fours or short pants fitted below the knee. These baggy “knickers,” as they were called, were also worn for golf games along with colorful Fair Isle sweaters, which were usually knitted as vests. In the 1920s, the trend setters for men’s fashions were no longer the father or grandfather or family tradition or obscure rules for male clothing but sports heroes who played tennis in long white trousers or glamorous aviators who wore leather jackets. The young man wore a lounge suit and often the jacket had a half belt in the back, originating from the Norfolk jacket and the military uniform.

The desired masculine shape of the male was designed during the Twenties: the shoulders of the jacket were wide, creating a wedge shape. But the British suit was more formed than the American version which hung straighter and was conservative in its cut. The American sobriety was set off by muted plaids and stripes in the suit fabric itself. At first, trousers that were close fitting and showed off a trim figure were in vogue but a campus rebellion against arcane rules changed the shape of the pants favored by young men. At Oxford, the most chic thing a young student could do was to wear golf knickers to the tutorials. But the university authorities disapproved of the offensive and informal Knickerbockers and insisted upon full length trousers. The students reacted to such high-handedness by creating Oxford Bags, trousers, which were pleated at the waist and voluminous enough to wear over golf knickers. To a ridiculous extent, these full-bodied trousers became wider and fuller. It sounds as if the students would wear their “bags” to their tutorials and then shuck them off to relax in their knickers, but the young men were also rebelling against the practice of changing one’s clothes several times a day. 

As Laura Ugolini wrote in Men and Menswear: Sartorial Consumption in Britain 1880-1939, “The association of an interest in clothes with youth, rather than with married middle-aged or older men, seems to have been born out of a complex relationship with financial and cultural restraints on the expenditure of men with dependent families..”

But young men weren’t the only ones to attempt to change the rigid script for how men should dress. As Ugolini pointed out, older men, particularly those with jobs in the “professions,”such as law and banking, had far less flexibility in how they were allowed to dress. Tim Edwards put forward an interesting thesis of why clothing for middle-aged men remained so stubbornly conservative. In Men in the Mirror: Men’s Fashion, Masculinity, and Consumer Society, he wrote, “Much of the insistence upon men’s apparent confinement to the uniform of the suit centres on its contrast with the rapid developments in women’s fashions at the time. Styles for women around the turn of the century were increasingly softened and de-corseted, particularly in the designs of Charles Worth and Paul Poiret..On top of this came the flapper era of straight line simplicity–and all of this in the space of thirty or so years. The increasing variety of styles of women’s dress, and their colorfulness and comfort on occasions, formed the focus of opposition for the Men’s Dress Reform Party in the 1930s. The Party was set up in 1929 to shake up what ws perceived as the increasing dullness, formality and discomfort of men’s clothes. Not surprisingly, the suit, and particularly the stiff collar and tie, came under particular attack. Consequently, the Party was often quite successful in at least questioning the naturalness or normality of some of men’s dress. It was less successful, however, in constructing alternatives, particularly to the suit, often coming up with floppy and poorly executed ideas that reworked the open collar and shorts already popular in sports and adolescent cultures..”

Robert Ross quoted part of the statement made by Men’s Dress Reform Party which complained, “Men’s dress has sunk into a rut of ugliness and unhealthiness from which–by common consent–it should be rescued..Men’s dress is ugly, uncomfortable, dirty (because unwashable), unhealthy (because heavy, tight, and unventilated)..Only through individual choice and variation will men’s clothes be capable of healthy evolution and reasonable adaptation to progressive social, hygienic and aesthetic ideals..” 

In his book, Clothing: A Global History, Ross described the substitute for the traditional male suit. “The prescription was that men should wear jackets and shorts, with matching socks, much on the lines of what was stereotyped for colonial officers. If a tie was worn, it should be hanging a few inches below the chin, and not constricting as collars and ties then were..There was a reaction, as might be expected, from the conservative and from the tailors. Traditional–though of course not very old–male dress kept ‘the social fabric together..‘ Ross quoted Tailor and Cutter magazine which wrote, “‘A loosening of the bonds will gradually impel mankind to sag and droop bodily and spiritually. If laces are unfastened, ties loosened and buttons banished, the whole structure of modern dress will come to pieces; it is not so wild as it sounds to say that society will also fall to pieces..’”   

The clothes made the man, marking him as someone of his own time, knowledgeable of trends, and self-aware. It was in America where consumerism and the continued creation of the male consumer could carry on during the Great War. While the British, the style leaders for male attire, were at war and while their extraordinary tailors were making custom uniforms for officers, American men were being trained to shop at department stores. Despite the prosperity and the rising salaries for men, the proposition of men shopping in America was more exotic than in Europe. As Jan Whitaker wrote in Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class, “Half the human race, the ones who wore ‘furnishings,’ smoked cigars, and ate in grills, proved persistently difficult to lure into department stores, yet merchants kept on trying because they viewed men as desirable customers. It was held that men shopped quickly and returned merchandise less often than women. The stores also liked men because they shopped alone..Men were also loyal to the store, less prone to comparison shop than women, and less likely than women to handle the merchandise. Another reason men were wanted that the sale of men’s clothing was very profitable. Men had been converts to ready-mades for decades, long before women..By 1916, men’s business in department stores accounted for one-quarter of total sales. A barrier to winning male customers was the fact that men did not like to shop with women and grew very impatient if they had to stand in a cashier line with them. In fact, many men found department stores altogether too feminine..The stores met his need by building separate men’s stores or locating men’s departments in an easily accessed first-floor corner space of on dedicated floors serviced by their own elevators..” 

The New Man of the Jazz Age was the counterpart of the Flapper of the Roaring Twenties and these new fresh carefree young men and women were avid customers of the growing market in department store fashions. Modern consumers were being born and made, perhaps none more addicted because of social anxiety, than Jay Gatsby. As Fitzgerald’s narrator, in The Great Gatsby, “Tom,” the narrator, described how Gatsby showed off his extensive wardrobe to him and Daisy, the woman he yearned for, the woman he showed off to. The anti-hero of the novel was a shopping addict, carrying his desire to be accepted by high society to an extravagant extreme. 

The scene highlighting the new consumerist mindset of the 1920s takes place in Gatsby’s dressing room, a large walk-in closet. As Tom and Daisy gazed upon “..his massed suits and dressing gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high…He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue..” 

While the reader enjoys this foray into conspicuous consumption, he or she realizes in the back of her mind that all these colors go very well with Gatsby’s cream-colored Rolls-Royce. At one time, a man needed a good dog, how the modern man wanted an excellent automobile. One of the most exciting prospects of the post-war machine age, like the female, the fashionable young male had to be accessorized and the most necessary accessory of all was the automobile. For the masses, the black Model T Ford would be fine, if one wanted to conform, but for those who could afford to make a statement, there were distinctive luxury models that were designed to look, not utilitarian, but rich and swift and desirable. 

The Gatsby novel was set in 1922 and Gatsby himself drove an ostentatious and very expensive Rolls that was an English import. Once again, the dazzled narrator described the ride as, “a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns.” In the 1974 film version of the book, the Rolls was yellow and an anachronism because this particular model was not designed until 1928. But the visual point is made: the elegant car completes the man, becomes his identity. The fancy fast car was not reserved for the male. One of the most famous paintings of the 1920s was by Tamara de Lempicka  (to be discussed in a later chapter), a Polish-Russian aristocrat expatriate, living life in the fast lane in Paris after the Russian Revolution. In a 1925 self-portrait she advertised her independence and worldly ways by slipping on a fashionable leather driving cap and matching gloves. In the painting, Lempicka is speeding along in her green Bugatti, probably a type 37. In this new age of mobility in a pre-jet set society, automobiles replaced the prancing and burnished horse and the fashionable barouche as the desired moving status symbol. The 1920s was a decade of some of the most beautiful cars ever designed.

During Les années folles, or the Jazz Age, the luxury cars of the wealthy were designed to be visually separate from the common ordinary cars from Ford or General Motors. Class resentments simmered, and in The Great Gatsby, proved to be tragic, as the poor watched the rich glide by in their stretched-out vehicles, seemingly untouchable in their privilege and wealth. If you were rich, this decade was the best of times. The car was a rolling expression of seemingly untouchable status. The elongated hood was as long as the social power of the owner was extensive. Unlike earlier open cars, these expensive automobiles were closed in and the driver protected from the elements. 

The designers seem to have learned from architecture and the description of the Rolls by Tom is one of a vehicle that was stacked like a pyramid, rising up and expanding forward. On one hand, the Bugatti, like the Model T, was just an engine on four wheels but, on the other hand, these extreme luxury designs became symbols of prestige, exhibitions of high social status. In America, it was the Duesenberg, the origin of the admiring term, “It’s a doozy,” that was the nation’s premier motor car. Like the Bugatti, the Duesenberg originated as a racing car that was tamed for the private owner. Made famous by those who purchased and flaunted it—movie star Clark Gable and the ultimate trend setter for men’s styles, the Duke of Windsor–only 481 of those cars were made. From the luxurious Hispano-Suiza, from London to Barcelona, the expensive cars all claimed to be the “best car in the world.” Their designs were similar, with the spare wheel resting on the running board, but they were distinguishable by their hood ornaments, which on the Hispano-Suiza was a stork, the Rolls had a flying lady, the Bentley, a flying B, the Duesenberg, an Art Deco flying arrow, and the Cadillac sported a flying goddess. Like the Rolls, the Duesenberg had the temple shaped grill and rose from the platform of the running board, but the whole structure was horizontal, low, with the roof maintaining the same long line. 

But revenge was in the wind and the Great Depression would relegate these amazing machines to a golden age that would not been seen again for decades to come.

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 + 8 =