Despite the negative impact of the Great Depression (1929–41; a period of severe economic turmoil) that lasted throughout the 1930s, this period is thought of as one of the century's high points in men's suits. Perhaps as a way of rising above the money woes that troubled most people, the very wealthy and the very famous, especially male movie stars, chose beautifully tailored suits made of expensive fabrics. Wealthy criminals known as gangsters, who became a focus of public attention in the United States in the 1930s, also chose expensive suits. While common men couldn't afford such luxuries, they could buy suits that were modeled after the new styles.
The suit, of course, was the basic uniform of the well-dressed American male, both at work and for nightlife. The basic suit consisted of a jacket and trousers made of matching material; the three-piece suit also had a matching vest, or waistcoat. Both types of suits were worn throughout the Western world and, increasingly, in other parts of the world such as Japan and China. The basic silhouette, or shape, of the men's suit remained the same throughout the 1930s and featured broad shoulders, a narrowed waist, and loose-fitting, cuffed trousers. By the mid-1940s wartime restrictions called for men's suits to use less fabric, and suits became more closely fitted with no patch pockets or cuffs.
Tailors in London, England, especially those located in the city's famous Savile Row fashion district, set the standard for men's suits, and they popularized the best-known suit of the 1930s, the English drape. With wide, unpadded shoulders and a full-cut chest tapering to a slim waist, the jacket made men look strong. The trousers were cut very full and hung straight from the waist to the cuffed hem. Trousers were worn so high on the waist that belts would not work, so most men held their trousers in place with suspenders, or, as the English called them, braces. The most popular fabric for men's suits was wool, and weaves with a twill or a herringbone (a weave that creates rows of parallel lines sloping in opposite directions) pattern were very common.
A striking contrast to the English drape suit was the glen plaid suit, another product of Great Britain. Glen plaid was the name of the fabric used to make the suit, and it was a boldly patterned plaid, a checkered pattern. The suit was first worn by England's Prince of Wales in 1923, but it became popular among college students in the 1930s.
Up until the mid-1930s men tended to wear the same suits year-round, even though wool was often hot and heavy during the summer months. Beginning in the mid-1930s, however, tailors and clothes makers introduced the summer-weight suit. Tropical worsted, a lightweight wool, rayon, or silk, were used, and they cut a suit's weight nearly in half. Most summer suits were worn without a vest.
No matter what suit a man wore, it was always accompanied by a carefully chosen hat and tie. Some men also wore a creased handkerchief in their breast pocket, and the truly stylish carried a walking stick.
Costantino, Maria. Fashions of a Decade: The 1930s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Keers, Paul. A Gentleman's Wardrobe: Classic Clothes and the Modern Man. New York: Harmony Books, 1987.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Schoeffler, O. E., and William Gale. Esquire's Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men's Fashions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.