Suits: The Golden Age (1918 to 1966)
By Sean Longden
So, you know that you want a suit to stand out amidst a sea of uninspiring modern suits, that will offer comfort and fit, and be made from high-quality fabric? You also know that you want a suit that has traditional style, that harks back to an era when elegance and style weren’t dirty words?
Well, look no further. With our Made to Measure service you can create a suit that does all of those things.
This begs the question, where do you start?
To help you on this journey, let’s take a look at the history of the suit styles of the era, from the end of the First World War until the arrival of an overabundance of synthetic fabrics, that is often described as the ‘golden age of men’s tailoring’.
In the early 1920s there was a wide variety of suit styles available, both in single and double breasted styles. In the UK and many other countries the silhouette remained a relatively slim suit, with narrow lapels and a natural shoulder. The button placement on suits was generally relatively high.
Trousers were also worn narrow, with pleated fronts remaining rare. Trousers were also worn relatively short, often revealing the shaft of the boots that remained a popular choice for men. For town and business attire, suits were generally constructed in hardwearing sombre woollen cloth, sometimes with subtle stripes. They were very much the suit for the respectable man, made to survive years of wear, day-after-day, week-after-week, year-upon-year.
For casual and sportswear there were suits with multiple buttoning pockets, belt-backs and pleats that allowed freedom of movement on the golf course or simply when out and about at weekends. Often made in eye-catching herringbone of checked tweeds, these suits were a strong contrast to the styles needed for business wear.
Whilst most suits were relatively plain, the early years of the decade saw some suits – in particular in the USA - being more extravagant. These were descended from the ‘Rah-Rah’ suits that had been popular for young men in the early years of the century and the later ‘Jazz suits’ that had emerged in the late 1910s. There were jackets with gauntlet cuffs, full belts, closely-positioned buttons – often in a high button-stance, square fronts and long skirts. It was a distinctive look that faded as the decade progressed and the tastes of young men evolved.
Other suits that were popular during the 1920s included the Norfolk suit. With its belts, straps and high fastening, the Norfolk Suit was a hangover from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, was a close relative to some of the fancier suits of the period, was regularly worn in cities, but was most at home in the countryside and on the golf courses that proliferated in the inter-war years.
A look that evolved in the UK during this period was a relatively formal suit, usually with a two-button fastening, that featured peak lapels, a double-breasted waistcoat and narrow trousers. The waistcoat – borrowed from the cut more usually worn with a morning suit - gave the style a sense of formality. It became a favourite of elegant men, in particular the British politician Anthony Eden, a man widely considered to be one of the best-dressed men of his generation. He wore the suit with his trademark Homburg hat and was regularly seen carrying an umbrella and luxurious leather gloves. His look was so distinctive that it was copied in the illustrations in tailoring journals and Homburg hats were often referred to as an ‘Eden’.
It’s no wonder that our suit in this style has been named the Eden Suit in his honour.
As the 1920s progressed, there was a gradual change in style. Whilst wide trousers had initially emerged in the middle years of the decade as a casual trouser to be worn with a contrasting sports jacket, the look soon spread to suits. As trousers got wider (helped by the increasing use of a pleated front), so too did other features. By the end of the decade shoulders were also increasingly emphasised by tailors, jacket waists were increasingly nipped-in and lapels grew wider. These wider lapels were also a result of the increasing use of the peak-lapel, or as it was originally known by tailors, the double-breast lapel due to its origins on double-breasted suits.
As the years passed, a new silhouette established itself, with the prevailing look being considered to be the epitome of 20th Century style by many vintage collectors. It was the era of Hollywood glamour, when elegant suiting and casual styles sat side by side - an era when men weren’t afraid to dress in bold patterns and bright colours. This is the period that has inspired our King Cole suits, in both single and double breasted styles which can be styled to fit the customer’s boldest choices.
In the late 1930s a new style emerged in British tailoring that was to have a substantial impact in the years ahead. The introduction of the ‘drape cut’, in which an additional fabric allowance was given in the chest. As this caught the public’s attention, chests and shoulders got increasingly exaggerated.
As the style developed, becoming an increasingly popular look for double breasted suits, the waist was dropped and the jacket held a snug grip over the hips and seat. This was the era of the ‘V shaped torso’ in which the suit promoted muscular physicality and an exaggerated image of masculinity. Through the 1940s this developed into the ‘Bold Look’ in which broad shoulders and chest were the mark of a man.
In the UK, the 1950s saw the development of two particular looks, both of which emerged from the same roots but ended up entirely different. During the late 1940s there was a move away from the draped chest, big shoulder, wide lapels and wide trousers that were so popular in all walks of life. In Savile Row and the streets around, tailors began to create suits in much less extravagant styles. Lapels and trousers narrowed, the button-stance rose, shoulders were constructed with a more natural shape and jackets grew longer. Initially favoured by a small group of fashionable young men and wealthy army officers based in central London, it soon became known as the New-Edwardian look due to it harking back to the styles that pre-dated the First World War. Contrasting waistcoats, often with lapels, in lightweight wools or silk brocade fabrics gave an air of period authenticity to the suits, even if they could hardly be seen above the high button-stance of the jackets. Bowler hats, kid leather gloves and highly-polished boots completed the look.
The New-Edwardian look also spread to the working classes, with the owner of one tailoring factory claiming to have simply got his father’s old patterns out from storage to beginning supplying the look to high-street customers. However, as the looks spread to the working classes it became bastardised. The longer length of the new fashion was often simply applied to the mainstream drape-chest jacket and worn with narrower trousers. It soon became known as the ‘Teddy Boy’ look and was far from the original Savile Row New-Edwardian style. As one trade journalist noted, the new look was less ‘Edwardian Gentleman’ and more ‘Mississippi Gambler’: “The misnamed Teddy Boy is not Edwardian but Mid-Western.” The contrast was summed up in this cartoon:
As the 1950s progressed, and the New-Edwardian look was softened for the mainstream, the fashionable look, outside of the youth market, was for suits that were a more subtle version of the 1940s suit. The wide shoulders, wide trousers and draped chest had gone. To be replaced by a well-fitting suit that had a certain stylish anonymity. Bold patterns were out, having been replaced by solid worsteds, herringbones, subtle checks and pinstripes. Neither narrow or wide trousered, neither wide or narrow lapelled, this was a suit that was truly highly versatile.
For some, this suit seemed like a compromise, for others it was a blank canvas upon which the wearer could build their own look. It could be dressed up or dressed down, depending on the wearer. With a well-chosen silk tie and pocket square, contrast waistcoat, pocket watch with fob, maybe a flower in the buttonhole, it could be eye catching …
Worn with a white shirt and plain tie it was suitable for the most conservative office environment. Using our King Cole pattern, you can now recreate your favourite look from this period.
Towards the end of the 1950s, suits were getting slimmer in their cut. Lapels and trousers became narrower as the suits entered a new became where youth style became increasingly important. The early 1960s look is one that remains a favourite of men everywhere due to its association with an era in which ‘cool’ was a defining part of life.
Furthermore, with its narrow lapels and trousers, it was as if elements of 1920s style had returned.
The UK’s ‘Mod’ scene, in which elements of the mainstream early 1960s slim fitting suit merged with the Italian stylings of the so-called ‘Tony Boy’ look (a brief period circa 1959/1960, in which youths wore Italian style short ‘bumfreezer’ jackets with slim-fitting trousers and pointed shoes) to create a cool new look. It was the era of lightweight fabrics, with mohair being the favoured cloth, in brighter colours than those usually seen on the high-street. With young men saving their money to spend in local tailor’s shops, it was perhaps the last time that tailoring really mattered. They wanted certain lengths of jacket vents, carefully chosen trouser hem styles and particular button configurations. Suit style was a matter of pride and identity. To achieve the Mod look, we recommend our Ivy Suit and selecting Standeven's Mohair cloths, particularly the two tone variations.
Of course, throughout the era, there were exceptions to the prevailing styles. These were styles that mainly developed outside of the mainstream and initially existed in their own world.
Originally used for horse riding, the hacking jacket was a favourite of those wealthy enough to ride for leisure.
UK (1924) USA (1929)
It was very much a garment styles for a specific purpose. Close fitting on the chest, and high buttoning, the hacking jacket was designed to keep the body warm when riding. Its flared skirt, complete with vents, allowed the wearer freedom of movement whilst out riding. The slanted pockets, complete with flaps, helped keep everything secured when riding and jumping. Some Savile Row tailors still have saddles in their fitting rooms to allow for hacking jackets to be fitted correctly on the hips and seat.
With the proliferation of horse riding for leisure among the middle classes during the 1930s, the hacking jacket became increasingly popular and its style was soon seen on suits, with the narrow trousers including details, such as the pockets, originally seen on jodhpurs.
In the 1950s the style sat alongside the New-Edwardian look as an elegant look for fashionable men, regardless of whether they had been anywhere near a horse. Usually constructed in heavyweight cavalry twill cloth in colours suited to the countryside, or in bold heavyweight checks, as the years passed other colours and lighter weight wools became popular as the hacking suit became a suit worn in the town as well as the country. Traditionally the hacking jacket was worn with a contrasting waistcoat, often in Tattersall cloth or doeskin, and it was a look that continued after the suit had become a high street favourite.
In time, the high button stance also evolved and hacking jackets were seen with two-button and even one-button closure. They might not have been as convenient for riding but they made for a stylish jacket.
Cathcart is proud to offer the made to measure Hacking Suit, based on an original 1960s pattern. Choose any of Dugdale's Cavalry Twill for a hardwearing ensemble.
For much of the period, there was another design that kept reappearing: Plus-fours and what Americans confusingly refers to ‘knickers’. As an ideal garment for outdoor pursuits, it was a style that expanded and contracted following the dictates of fashion. And now, courtesy of our made-to-measure service, you can add them to your suit.
The USA saw the development of the sack suit, soon to acquire the ‘Ivy League’ tag after the American universities where the look first took hold. The jackets lacked the front darts and waist-suppression of regular suits and became a favourite of those wanting a relaxed fit.
The details, swollen seams, rear ‘hook’ vent, narrow lapels and narrow trousers were combined with casual cloths – including corduroy – to make suits that were as comfortable as they were stylish. It was a look that emerged in the 1920s and continued to be popular among American students for many years, eventually taking hold in the mainstream, spreading overseas and helping to define American fashions of the late 1950s and 1960s. Once again, the Ivy Suit offered by Cathcart is the go-to for this style and comes with rear hook vents and narrow notch lapels as a standard.
But all good things have to come to an end. As cheap man-made fabrics took hold of the marketplace, and the hippy movement made a point of avoiding the formality of suits, the late 1960s saw the wearing of suits begin to fade. Of course, the illustrious tailoring firms of Savile Row were able to survive, but many local tailors saw their custom base age and die out. Style still existed, great tailoring continued, suits were still worn by many both for work and for leisure, but it was the end of an era. And with so many suits being sold on the high street being made of poor quality fabrics, it was clear that the ‘golden age’ of tailoring was over.
However, with the arrival of Cathcart Heritage’s made-to-measure service, the ability to create personalised suits, in a wide variety of styles and fabrics, the spirit of the elegance and style associated with that ‘golden age’ lives on.