But it wasn't solely the clothes of the fairer sex that came under scrutiny in Interwar America. While the debates over men's clothing were far less ideological and heated, there was nevertheless talk about the clothing worn about our American boys.

"The sex with which I have the honor to be affiliated labors under a severe handicap," observed journalist Frederick Lewis Allen in 1926.15 "Nobody writes about our clothes." Allen had a point. When it came to men's fashions, no furious tirades, blazing broadsides, or withering exchanges split the air; even guidebooks were in short supply. "Thousands of pages are written every year to assist our wives, daughters and grandmothers to look younger and more entrancing, but we men," lamented Allen, "have to go it alone." America's reticence on the subject of the masculine wardrobe was easy to explain: there wasn't much to say. Where women's fashions were broadly synonymous with change, male attire seemed static, frozen.

By the mid-1920s, this was no longer true. Growing numbers of lawyers, doctors and college students began to loosen their collars, experiment with color, and, much to the consternation of the National Association of Retail clothiers and Furnishers, appear publicly in "flapping" trousers. When introduced two years earlier, commented the New York Times in 1927, baggy pants were merely a fad; since then, they had become a habit. Inspired by the postwar era's heightened receptivity to new, looser forms of cultural expression and what, in some quarters, was seen as a revolution in manners, "jazz attire" had infiltrated the staid confines of menswear. For the first time in centuries, men were encouraged to free themselves from the "tyranny of starch" and to dress with greater playfulness--and fewer encumbrances.

The medical and scientific communities encouraged such thinking. Men were paying a price for their "senseless garb," warned some of the nation's leading science magazines, drawing on the latest physiological research in Germany, Britain, and the United States. Close-fitting garters, scientists discovered, "hampered the blood-stream"; trousers "tightly encircled the waist," cutting off circulation; and stiff collars throttled the neck, causing headaches. Promoting perspiration, "heat stasis," and sluggishness, men's clothing was also found to be needlessly heavy. As evidence of menswear’s “anomalies” mounted, men were urged to take their cue from women’s fashions and to dress “lightly and airily” in loose-fitting trousers and soft collars and to dispense altogether with neckties, which, some men were now prepared to conceded, had “no imaginable use whatsoever.”16

A burning issue for women, dress reform found little support among American men. Their wives and daughters may have welcomed change and entertained multiple notions of womanliness but they themselves held tight to only one way of being in the world: that of the gentleman. Dress reform for men was "unsound," explained Outlook, making clear why the American male should not abandon gentlemanliness in favor of some new way of dressing. "Men's clothes are well enough as they are. They are concealing, they have pockets aplenty, they are of material heavy enough to retain a press and refrain from bulging. They are mostly, dark; therefore, they are inconspicuous and do not show spots… They do not flap, wilt, look funny, or get in the way, at least not much."17

"The whole issue of the soft collar is much broader than a mere matter of fashion and taste," columnist Heywood Broun observed. "It is an inevitable symbol. Just as woman is apt to change her whole attitude toward life when she bobs her hair, so it is with the man who turns down his collar. Once he has found stimulation in one act of rebellion, he is likely to go further."18 Little wonder, then, that most men held back. Being a gentleman was worth far more than physical comfort or the contemplation of change.

Though reluctant to turn down his collar, the Jazz Age man gradually embraced color, squaring it with his faith in gentlemanliness. "A parade is going by!" reported the American Mercury in 1928. "There's an unaccustomed flash of color in the city street...there begins to gleam upon the horizon a glimmer of hope for the blue-serge hero...making a stab at decking himself out." The "drab age" in men's apparel appeared to be coming to an end. With modern chemistry making more and more colors possible, there was every reason to believe that modern men would "gather the courage to take more color unto themselves."19 The marketplace seemed to bear out that prediction. By the late 1920s, purveyors of men's furnishings discovered that their brightly patterned socks and "ice-cream-colored" suits were flying off the shelves; a few years earlier, they couldn't give them away. Color first crept into accessories, then spread to sportswear. "Plumage" was in, especially for golf, a sport that soared in popularity during the 1920s.

If nothing else, colorful clothing stirred up a lot of conversation about the masculine soul. Much like short skirts, which touched off a fierce debate about American femininity, ice-cream-colored shirts raised questions about American masculinity. Those whose preference ran to somber blacks and gentlemanly grays dismissed their brightly colored counterparts as "peacocks" whose affection for "esthetic pastel tints" was unnatural, unmanly, and un-American. Fearful lest the new form of dressing turn out to be detrimental to moral conduct, the champions of chromatic sobriety called on their fellow citizens to return to the old ways.

The peacocks, though, had biology on their side. The "male urge to color," declared the Saturday Evening Post, hoping to assuage its readers' anxiety, "is biologically quite as strong in civilized man as it is among, say, golden pheasants." Since it was a fact of nature, there was no reason for alarm at the prospect of modern man’s taking his “rightful placed as the ‘decorative sex.’”20 Colorful men’s furnishings ultimately found a place on the shelves of the nation’s department stores and in the closets of men everywhere.

The boldest challenge to the ideal of gentlemanliness, though, came not from color but from jewelry. According to the male-oriented “manuals of politeness” and “good form” that debuted in the years following the Civil War, the only acceptable way for a man to come directly in contact with a piece of ornamental jewelry was to deck his wife and daughters with it. By the 1920s, a wide array of appropriately manly items inhabited the jeweler's showcase. There was "no lack of good attractive masculine merchandise," trumpeted the National Jeweler in 1925. While there were limits to how far they might go, there was no denying that American men had taken to calling a modest amount of jewelry their own. They could still be true to themselves and wear an honest-to-goodness piece of jewelry without compromising the good name of their sturdy sex.21

Extremely malleable, both masculinity and gentlemanliness continued to endure in modern America. Where variations in women's attire yielded an altered ideal of womanliness, variations in menswear had no such effect on the corresponding ideal of gentlemanliness. Glinting jewelry, colored shirts, socks, and ties, even baggy trousers did little to dislodge the gentleman from his pedestal. Sustaining a few gentle knocks, he simply expanded his wardrobe to make room for a handful of novelties and then went about his business, his integrity intact.

15. Frederick Lewis Allen, "Fall Fashions for Men." Forum. Nov. 1926, p. 661.
16. Joselit, 87.
17. Joselit, 89.
18. "The Hard-Boiled Collars of Palm Beach," Literary Digest, May 5, 1923. 56-59.
19. Frances Anne Allen, "The Vestments of the Male," American Mercury, June 28. 215.
20. Joselit, 91.
21. Joselit, 97.