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.
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
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
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
reluctant to turn down his collar, the Jazz Age man gradually
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. |
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.
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
men’s furnishings ultimately found a place on the shelves
of the nation’s department stores and in the closets of men
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
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.
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.