The Working Man’s Wardrobe: 1920’s-50’s [PART I]

Quite a while back, the Shoplet blog concocted a pretty nifty retrospective blog post on women’s work clothes. While women’s working fashion tends to evolve more dramatically over time (from uptight 50’s housewife to 80’s shoulder-padded chic chick), men’s fashion has progressed in new & interesting directions since the early 20th century as well. Let’s take a look! Our series will break down men’s business fashion into two series. Introducing Part One, the Working Man’s Wardrobe: 1920’s-50’s.


Well-to-do, collegiate men of the 1920’s + 30’s, who dominated the workforce (and, arguably, still do), celebrated the golden age of cinema by dressing up like prosperous, handsome movie stars. Sharp tailored suits, wingtip shoes and, rather importantly, canes & top hats, were the hallmarks of a refined dandy:


In a Smithsonian Magazine expose on the history of canes, it was noted that men of the 1920’s would whirl their canes around in circles, tuck them under their arms and wave them cheerily at good friends. They were, Smithsonian’s David Shayt describes, “the explanation point” of every working man’s outfit.

Of course, the working man’s outfit of the roaring 20’s & utterly depressed 30’s was essentially incomplete without the top hat:


Those who wore top hats were probably aware of top hat etiquette. It was positively acceptable to wear one’s top hat while riding public transportation or attending sporting events, whereas it was brutally unacceptable to do so while eating in a restaurant or greeting someone. A well-mannered gent would “doff” his hat, which is to slightly raise the rim of it off of his forehead, out of respect to a lady, a figure of importance, or as the American flag passed by.

Not all men were affluent & fashionable in the 1920’s and especially not in the 1930’s, when unemployment in America rose to a staggering 25%. The economic, racial, and social disparity between blue-collar workers & white collar workers at this time was made rather obvious through the lens of fashion:


Heavy cotton coveralls were the everyday default attire for miners, manufacturers, construction workers, etc. Dark navy colors were popular among the “working class” for their ability to better mask the grease and dirt stains acquired from a rough day at the grind.



The war era, otherwise known as the minimalist era for white-collared men’s work fashion: a shortage of fabric meant that less elaborate suits were manufactured in America. Men did without the three-piece suit and broad shoulders. And Frank Sinatra still looked pretty damn fine.

But a great deal of brave American men and women were serving their country abroad in Europe. For many, work attire consisted of mustard-brown army uniforms:



After appreciating the lightweight, sweat-absorbing qualities of the tee-shirt in combat, World War II veterans infused the American working class landscape with a new-found love of plain, white tees.

The rise of the blue collared worker’s favorite shirt is also indebted to the film industry. Given Europe’s economic ruin (and thus lack of focus on the enhancement of art & culture), America’s Hollywood film industry swept global media by storm. The hysterical craze over Marlon Brando, the cover-boy of the film version of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, might have a bit to do with the success of the T-shirt to date: 


As post-wartime restrictions on fabric eased, freedoms in the production of broad shouldered, often double breasted, suits were seized. Trousers were sewn with denser fabrics and cuffed stylishly at the heels.


Like this post? Tune in Wednesday, March 19th,  for Part II of the Working Man’s Wardrobe! & remember to subscribe to the Shoplet blog via email or RSS!