Suits, American Style (When America was Cool)

Sonya Glyn NICHOLSON

Suits, American Style (When America was Cool)

The urbane suave of Bogart, 1937

Goodbye, 2016.

Each January, a lot of us try to put aside the past to take on new beginnings. The usual fare is that we decide to become better people–and look better in the process.

Looking better can be categorized as “looking more elegant”. Otherwise, looking better for the sake of looking better, can feel too empty and soulless.

Few will argue that America has hovered among the lowest rungs of the elegance ladder for decades (even with a return to elegance growing among a stratified group of American men). Yet today, the digital age has prodded the interest of baby boomers who once retaliated against the ways of their well-dressed fathers, “the system”, or “the Man”, often symbols of dogma and robotic thinking where a suit and tie were mandatory.

The Industrial Revolution took its toll on the elegance factor in America, as corporate employees at corporate headquarters around the nation were forced to comply with suit-and-tie dress codes, which robbed a man the freedom to pursue elegance as an individual decision.

As we have moved into the digital age, we are once again gaining the freedom to pursue personal elegance based on a personal decision to do so, as many dress codes that once existed have all but disappeared and the global workforce has relaxed dress code policies.

On another note, many men of the Generation X population are rebelling against wearing the same sloppy Chino pants and wrinkled, checked button-down shirts they saw their fathers wear for decades, and are claiming their own take on style and fashion.

As we make our way into 2017, we take a look back at a time when American men seemed to catch the attention of the world with their style and grace (and coolness):

yale-men-2

The Yale University Whiffenpoofs (1927) in three-piece suits, prior to an ‘a cappella’ performance. Similarly, today we are seeing a return to looser fitting suit coats.

gilbert-roland

American actor and Mexican-born Gilbert Roland, 1929. Last year, white necktie motifs saw a great return, and wider lapels continue to press forward.

harvard-men-in-shorts

Many of us have made fun of this look. Who knew Harvard students leaving for a vacation to Bermuda in 1957 had a jump on the suit-with-shorts look?

excess-suit

International Boys Leagues. Thomas W. Miles and Simon Zebrock of Los Angeles at the White House in August, 1924. ‘First know the rules and then break them’ applies here. Rule-breaking moves such as short ties, stubby exposed shirt collars, and tucked in sweaters somehow work with these guys (good shoes always help).

josey

Referred to as the original woman to debut a suit, Missouri-born Josephine Baker had her suits crafted at Cifonelli in Paris. Josephine eventually renounced her American citizenship to become a French national. Women in suits are not unusual today and private school uniforms often include girls wearing neckties.

1940s

A stylish 1940s man. Becoming aware of how to wear clothes that compliment the silhouette is an intriguing process, and this individual seems to have mastered the art (usually due to a study of tailoring, a long journey of failures and successes, a natural knack for dressing well, or by learning through a mentor).

men-1940s-hat

An American man in the 1940s. Some men hesitate to wear a hat, but this example is inspirational enough for many men to give the hat another try. We are also seeing longer shirt collars and wider trouser legs come back into play.

unnamed-1

To my knowledge, this is the first time this image has been digitally published. I bought this photo from an antique shop months before the shop burned down. The picture is dated March 22, 1940, and is a graduation photo from Watkins Glen High School in Washington, D.C. These high school students have already discovered the fundamentals of elegant dressing. Their inspiration could have included Hollywood film stars, gangster movies, or the example of their fathers and grandfathers.