This post focuses on fashion from the 1920s-1960s. If you want to read a detailed article on how you can have vintage style by mixing modern and true vintages pieces, read it here.
The above image from a Russian catalog shows how cuts of suits changed from 1923-1943. It’s these subtle details that show that not all vintage looks are the same. Each decade had their own ideas on fit, proportion and styling.
Vintage isn’t a blanket term. You don’t just put on suspenders and a flat cap and say “I’m vintage”. Heck, not all vintage is the same. Just like there are differences in styles between the 2000s and 2010s, there are plenty of differences within each vintage decade.
Here is a very general guide that Spencer and I put together that we feel is accurate to each of the different eras in vintage. This guide does not go into fabrics or labels/manufacturers, but is simply based on simple details like jacket design, silhouette/fit, and ties. This guide should be used if you ever want to dress vintage and need a particular look to style yourself!
Please note a few things before we start:
- At no point is it “vintage” to wear just pants, a vest, and flat cap.
- Not every style in each era is depicted here. A majority of this style is American and English.
- High-rise trousers were the norm in many of these eras.
- Yes, there is some overlap between eras.
- There are exceptions to each style as some people were fashion forward or had an eclectic style.
- Almost all jackets had high-armholes until the advent of mass production in the 1960’s.
- A tight Four-in-hand knot is widely used until the 1950’s.
- The Double Breasted Jacket was small in the 1920’s and rose in popularity during the 1930s to early 1950’s and fell out of favor by the 1960’s.
- Half-lined and zero lining suits were popular until the 1960s.
- People tended to keep their clothes for years. For example, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see a late ’20s or early ’30s suit worn out in the 1940s. However many people would alter their suits for the fashion of the times (ie, slim down a lapel).
- The cut of a Brooks Brothers Sack Suit No. 1 remained mostly unchanged from the 1910s to the 1970s- if you manage to find one, using this guide the details can be molded to fit any of these eras.
1920s – Odd, Yet Elegant
This is one of the hardest outfits to do due how rare and different this period is to the rest! One reason is the definite influence of Edwardian/1910’s style during the early years of the twenties.
Suit: Suits were very slim in the early 1920’s but started to get looser later on. In general the early 1920’s were very elegant and many illustrations had an almost “feminine” style. Some even had external belts attached to them (think of a trench coat). Many 20’s jackets had a high gorge and a high button stance. Some suits had a more utilitarian design, featuring multiple pockets and belts.
It’s also interesting to note that many of the lapels in the 1920s had upturned peaks (as opposed to horizontal) and that many jackets were designed to have all buttons fastened. This buttoning was due to the stance, where the last button was right at the natural waist. People also commonly wore dress boots with their suits!
Plain suits were always available, but patterned suits did exist. In addition to the typical stripes and checks, eccentric weaves were also present!
Pants: Note that a true early to mid 1920’s suit will have slimmer legs (almost modern, but not skinny) and a majority of outfits are single breasted (with and without peak lapels) in a slim fit. It’s interesting that these early 1920’s slim pants were advertised as “stovepipe” legs due to their fit!
Other pants include plus-fours and plus -sixes (knickers) and were not used just for golf. People like Walt Disney himself wore them all the time in lieu of normal pants! Oxford bags, the wide legged flared trousers, were not commonly worn.
Shirts: Collars in the 1920’s were usually shorter and had either a point collar or a club collar. These collars would continue into other periods, but the 1920’s is where I most associate them. Some shirts featured detachable collars that were often starched.
Ties: It’s a common mistake to think that bowties are the only form of neckwear in this period, because ties were definitely worn. Ties in the 1920’s were generally very slim! Knit ties could be found either plain or striped but silk ties could be found in a plethora of different patterns. Brocade silk was widely used.
Hats: Fedoras with a medium brim were worn most here along with newsboy caps. Homburgs (a more formal cousin of the fedora) and bowlers were worn here as well, but are seldom seen later on.How to replicate: Fitted suits with medium lapels and extremely slim trousers (with cuffs). Bonus points for wearing dress boots! Wear extremely skinny knit and silk ties in plain colors or stripes and make sure the knot is tight and tiny. Boaters and flatcaps are the best hats to wear.
1930s – Classic and Tailored
The 1930’s are my favorite era because it is the age of classic tailoring. Outfits here have drape, classic proportions and design, and involves a much larger use of pattern mixing. Many of the designs here are moderate (besides the wider legs) and can be repeated and influenced in the modern day. I personally look at the 1930’s as a huge source of inspiration.
Suits: The fit in the 1930’s is a bit different than the 1920’s. You can see that jackets are still very snug but the pants are larger in the leg. Jackets had a lot of waist suppression which was the beginning of the drape style. The 1930’s boasted the athletic figure: broad shoulders and chest, small waist, and large/long legs.
Lapels were were mainly medium sized, with notches lower on the body. This practice was kept until the late 1950’s. If you notice, notches were much larger and had rounded edges instead of being sharp as they are today.
Button stance was moderate with the last button on the jacket on the same horizontal plane as the jacket pocket. This ensured that the button stance were kept at a classic level, which wasn’t high like the 1920’s and low like the 1940’s and 1950’s. Basically, many jackets were to close near or slightly above the belly button (natural waist).
Pocket Squares were also utilized (mainly white, but other colors and patterns existed). They were stuffed into the pocket without any attention to the way it was put in. If it was meticulously put in, it was always with used with the points sticking out. The square/TV fold was not used.Pants: No longer are they “stove pipes” but are now fuller cut with some models having a flared leg. This design combined with a closely fitted wide waistband exuded an athletic figure: broad shoulders with a tight “V” torso and long legs. Basically, this design was the silhouette of the 1930’s. College students would prefer this flared leg design, especially if the pants had an extremely wide waistband!
Shirts: It is in this period that the spearpoint collar came into play. Simply put it is a collar that starts out with a small width in the back and gradually “teardrops” into a larger point in the front of the shirt. It’s mean to take up any space between the collar and the jacket lapel. Since it’s a modern aesthetic to have a shorter collar, having a spearpoint is another subtle way to exude a period correct vintage style. Yes, point collars were still worn, but a majority of the shirts of this era were spearpoints. Sportshirts and even polos had them!
Note that many 1930’s shirts were striped or very light solids. They did not usually have super saturated colors shirts.
Ties: I personally see necktie in this era as the most “modern”. 1930’s ties were wider than 1920’s ties, but not as big as the 40’s and 50’s. A three inch width is perfect. In terms of pattern, stripes and medium sized geometric prints were the most common. There are some crazy abstract designs in the 1930’s, but they were still somewhat restrained.
Hats: Fedoras and caps were still worn here. Fedora’s in this era had a taller crown and a medium brim.
How to replicate: Sharply tailored jackets with fuller cut pants. Three piece suits are a must. Separates can be good too. The key of styling lies in patterns. Utilize striped shirts (with a larger collar), patterned suits, and minimal-print/striped ties. A white, stuffed-in pocket square will complete the looks!
1940s – Wide and Swingin’
If the 1930’s were grand and well-put together, then the 1940’s is casual. Two piece suits and separates became the norm as we move into WWII and the prosperity of the post war era.
Suits: During the Second World War, most everything in the United States was rationed, and this includes fabric. As a consequence,three piece vested suits and double breasted jackets fell out of favor during the war years. However, in response to both the years of fabric rationing, and new post-war prosperity, suits in the mid to late 1940s started to become a bit more exaggerated, both in fit and design. In general, the fit was looser in the chest, with a fitted waist, and roomier trousers.
To increase the “athletic figure” that suits should give you, suits in the 1940’s has broader shoulders, longer jacket length, larger lapels , and a lower button stance. This lower buttoning point (last jacket button was below the pocket line) created a sharper “V” down your body. The later it got, the larger this “bold look” became.
Pants: In the early war year, pants lost pleats and cuffs to fabric rationing. Later on, pleats and a roomier fit became more acceptable. Hollywood waist with “dropped” loops came in this period.
Shirts: Spearpoint collars were still worn here! Point collar shirts started being used as well.
Ties: Ties in the 1940’s simply got wider. While classic pattern ties (stripes, plaids, geometrics) were still available, crazy and large abstract patterns were a trend in this period.
Hats: Caps started to fall out of favor and fedoras were the main hat. Hats here had larger brims and a medium crown (not as tall as ones in the 30s).
Early indications of the 1950’s style. Boxy cut, low buttoning stance, and longer jacket length, 1949.
How to replicate: A lot of the 1940’s style comes from lapels and tie designs. Try to find suits with large lapels and are double breasted. It’s best to simply wear an actual 1940’s abstract design swing tie, because they are hard to replicate with modern designs. However, many designs from Armani in the 1990’s come very close!
1950s – Bold and Boxy
The 1950’s had come and the exaggerated look of the latter half of the 1940’s was in effect. Jackets were bigger and longer and ties were bigger. However, things began to change during the atomic era and the desire to stand out was replaced with a more subtle style that would reflect the late 1950s and early 1960s. They would replace the athletic “V” shape that dominated the 1930s and 1940s and go with a streamlined, “boxy” look.
Suits: The early 1950’s took the deep “V” and low buttoning point into a whole new level and called it the “bold look”. This is most apparent in advertisements and illustrations. Later on, suits returned to moderate buttoning, but was still longer and roomier than previous eras. It is also important that “atomic flecked” suits were a widely popular trend in the early 1950’s. Wearing one is a surefire way for your outfit to exude the 50’s.
Also, it is important to point out that as time went on, suits were becoming more plain and less patterned. No longer are the suits checked or striped like the 1930s and 1940s; they were now full of solids to reflect the post-war, atomic age of work force conformity- think The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. This is where the TV/Square fold for pocket squares came in. It was a very clean way to compliment the ties. At most, guys would wear a patterned jacket over plain trousers.
Pants: Pant breaks became more acceptable along with pleats and a looser, roomier fit. Dropped loop was widely seen.
Shirts: Spearpoints were less prominent since it was the new trend to have wider collars. Point collar and semi-spread was the norm due to the rising popularity of the half-windsor knot (which was larger in general).
Ties: Ties became slim the later we get in the 1950’s. It was in this department that men could express their style, since suits were becoming more toned down. Traditional patterns were still available but classic early 1950’ties often involved a more vertical abstract design. They were similar to the crazy patterns of the 1940’s but significantly slimmed down. Other tie designs were even hand-painted (this started in the late 1930s) and often featured scenery or women. However, conservative business ties in “normal patterns” like stripes began to take hold in the mid to late 1950’s.
How to replicate: Large lapeled suits with low button stances. The late 1980s and early 1990’s have similar cuts, so you could get away with using it! Utilize patterned jackets and plain pants for a casual look. It’s hard to find ties that have similar designs to the 1950s, so you may want to invest in some true vintage ones! They’re always available on eBay!
1960s – Sharp and Slim
The Mad Men, Ivy-Trad, and Mod era. While the 1930’s remains classic, the early 1960’s influences modern traditional suiting thanks to pattern, fit, and overall style. However once we move into the mid to late 1960’s, it is actually the mod style that resulted in more eclectic suiting.
Suits: While quite as close fitting as modern skinny suits, suits of the 1960s were certainly closer cut than those of the late 1940s and ’50s. By 1960, lapels had become very slim and would continue to get skinnier until the mid ‘60s. These lapels were almost always notched with a considerably smaller opening and were moved higher up on the lapel. This style of lapel is what influenced much of today’s suit lapel styles.
In addition to the music, the British Invasion brought English inspired looks to suiting. Slanted pockets, double vents, and briefly, double breasted jackets came back into style. English designer Michael Fish, who designed outfits for stars like David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Mohammed Ali, and Twiggy, was hugely influential when he opened a boutique, Mr. Fish, in 1966. The Beatles helped bring Nehru jackets into vogue.
Shirts: For the Kennedy and Ivy League type, the Brooks Brothers button-down collar was king. Other than that, the most common shirt was plain white with a small collar (to go with your skinny ties). Wide collars with bold patterns became fashionable later on and was a huge component of the 1970s.
Ties: Like lapels, the ties started out skinny, and by the mid ‘60s, ties as slim as an inch were being sold. As in the late 1950’s, ties were very conservative with small prints and stripes. However, they became much more bold with larger stripes and large geometric prints (but not abstract shapes of the 1940’s) the later we go. Another trend attributed to Fish is what he called the “kipper tie”: the ultra-wide ties, up to 5 or 6 inches.
Pants: The fashionable man in the 1960s wore his pants slim. They usually featured a flat front, and (at least in the first half of the decade) cuffed. Gradually, waistlines of pants became lower due in part to the ubiquity of jeans as a casual pant and men becoming accustomed to the fit of their Levis.
As you can see through suit design, tie pattern and width, and even general style, vintage fashion is widely different depending on which era you’re looking at. I hope that you look at vintage now with a new found appreciation and knowledge. Vintage style was never the clip on suspenders, baggy pants, and flat caps that everyone expects it to be. Instead, it is an art form, with subtle details and masterful tailoring and styling. The same could be said of all modern styles, whether it’s Americana, Minimalism, streetwear, or palewave.
In particular, I find inspiration from all of these eras. Yes, I do love doing period-correct 1930’s outfits from time to time, but I truly like mixing and matching my favourite aspects from each decade. If you do use this guide to make your own style or to start dressing in “true vintage” just make sure you know which look you’re going for!
Always a pleasure,
Ethan W. and Spencer O.