While ladies’ fashion was changing rapidly during the decade of the 1910s, menswear changed very little. One small change did prove to be significant in the long term though: increasingly, gentlemen were dinner or tuxedo jackets instead of tailcoats for less formal evening occasions. The number of occasions for which a tuxedo was sufficiently formal increased during the 1910s and in the following decades until, today, black tie and tails, much less white tie and tails, is required an an extremely limited number of occasions, for an extremely narrow band of the population (high society, fine dining waiters, and cabaret performers, mostly), and the tuxedo is generally thought of as the height of formality.
Three-piece suits and variations thereof were the norm for men around 1912. Waistcoats typically lacked collars, and were cut quite high, leaving very little of the shirt bosom exposed on either side of the necktie. Shirt collars were very high and stiff, often made to be detachable so that they could be readily cleaned or replaced, since they soiled much more quickly then the rest of the shirt. Morning dress with a cutaway coat and striped trousers could be worn for formal daytime occasions, but by this time, the practice of wearing formal morning dress was already more common in Britain than in the United States.
While menswear for centuries has tended to change slowly, it is more variable than it might first appear. Even within the circa 1912 period, there was a great deal of variation – many elements of the suit, shirt, collar, tie, hat, coat, and accessories could be personalized to suit the owner’s tastes, within in a certain range of parameters. Jacket lapels could vary in width and proportion, jacket length varied, shirt collar height and proportion varied, and hats were available in an almost inconceivable array of shapes and sizes. Stripes and other patterns were worn sometimes, especially for daywear and casual sportswear. Sportswear could be extremely colorful, in fact, and dressing gowns (robes) were positively flamboyant.
Working class and rural farming men would still have been likely to own three-piece suits, to wear for “best,” though some men at this point did elect not to wear waistcoats all the time, and when working hard, any man might remove his jacket. In polite company, a man did not sit down to dinner in his shirtsleeves, and lacking both waistcoat and jacket in front of a woman was suspect behavior.
General Resources for Men’s Clothing c 1912
- 1912 Project: Menswear, a Pinterest Board of mine, with a collection of images and links.
- Representative New Mexicans : the national newspaper reference book of the new state containing photographs and biographies of over four hundred men residents of New Mexico (1912), a digitized primary source book, available free for download at the Internet Archive. The photographs are very clear, with detail of the suits.
- The book of good manners : etiquette for all occasions (1912) by Florence Kingsland, a digitized primary source book, available free for download at the Internet Archive. Includes detailed information on what a gentleman ought to wear at different times and for various occasions.
- Styles for men : a book issued to show authoritatively what is fashionable and correct for fall and winter 1907-’08 (1907) by Kuppenheimer and Company, a digitized primary source book, available free for download at the Internet Archive. Includes detailed information on gentlemen’s fashions.
- Men’s ready made clothing : sample book 89F. (1906) by Sears, Roebuck and Company, a digitized primary source book, available free for download at the Internet Archive. Includes fabric swatches. See also the 1912 Sears Catalog available in full at the Internet Archive.
- A dictionary of men’s wear … with an appendix containing sundry useful tables; the uniforms of “ancient and honorable” independent military companies of the U. S.; charts of correct dress, livery, and so forth (1908) by William Henry Baker, a digitized primary source book, available free for download at the Internet Archive.
- Gentlemen’s Titanic Era Fashions: a Guide, by Katy Bishop of The Commonwealth Vintage Dancers at Vintage Victorian.
- The “Fashion” Dress Chart from February 1902, a digitized primary source chart depicting precisely what garments at gentleman ought to wear depending on time of day and activity or level or formality.
- See also Clothing in New Mexico and the Southwest circa 1912, for links including digitized newspapers with clothing images from the period.
How to Fake 1912 Men’s Clothing on the Cheap
If you need a 1912 man’s costume in a hurry, without much sewing, and inexpensively, your best bet is going to be a thirft store suit. There were various cuts of suit popular at this time period, so your odds of finding something workable in the right size are high. First, look at pictures of c. 1912 suits to train your eye for what to look for. Next, make sure you know your chest and waist measurements so you can easily check if a suit on the rack might fit you (you can check length by hanging it against you). Remember to look for natural fibers! Synthetic fibers like polyester are not only inaccurate, but extremely uncomfortable to wear (especially 100% polyester); they’re very hot and don’t breathe, plus they stain easily.
When you’re looking for a suit, look for a jacket with square, properly fitting shoulders, and a fitted or slightly loose-fitting but tailored shape and fit. It can single-breasted or double-breasted, though single-breasted was more common. Lapels generally tended to be around medium size, though some men wore their lapels wide, so that’s an acceptable option too. Lapels were cut quite far up at the time, tending to end high on the chest rather than at waist level. Jacket length could vary, but remember that this shouldn’t be a long zoot suit style (though there are some baggy, striped suits of the time that stylistically lean in that direction!). Trousers can be medium to loose fitting, but should taper to a narrower ankle, even if only slightly. Overall, the suit should be slightly baggy, but not too much – it’s a balancing act.
If you can’t find a three-piece suit with a waistcoat, it’s acceptable to have a mismatched waistcoat/vest, made from a different but harmonizing material. The waistcoat should fit snugly – much more so than the rest of the suit. The waistcoats typically lack lapels, and are cut with a high, tight V opening. The bottom edge comes to two closely placed points at the front. Vest materials can be livelier than other suit materials typically are – stripes were popular.
Shirts were typically very high-collared, so look for the highest collars you can find, or, if you are feeling adventurous, you could even try removing a shirt collar and adding a homemade (even a paper!) collar, which is accurate. The cut of the collar could almost totally hide the knot of the necktie, depending on its shape. Neckties were highly variable in color and pattern, but they were usually cut nearly straight and tied with small knots.
Don’t forget a hat! In 1912, a decent man simply didn’t leave the house without a hat. Look through pictures to see appropriate styles, and look for something similar. If you are looking to be costumed as someone actively laboring, who would not be wearing a three-piece suit, look for pants cut along the lines mentioned above, and wear them with collar-less shirt and suspenders, preferably the kind of button onto the pants rather than clip on. And don’t forget that hat!
History of Menswear & Tailoring
- History: Setting the Precedent, a series of articles on the history of menswear, particularly formal menswear, at The Black Tie Guide: A Gentleman’s Guide to Evening Wear (Second Edition).
Formalwear (morning dress, tuxedo/dinner jackets, tails)
Hats & Outerwear
Working Clothes (farming, heavy labor, servants)
- 1912 Project: Hard at Work, a Pinterest Board of mine, with a collection of images and links, specifically of people in working clothes of some variety.
Tailoring Manuals & Guides (see also Sewing in 1912)
Note: if it has an asterisk*, there is a tutorial, how-to, or pattern on the other side of the link.
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