Men's Suits of the 1940s

Written by ann mazzaferro
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Men's Suits of the 1940s
Wide, sharp notched lapels were characteristic of post-WWII suits. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

With the world undergoing massive political, economic and social shifts during the 1940s, the way people dressed changed to fit the times. Men's suits saw an enormous shift in the space of a decade, as they left behind the artistic excesses of the late 1930s and transitioned to a sober, practical garment. By the end of the 1940s, the international outlook was brighter, and men's suits reflected this shift with sharper lines and better fabrics.

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1940-1945

While the United States was still reeling from the economic woes of the 1930s, the hammer of World War II fell hard across the globe. Rationing was prevalent, and every piece of food and scrap of clothing was stretched in order to send materials to soldiers overseas. Wool, cotton and other natural fibres were strictly limited, so suits were made out of rayon, viscose and other artificial materials. Trousers were wide-legged throughout the decade, but cuffs and pleats were eliminated to minimise the amount of fabric used. Jackets were sharply tailored, and pockets lost their flaps to decrease fabric use. Men no longer wore vests, a departure from previous fashion dictates, and the fabric was diverted to support efforts overseas. For the traditionalist, a sweater-vest became an acceptable substitute.

1946-1949

The end of World War II signalled a return to optimism and prosperity, and men's suits reflected this new attitude. Lapels that slimmed down earlier in the decade became wider and sharply pointed at the tip. Increased fabric availability brought the double-breasted suit back into style, having been banned in the early part of the decade. Wool, gaberdine, tweed, cotton and silk were all back in rotation. Pinstripes became increasingly popular with stripes growing slimmer as the decade progressed. While World War II years saw a sharp decline in formal evening suits for men, the post-War years saw a return of white tie and tails, but only at exceptionally formal functions. The modern tuxedo has changed little since its re-emergence in the late 1940s.

The Zoot Suit

Tossing convention aside were the bold and brash "Zoot Suiters" of the 1940s. With wide-legged, low-crotch trousers and exuberantly bold-shouldered jackets, the zoot suits began in the jazz clubs of Harlem during the late 1930s. Originally a fashion that resonated with African-American youth, the zoot suit became inextricably linked with young Mexican-Americans in 1943. On a warm May night in Los Angeles, three sailors on shore leave approached a group of young Mexican women, stopped only by a group of zoot-suit wearing Mexican men. The sailors engaged them in a street fight, with the American aggressors largely trounced by the young Mexican men. A series of violent, bloody riots ensued in Los Angeles, with dozens of young Mexican men killed simply for wearing a zoot suit. While the subject of a popular song and a favourite costume among swing dancers today, few know the zoot suit's violent history.

Accessories

As with all aspects of men's suits, accessories changed drastically during the 1940s. The War Production Board, which was in charge of rationing everything from tin to fabric, declared that belts could be as wide as two inches, but no more. While fedoras were a popular choice of hat in the beginning of the decade, by the end of the 1940s fewer men were wearing hats in public, focusing instead on heavily gelled hairstyles.

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