The Changing "Staples" of Menswear

Discussion in 'Suits' started by Patrick Hall, Nov 7, 2014.

  1. Patrick Hall

    Patrick Hall Practically Family

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    I recently completed my set of solid woven grenadine ties in black, burgundy, and navy blue, often touted today as "staple" menswear items, along with dress shirts in pale blue and white. By staple I mean items that are utterly basic, necessary, and utilitarian, the foundations on which a wardrobe is built, items that can be paired with nearly everything. There have been "staple" suits in the past - blue serge in the Golden Era, gray flannel in the 50's.

    I'm hoping this thread can be a discussion of the changing "staples" of menswear, starting where all our catalog photos begin, in the tens and teens of the 20th century. What would the most basic, ubiquitous, foundational items of wardrobe have been in the early 20th century? How did these staples change through the Golden Era? (And to satisfy selfish curiosity, were solid grenadine ties "staple" items before Bond?)
     
  2. The Good

    The Good Call Me a Cab

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    I own a midnight blue grenadine myself, made by Sam Hober. I also had it made very close to the look of James Bond's Dr. No tie; I've always been a big fan of the Bond films. I'm not sure about it being a staple before the 1960s. I wondered about that, as well, and I think grenadine ties certainly existed before 1962, but they did not seem to be especially common. Looking through vintage tie vendors over time, I have never found what I could describe as grenadine ties, so they must have been uncommon. Knit ties seem to have been much more common, and then patterned ties were much more usual than those.

    Staple suits, particularly since the last decade, seem to revolve around mainly charcoal grey or dark navy suits, usually plain and two-button. I think black suits were slightly more common around ten years ago than now, and the same seems to have been true for the 1990s. It seems that a more diverse range of styles, colors, and patterns were considered acceptable for business suits during the Golden Era. The 1950s and early '60s is often thought of as a very conformist period, but I think the suits of today are normally more plain than the mid-century era. I'm thinking of the details. As for shirts, I think that was different. White dress shirts have always been acceptable then as now, but what about light blue? At what point did that shift from being an infrequent novelty color to a generally acceptable business color, the 1960s? Shirts with colors other than white have obviously existed long before then, but I'm wondering about a shift in business acceptability. Businessmen tend to play it safe.
     
  3. Patrick Hall

    Patrick Hall Practically Family

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    Just dug through the pre-1920s thread, paying particular attention to the catalog scans NOT from Kuppenheimer and HS&M, on the theory that cheaper, more widely distributed advertisements would carry a wider variety of "basic" offerings. I won't belabor this thread with a bunch of cross posts, as all the images are there in the pre-1920s thread for perusal, but it seems like the suiting staples of the 1910s were dark serge suits and tweeds. Not many mentions of "worsteds" and where they do appear, they are typically in the ritzier catalogs.




    In terms of trying to figure out what qualified as a utilitarian staple tie? Good luck:

    1928-Simpsons_-ties-color.jpg
     
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2014
  4. Rabbit

    Rabbit Call Me a Cab

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    I think I can see what you want to achieve with this thread, Patrick.
    What's going to be difficult, however, is to tell the difference between wardrobe staples as a sales gimmick (everyone should wear it according to advertisements, but even the well-dressed don't give a damn and will rather wear what is most versatile for their own wardrobe), and wardrobe staples as in "most everyone wore it during a certain timeframe".
    Or is this differentiation beside your point?

    About grenadines: They've been around in the 30s, too.
     
  5. herringbonekid

    herringbonekid I'll Lock Up

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    Patrick,

    it's difficult to speak of 'staples' from the early 20th century because, as you've already noted, there was such a variety of suit and tie fabrics available that the consumer must have been spoilt for choice.

    if we talk instead of what was 'commonly worn' then that's a bit easier. looking through U.S. catalogues of the late teens - early 20s (which i've done a lot of in the last couple of years) these items appear with very little change between 1918-24:

    -navy blue serge suit. would have been the most 'basic' suit for everyday and office wear.

    -some sort of 'sporty' suit with patch pockets, belted back, in a lively tweed or 'cassimere' fabric. browns, greys, and olive-greens were popular.

    -a 'conservative' suit in a more sombre patterned fabric. usual colours: browns, greys, navys, greens, sometimes black.

    -flannel trousers in white, cream or grey to mix with dark suit jackets for a sporty look for weekends.

    -fancy striped shirts with detachable collars in same fabric or contrasting white. plain shirts in blue, pink, pale green, tan or white with detachable collars.

    -work shirts in chambray, flannel and drill in blue, grey or olive drab.

    -shawl collar sweater or cardigan.

    -odd trousers in all manner of fancy tweeds, worsteds and cottons.

    -a long 'Ulster' overcoat, usually with full or half belt.

    -a mackinaw coat, usually with shawl collar.

    -a brimmed felt hat, a wool cap, and a boater.

    -a bow tie, a knit tie and a four-in-hand tie.

    -leather gloves.

    -possibly a work / outdoor 'sports' suit in drab cord or khaki drill, usually 'Norfolk' style.

    -boots were much more common in this period than shoes. usually brown or black. white canvas for sports and summer wear.


    ---


    edit: there's probably more info there than you require for this thread. are you specifically talking about suits, shirts and ties ?
     
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2014
  6. Patrick Hall

    Patrick Hall Practically Family

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    Thanks for the thoughtful replies, all.

    HBK, your list was exactly what I was hoping could be drummed up. I'm intrigued by the idea of a list of basics, and how that list has changed. I work next to Rice University, and I intend to hit Fondren Library's magazine archives, to see if I can drudge up any period columns or articles that provide similar lists to add a bit more primary source meat to this thread.

    I suspect customers were indeed "spoilt for choice," but as The Good suggested, conventions narrowed as time passed, until we reached the 50's, where a "staple" might be a SPECIFIC item, like a blue grenadine tie or a plain pale blue shirt without pattern, rather than a class of pieces like, "sporty tweed suit." So my question is historically unanswerable in the form that it was posed.

    Nik, I'm sure you're right that there was a gap between what were hawked as "basic" items, and what truly were "basic" items, and blurring the two is the danger of relying too heavily on catalog illustrations. Also, I'd be very interested to see any vintage examples of the grenadine tie - Wikipedia says that kind of weave dates back to 18th century lace, but looking through our photos here, I can't pick out any potential examples of ties that fit the bill.

    I'll update once I do a bit of actual research!
     
  7. herringbonekid

    herringbonekid I'll Lock Up

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    i don't think the 'basics' of menswear have really changed significantly since about 1900. only the specific design of each 'basic' changes.

    that list (above) is just what was commonly available during the late teens - early 20s period, but not a list of recommended items by a menswear journal or similar.

    it sounds like you're talking more about a list of 'must haves' suggested by a fashion taste-maker, such as someone who wrote for Apparel Arts ?
     
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2014
  8. Patrick Hall

    Patrick Hall Practically Family

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    Hmm, I wish this were true. I think the basics have radically changed, but only insofar as many of the things you listed have simply dropped off the list entirely (why the relegation of tweed suits to seasonal fabric, for instance?). And the items that remain are commercially available along a very narrow band of options (though this seems to be changing).

    I do think the notion of "staple items" has something to do with the taste-makers, who are highlighting them as "timeless" (read risk-free) purchases that are ripe for mass adoption. Thus my impending plunge into the stacks. Nonetheless, your list is a great place to start - because, at least as I understand it, you've just summarized into discrete categories the various offerings of the catalogs you've perused. The advertisers clearly assumed that a gent might purchase one of each sort of item, so I think your list reveals the shape of the advertisers' "expected wardrobe."

    Nik's offered to send me some pdfs of text heavy AA articles - so I'll be starting there.
     
  9. Richard Warren

    Richard Warren Practically Family

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    I've been wearing ties for decades and don't know what a grenadine tie is. All my solid ties are repp ties or knits.
     
  10. Fading Fast

    Fading Fast

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    It also seems that if you were of a certain class - middle and up I'm guessing - you needed, until the end of the 1960s, a reasonably extensive wardrobe of evening wear: dinner jackets (white and black) and all the accouterment that go along with that including special shirts, shoes, ties, vests, studs, socks, suspenders, etc. That is a big staple that has nearly disappeared. Yes, there are some "black tie" events, but if you look at what people wear to them, it is not all the special items just listed, it will be, maybe, a tuxedo and then shirts, ties and shoes from a normal business suit wardrobe.
     

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