“He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and 71 faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily. “They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Great Gatsby’ (1929)
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, the clothes make the man. His characters are wealthy men and women who go to good universities and embrace modern life. His novels have become an insight into life in the roaring 1920s, offering an image of the dress and custom during an exciting point in history. While photos and movies often speak louder than words, appealing to our visual orientation, they rarely show the full picture. Blinded by the monochromatic greys of early photography, our perception of the era’s colour palette is sorely lacking. The sleek greys of cinema and photography conceal the extravagant and perhaps ostentatious palette of the 1920s.
Much of the beauty of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby lies in his sense of brevity. The novel is short and to the point, with little superfluity. Colour indicates moral and social value in his vision, and represents the status and dreams of his characters. Jay Gatsby, in particular, is perceived by those around him as a showy nouveau riche of unscrupulous origins. Charming and wealthy, his mode of dress informs the reader’s perception of him. His style reflects the times, since he was up to date on the latest trends, but he’s also prone to showy demonstration. Perhaps his most iconic costume in the novel is the “white flannel suit, silver shirt, and a gold-colored tie.” It’s an exaggeration of what even the trendiest of 1920s stars would wear, as Gatsby was always chasing the dream of moral and romantic value along with personal wealth.
As with most history, our perception of the past is blinded by those who had power and privilege, and Gatsby represents merely a cross section of the movers and the shakers, rather than the whole of society. Even within the upper classes, Gatsby is something of an outsider—he has the means but lacks the lineage to ever truly fit in. Gatsby embraces the wild colour palette of the decade, taking full advantage of changing norms and modes of production. The changing world allowed for Gatsby’s rise, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he would embrace its styles with gumption.
As the United States was entering a period of prosperity, every sector of society was changing. For fashion, this meant a new abundance of natural fabrics such as cotton and wool. Rayon, which was seen as a cheap alternative to silk, also became increasingly common, particularly for undergarments and ties. Linen was common in men’s summer wear, reflecting a move towards comfort and softness in men’s fashion. As factory production became streamlined, it became easier to look good regardless of your social standing. Those from the working classes were able to emulate the leisure classes; in urban areas, personal style emerged and slowly wore away at class differences. New fabrics increased accessibility and created new kinds of clothing. The idea of sportswear, in particular, emerged during this decade and ruled as both everyday wear and high fashion. This opened up a favouring of a more androgynous and practical style.
Solid colours were most common over the course of the decade. Patterns did appear in children’s or women’s wear, though most men had at least one plaid or striped suit in their wardrobe. Favourite colours of the decade included dusty peach, rose, faded yellow, and violet; pastels dominated the world of interior design, and this was reflected in dress. Like much of the 1920s, simplicity was favoured above all else—home design, much like fashion, was clean and sleek. The dark colours of the Victorian era and the turn of the century were traded for the soft pastels of the modern world.
The solid colours allowed accessories to take centre stage. Fabric patterns gave way to coloured or accented buttons, cufflinks, and collars. Off-whites were favoured, but those who were showier would wear softly tinted colours. The contrast was not always the desired effect, and more daring men would create a monochromatic colour scheme using various shades of the same colour.
The splash of colour that came with the 1920s would be relatively short-lived, however, and fell out of style throughout the Great Depression and World War II. For the next three decades in American menswear, shape took precedence over colour as a distinguishing characteristic. Early 1930s clothing began to move towards styles that exaggerated the male form, and by the time World War II was in full action, a reserved simplicity was in effect due to wartime restrictions and increasingly conservative social norms. By the time colour re-emerged in men’s style, the memory of the extravagant 1920s was long lost. In a new age of colour enlightenment, let’s take a moment to appreciate what came before and consider pillaging 1920s menswear for some style inspiration.