Some Thoughts on Men and Clothes at a Jazz Age Event

ImageIn looking through a few hundred photos of the most recent "Avalon Ball", my curmudgeonly soul was agitated by the sight of many, many men at a formal sort of event with their coats off, with hats on their heads, and sometimes with coats off AND hats on their heads.

I personally hate to play the role of clothing police, but with the thought that at least some of those men might have adhered to the rules of Jazz Age (1920s-'40s) clothing etiquette if only they had known what they were, I will lay out some quick guidelines to help inform those who feel motivated to try.

Hats
Gents should remove their hats on the dancefloor. This is hard, fast rule at a high-tone event, and even less than high-tone dance halls tried to raise the tone by getting guys to remove their hats. This rule seems to have broadly applied outdoors as well. I have numerous photos in my collection of men dancing outdoors with their hats off. (More on historical hatiquette)

When outdoors and not dancing, hats were generally worn; but were often removed by the better-bred when greeting a lady.

Coats
It was a rule of "polite society" that a gentleman wore a coat in the presence of a lady - especially on the dancefloor or the dinner table. The coats rule would be very strong at a high-tone event or at public events like dance hall or community dances in urban settings. It might be a little less pervasive in rural settings.

Why was it "polite" for a man to wear a coat? Cast your mind back to a time before antiperspirants when a man in shirtsleeves would very likely be a man with big old sweat stains on his shirt. By putting on his coat he thereby hides said wet spots and perhaps dulls his odor a bit. So, for you men who say "I can't wear a coat, it's hot", I refer you back to your sturdy, hearty grandfathers, who thought "I must wear a coat, it's hot". I have some sympathy for today's men who (unlike their grandfathers) have gone through their lives never having learned how to sacrifice comfort for decorum; but I would posit that you may be able to keep your coat on longer than you think. I would suggest removing it when you are actually feeling overheated rather than instantly as soon as you settle in to an event.

If the event is going for a sense of elegance, all will benefit from your keeping your coat on - looking more like a gentleman than a bartender in a saloon.

There would be an exception to the coats rule at informal outdoor occasions like picnics, where men in shirtsleeves were pretty frequently seen; or at the seaside where men in shirtsleeves, or even bathing suits could be observed.

A man would generally wear his coat buttoned unless he was also wearing a vest (vests were fading away in the '20s & '30s). He could button every button of his coat, but more commonly he would button the central button on a 3-button single-breasted jacket or the top button on a double-breasted one. A coat would generally be unbuttoned when sitting down.

The Necktie
There was a fashion, among some of the young, hip and cool of the Jazz Age, to wear open collared shirts but they were not the adult norm. Neckties were pervasive (I bring to mind images of guys in breadlines in tattered clothes with neckties or farmers in overalls with neckties). I would suggest wearing ties to any "vintage" dance event (along with your coat). They are a nice touch that really sets a vintage look apart from a boring old modern look.

Orders of Dress, from Most to Least Formal

"White Tie" (Evening wear)
Men must wear a formal black tail coat with a white vest, white bowtie, white shirt and black trousers. This is more uniform and inflexible than actual military uniforms.

"Black Tie" (Evening wear)
Men wear a black or white tuxedo/dinner jacket, black bowtie, white shirt, black trousers. With a black tuxedo jacket a black or white evening vest must be worn (usually black). With a white dinner jacket, a black cummerbund is an option. There are also a few "experimental" looks going around (mess jackets, pastel colored jackets etc), as well as "midnight blue" rather than black. Cummerbunds were generally not worn with black tuxes until later, but it's not a big deal if you do.

"Informal" (Day wear)
This generally meant that men wore a coat and tie. There were styles of formal day wear (morning suits, frock suits etc.) but they weren't much seen outside the upper, upper crust or weddings. A guy in a coat and tie is the basic, default setting for most men of all classes in a social setting.

"Sporting" (Day wear)
This is kind of a catch all for relaxed attire for picnics, resorts, outdoor pursuits etc. where ties and coats might be left behind and the rules relaxed. Those relaxed standards of informality then are practically formal wear for guys these days; but back then there was a sense that such relaxed attire had its place, but outside of that place the regular rules (see above) would apply.

Setting the Tone
The key in all this talk of what to do at an event is what is the tone the event is going for. Some events aim at a sense of elegance and style while others might aim at the feel of a wild teenage party (even when the partyers are perhaps not teenagers anymore) or some other less high-tone affair. However, if the intent is elegance, then gents, please try to do your part to set the tone with some basic clothing etiquette.