New York Fashion Week may showcase the latest men's collections, but menswear would hardly be what it is today without the innovations of the 1930s (stick with us here). If you're in NYC this week, you can see examples from both eras at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where the new exhibition "Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930's," opens today.
The intimate show on the ground floor of the building features both haute couture and bespoke tailoring as seen in 80 looks on mannequins plus 30 accessories—all displayed in glass casings from FIT's own archives and private lenders. One must-see is Fred Astaire's extensive shoe collection, including incredible crocodile slip-ons, oxfords, and wing-tip derby brogues.
"The entire presentation is a celebration of the most innovative and forward-thinking decade in the history of menswear," says curator G. Bruce Boyer. This was a key decade in menswear, one that ushered in dramatic changes to double-breasted jackets, colored suits (in rich burgundies, sumptuous navy blues, and deep greens), and softer, more wearable materials.
Boyer attributes some of these phenomena to the end of World War I and the recognition that men wanted a more comfortable way to dress. "Before the war, men were wearing heavy coats," he says. "In the thirties they realized that they needed to get out and play sports. They needed functional menswear that they could move in."
The result was a dramatic cut of suits that made men look strong, emulating the power of the military man, introduced by the British. "It was emphasizing broad shoulders, the chest, and having a cinched waist," he said. Boyer also attributes sartorial influence to the Italians in Naples, who understood the need for more freedom and movement.
"Unlined, they took out shoulder pads, made the coats lighter, softer, and shirts much less starch-heavy—it's the Neapolitan way," he says. "We see that Armani did this much later, but it started in this decade." One '30s Neapolitan staple was daytime overcoats sculpted like a business suit, and the soft tailoring and relaxed chest deconstruction remain as two basic tenets of Italian dressing today.
And then there's the predominance of tweed, a material that functioned as a social leveler in casual and sports clothes thanks to the British, Boyer says. By the end of the decade, men wore suits and jackets for golf, hunting, fishing, and even hiking. The best example of this: the Henry Poole tweed Norfolk jacket with its reinforced vertical straps.
Other great innovations from the decade: camelhair "pole" overcoats and a shorter, slimmer, more revealing swimsuit. "It wasn't all about being dressed all the time," Boyer says. "The men realized they needed to get vitamin D in their system, so this is a time period where the trunk and showing skin was something new."
"Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashion of the 1930s" at The Museum at FIT; Seventh Avenue at 27th Street; February 7-April 19; Tues-Fri noon-8 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Sunday, Monday and legal holidays; fitnyc.edu; Free.
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