Did men really dress better in the past?


While visiting an office in my neighbourhood the other day, I noticed a special photograph hanging in the waiting room. It was an archival shot of a man smoking a cigar while he waited on a local street corner. The photo was taken in 1919 by street surveyors who happened to catch the man in an unguarded moment. What struck me was his clothes, which were ill-fitting and somewhat shabby. And this challenged my perception of what men wore in the first half of the 20th century. Most of my mental images arise from fashion illustrations and photos of movie stars and the wealthy. But just like today, aspirational images say little about what the average person on the street is wearing. So I spent an afternoon digging through the Toronto Archives photo library as well as digitised copies of the city’s daily newspapers to get a more realistic view of our sartorial past.


I happened to find another photo of our friend in the bowler hat and short pants that gives us a better view of his outfit. At first glance, he looks well-dressed, in leather shoes, overcoat, starched collar, tie and hat. And while the short pants may be a fashion choice (the other man’s trousers are short as well) they are more likely hand-me-downs. His overcoat features turn-back cuffs and a breast pocket, but it is hardly the shaped and fitted look I would have expected. Instead, he seems to be wearing a sack, and a dark, drab one at that. And his shoes, flat and somewhat misshapen, are made of poor quality leather, have little to no structure and are well worn, also most likely hand-me-downs.


This photo, of street work in 1911, happens to capture a man watching the labourers. Yes, he’s in a three-piece suit with a pocket watch, but he also looks quite tatty. His suit reveals something I’ve seen in a number of photos from the early to mid 20th century: that average people wore garments that were relatively shapeless and baggy. Most were made of heavy fabrics and while constructed to last, not “tailored” the way we think of it now, with a lot of shape and structure. The clothes was utilitarian and inexpensive, often handed down, well worn and rarely cleaned.

This brought to mind a tailoring practice that I’ve heard about from two sources, my father and an older Italian tailor. They both talk about “recycling” suits in the 1940s and 50s. At the time, fabric was much more expensive than labour and so when a suit started to look worn – fraying or developing a shine – a tailor would take the suit completely apart, flip the fabric over, and put the suit back together. Literally turning it inside out (at the time, most suitings were double sided, unlike today). This would give a suit a double lifetime but meant that clean, sharp lines, perfect shoulders and beautifully rolled lapels were impossible.


Poverty and scarcity, of course, played a large role in what people wore. As much as they tried to dress well, corners had to be cut. A poignant example of that reality is this photo of a Jewish peddler in Kensington Market in 1926. Many of Toronto’s early Jewish immigrants were discriminated against and forced – through policy and poverty – to live in ghettos. Basic human dignity demanded that they dress their best but poverty meant their wardrobe had to be humble.


Here is another example of the difference between perception and reality. This unknown man from 1930 is wearing a three-piece suit, wing-collar shirt and tie. But take a second look and you see that he is not actually well-dressed. The suit is casual (with two flapped, buttoned breast pockets) yet paired with a formal wing collar. The sleeves are loose and shapeless, the lapels stained, a button missing from his waistcoat. Considering his many facial scars, this man went through a lot – maybe he’s a WWI survivor. So I am not critiquing his style choices, far from it, just pointing out that people did their best within their means. In spite of his challenges, this man was still driven to dress well.


This odd picture does not come with an explanation, neither of who this man is or why he is pointing. Or what he’s pointing at. But it does reveal a few things: his pinned collar, his leather Albert watch strap, and his rather dark, drab suit. This is something I saw a lot of in archival photos, just how conservative Toronto men were in their dress. In fact, that was the topic of a number of newspaper ads and articles in the 1920s and 30s.


Above was one of the first spreads I found in either The Globe or the Toronto Daily Star dedicated with such fervour to menswear. And in it are the foundations for Toronto’s conservative dress. The image caption, for instance, states: “The button lounge suit in striped worsted, the straight tweed overcoat, the sensible hat, the modestly embroidered scarf—these are all approved in circles of good taste.” But it is the accompanying article, titled “Man of good taste exercises restraint in choosing clothes” that seems to cement the idea of sartorial conservatism. “…the average man is governed by precedent…wearing clothes which are not overdone in cut, in colour or fashion tendencies,” it states. It continues, “Accentuated styles are not for him.” But only a decade later, Toronto’s newspapers and menswear stores were complaining about this very same restraint.


This article from the Toronto Daily Star in 1938 complains about the very thing the previous article celebrated. R.V. Collier, one of King Street’s prominent tailors, says that even if a new suit, with a new design, would make a man look better, he “will balk like a frightened horse if he thinks his new suit will be a sensation.” He continued, “a man is afraid of looking conspicuous, and arousing comment from acquaintances by wearing an out-of-the-ordinary suit.” According to Collier, “out of the ordinary” is a suit not in gray, gray blue, browns and greens “in softer tones.”


I also found many advertisements in the 1930s urging Toronto men to be more daring with their clothing, which clearly indicates how conservative they were. In fact, what I found quite familiar were the many style guidance books being offered, like the one above from Eaton’s in 1937. Much like today, it seems that guys eighty years ago needed support and encouragement if they were to dress well (or at least, dress fashionably). And it is of course from many of these style books and their illustrations that we get our concepts of menswear in the 1920s and 30s. But as I’ve pointed out, these were published to try to push a conservative audience towards stylishness, not actually reflect that audience’s style.


I will admit, however, that I did not find endless photos of dark and drab clothing. That was relegated, almost exclusively, to the working class of Toronto at the time. The more moneyed, not surprisingly, could afford to dress better and did. The photo above of Doctor Allan Roy Dafoe (right) in 1934, the obstetrician famous for helping deliver the Dionne quintuplets, shows some sartorial diversity. The suitings are at least not dark colours and even have patterns. While the tailoring is nothing special, the colour combinations do remind me of some of those fashion illustrations of the time. Interesting too that Dr. Dafoe chose to button only the bottom button.


But this final photo is Toronto’s rare sartorial splendour in full display. Taken on the boardwalk of Sunnyside Pavilion in 1931, this was part of a fashion series focusing on women. However, in this instance, it is the man who is in focus. He could very well have stepped out of an Apparel Arts illustration of the time. Look at him in contrast to the gentleman on his left: our dandy’s shoes and trousers are very similar but the contrast with the overcoat is stunning. And not just the light colour, but the fabulous textured pattern of the overcoat. It is well tailored and not too baggy. What I love most are the gloves, which I assume to be yellow or cream, a very popular look at the time (that should make a comeback). He is wearing what looks like a soft collared shirt and a light coloured tie, which also makes him look more casual and rakish. And finally the hat. In contrast to every other dress hat in the photo, his is light coloured and looks very well constructed, based on the lovely curl of his brim. He’s even wearing it at a rakish angle.

Clearly, such a small, local sample of photos and articles cannot definitively answer the question of whether or not men dressed better in the past than they do today. Some things I can say, however. For instance, style-wise, there are similarities: most Torontonian guys, then and now, dress conservatively and try not to stand out (in spite of our sartorial freedom). But it is the differences that I find remarkable. I would say that today the vast majority of the city’s men wear much newer, cleaner clothes than in the past. Also, the quality of the clothes has greatly decreased, especially when it comes to durability. The other big difference is why we wear what we do. While in the past, people of all social classes aspired to dress in the mode of British formal wear, we now favour the look of the 20th century’s working classes or the sportswear of athletes. Lost in this equation is, of course, elegance.

As I’ve written before, I do not want to return to the past. In terms of social justice alone, most of us are in a much better place (but with a lot of work ahead of us). However, there are two lessons I draw from these photos. First is that we can try to dress our best, regardless of our means. That dignity—not social pressures or a colonial class system—can inspire us to present our best selves to the world. And second, we should take full advantage of the sartorial freedom we do have to introduce more personality, expression and style into what we wear. Restraint is at the heart of elegance, it’s true, but restraint does not mean dark clothes all the live long day.

As an aside, my interest in Toronto’s sartorial history began while researching my first book, to be published September 2017 by Figure 1 Books. It looks at the history of Hogtown from the windows of the country’s oldest custom tailor, Walter Beauchamp (formerly “Beauchamp & How”). Here is a sneak preview of the book’s cover: