In association with The National Archive Hardy Amies in a bowler hat Hardy Amies in a bowler hat

Utility suits and cloth caps: men’s fashion in 1939

Despite the functional and affordable dress of the Great Depression, many 1930s men still found the time to dress up

The shape of men's fashion in 1939 had largely come about as a result of the Great Depression, which did away with the showy cuts and fabrics of the 1920s and comprised more basic styles and affordable fabrics. During the War, with fabric on the ration, male wardrobes became even less ostentatious.

In spite of this, the stars of the silver screen were a great inspiration to many British men during the War, with the sharp styling of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney being emulated – to varying degrees of success – around the British Isles.

Most men wore suits during the thirties regardless of their occupation, although younger men often shunned the suit in favour of jumpers and sports jackets accompanied by flannel trousers. On warmer days trousers could be substituted for shorts, but sleeveless pullovers were still a necessity to hide the appearance of braces, which were considered “common”. 

On warmer days trousers could be substituted for shorts, but sleeveless pullovers were still a necessity to hide the appearance of braces, which were considered “common”
Advertisement for mens evening clothes by Austin Reed's of Regent Street.

Advertisement for mens evening clothes by Austin Reed's of Regent Street. Image: © Illustrated London News LtdMary Evans

During the ‘30s suits and trousers were closer cut than previous years, supposedly to save on material. A prominent cut at the time was the “London Drape”, a suit that promised to show off the popular “V” figure of the time, modelled by the likes of Fred Astaire and Cary Grant. However wartime restrictions on wool and fabrics meant that the production of suits like the drape soon gave way to the more basic “Utility Suit”, an uninspiring mix of wool, synthetic fibres and a lack of cuffs and any other unnecessary embellishment.  

During the ‘30s suits and trousers were closer cut than previous years, purportedly to save on material. A prominent cut at the time was the “London Drape”, a suit that promised to show off the popular “V” figure of the time, modelled by the likes of Fred Astaire and Cary Grant.

Trench coats and fedoras were adopted by many people after being seen being worn in the movies. For the more conservative, the royal family also provided fashion inspiration. The soft, traditional Homburg, popularised by King Edward VII, was increasingly replacing top hats at formal events and the popularity of single breasted suits, Windsor knots and cutaway collars were all attributed to the King, as well as colourful Fair Isle knits and shorts. The upper classes also followed the royal lead by relaxing their fashion at the outbreak of war.

'...shed rain, repel water, hold shape better, wear longer...'

'...shed rain, repel water, hold shape better, wear longer...' Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

The king’s penchant for cloth “newsboy” caps previously only worn by the working classes helped to diminish class distinctions in the fashion world. The emphasis on functional and basic clothes production during austerity led to the fashion divide between the social classes become less distinct. Once conscription came into effect at the end of the decade, uniforms meant that people were more immediately identified by rank than class. 

Main image: Hardy Amies in a bowler hat. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library/Hardy Amies London