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February 20, 2013

In Review: Vintage Menswear


While perusing fashion books, I came across an incredibly intriguing book, Vintage Menswear: A Collection from the Vintage Showroom. As the title indicates, the book is a selection of 150 pieces from the collection of the Vintage Showroom, a world-renowned archive of vintage clothing and accessories.

Cover of Vintage Menswear: A Collection from the Vintage Showroom

From their website, “the Vintage Showroom Ltd was formed in 2007 to house an ever growing archive of vintage showroom and accessories collected by co-founders Douglas Gunn and Roy Luckett. The Vintage Showroom has become one of the leading resources for vintage menswear in the UK, with the archive covering the early mid 20th century and specialising in international work, military and sports clothing, classic English tailoring and country wear.” Much like the collection, the book focuses on three areas, each given a chapter – Sports & Leisure, Military, and Workwear.

Table of Contents

The first chapter attempts to remind the reader that before World War II, sporting events and other leisurely pursuits were primarily the occupation of the higher classes and the garments that went along with them were a mark of class distinction. They hearken back to a time when pieces were designed for function before fashion.

Chapter 1: Sports & Leisure

The wide range of showcased items include an Oxford University boxing blazer from the 1930s, a cable-knit sports sweater (what we would now call a cricket sweater) from the mid-50s, as well as some Belstaff and Barbour motorcycle jackets from the 1950s and 1960s. There are pictures of aviation, hunting, mountaineering, and varsity jackets and trousers along with garments for nearly every other leisurely activity of the early 20th century.

Castell & Son University Boxing Blazer, 1930s

Harrods Cable-knit Sports Sweater. mid-1950s

The second chapter seeks to show the dramatic influence that military clothing has had on the development of casual menswear. Looking at the pictures, it is easy to see the correlation. Many of the UK’s most esteemed houses such as Burberry, Belstaff, and Gieves & Hawkes have a storied history that includes military clothing. The popularity of the military surplus market shows that function and durability are still important factors when it comes to clothing.

Chapter 2: Miltary

What makes this section interesting is the vast array of pieces specifically designed for different functions like paratrooper jump smocks, buoyancy suits, flight jackets, and cold-weather parkas. These utilitarian garments are excellent examples of how far things have progressed and how much has remained relatively unchanged.

Gieves Ltd Royal Navy Grouping, 1910s

US Military Aviator's Kit Bag, 1940s

The final chapter covers what was once a specialty field – workwear. In the first half of the twentieth century, a man’s occupation could be clearly identified by the clothes he wore while working. There were specific garments that could distinguish a street sweeper from a train engineer or a factory worker. Each had what amounted to a uniform that was worn only while on the clock. Some pieces were homemade but nearly all were altered or repaired both to increase their life as well as improve their function.

Chapter 3: Workwear

Featured items include 1920s and 1930s French work jackets as well as a British railway conductor’s jacket and an American fireman’s jacket from the 1950s. What is remarkable to see is the patchwork and alterations made by the owner as well as the specific aspects of the garments that persist into contemporary clothing. Let’s not forget that Levi’s started out making denim work pants for miners in the late 1800s and are now one of the most recognizable clothing brands in the world.

Unknown Brand Work Jacket, 1930s

John Hammond & Co Railway Conductor's Jacket, 1950s

What I really like about this book is that each picture is accompanied by a description. Not just of the item, but also some historical context. When it comes to history of any kind, context and perspective are the keys to comprehension and I found it to be incredibly helpful that the authors chose to include just such historical context. In a world of high-tech and high-performance fabrics and highly engineered garments, it is important to remember that not too long ago waxed cotton was the height of waterproofing technology.

Belstaff Trialmaster Motorcycle Jacket, 1960s

Another aspect that drew my attention to this book specifically is that it is not just a picture book of designer pieces like most vintage books are. In fact, very few of what could be considered designer garments are included when it would have been quite easy to capitulate to the appetite for labels. Nearly every century old fashion house had humble beginnings but there are countless others that did not make the transition to or survive in the world of contemporary sportswear and it is nice to see a catalogue of garments chosen solely for their merit rather than the label sewn inside.

Moss Bros & Co Ltd Officer's Trench Coat, 1930s-1940s

Though it is certainly different in Europe, as a young country that was literally built by blue-collar workers, American menswear owes much of its existence to the very workwear and military clothing that is showcased in this book. Fashion is cyclical. The trends of the past will inevitably experience a resurgence and the clothing of one social class will perpetually be appropriated and adapted by another. Knowing that, it is easy to see why designers from all over the world seek out the vast collection housed at the Vintage Showroom for inspiration and I am excited to be given a glimpse, however small it may be, into the authentic history espoused therein.

Detail of a Hand-repaired French Work Jacket, 1920s

Lastly, I have to express my appreciation to Gunn and Luckett for seeking out and preserving these rapidly disappearing pieces of cultural history. Unlike metal and wood, fabric does not favorably endure the passage of time. Over the course of history, the garments of the lower classes were worn until they fell apart and those of the upper classes were repurposed to suit the needs of the lower. This makes clothing one of the more difficult pieces of history to find and preserve and without people like the gentlemen of the Vintage Showroom, many of these incredible garments would be lost to history forever.

Stay stylishly informed,
- JJ

Vintage Menswear: A Collection from the Vintage Showroom by Josh Sims, Douglas Gunn, and Roy Luckett. Published by Laurence King Publishing Ltd in 2012. Hardcover; 304 pages; MSRP $50.

2 comments:

  1. I love vintage clothing of all kinds but there are relatively few good resources on vintage menswear. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, it looks fascinating and I've just ordered a copy.

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  2. Glad you found it helpful! You're right, there are far too few solid vintage menswear references. So many of the books on period menswear are illustrations and fashion plates and the three categories this book focuses on are usually neglected. Hope you enjoy the book, and thanks for reading!

    - JJ

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