Top hat to trench coat: a history of menswear 1900 – 1925

History is just one thing after another, or so it’s said. And that’s how it is with menswear. In this two-parter (1925-1950 up next), Mr Londoner looks at menswear in the first half of the 20th century. Our first instalment explores a period of seismic global change and turmoil, book-ended by the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the election of Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister in 1924.


Top hats and bowlers, Cornhill, 1900. Photo by Museum of London.

Urbanisation and empire

Menswear and fashion are driven by the social setting of their times. Just think of those prudish Victorians covering up chair legs as well as real legs. This period encapsulates: three monarchs; eight PMs; growing urbanisation and industrialisation; the dawn of flight; the development of the motor car and the birth of cinema. It also includes a flu pandemic that claimed the lives of 50 million people around the globe. Geo-politically, Britain acquired a vast empire (and sowed the seeds of its undoing in the process); women won the right to vote. Communism and Fascism emerged and a catastrophic global war defined the period, promoting changes in technology, medicine, politics … and fashion.


The first gentleman of England

The three-piece suit was invented in London in the 19th century. It derives from military uniform and equestrian wear. The look was immortalised by former army officer and society dandy George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell. Brummell was an earlier influencer aka ‘The first gentleman of England’. The suit evolves into a more recognisable form during the 20th century however. The 1900s saw the birth of the Edwardian decade. The 63-year Victorian era – and some of its more restrictive social aspects – came to end with the Queen’s death in 1901.

Beau Brummell by Irena Sedlecká. Photo by @Meetmrlondoner

Fashion was changing too. Men were moving away from the boxy ‘sack suit’ of the 19th century, towards a slimmer, more tailored shape. This elongated the body and created an athletic look. Upper class men favoured the long frock coat, twinned with a top hat. Working class men wore their (or their father’s) worn-out ‘Sunday best’ suits for manual labour.

The Edwardian era was one of social conservatism. Phyllis and Walter Robbins, 1900s.

These clothes (regardless of one’s class) were all hand-made in various qualities by local tailors, who could be found across the country. Menswear was often acquired or bought second-hand (in London’s Petticoat Lane Market for example).  So it wasn’t unusual to see working class men sporting mis-matched coats and trousers. (In Beau Brummell’s day trousers and coats were always made in a contrasting material and colour). Upper-class fashion evolved too. It’s said that as the clothes-loving monarch Edward VII piled on the pounds, he undid the bottom button of his waistcoat (or vest as it’s called stateside). To this day, we leave that button undone.


Furniture makers in Curtain Rd, Hoxton, 1910. London Borough of Hackney Archives. Public Domain


George V became King in 1910. Many pictures show him in his naval uniform with his high-buttoning wool coat (a high gorge to a tailor) with a natural shoulder and brass buttons. Britons were moving about the empire in naval and merchant ships – many to build a new life beyond our shores. The Titanic sank in 1912. Naval uniforms had a huge impact on fashion. Upper class children were often dressed in elaborate bespoke sailor suits, complete with straw boaters (boaters, as the name suggests, were naval issue up until the First World War). The term ‘bespoke’ tailoring itself derives from the fact that cloth was ‘bespoken for’ by an individual customer to make a suit or a coat. British tailors eschew the term ‘jacket’.


Trench coat

Before long, many more men would be in uniform. World War One saw changes in uniform design as the fighting progressed. The French Army replaced its bright blue and red costumes with something more practical. A notable British development was the introduction of the ‘Brodie Helmet’ – or tin hat. This was designed to protect soldiers from shrapnel, as many men were dying needlessly from shell splinters from above. The initiative was that of Winston Churchill who, by 1915, was serving in the trenches himself as a Major in the Scots Guards. The war created fashion items of its own – most notably the trench coat. This stylish item was worn by British and Commonwealth officers. It was later popularised by Humphrey Bogart in 1940s films like ’Casablanca’. Classic trench coats still have metal D-rings on their belts. Their original purpose was to carry hand grenades.

Children dressed as their parents, with relatively little concession to comfort. The author’s father. Circa 1920.

After the war, many British men wanted smarter tailored clothes that fitted the body, like their uniforms – but in any colour other than khaki. Coats remained long. Suiting tended to be thick and woolly. Heavier winter and lighter summer suiting was a privilege of the monied. After the horror of the trenches people sought some light relief. Menswear became more playful. This was the era of silent film. Stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin added both humour and their own sartorial flourish into the mix.



The birth of menswear

The 1920s are seen by many as the birth of menswear. This was an age of classic elegance and sophistication. Colours tended to be muted but featured patterns. Accessories however, including ties and silk pocket squares, popped with vibrant colour.

The decade saw British influence expand across the globe. The post-war settlement and the 1919 Treaty of Versailles resulted in significant territorial gains. Britain occupied the former colonial possessions of Germany and the Ottoman Empire. A further boost to national prestige came in 1922 when the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter, resplendent in their straw hats and pale linen suits. The archaeological discovery of the 20th century had a huge impact on design, architecture and fashion in Britain and America. Think of those Art Deco buildings in Miami.

Enfield labourer Mr Sissy wears his Sunday best – a long high-buttoning coat, stiff collar and bowler hat. Enfield, 1914. Credit Sissy Lewis.

Continued economic progress reflected a growing confidence in menswear. Suits became more fitted and elegant. Coats (jackets) became shorter, collars, at least for some, become softer and more comfortable. The button-down collar became popular with fashionable and artistic young Americans, like Great Gatsby writer F Scott-Fitzgerald.


The London Cut

In Savile Row the ‘London Cut’ emerges. To this day, Savile Row suits tend to be made with a natural shoulder line, a higher armhole and narrower sleeves. But there’s room around the chest, affording comfort and freedom of movement. The London Cut ‘drapes’ across the body. Anderson & Sheppard is a present-day exemplar of the look. American suits tend to be roomier with a lower arm hole and a less-sculpted look. Just think of ex-President Trump’s billowy profile. Many US diplomats based in London tend to adopt the slimmer British look to their clothes once they’ve been here a year or two. An Italian cut, on the other hand, is much slimmer than both its American and British counterparts


By 1925, the UK elects its first Labour Prime Minster in Ramsay McDonald, having come through war and a flu pandemic. But another shock was just around the corner – in the shape of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. In our next blog, we’ll explore how this global trauma rocked the world, paved the way to another war and shaped menswear in the process.


Featured image:  A youth sells trumpets at Edward VII’s Coronation, 1902. Photo by Museum of London.



About the author:

Mr Londoner is menswear obsessive and former comms director at the Museum of London, Antony Robbins.