General Advice for Men. (1) As previoulsy noted, authentic swing-era vintage clothing in good condition, especially in the larger sizes, can be hard to find. But don’t let that stop you – the hunt is part of the fun!
I have some nice and authentic vintage clothing items: ties, shoes, suits, jackets, pants, overcoats, etc… Depending on the dance event (and often at non-dance events when I’m about town) I like to wear vintage clothing, primarily the 1930’s or 40’s vintage look, or a vintage inspired look, if you will. My wife Mary also likes to wear vintage clothing, and we often get compliments on our clothing choices (although Mary is in no way responsible for any of my fashion mistakes!).
(2) A note of caution. Always consider the rarity and condition of your vintage clothes and how much wear and tear those vintage clothes will endure if you wear them swing dancing. For example, if you are going to a summer street dance or some other type of outdoor summer dance (where you will sweat a lot!), you probably shouldn’t wear your good vintage clothes. Stick with the vintage reproduction type clothes for those events. And of course you wouldn’t want to wear your hard to find vintage shoes on concrete or some other similar dance floor surface.
o Jackets. For jackets I prefer a vintage jacket or sport coat, or some type of vintage inspired jacket with a vintage looking pattern: a pinstripe, houndstooth, herringbone or checked type pattern, with a wide, swing-era style lapel. Generally, you want the width of your tie to be in somewhat the same proportion as your jacket lapel. Jackets are one of the items that you can sometimes find at a thrift store, Goodwill, etc…
o Suits. For suits, I prefer a 1930’s or 40’s vintage suit, either a doubled breasted or single breasted suit, preferably with a pinstripe, and with the peak and wide lapel, a very classy look! Suits can be hard to fine, especially in the larger sizes. And note you’ll need the services of a good tailor to fit almost any suit you buy second hand.
Pinstripe suits (generally grey/dark blue/brown) were worn a lot in the swing-era, but those type swing-era vintage suits can be hard to find (especially in the bigger sizes, as previously noted). If you do wear a suit, stick with the tradtional colors, and not any “over the top” colors/color combinations. Keep in mind your goal should be to dress and look vintage, and not “cartoonish”.
For summer events, I like the lighter color vintage look. And summer is the time to break out your two tone spectator shoes.
o Pants. I much prefer and most often wear vintage pants from the 1930’s40’s/early 50’s; once again, they can be hard to find in the larger sizes. Keep in mind that pants in the swing-era had a much fuller and generous cut than pants worn today.
For vintage inspired pants, I usually go for a dress pant in a solid and contrasting, but complimenary color to the jacket I wear, in either (1) a fine wool fabric (my first preference) or (2) a Microfiber or other man made material (the man made fabrics are fairly easy to find).
I sometimes wear the wide legged wool pant style, about 20-22″ around the botton. Wide legged pants have a very nice vintage look, and the wool pants with the wide legged style will normally cost more (and are harder to find). These type pants give one a nice swing-era vintage look, are a tad heavier than regular width pants, but I find they keep your legs cooler due to the increased flow of air. Note: the pants should be cuffed, not straight. If you get the pants cuffed, ask for a 1.5-2.0″ cuff; that will give the pants more of a vintage look and the increased weight will help keep the pant leg straighter.
Note you can find pants made of man made fabrics in a variety of colors, but stick to the basic classic colors. Remember, the goal is to look vintage/classy/stylish, and not “cartoonish”.
Be careful of heavy wool pants. I find that a lot of the heavy wool blend pants retain a lot of heat and sweat when dancing, although they do hold their shape. If these heavy wool blend pants get really wet, they get even more heavy. Once again, go for the wool pants with a light feel/fine blend.
Khaki or other casual type pants would seem to be a good choice for swing dancing but they really aren’t, and they generally don’t look 1930’s/40’s vintage. I find these type pants soak up sweat and rapidly lose their shape. And sweat pants, “gym” pants, cargo type pants or pajama type pants are really not appropriate for a social dance event.
Some pants made from cotton/polyester blends are nice for outdoor swing dance events. Ensure the fabric has a “light” feel to it and that it appears it will hold its shape.
I like to wear vintage swing-era 1940’s/early 1950’s ties with a “bold”, “geometric” or “art deco” type pattern and a bright color. There were a multitude of different colors used for swing-era ties. Ties from the swing-era were generally about 44-52″ in length, shorter than ties worn today and did not cover the belt buckle area (which is opposite of the general rule for today). Ties with a “geometric” or “art deco” type pattern were generally more prevelant in the mid 1940’s (generally post WW II) to about the early 50’s. Striped ties were more common in the 1930’s to the end of WW II.
Shirts. For a dress shirt, I often wear your basic white or off white dress shirt, always long sleeves, often with french cuffs, and always with a point or straight collar. (The very desirable vintage spearpoint collar shirt of the swing era is hard to find, but there are reproductions available on-line.) Dress shirts with a thin pinstripe and/or with a bit of color can sometimes be used to compliment and/or contrast with the tie/the ensemble you wear to enhance your vintage style. Beware that shirts with a lot of color or a busy pattern can be difficult to “match up” and may “over power” your ensemble. A dress shirt with french cuffs gives a very classly look, although those shirts are a bit hard to find (especially with the point or straight collar) and normally cost more. Plus you’ll need cuff links for a french cuff shirt.
Cuff links. Vintage cuff links are relatively inexpensive and are somewhat easy to find, either at vintage stores or on-line. I like cuff links from the 1920’s and 30’s; avoid cuff links newer than the early 1950’s.
Shoes. My first preference is to wear vintage swing-era shoes from the 30’s/40’s/50’s. Men’s shoe styles didn’t really change that much from about the late 1920’s to about the mid-to-late 1950’s. Along with the tie, vintage shoes can really give your outfit that vintage look. Two tone spectators (black and white, brown and white) are classic swing-era, along with spectators with a ventilated and/or mesh look. If/when you buy vintage shoes on line, make sure you check the measurements, and examine the pictures closely for condition.
Hats. Generally, I only wear hats to outdoor events. Having served in the military for over 26 years, I still can’t bring myself to wear a hat indoors! The classic fedora style of hat gives one a nice vintage look; for the summer a Panama straw hat is a nice option. And for a 1920’s Charleston look, try a boater hat. As with clothes, vintage hats from the swing-era can be expensive and hard to find.
Accessories. While you don’t want to go overboard, accessories can really add that something extra to your style. A pocket square and/or a boutineer adds a nice touch. I sometimes wear a tie bar, but I hardly ever wear a tie clip. And I don’t like tie pins, why stick a hole in your good vintage tie! For french cuff shirts, go with vintage and classic looking cuff links (see info above). A tip from my wife: when dancing, wear cuff links with a rounded edge and not a square edge; the square edge type cuff link may scratch your dance partner.
A few references:
o Everyday Fashions of the Thirties, As Pictured in Sears Catalogs, ed. JoAnne Olian.
o Everybody Fashions of the Forties, As Pictured in Sears Catalogs, ed. JoAnne Olian.
o Fit to Be Tied: Vintage Ties of the Forties and Early Fifties, Dyer, Rod, & Spark, Ron.
o 20th Century Neckties: 20th Century Neckties: Pre-1955, Roseann Ettinger.
o Gentleman’s Gazette. I’ve found this web site to be very useful for information and advice for classic men’s clothing and styling. Our society in general is casual about so many things, and men in particular often lack even the most basic understanding of clothing and styling. This web site (and a few others), my experiences in the military, and most importantly sage and learned advice from my wife Mary have helped me gain a better understanding of this subject (although my wife Mary is in no way responsbile for any of my fashion mistakes).
o Fedora Lounge. A good Facebook group about the clothing styles and culture of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s.