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Do Spats Skip a Century?

Hooman Majd on the sartorial clout of 1901

It’s been said that today, fashion moves in thirty-year or so cycles, based on the premise that since most fashion is dictated by thirtysomethings, they look to styles that were around at the time they were young. If that were always true, we’d be witnessing a revival of homburgs and spats for about the fourth time, the dawn of the twentieth century would be back in vogue, and jeans—even the replica late-nineteenth-century styles with suspender buttons—would only be seen on workmen.

There may be only a small element of truth to the cycle theory, but what is all too true is that styles return with a reliable frequency, that fashion repeats itself, and that what looks good today will look goofy tomorrow but perhaps très chic thirty years later. Or maybe 111 years later.

The thirtysomething fashion dictators never copy their predecessors exactly: What they produce is an idealized imitation, idealized for today’s sensibility. Otherwise, the cast of Mad Men would look less like Thom Browne outfitted them, and the admen’s suits would fit more like sacks.

Interestingly, we are seeing some evidence of early-twentieth-century style making a comeback today, at least among Williamsburg bartenders—who might pass for extras from Downton Abbey or Boardwalk Empire—and other Brooklyn hipsters. We see touches in the clothes, even more in the hairstyles and moustaches and beards, but it still seems unlikely that gentlemen will ever return to the strict sartorial formality of yester-yesteryear. They may wear contrasting collars but will undoubtedly forgo the shirts, stiff as boards, that buttoned in the back. Without a valet, a man could never make it to dinner, or his job serving cocktails at a zinc-topped bar actually built in 1901.

In 1901, “casual Fridays” were generations away, but a more casual wardrobe was becoming accepted. For everyday business wear, men’s three-piece wool suits were becoming de rigueur, replacing the cutaway frock coats and striped trousers that denoted a serious, trustworthy man.

The new suit consisted of matching high-chested sack coat, waistcoat and trousers, by now perhaps sporting cuffs (introduced by the Prince of Wales), worn with shirts that had high, stiff collars, which were separate from the starched body—as were the cuffs—for ease of washing. The shirts were almost always white (stripes were strictly for informal occasions), but the fabric depended on the size of your wallet. A tie, then known as a cravat, or an ascot, completed the look.

Despite changes in etiquette, no gentleman’s closet lacked formal wear, which meant tails, vests, winged collars and bow ties for most evening occasions and, although it was still daring in public, a tuxedo or dinner jacket to wear instead of tails at one’s club or for a dinner at home. In 1901, there was no question that one dressed for dinner and that day wear was unacceptable.

Some men persisted in wearing tails at work—older executives and, oddly, hotel and store clerks—but they were disappearing in the United States. However, a morning coat and striped trousers, as well as a top hat, would have to also be considered as essential for globetrotters, as they were still considered appropriate day wear in most of Europe. The double-breasted frock coat was dying a slow fashion death, but it lingered on the backs of dandies, in the manner of the recently deceased Oscar Wilde, who wore his with a bright kerchief in a nonstandard breast pocket.

Turn-of-the-century leisure wear might consist of a flannel blazer, with patch pockets, for sporting events (yes, one wore a jacket and tie sailing and golfing) and a Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers for shooting. That jacket was usually tweed, with box pleats over the chest and back and a fabric belt, and is one item of menswear from 1901 that has survived intact, seen mostly on England’s great country estates and enjoying a Downton Abbey–induced revival. It was worn with high boots, as opposed to the everyday ankle boots worn with almost everything else, and sometimes accompanied by spats. Ankle boots are very 2012, but spats are still an exceedingly rare sight on the runway.

Gents of 1901 topped every look with a hat. One didn’t leave the house without one—and increasingly one doesn’t in New York hipster circles. In 1901, it was a homburg, or perhaps a bowler or derby, with almost all outfits except the most formal, which were only topped with top hats. Fedoras abound today, and the homburg, between Boardwalk Empire and Andre 3000 of Outkast, just might.

There are signs that casual may have bottomed out, and once unthinkable items are being tried out again. Top hats? Nothing says I’m a tycoon more!