Why men’s suits matter: A Second World War case study


Dr Lorinda Cramer, Australian Catholic University

Some consider them a symbol of modern masculinity: a marker of business, power and authority. Others call them a uniform. More still see them as stuffy and overly formal. I’m referring, of course, to men’s suits.

Suit-wearing has a complex and fascinating history across the twentieth century, so it’s no surprise that suits occupy an important place in ‘Men’s Dress in Twentieth-Century Australia: Masculinity, Fashion, Social Change’, a research project that I’m currently working on with my colleague Associate Professor Melissa Bellanta. The project acknowledges that dress shapes gender, expresses social status and fashions identity. It explores transforming styles and how these drive technological and social change. It seeks out the impact of everyday dress and fashion on wearers’ experiences when clothing is felt on the body. So too, it investigates men’s attentiveness to their clothes, tracing a deep engagement that often slips through the cracks in Australian history. Our research ranges across men’s garments and accessories, examining how they were made, purchased and worn across the century.

Ray Olson, ‘Lithgow Series, 5 March 1942’, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Courtesy ACP Magazines Ltd, ON 388/Box 023/Item 021.

It would be impossible to write a social and cultural history of Australian men’s clothing without considering suits. They were widely worn across the first decades of the twentieth century, even as Australia’s manual labourers began to more readily embrace undershirts then singlets – now considered an icon of Australia’s working man. Those in offices, government departments and other professionals wore suits for work, despite conversations circulating around men’s ‘dress reform’. This movement called for lighter, looser clothing better suited to the environment. Suits were also worn in more relaxed weekend settings, though a growing separation between dress for the week and weekend was underway in the inter-war years as sportswear – or leisurewear – gained in popularity. Jackets and trousers, worn as separates, in a wider range of colours and patterns were eagerly adopted.

Our new article for Cultural and Social History is inspired by the intense awareness of the cultural meanings that surrounded suits during the Second World War. Enlisted men wore uniforms that signalled allegiance and rank, but male civilians on the home front were also marked by their sartorial choices. We draw on the rich evidence of suits that date from 1939 to 1944 to tease apart the ways in which these suits were deeply linked to home front masculinities.

The Second World War brought about dynamic sartorial change. Men’s suits are often assumed to alter only subtly over time. While this might be true when considered against the more rapid transformations in women’s fashions across the twentieth century, changes did occur – and this accelerated during the war years. Change was driven by the shortages in labour and materials that led to austerity measures, including rationing and clothes styling regulations. New attitudes emerged, too, that framed patriotic consumption as civilian duty against its counterpoint: the black-market clothing purchases or flouting of style regulations that variously caused resentment, frustration or anger.

‘De-Kit Store, Civilian Suit Issue, Men in De-Kit store Trying on Hats, c. 1944’, Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library Victoria, H99.201/1592.

From a freedom of choice, some complained about the ‘victory suit’ that was introduced by the Australian Government in 1942. Yet the controlled shape and silhouette of the victory suit was a measure intended to save fabric, buttons and thread for more important wartime uses. When men sought out something more fashionable – a particularly flamboyant example is found in the zoot suit worn by a young jitterbug at the popular Sydney nightspot the Trocadero ­– confusion then outrage ensued. Such fashionable impulses (what commentators would characterise as ‘selfish’ but also ‘foreign’, in this case pointing to their American origin) were thought an affront as Australia’s troop demobilisation began. A critical part of this process was the return of the uniform, with a ‘civvy suit’ issued in its place. Donning a civvy suit signalled the transition from soldier back to civilian, a shift that many men had longed for. But when civvy suits were hard if not impossible to obtain, or cheap and badly made, the impacts for returned servicemen could be profoundly felt.

The suits men wore thus mattered on Australia’s home front. That many, often emotional, responses peppered the Australian press across the war years is evidence of this. These voices underline men’s investment in their dress, helping us to move beyond the long-held assumption that Australian men cared little for what they wore. As these wartime suits prove, this was simply not the case.

Read the Cultural and Social History article


About the author: Dr Lorinda Cramer is a dress and social historian. With Associate Professor Melissa Bellanta, she is working on the Australian Research Council Discovery project ‘Men’s Dress in Twentieth-Century Australia: Masculinity, Fashion, Social Change’. Their most recently published article for this project is ‘“Clothes shall mark the man”: Wearing suits in wartime Australia, 1939–1945’ in Cultural and Social History. Other project publications include: Lorinda Cramer, ‘Rethinking men’s dress through material sources: The case study of a singlet’, Australian Historical Studies, 52.3 (2021): 420–442; Lorinda Cramer, ‘Relaxed Bodies and Comfortable Clothes: Reframing Masculinity in Post-War Australia’, Gender & History, 33.2 (2021): 390–407. Writing for the project that appears in online media includes: Lorinda Cramer, ‘The politics of the necktie – “colonial noose”, masculine marker or silk status symbol?’, The Conversation, 16 February 2021; Lorinda Cramer, ‘Dressed for success – as workers return to the office, men might finally shed their suits and ties’, The Conversation, 27 January 2021; Lorinda Cramer, ‘Friday essay: The singlet – a short history of an Australian icon’, The Conversation, 4 December 2020.

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