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  • Words by Mr G. Bruce Boyer

The years of the Great Depression, which started just months before the 1930s began and lasted until the beginning of WWII a decade later, saw the most staggering disruption to the fabric of life. Soon after the New York stock market collapsed on 18 September 1929, the world of the Bright Young Things and the Jazz Babies, the Harlem Renaissance and A Moveable Feast, and the drinking dens of Mayfair, Montmartre and Broadway came crashing down. Despite this, truly modern men's clothing was invented during that turbulent decade and was created, worn, and disseminated across the globe.

An Anderson & Sheppard man's wool suit, 1935.
Collection of Steven Hitchcock

The fashionable clothing of the 1930s represents incredible stylistic achievements, as well as technical innovation. The decade's new clothes clearly reflected the era's streamlined art moderne aesthetic: garments were softer, minimally ornamented, elegantly proportioned, and thus markedly different from the stiff, heavy, padded, and yet rather shapeless garments worn by the Edwardians. Ironically the major sources of inspiration for these new, sleek and perfectly proportioned designs were historical references, mainly from the classical world.

London and Naples were the cities where, in order to get away from the heavy, straight-cut, Edwardian tailoring, sartorial experimentation took place. Although the results are ostensibly similar, the innovators in these two cities set out with different intentions and came up with different results. Eight decades later both approaches - we may now call them schools - are still very much with us.

Art-Deco dreams of motion and mobility, of streamlining, of high style and energy, were all part of the new clothing of the 1930s

The Drape cutting developed in London created the vital look that was the beau idéal of an age interested in a youthful, healthy appearance. And the approach found a legion of followers, particularly when it attracted the attention of the-then Prince of Wales (later the Duke of Windsor, and a customer of Mr Scholte) and his brothers, and Hollywood film stars such as Messrs Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Fred Astaire. By 1935 the London lounge look was all over the pages of men's magazines.

The London tailors had adapted a military model to accomplish their new style. For the Neapolitans the modern was achieved in a totally different way, a way that we perhaps understand better today than when it was first conceived. In a word, what the Neapolitan tailors did was to deconstruct the Edwardian garments, rather than reconstruct them. A few important men, starting with the visionary retailer Mr Gennaro Rubinacci and his tailor Mr Vincenzo Attolini, began to experiment by removing the heavy padding of the highly structured garments. And in doing so devised the lightweight, semi-constructed jacket we know today, and which is more akin to a shirt than an Edwardian jacket.

How Messrs Rubinacci, Attolini, and the other Neapolitan tailors came to achieve this is partly a matter of speculation. Obviously the warmer weather in southern Italy encourages lighter-weight cloths and clothing, but although the lifestyle in Naples was more casual than in London it was just as aristocratically elegant and refined in attitude. Also crucial is the tradition of the fine Italian hand, which reigned supreme in Naples, a city of craftsmen; Neapolitan artisans catering for aristocratic male tastes had made the city a special stop on the Grand Tour for generations.

A classic Neopolitan jacket in silk thussor by Rubinacci and tailored by Vincenzo Attolini, 1930s. Lent by the Rubinnaci Museum

Art-Deco dreams of motion and mobility, of streamlining, of high style and energy, and of experimental science and craftsmanship, were all part of the new clothing of the 1930s. It was a culture that sought to jettison the stiff, Old World proprieties and replace them with elegance, youth and energy. Eighty years on it's a set of intentions that feels entirely contemporary.

Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s runs until 19 April at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. fitnyc.edu