Thanks to the magpie inclinations of artist Mr Tom Phillips, we can enjoy a fabulous cavalcade of historic masculine style in his new book, MENSWEAR: Vintage People on Photo Postcards. Some 200 images dating from the early 1900s to the late 1940s are included. The men are ordinary fellows, for the most part, captured for posterity in one of the hundreds of photographic studios that peppered every high street before personal cameras were common.
This marvellous collection reveals the care with which ordinary, everyday men took over their outfits. The subjects clearly show a considered approach to how they presented themselves to the world. Even allowing for the fact that many obviously wore their "Sunday best" in the studio, there is an astonishing attention to detail.
Notably different from our day are the number of hats, from flat tweed caps and rigid boaters to respectable bowlers. Most men are wearing waistcoats, usually decorated with their pocket watch chain (wristwatches were thought an effeminate affectation back then). Many carry walking canes. There is an incredible variety of high, stiff shirt collars - very Boardwalk Empire. There are some beautiful examples of that almost-forgotten wardrobe staple, the full, long overcoat. And every pair of footwear - usually boots, not shoes - is highly polished.
We do not know the identity of these dapper men. Where known, the name and location of the studio is given, and for a handful of postcards - which were produced for a penny - further details such as messages, complete with erratic spelling and punctuation, are listed at the back of the book. Tantalisingly, few of the cards are dated, so we must guess at the year they were taken. In 1902 the British Post Office allowed messages as well as addresses to appear on the backs of regulation-sized cards that cost only a halfpenny to post, so that's the starting point.
MENSWEAR: Vintage People on Photo Postcards is published by Bodleian Library Publishing.
Mr Tom Phillips RA (tomphillips.co.uk) has collected postcards for decades. In his Georgian terraced house in Camberwell, his collection of 50,000 cards is neatly arranged by subject in ring binders. MENSWEAR is the sixth in a series of books from the Bodleian Library that features selections from the archive.