Beyond Overalls 3

History 101: All Things “Manly” in Chesterfield’s Fashion Past

Have you ever heard of a "Spinart?" Probably not. In fact, I’m fairly certain that it was a word made up by someone in my family. It was what my great-grandparents called a man who was kind of a flashy dresser or show off in the fashion department. Thus someone sporting a jaunty hat or a new pocket watch might be met with, “Well, aren’t you a Spinart?”

One might think that in a small farming community such as Chesterfield, people were too far removed from urban society to care about fashion. Perhaps we think time was too precious for such folly because of the nature of farming in an era of less mechanization, more manual labor and a “sun-up to sun-down” work schedule; that is true to some extent. Without technology as an aid, those with other professions such as storekeepers and business owners also worked longer hours. Books were kept manually, inventory was not mechanized and correspondence was written on manual typewriters or by hand. But, of course, people didn't have emails to catch up on, Facebook pages to update, Twitter feeds to follow or television shows to binge watch either. People of any era or location still had the desire to feel fashionable. While fashion might not have been at the top of the priority list, it certainly wasn't an entirely dismissed element of society.

Looking through the photographic archive of Chesterfield is perhaps the best way to gauge the fashions of a particular time period. Early photographs were mostly taken in studios for formal occasions so one can see the proper fashions of the day. It wasn’t until the early 20th century when home cameras became commonplace that you begin to see casual, everyday clothing.

Photographs from the late 1800s show men in formal three piece suits, such as the wedding photograph of Chesterfield residents Henry Kummer and Rosa Sahm from 1895. Men’s shirtwear of the day required a rather uncomfortable looking starched collar. However, since clothing was washed much less frequently than we do today, collars were a removable item that buttoned onto the back of the shirt at the neck, allowing only the soiled collar to be washed with some frequency.

As an interesting side note to this photograph, if you look closely near the gentleman’s feet, you’ll see what looks like the foot of a fan or similar object. These were actually stands placed beyond photography subjects that would hold them at the waist, rendering them less mobile. Any movement in an early photograph would cause a blur, given the long exposure times of early cameras.

Early photographs such as this also show fairly polished hairstyles. I remember once asking my great-grandmother how people styled their hair like that, in a slicked backed manner, before commercial styling products were available. Her answer?  Lard. Yes, that’s right. And if that seems a little odd, women used sugar water to create intricate hairstyles before hairspray. In an era where hair was not frequently washed, it is no wonder that we also hear of bed bugs and lice as a more frequent problem in the past.

Mr. Kummer is also sporting quite a dashing moustache. While facial hair on men has revolved in and out of vogue, even seeing a current reemergence, facial hair was a personal choice as it is now. Looking through other photographs from Chesterfield, one can tell that moustaches were quite a trend during this late 1800 period. By the beginning of the 20th century though, it seems to be mostly older men sporting a “lip sweater”–perhaps a carryover from their younger days. Most active, young farmers kept a clean shave, most likely to avoid facial hair turning into a dust catcher or something even more dangerous– getting caught in farm machinery.  Of course, not all of Chesterfield’s residents were farmers and those with less physical jobs might be seen sporting a “nose neighbor”, such as Joseph Schwenk, a mail carrier in Chesterfield.

Once again I’m reminded of an object that fascinated me as a child; as décor in one of our bathrooms, my mom had placed a mug and big brush. The fascinating part is that inside the mug still lay a round of shaving soap from when my great-grandfather had used it. We had quite a few antiques in our house, but few of them had remnants of their original materials in the them. Having watched my Dad use a modern razor and shaving cream out of a can, I was shocked to learn that this is how men used to shave, using a straight blade no less!

Another mainstay of men’s fashion were suspenders. Like facial hair, they seem to go in and out of style, alternating with belts as a method of keeping men’s pants up. However, there was a time when belts were primarily a military item. Suspenders were the rule of the day. Men’s pants generally had a higher waistline and looser fit than they do today, so a belt might have an awkward fit. Suspenders allowed pants to hang properly and could also be adjusted a bit for length without needing alteration. Belts eventually came into style, particularly for casual wear, around World War I.

By the 1920s, casual wear for men became more popular. Men had both work clothes and formal clothes, but now also casual wear which was generally pants, a shirt with a fixed collar, perhaps a sweater and some type of hat—usually a fedora in the 1920s. While it’s quite a long way from today's denim jeans, cargo shorts and polo shirts, most men still dressed more formally than we would today. We even have a photograph of my great-grandfather fishing with three friends… in suit pants, vest and a necktie! 

I’m sure any sports fan can also notice a marked change in the fashion of the day. West County folks took their sports seriously enough to have uniforms. My grandfather played for the Creve Coeur baseball team. The uniform doesn’t look that different than some of the uniforms of today that try to emulate a retro appearance. But look closely at the shoes he is wearing. Not quite the scientifically designed athletic shoes of today. Thinking perhaps my grandfather had just forgotten to bring his shoes when the photos were taken, I searched for a few other old Chesterfield baseball photos and sure enough, they all wore what appear to the modern eye as dress shoes. How did they run in those?

Perhaps what I find most surprising is the resurgence of men’s fashions from the past. Numerous companies are recreating the lost art of menswear. Everything from shirts and jeans to pocket watches, people are seeking out products that are handmade, of high quality and constructed in the USA. Hopefully it is a sign that people have begun to value the past. Maybe what’s old is new again; history often repeats itself–even in the men's fashion arena.

If you have memories, comments or suggestions for future topics, please email Aimee at aimee@thehistorychick.com