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Aug 21, 2013

Dreaming about 1920's men's shirts

Readers, what is it about 1920's men's shirts that makes them so alluring?

It's hard to separate the shirt from the homoerotic imagery of illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, whose artwork was so often used to advertise American menswear during this period.   Check out this Pinterest board and you'll immediately know what I'm talking about.  Be still my heart!

So I was excited to find this shirt pattern recently on eBay.

I'm almost certain it's from the early 1920's (because of the "Deltor" in the title) even though roughly the same pattern had been around for decades.  Mine originally sold for 40 cents (or 1 cent at Joanne sales).

Here's one (for sale by New Vintage Lady on Etsy) that was priced at only 15 cents.  Notice how similar these Buttericks are.

And here's another.  This one sold for 25 cents: presumably it's later than the one above but earlier than mine.  A slightly different collar shape is the only difference I notice -- you?  (Tie shape/length too)

I originally read about these shirts over at the fascinating blog Unsung Sewing Patterns.  (Also here.)  They were often called outing shirts or negligee shirts.  They had either separate left and right front pieces like most modern dress shirts (called a coat closing back then), or were made from a single front piece with a center placket and were pulled over the head like nightshirts.  The collar is detachable.

I made a late-Thirties shirt with a detachable collar a few years ago.  Honestly, I never wear it with the collar but it was still fun to make.

My 1920's Butterick shirt pattern should arrive in the mail any day now.  I'm excited.

Have you ever made a shirt -- or any clothes -- from this pre-Thirties period?  I've grown to love Twenties styles (for men and women), many of which look more modern and wearable to me than the fashions of the Fifties.

In other news, I'll be gone for the next few days but hope to be back on the weekend to continue my other Twenties project, the kimono robe and women's pajamas.

Enjoy the rest of the week!

(For you insatiable Leyendecker fans, this tumblr.)


  1. Why is everyone always so surprised that folk of other time periods were sexy? Although I admit that the 1600s "pyramid" silhouette is less than appealing to me, personally, than, say ... the 1820s, or the 1500s, or anytime that men showed off their legs.

    1. You're right. Do we know that Moses DIDN'T look like Charlton Heston? ;)

  2. I know exactly what you mean about 1920s men's shirts. For me, the allure lies in the rolled up sleeves, just like in that first picture - but I've no idea why.

    Like you, I realised some time ago that clothes from the 1920s are very wearable and generally very simple in design (i.e. easy to make). I plan to make virtually an entire wardrobe based on designs from this period - kimono robes, jackets, shift dresses, pants. I've been collecting patterns for some time. For inspiration, I've been watching the BBC TV series "House of Eliott', which is about two sisters who set up a couture fashion house in London in the 1920s. Both the women's and men's clothes are to die for.


  3. More on Leyendecker:
    No matter which way way Leyendecker 'swung', when I look at those illustrations I see where Ralph Lauren got HIS inspiration, especially his advertisements. Rich, white, aspirational -- and perhaps all fashion is aspirational but all of Leyendecker's illustrations in terms of men's clothing are in places and activities taht only the rich and entitled participated in - college, locker rooms, clubs, offices, formal parties, shooting, etc.

  4. Have to agree, the guy in that first picture - totally eye candy!

  5. Ah, male beauty, so intriguing, so appealing, so unexpected and seductive! I had never thought about this era for men's clothing, so this was an interesting post, Peter. I love all the relaxed clothing that women wore, I will now have to attend more to the men's fashions of this era. The clothing is so wearable, and yet not sloppy looking like sweat pants and tee shirts!

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  7. I haven't seen or heard that word "Deltor" in years. My mother used that word and so did I when I first learned to sew. What do they call it now?

  8. I love those 20's illustrations soooo much! Do you know if there's a book on the work of this J.C. Leyendecker?

    1. There was one put out in the mid-70s and long out of print. They now sell for several hundred dollars a copy, but most of what is known about Leyendecker is available on the web. He led a very private life, and there was evidently a rift with his brother (also a talented illustrator) and sister caused by their disapproval of his relationship with his boyfriend, Charles Beach. Beach was originally Leyendecker's model, later becoming intimately involved with him and still later serving as a recruiter for (male) models. Among those models was Neil Hamilton, who later became a stage and film star. Hamilton may be familiar to you as Commissioner Gordon on the old "Batman" TV series in the '60s. Leyendecker's relationship with Beach also caused a rift with Leyendecker's disapproving pupil, Norman Rockwell. Rockwell illustrated just one Saturday Evening Post cover shy of Leyendecker's total in deference and in tribute to the master. Sadly, Leyendecker's popularity began to slip in the late '30s. He was by all accounts fabulously wealthy as the most popular illustrator of his time, but his estate was in distress when he died in the '50s. After his death, there was an estate sale where everything from the props in his studio to actual paintings and sketches were up for grabs for practically nothing. What didn't sell was presumably destroyed, so little valued was illustration art

  9. Mmmmm...what a wonderful pinterest site!

    I've made theater costumes (various), Renaissance (Italian and British) and Victorian. I didn't use patterns, I drafted my own based on photos of old portraits in the History of Costume. I've never sewn twenties men's wear, but I'm currently considering it.

  10. Ah! How good the 20s were to men. Too bad they didn't look as good for women!

  11. Peter, thank you for the Leyendecker pictures. There's quite a lot to appreciate there.

  12. Homoerotic indeed!

    *fans self*

    1. You said it, sister.

  13. As it happens I was at a 1920s themed summer party two weeks ago and rushed to finish a shirt for it. Light blue and white striped body with white detachable club collar and cocktail cuffs - based on an old Charvet shirt. Not a single person remarked upon it (philistines).

    All those Leyendecker illustrations are fantastic, especially his work for Arrow. The men are depicted in a better way than the L. Fellows drawings, they look youthful and vigorous. We don't bat for the same team Peter, but I know a good-looking chap when I see one (in the mirror...not) ;)

  14. RE: Beautiful men's shirts of the 20s
    Remember the scene in the Great Gatsby, when Daisy pulls out all of Jay Gatsby's bespoke shirts and begins to cry? Crisp linen is powerful stuff!

  15. Many men in more conservative profess still wore detachable celluloid collars on these shirt, for work. My grandmother kept some of them, and I saw them when she passed....boy, did they look uncomfortable!

  16. I LOVE the 1920s. I never understood what the hype was with all the 50s sewing (which a lot of it reminds me of "housewife" garments) when the glorious, glamorous 1920s is almost ignored.

    Do you watch Boardwalk Empire? That is probably the most inspiring show to me as sewist. I could drool over Margaret's clothes all day long.

  17. I love to make men's shirts, simply because the details are so unique, and appreciated by the wearer, and those who notice his shirts. Because there are so many bland men's shirts in the world, when you do something unique, boy, does it get appreciated!

  18. Wow, Peter, thank you for this post! I thoroughly enjoyed the Leyendecker illustrations.

    I've been following your blog for a while. I finally have the courage to unlurk and say thank you for your enthusiasm and work ethic, which, as a new sewist, I find inspiring.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  19. SeamsterEast@aol.comAugust 23, 2013 at 10:11 AM

    I wonder if the clothing in the Leyendecker artwork gained considerable allure by being shown on models with a rich, upper-class bearing. All had rich boy hair styles, and all were looking down their noses, literally, at the viewer, a life of born-to, devinely ordained privilege.

    In addition, very nearly all the Leyendecker drawings were filled to capacity with erotic symbolisms. Phallic symbols to no end (maybe a dozen or more in each drawing) in the folds of the cloth, the canes, umbrellas, line of the coat opening, the thick wooden railing in one, suggestions of openings of various invites, suggestion in the fabric of full, parted lips, suggestion of a lithe body on rumpled sheets with legs spread. The male hands also seemed distinctly oversized compared to bodies.

    It reminded me of the "hidden messages" in the cigarette ads of long ago (Grim Reaper, Mushroom clouds) and hard liquor ads (skulls, ghouls in the ice cubes). Leyendecker must have spend HOURS and HOURS on each drawing just to get soooooooo many symbols so "naturally" into the cloth and stance and posture. ALL on a rich boy (sometimes with a rich girl in his arms). About the only thing seemed to be missing was breaking, cresting water.

    Sex, wealth, privilege and usually youth. Does make a shirt look better, doesn't it?

    1. The fellow who used to go on lecture tours with overlays supposedly revealing orgies in plates of Howard Johnson's fried clams was long ago discredited as a charlatan. About the last time he ever trucked out that side show was in the early '80s during the first season of "Late Night With David Letterman," when Letterman was still having difficulty drawing respectable guests. This man was only slightly more credible than the "serious" scholar who gave us "Chariots of the Gods" back around the same time.

      That Leyendecker laboriously worked phallic symbols into his illustrations is ridiculous. His work is homoerotic, certainly, but it's mostly on the surface-- not subliminal (in my opinion). Further, while the luxurious settings may suggest to us now that Arrow was intended only for the well-to-do, it was not a brand that could be considered out of reach to the working man. The luxurious settings elevated the brand to a level of exclusivity without it being exclusive. It was affordable, and in the upwardly mobile, status conscious 'Twenties, one could attain that look of prosperity and refinement with a well made shirt-- even without the prep school and country club pedigree. Arrow was making this look attainable for the masses.

  20. Peter! I can guarantee if you follow your new 1920s pattern you will not look like that fellow in the J.C. Leyendecker illustration.

    Even though you an ideal body type for such clothing. The fault lies not in you but in the difference between what the pattern is and what the illustration is.

    My advice, is then, when you get your pattern throw it away and focus on the details you like in the illustration. Here are some hints:

    1. Start at the arm scythe. It is tailored exactly to end at the shoulder socket and cut to be just under the arm.
    2. Sleeve is a sleeve not a tent because of step 1.
    3. The collar is DETACHABLE as should all collars on fine shirts.
    4. Notice how the shirt tapers at the waist. We are used to wearing not shirts but ponchos made to look like shirts because the average man has gotten fatter (much fatter since the 1920s) and commercial patterns account for this much to the determent of shirt wearing public and especially for those who are not very fat.
    5. No matter what home sewing advocates will tell you that shirt has cap in the sleeves. Not a lot but it's there. You can not get that look without some sleeve cap. The trick is to balance it out between a sleeve that fits well and isn't to puffy (at the shoulder) and can take a closed seam around the arm. You can not mass produce dress shirts with proper sleeve cap,

    In short, you start with a pattern you have drafted based on your measurements and then you start fitting until what you are wearing looks like your illustration.

    Have fun.

  21. SeamsterEast@aol.comAugust 26, 2013 at 7:43 AM

    "That Leyendecker laboriously worked ..."

    Clothing serves one or more purposes. It 1.) protects the body from weather, and/or it 2.) it hides a body from overt sexual display (imagine trying to work in a office where every body was naked and completely displayed), and/or 3.) it calls attention to the body for specific effect.

    The statement "If you can't say it, point at it" (in reference to specific and highly sexual parts of one's own body for the purpose of titillation) is attributed to several actors and even the director Elia Kazan. It is the essence -- along with movement and motion, and in some cases word choice and voice inflection -- of screen and stage actors/actresses sexual appeal. It is also the essence of young adult's clothing when they "Dress to impress" when out clubbing for the purpose of "making new friends", or for that matter making old friends that night.

    Leyendecker's drawings are like Prego spaghetti sauce, "It's in there". And, like Prego, you can taste it.

    Clothing protects from weather and/or reduces/eliminates immediate naked sexual display, and/or calls attention to individual body parts. Friday, I saw a young woman in a blue and white striped bias-cut top. Four panels on the front, with the inverted chevron running from the waist up over the bust points to the neckline, the central straight up chevron running down from the neckline to the waist.

    Is the upturned, pointed skyward, curved handle end of an umbrella in a Leyendecker drawing for a clothing ad any less effective, any less deliberate?

    Sex is the second greatest appeal in advertising. Avoiding "problems", perceived or actual, is the first greatest appeal.

  22. All art has an underlying armature, structure or geometry of color and line to it. The basic framework is usually what makes it good or bad, what seduces the viewers eye. The barechested and athletic men in Leyendecker's art are virile and appealing, but even Freud would have told you that sometimes a cigar IS just a cigar. And a cane/ umbrella handle is just a handle. Far be it from me to discourage anyone from seeing orgies in plates of Howard Johnson's clam plates, but my guess would be that, particularly in the Leyendecker illustrations, your perception is clowded by perhaps spiking your HoJo cola. There's one thing for sure: you've certainly put the cock into poppycock. In the end, it's pleasant just to see that Peter has exposed more people to Leyendecker's work through a love of sewing in general and vintage clothing in particular. I'm glad J.C. is being appreciated in any way at all-- Norman Rockwell has long gotten too much credit, and I admire Leyendecker for avoiding the saccharine ploys that make many of Rockwell's illustrations cloying and obvious. Leyendecker had a grasp on elegance and sophistication-- restraint. Hold on tight to your phallic symbols, and we'll agree to disagree. The conversation has been interesting, but we've both managed to drop a stitch in what IS a sewing blog. This thread is in danger of coming off its spool. Cheers!

  23. The man in the illustration looks dreamy.

  24. SeamsterEast@aol.comAugust 26, 2013 at 5:50 PM

    As a man who once made his living writing advertising, I stand proud and firm in my knowledge and experience that persuasive words/illustrations are FAR more Zen emotion than they are hard-core logic. Common to western higher educated standards is the staunch insistence that logic reigns supreme. Yet, the Zen of a purchase decision -- clothing included -- touches the sub-cortex way, way, way before the frontal lobe is aware of the potential for a decision.

    The issue with Leyendecker's illustrations is not they misrepresent Arrow shirts or the shirts sewing patterns based on them, but rather that the Arrow shirts were advertised to the working/blue collar classes as a way to emulate the privileged class for the price of a cotton RTW shirt.

    Today, Movado and Rolex watches are pitched the same way, even though a $15 Casio watch keeps better time.

    1920's shirts sewing patterns available today have a Jay Gatsby allure. Not a bad thing at all. Me? Frankly, I'd rather have a pair of wool trousers which look like they might have been worn by my grandfather as a young man. More difficult to sew, so for the time being I'll stick with shirts.

    Clothing is an emotion statement -- what psychologists call an "emblem" -- of who/what we want to world to see us as. As a young man of little excess cash, I bought Arrow shirts for their allure. Arrow shirts are still made to today, though the allure of the brand has long since been displaced.

    Damn, but Leyendecker was good.

    If anyone would like to discuss this further, please contact me offline.

  25. I think is is funny and sad that a well dressed, fit man is now considered to be "homo erotic". On the other hand, I am not surprised, and it can be hard to find a straight man who knows that clothes come in sizes besides XL and XXL. I have spent (and wasted) quite a bit of time looking for either modern clothes or modern patterns that fit the torso and shoulders as well as they did in the 1920's, and to be sure, the closest you can come are the 70's, and then you have to adapt it for non-stretch and trim the collar and.... No, never mind, nothing compares. In my dream world, I would have a beautiful man who would wear whatever I made, would have tons of money and time to spend on fabulous silk and linen clothes for us both and we would only wear gorgeous clothing from dusk til dawn and back. Oh, wait, I do that, just without the money bit. Or the man. Oh, well - I look fabulous, anyway:P


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