A friend of mine recently scanned these wonderful images from the early days of Esquire. These were originally published in 1934 and ‘35, just a year or two after the magazine’s first issue debuted. You might not be able to tell from the illustrations, but Esquire in those days was a bastion of chest thumping masculinity. They featured a mustachioed cartoon character named “Esky” on their covers, who was often drawn doing macho things such as sailing yachts or diving off cliffs. In the 1940s, they also published pin-ups by Alberto Vargas. Those illustrations were quite scandalous for their time – so scandalous, in fact, that the FDR administration took Esquire to court for distributing “lewd images.” (As you can probably guess, Esquire won on the grounds of free speech).
What’s funny is that – while Esquire has always been a men’s fashion publication – they’ve also always tried to bill themselves as much more. Their initial subtitle was “The Magazine for Men,” and the editors reserved a third of each issue for big name fiction writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway. As Esquire’s co-founder Arnold Gingrich put it, this was to “sugarcoat the fashion pill.“ “Men,” he said, “would feel a bit sissyish carrying away from a store a magazine that had in it no content whatever than, let us say, a foppish devotion to the subject of clothes.”
Despite not wanting to seem like a sissy clothing magazine, Esquire for many decades was the last word on menswear. They told men what to wear and when to wear it through illustrations such as these. Covert coats with silk foulard mufflers, we’re told, are good for wear in the country, while dark navy double-breasted suits made from hard finished worsteds are perfect for drinking in town clubhouses.
All this was written at a time when there was still such a thing as having proper clothes for certain environments. Outside of weddings and funerals, those norms have mostly disappeared now, but these illustrations remain great if you’re interested in classic men’s style. If you commission things from bespoke tailors, you can use them to drum up ideas for future projects (perhaps be inspired to put that flapped breast pocket on an overcoat). Or you can simply use them to get ideas for how to put things together. Some looks are a bit anachronistic, admittedly, but most are still very wearable. When I saw Will from A Suitable Wardrobe two months ago, he was wearing something similar to what’s seen in the first image below. His brown glen plaid suit had a faint blue overcheck, and it was paired with some brown suede loafers and a grey cashmere rollneck. The combination looked so good that I’ve been eyeing the (more affordable) Geelong version by William Lockie ever since.
The word classic is so abused these days, but it’s nice to see that some style advice from eighty years ago is still useful today.