Part I: The Duke of Windsor & Aristocracy’s Last Hurrah
‘[In the early 1920s] I had taken to wearing a soft shirt, with a single-breasted dinner jacket, and if my shirt was stiff, my cuffs were now often soft. I was still faithful to the stiff collar, but it was usually of the comfortable turned-down variety […] Meanwhile, however, we began to find that with the double-breasted dinner jacket, a soft collar looked just as neat as a stiff one, and by the thirties we were all beginning to “dress soft,” thus combining, as no previous generation had done, sartorial dignity with comfort and ease’
– The Duke of Windsor
‘[the family portraits at Windsor] show, I am gratified to observe, that the Kings of England and their relatives were, on the whole, well enough dressed’
– The Duke of Windsor
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The Prince of Wales during WWI at the front.[/caption]
Just like his grandfather (Edward VII) before him, the Duke of Windsor was a style icon in his youth and throughout his life, followed and admired by fashion magazines, journalists, tailors, stylish men… etc. Before becoming Duke of Windsor, the title by which he’s most well known, he was called David as a child; he became the Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay, and created Prince of Wales, upon his father’s advancement to the throne at 16; and he was crowned Edward VIII following his father’s death in 1936, a title he held for a mere 326 days before abdicating.
Despite his short-lived and scandal-shrouded reign—not to mention his extremely outspoken disgust toward any non-white members of the British Empire
and the documented likelihood of Nazi sympathies
—the Duke of Windsor is remembered favorably by many fashion historians, designers, and more (for his sartorial advancements only, it must be noted!). Where many of his father’s contribution to men’s fashion are shrouded in legend, the Duke of Windsor’s inventions, popularizations, and achievements are both documented and remain with us to this day. He is responsible for popularizing (if not inventing) the spread-collared shirt, the Windsor knot, regimental ties, and the double-breasted suit
—if not more!
Though these particular contributions to fashion are undoubtedly important and helped to shape what is considered “modern” men’s formal wear, his greatest influence wasn’t any particular item of clothing, but rather his approach to clothes, his attitude as both icon and arbiter of fashion, and the sense of ease and comfort he infused into even some of the most formal modes of dress.
1. The Duke of Windsor: New Style for a New Era
“The trend towards informality reflected a modern age; the zeitgeist of the 1920s called for a fresh approach to dressing, which was epitomized by the new Royal fashion icon—the Prince of Wales, the future Edward the VIII. Bored with tradition and with the sartorial expectations of his background, he preferred whenever alone to ‘remove my coat, rip off my tie, loosen my collar and roll up my sleeves.’ Charming, handsome, easy-going and obsessed with clothes, he was immensely popular with the public who, as with his grandfather before him, followed his every move in the world press.”
– Cally Blackman
Even from a young age, the Duke of Windsor—then Prince of Wales—inspired both tailors and associates: “He had captured and directed the modern style. He was the brightest of the Bright Young Things, slim and easy going, given to jazz and slang, night clubs and open convertibles. He set a tone and mood for his time that is still with us today.”
As a young man, the Prince rebelled against his stiff-necked (literally, as stiff collars still reigned at formal events) society by continuing a tradition of young royals continued by his grandfather before him—a tradition of forsaking the tradition of the time in favor of comfort. However, unlike his grandfather, Edward VIII took this rebellious approach even into the realm of formal attire.
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Edward VII| with his wife Wallis, Duchess of Windsor[/caption]
Even before he abdicated the throne in order to marry a wealthy American divorcee (a marriage frowned upon by the Church of England since her two previous husbands were still alive; as the King was titular leader of the Church of England, the marriage would’ve been impossible
), Edward VIII made lasting changes to acceptable formal society. By the late twenties and early thirties, he had already begun to eliminate restrictive formal styles such as stiff shirts with detachable stiff wing collars, heavy weight formal fabrics, double layers of fabric (combinations of jacket and vest/waistcoat), and more.
Instead, he developed a far more comfortable dinner shirt: pleated in front rather than boiled and starched, with an attached (and much softer!) turndown collar. He even invented a backless waistcoat to wear at formal occasions in warmer climes.
In addition, Edward VIII’s adoption of the dinner jacket helped to propel that garment’s future all the way to current times. Due to Edward VIII’s massive (style-wise, anyway) popularity, “By the end of the 1930s, with the Prince’s coterie of royal swells legging around in the latest semi-formal trappings, the dinner jacket began to replace the tailcoat.”
The new and improved design of the late thirties’ dinner (tuxedo) jacket “provided a level of stature and class equal to that of its starched progenitor [the formal tailcoat], albeit while providing considerably more comfort.”
Men’s evening wear overall had, by the end of the thirties, become significantly lighter and softer.
2. The Golden Age of the Double-Breasted Jacket
Not only did the Duke of Windsor popularize the dinner jacket, he was responsible for introducing new dinner jacket styles. Along with others in the ranks of the “sartorially resplendent”
such as Louis Mountbatten, Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, and Cary Grant, he wore a double-breasted jacket instead of the previous era’s standard single-breasted variety. The Duke of Windsor appreciated the fact that the double-breasted jacket could be worn without a vest, waistcoat, or cummerbund. As such, it was the perfect addition to his overall lighter, softer, and less bulky style.
The Duke of Windsor was one of the first to wear the new “London Cut” or “Blade” style jacket invented by the Dutch tailor Scholte in Savile Row—a close-fitting, high-waisted, broad-shouldered jacket.
As the official tailor for the Brigade of Guards, Scholte designed this jacket with military wear in mind—a style that was increasingly popular among civilians and soldiers after WWI. He used extra cloth around the shoulder and indented the waist; “The result was the silhouette of a wide-shouldered man, muscular and with a trim waist: very flattering and perfectly suited to a double-breasted jacket, because the voluminous cloth in the waist and skirt could be balanced with a full chest and shoulder.”
Unlike boxy-looking straight-cut double-breasted jackets, the lines and angles of the English Blade were extremely flattering and “made every man a boulevardier”
; it is arguably the masculine garment that best defined the Interwar years.
3. London Cut Jacket; Pants Across the Sea
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A three-piece suit worn with loose cut, cuffed trousers.[/caption]
Though he favored London tailors for his jackets and dress shirts, the Duke of Windsor appreciated the loose cut of American trousers and insisted on purchasing what the Duchess referred to as “pants across the sea.”
The Duke of Windsor always ordered the same trousers from the same tailor’s in New York, despite the surplus of luxury London tailors available. This indicates, for the first time, the rise of American tailors in the world market—no longer did London hold complete and utter domination of the male fashion industry (though London’s Savile Row tailors were still widely regarded as the best of the best).
Double-breasted dinner jackets had grown popular in America during this time as well—note several famous American actors in the aforementioned (partial) list of “sartorially resplendent” men. However, many US jackets modeled after the London “Blade” look relied on pinched waists and shoulder pads, rather than good tailoring, to achieve the desired flattering military look.
Instead, unfortunately, these jackets became something of a parody. By the Depression years, such jackets began to look like costume. In 1934, a journalist for Esquire
noted that the American parody of an English Blade suit is “the way you dress if you are so sure of yourself under the New Deal that you are unafraid of offering a striking similarity to a socialist cartoonist’s conception of a capitalist. Since a good appearance is about all that is left to the capitalist anyway, why not go ahead and enjoy it?”
The style disappeared soon after; in London, the fashion for double-breasted Blade suits ended with the start of World War II and fabric quotas for uniforms. Still, the Duke of Windsor’s remarkable contributions to modern formal wear remain obvious, even today.
Quoted in Boyer, 202.
From Windsor Revisited
; quoted in Boyer, 203.
Ziegler, P. (1991). King Edward VIII: The Official Biography.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (p. 448; 471-72)
According to Albert Speer (Inside the Third Reich
, 1970), Hitler commented on Edward VIII’s abdication thus: “I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us” (p. 118).
Windsor, HRH The Duke of (1951). A King's Story
. London: Cassell and Co. (pp. 330-31).
Flusser (2002), 240-41.
, Feb. 1934; quoted in Boyer, 97.