Today is the birthday of the world famous macro economist Ludwig von Mises. He happens to be dead since many years back, but the discussions about economic cycles and debt crises of the last few years have seen the public interest in Mises and his even more famous student Friedrich Hayek grow larger than it has been in a long time. One of the most common images of Mises, which also adorns his Wikipedia page, shows a pleasant but concentrated man dressed in a pinstriped, double-breasted suit, with a linen handkerchief and what appears to be a patterned velvet tie.
However! There is an extra interesting detail for the style-conscious: Mises is wearing a vest with his double-breasted suit.
Wearing a vest with a double-breasted suit today is almost considered a fashion crime, since a double-breasted suit is meant to be buttoned up even as the wearer sits down. The vest thus loses its function, which is to give its wearer the appearance of being well dressed even after removing the jacket. But this has not always been the case. Up until the Second World War, the vest was no fashion crime; on the contrary, it was more or less considered mandatory when wearing a suit, whether double-breasted or not.
New York stock broker, late 1930’s
The reason why the vest has become an exception rather than the rule is of course partially that it has lost some of its practical utility. With radiators, air conditioning and well isolated cars, the need for a vest to keep warm has diminished. But another important explanation is actually the Second World War itself.
During the war, rationing was mandated in both the US and Great Britain, not just for food and fuel, but also for textiles. The vest was considered superfluous by authorities, and simply had to take a step back. In the US, there were special regulations around making vests for double-breasted suits, which was considered an especially needless practice.
This was the kiss of death for the vest, not just because few new vests were made, but because it was now considered outdated. After the war was over, people wanted to forget the darkness of the 30’s and the 40’s, so a new wave of fashion emerged. On the East Coast and in Ivy League circles, this became especially apparent, and the vest was considered hopelessly outmoded, almost stuffy. The new Ivy fashion that appeared was more functional, and a certain kind of casualness, where the three-piece-suit had no place, gained ground.
Even though the vest made a small comeback in the 1970’s, wearing it with a double-breasted suit is a combination that likely died in the war. (caveat: never say never)
There’s a reason why the makers of Mad Men let Roger Sterling dress like a relic during the emergence of the new United States by wearing a three-piece suit.
Students at Yale, 1927. Image from Ivy Style.
Princeton, 1961. The new USA.