Saturday, February 4, 2012

McCall 3363 - Men's Office Coat

Latter part of the 1920s.

Home sewing patterns for men's coats this early are sufficiently scarce that I almost always bid on them when they show up on eBay.  This one was described in the auction listing simply as a men's coat, and the photograph was so fuzzy that I couldn't read the description, so it wasn't until the pattern arrived that I realized I had something even a little more scarce: a pattern for white collar work wear.

It's easy to imagine this coat made up in white poplin or Indian Head for a doctor or dentist.  Indeed, we can get a sense of some earlier sartorial problems with dentist's coats, from the book Dental Office and Laboratory, 1906:
"The 'crying need' of the dentist who would be decently dressed in his office is an office coat.  This should be of linen, duck, or similar material; washable, and plain even to the absence of pockets.  Those now in general use, decorated as many of them are with four pockets, a belt and four sets of frogs make the wearer look like a ring-master just escaped from a dog-circus."
But it turns out that the term "office coat" is much richer.

From Good Housekeeping, 1888, we see that, much like the housewife's apron, the office coat was not meant to be seen on the street:
"...Mr. Willis came up to us, asking Mrs. Wheeler if the letters were ready for the post.  On being told they were not, he changed his office coat for another, and went out."
In the magazine Success, Volume 6, p. 313, in an article by Orison Swett Marden, 1903, the office coat appears to be defined only by use rather than any specific attributes. It's a little hard to parse out the rules, but note that a young man is expected to arrive at work dressed in a good suit, and then don an office coat that will take the brunt of attacks by fountain pen or stamp pad ink, dust, abrasion, and splintery desk corners.
"Young men on the floor, and in the office, should dress in plain worsted, serge, or cheviot suits, made up with single our double-breasted jackets, preferable of one material.  Extreme cuts, turn-up trousers, and other peculiarities should be avoided, and an office coat, which may be any that is at all presentable, should be worn during the day.  It is a rule that all men in the office must wear coats, and those who hope to get along in this world will not defy the conventionalities in order to be comfortable."
From A Dictionary of Men's Wear, by William Henry Baker, 1908, we get a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, but also an interesting insight into how men abuse their clothing.  Remember that at this time alpaca is a relatively inexpensive suiting fabric:
"Office coat, usually an alpaca sack c., unlined, broadly any old c. not fit to be seen on the street, but good enough to wipe pens on."
From a periodical of the National Association of Letter Carriers, 1914, describing postal uniforms in other countries:
"Netherlands...The assistants receive...a linen office coat."
From Arnold Bennett's novel These Twain, published in 1915, in which a man's wife comes to his office to bring him an office coat which she has either made or modified:
"Edwin now tried on the new office-coat with the self-consciousness that none but an odious dandy can avoid on such occasions.
'It seems warmer than it used to be,' he said...
'Yes,' said she.  "I've put some wash-leather inside the lining at the back.
'Well, didn't you say you felt the cold from the window...?'"
By the 1920s the office coat has a distinctive social meaning.

Here is the recollection of how a promotion meant a change in dress, from the American Printer and Lithographer, Vol 73, 1921:
"The most proud experience was my first promotion from a 'jour' to a stock-man in the foreman's office, with the privilege of putting off the apron and wearing an office coat!" 
But there was bitterness as well.  In the story "With the Odds Against Him," in the Yale Literary Magazine in 1921, the office coat is used to illustrate the stalled career of a man no longer young:
"Mr. Audrey had not remembered his impending birthday until just as he was donning a linen office coat a few minutes before nine, and he stopped short in the middle of the operation.  Tomorrow he would be forty-six years old!"
Also in 1921, an intriguing insight into the social power of clothing from Munsey's Magazine.  This one is worth reading through, because the dress-suit in question actually belongs to the office-coat guy, who lost his self-confidence when he lent his suit.  (Spoiler alert: there is a happy ending.)
"He's a dress-suit gentleman and I'm an office-coat guy..."

And a year later in the1922 play "His Majesty Bunker Bean," we find that it is indeed the principle of the thing:
"BUNKER: (Ring, answers) Hello, oh, oh, yes, Mr. Breede, I'll come right over...Wage slave, that's what I am...Got to beat it across to Larabee's office.  More Letters.  (Takes office coat, as he gets to door L.)
BULGER: What's the idea of strippin'?
BUNKER: Don't like to wear an office coat crossing the street.  Principle of the thing, Max.  May be a wage slave now, but if I ever do rise, I won't be a misfit..."

This pattern is unused.


Jessie said...

This is a fascinating piece of history. It sounds like in the teens and 20s, the office coat on the street was sort of like a short-sleeved white button-up shirt with tie and slacks--identifiably white collar, but low-status. I'm always interested in early 20th century menswear!

Joanne Noragon said...

What a lot of background you've provided. I love your observations--once stayed up well past bedtime to read from the very beginning.

chlewis said...

Did the office coat go on over the suit coat, or replace it, in the office? said...

I believe that the office coat replaced the suit coat in the office, but I'm not sure I have the evidence at my fingers tips to prove this. The cut of the pattern looks too slim to be worn over another coat. This makes the office coat a little different from say, a lab coat.

PatternVault said...

Interesting post! And it's nice to hear your eBay risk paid off. From the numbering and envelope design I would say the pattern is from the earlier Twenties, around 1923/24.

Sew Lady Sew! said...

Fascinating detail of the office coat history. Doesn't this pattern look more like a sports coat? I can't imagine wiping a pen on it.

Phyllis said...

I wonder if those jacket has the same intent as a housedress or apron. In the past people just didn't have as many pieces of clothing as they do today and doing laundry was drudgery. So like apron or housecoats maybe this jacket was worn to keep ones clothing clean in between infrequent washings. said...

Phyllis - Yes, I think there is an equivalence between the apron and the office coat. Being careful about the costs of dry cleaning is nothing new, particularly if your position is at the lower end of the wage scale. That's why moving beyond needing to wear an office coat seems to have been an important social indicator - you had moved beyond duties that would make your clothing grubby.