You've probably noticed that swing dance events tend to showcase a particular clothing style. Contemporary but with clear vintage influences, it borrows elements from a wide span of decades. Bow ties, oxfords, pageboy caps, shirtwaist and drop-waist dresses, bow blouses.... Sound familiar?
If you've ever wondered which style elements come from which era, or which societal changes influenced American trends over the years, you're in luck! Let's take a tour of jazz era style through the decades.
While some people tend to connect swing with the Roaring 20s, Lindy hop was in fact just getting started then. Nonetheless, 20s-themed events remain popular with swing dancers because the fashion is so iconic. Flapper dresses, fringe and Art Deco-inspired beadwork; youthful, straight-bodied silhouettes and short skirts: all were a far cry from the high collars and corsets of only a decade earlier. Flappers rouged their knees to draw attention to their previously unseen upper legs. Mens’ suits were formal, with tailcoats, pocket watches and matching waistcoats. Overall, evening wear in the 20s embraced flashiness and joie de vivre.
The Great Depression overshadowed all aspects of American life during the 1930s, including fashion. While some nightlife continued, as evidenced by popular venues such as the Savoy Ballroom, decadence was out. Swing dancers and professionals alike wore simple fabrics with limited adornment.
During these tough times, Hollywood movies held great appeal. Clothing trends started mimicking Hollywood styles, with their sleek silhouettes and defined waists. For men, the physical ideal was an athletic V shape, emphasized in suits and jackets by shoulder pads, wide lapels, and tapered sleeves. Pants were wide-legged and high-waisted to help create a larger appearance. As the Great Depression continued, it became common to piece together a suit from several non-matching separates. Frugality was key in this challenging decade.
The 1940s were a time of creativity within constraints, as war rationing forced dressmakers to create stylish looks with less fabric. Dress hemlines rose to the knee, pleated skirts were abandoned, and designers debuted the Victory suit: a two-piece skirt suit that could be intentionally mixed and matched to create more looks with fewer pieces. Fabric usage in menswear was similarly restricted: no pocket flaps, waistcoats, or cuffed pants. (The infamous Zoot suit was a rebellion against these norms, with its flagrant use of excess fabric.)
After the war ended, people let loose, with brighter colors and more casual clothing. Those who had served in tropical locations came back with a fondness for tropical prints and island-inspired drinks, launching a nation-wide Tiki craze. This was also the first decade in which women commonly wore pants. Beginning as factory wear, pants then migrated to the home and to casual settings.
With the end of war rationing, voluminous clothing was all the rage. Swing dresses and circle skirts made a big impression on the dance floor, flaring out during spins and turns. These skirts were often worn with crinolines, those poofy tulle underskirts that give wide skirts their bouncy volume. By the late 40s and early 50s, swing dance had evolved many regional variations, including early iterations of popular sock hop dances. By the mid-1950s, the big band era was largely over.
After several decades of near nonexistence, swing made a big comeback in the late 80s and early 90s. After Frankie Manning and other original dancers started teaching Lindy hop to a new generation, its visibility got a boost from several popular movies and, of all things, a Gap commercial. With its flashy aerials and grinning dancers, the Gap commercial propelled added interest in the scene. Perhaps unfortunately, though, it also encouraged a lot of khaki pants on the dance floor.
All in all, the 90s were a strange time in fashion. After a few years of interesting hair gel choices, the swing scene has now settled on a mixture of contemporary and vintage-inspired looks.
So, what should you wear to a swing dance today? Socially, you’ll see a lot of outfits referencing the styles above, from wide-legged pants and classic button-down dresses to bow ties, waistcoats and oxfords. That said, it’s not at all necessary to dress in head-to-toe vintage to fit in at a swing dance event. The fun part of having nearly a century of fashion history to look back on is that we can take inspiration from a wide range of styles and then incorporate them—or not—however we like.
In terms of function, there are only a few real guidelines.
First, is it clean? This may seem silly, but it’s a real issue. It’s not just about body odor, either: some items, especially vintage ones, hold on to mold or mildew smells. If you’re not sure about your outfit, just ask a friend for a sniff check.
Second: Does it impede you or your partner’s movement? One of my favorite shirts used to have long gauzy tails hanging from the back collar. After a few nights of continually apologizing for my clothes entangling my partners’ hands, I cut them off. (The tails, not the hands.) Voila: functional clothing!
Third: How’s the temperature? If you get overheated easily, wear fewer layers and aim for breathable fabrics. You can also go the “protect your partner” route and layer enough that the sweat doesn’t soak through, but not everyone will want to take that approach. For most of us, looser fabric or a change of shirts will suffice.
Last but not least, does it make you feel good? It’s hard to dance when you’re distracted by itchy fabric or a too-tight waistband. Dress yourself so you’re comfortable and confident. Then go forth and dance!
by Larisa Hohenboken
I compiled much of this information from the exhaustive Vintage Dancer site, which features style guides for every decade from the 1900s onward. If you want more detailed information about anything covered here, it’s a great place to start.
Several of the example images were sourced from Men of Color Style blog.