Fashion History: Men's Dress Reform Party, 1929 to 1940

Cristen Conger

MDRP members sporting reform clothing. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

While studying up for the Stuff Mom Never Told You episode on men and makeup, I stumbled across the Men's Dress Reform Party (MDRP), a London group started in 1929 that advocated for the adoption of "brighter, more hygienic, and picturesque attire" for the male dresser. Just as women's groups had revolted against excessive undergarments, long skirting and generally restrictive clothing, the MDRP also wished to shed requisite suiting, stiff collars and neckties they considered unhealthy and downright uncomfortable.

MDRP propaganda indicates that the men made a good point about needing to lighten their sartorial load. From a 1929 article in "The Nation": "The Life Extension Institute weighed the street clothing of the women in New York City last June. The clothing of the women...averaged 2 pounds, 10 ounces, while that of the men was was 8 pounds, 6 ounces."

Fashion historian Barbara Burman traces the male dress reform movement back to Dr. Alfred Charles Jordan, a well-known radiologist in the 1920s who was photographed bicycling to work in a pair of tailored shorts. At the time (and still today, really), people considered shorts as strictly leisure attire, and the notion of a gentlemen donning them for work was revolutionary. The MDRP also rallied against wearing hats and preferred sandals to formal footwear. But, as Burman points out, the MDRP wished to liberate men's necks the most:

The stiff detachable collar with its studs and the tie were seen as the most objectionable feature of the men's dress...Freedom for the neck could be combined with varying degrees of formality by using a 'Byron' collar or a hanging tie, with a lower knot, could be replaced by a blouse, which...would release the coat or jacket to serve as an extra rather than an integral part of the ensemble.

During the MDRP's 11-year existence, the group received considerable media attention and won enough supporters that some tailors began producing "reform clothing." Despite its compelling arguments for more hygienic, healthy, lightweight menswear, the fashion trade ultimately didn't embrace the MDRP's overtly flamboyant, flouncy designs. Since the group's philosophy was tinged with eugenics (more on that here), it isn't really a cause worth rooting for in retrospect. After all, dude hipsters would eventually adopt short shorts and bare chests, via deep v-necks, minus the questionable politics anyway.

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