From the Vaults: Apparel Arts

Posted on July 16, 2014

Part of a series featuring highlights of my recent research at the Library of Congress.


My most exciting discovery at the Library was really more of a re-discovery: the priceless fabric swatches contained within the pages of Apparel Arts magazine.

For those unfamiliar with the publication, it began in 1931 as a resource for the American menswear trade.  It was intended to rival Men’s Wear which also presented the latest sartorial trends among the well-heeled and advised industry members on best business practices.  But where Men’s Wear was a relatively drab black-and-white periodical, Apparel Arts offered glorious full-colour pictorials complete with actual samples of the featured fabrics.  Not surprisingly, it quickly became the definitive trade publication.

In fact, it was so successful that customers apparently began helping themselves to store copies, prompting the publishers to launch the men’s lifestyle publication Esquire a couple of years later featuring the same Apparel Arts pictorials.

When tailored clothing’s popularity began to decline after World War Two in favour of more casual fashions, the magazine changed its format and its name to become Gentleman’s Quarterly (GQ) in 1957.


A pictorial in the fall 1933 issue.

While Apparel Arts illustrations and descriptions provide a great insight into vintage menswear, nothing can compare to the authenticity of physically seeing and touching the fabrics of the day. (Thus the reason these issues go for upwards of $200 each on eBay.)  A perfect example of these swatches’ value is the way in which they allowed me to confirm my understanding of midnight blue colour. I was fairly certain that it was characterized as a shade of blue so dark that it was virtually indistinguishable from black but there was no way to be sure because tuxedo makers today apply the term to a wide range of blue hues.  Sure enough, the various vintage samples of midnight-blue suitings offered in the magazine confirmed my thesis.

The swatch on the lower right is is a Glen Urqhart plaid suggested for trousers worn with a stroller.

Examples of Apparel Arts swatches.  The one on the lower right is is a Glen Urqhart plaid suggested for morning dress trousers worn with a stroller.

Unfortunately, my camera’s batteries ran out by the time I came across the midnight blue samples so I was only able to take low-quality photos with my phone.   However, when I visit the New York Public Library this fall I plan to photograph them properly and even place them next to my own swatches of black and dark blue as a relative comparison.


Posted in: History