If you’re at all interested in menswear, you inevitably spend a lot of time looking through photos. There’s all the stuff on social media, plus a tonne of blog posts and magazine content, at least a quarterly supply of lookbooks from various brands, and a near inexhaustible stock of historical images.
Looking through old photos is one of my favourite pastimes. Even the most casually snapped Polaroid from decades past can reveal a wealth of fascinating details: What people wore, obviously, but also how they spent their time, where they went on holiday, what they ate, the cars they drove, how they decorated their homes, and so forth. The points of interest are seemingly infinite.
I’ve spent many happy hours in recent months in libraries and online pouring over photo books and archives in search of images to illustrate and inspire the things written about on this site. It’s always a great joy when a previously-unseen store is discovered; an untapped vault cracked open by a first-time viewer. Then there are the ones you return to over and over to relive and rediscover, reserves so rich and plenteous that they feel inexhaustible.
A prime example of the latter is the series of extraordinary photos taken by the American jazz journalist and photographer William P. Gottlieb. It comprises many hundreds of photographs taken in the decade spanning 1938 to 1948 when Gottlieb travelled between New York City and Washington, D.C to document a period now seen by many as jazz music’s Golden Age. Accordingly, Gottlieb captured images of such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, and many, many more at the height of their powers.
Gottlieb — despite what might otherwise be suggested by the fame and abundance of his output — was self-taught, which lends his work a somewhat ragged, improved look that harmonises perfectly with the spontaneous style of music that was his subject. Certainly, most of his photos are of musicians mid flow, cheeks all blown up, sweat pouring off them, sometimes literally blurred at the edges from the kinetic and melodic energy flowing through them. Others show these same artists in repose, relaxing backstage, playing cards on the road, or laughing among friends. Taken together, these images comprise a glorious time capsule of a moment whose vibrant notes still ring out clearly.
You can view the full collection of some 1 600 images here as hosted by the Library of Congress. Posted below, however, you’ll find a selection of images that show off some of the clothes worn by these remarkable musicians. The style of the moment as captured by Gottlieb’s camera is every bit as lively as the music being played but much more readily accessible through his images. It has always been my chief interest in the collection and my reason for returning to it time and again. It is a treasure trove of zoot suits, spearpoint collars, eye-catching neckwear, flashy jewellery, and (perhaps my favourite of all) some truly singular items of leisurewear.
I hope you’ll enjoy these images as much as I have over the years.
All images are free of any known copyright restrictions and are taken from the Library of Congress Gottlieb Jazz Photo collection.