Straw Boaters & Striped Waistcoats
When did it all begin?


05/01/07 - Trevor Hodgson writes, "I have often wondered why straw boaters, striped shirts and jackets and fancy waistcoats are so frequently associated with traditional jazz. I have searched many old photographs of jazz bands and the earliest examples of this appear to occur in the 1940s with the West Coast Dixieland Rhythm Kings and the New Orleans Dukes of Dixieland. Almost all pre 1940 bands dressed in black tie and tuxedo, casual mixed clothing or military style uniforms. There are odd examples of very strange costumes (often Middle Eastern) but these are exceptions. Mostly it appears that jazz musicians treated their music with a great deal of respect. I can only suppose that during the jazz revival of the 1940s it seemed a good idea to also revive dress associated with the early part of the century. Unfortunately they chose the costumes of minstrel shows and barber's shop quartets. It also appears to be a WASP style of entertainers' dress". - Trevor Hodgson Southern Comfort JB, Canada.

Hi Fred,

Trevor Hodgson isn't the first person to wonder what bowler hats and waistcoats have got to do with jazz. No less a figure than the esteemed poet Philip Larkin pondered on this incongruity as far back as June 1961. Larkin was jazz critic for the Daily Telegraph at the time and began one of his columns as follows:

"Not so long ago, the unlikelihood of the Briton as jazzman would have been perfectly expressed by thinking of him in a bowler hat. Result: complete incongruity, like Mrs Grundy dancing the can-can. Yet today the bowler is worn with jolly unselfconsciousness by some of this country's most popular jazz groups as part of their band uniform. Nobody laughs. In fact, they cheer. British jazz has arrived, in Britain at any rate."

The article goes on to discuss briefly the British trad phenomenon, including the following:

"Today, we have a jazz boom. The quickest way to get with the sixties is to catch a jazz concert, Barber, Bilk or Ball. If you are over 30, you may be the oldest person in a crowd of, say, 2,000, but you will still be infected by an enthusiasm as intense as it is innocent. This crowd has never heard `Golden Leaf Strut', and Frank Teschmacher might be Mayor of West Berlin for all they know, but this is the music they enjoy, beards, bowler hats, banjos and all."

2000 under-30-year-olds listening to jazz ! That was before the Beatles !

In fact, during the early days of the revival, any form of commercialism was anathema to the musicians and to those who listened to them. They started off wearing no special uniform, but gradually, and probably grudgingly, they accepted some form of common dress.

 Humph explains how it was in his autobiography, I Play As I Please:

 "In retrospect, the lengths to which New Orleans revivalists went in their renunciation of anything connected with professionalism seem absurd. On the concert platform, amateur bands would appear in informal garb - white shirts and uniform ties and trousers were as far as they would (or could, financially) go. And even then they would often take the precaution of rolling up their sleeves, exposing large areas of shirt-tail and allowing their trousers to sag dangerously, just to show that they were not tainted with commercialism."

 Professionalism was for the pros, the trained musicians, who didn't play the authentic music of Oliver and Armstrong. Possibly it was these pro musicians, playing swing and written arrangements, who wore straw hats and striped jackets ?

Keith Allcock

'... boaters, striped shirts and jackets ... etc...'. I often wondered myself about these stereotypes in Jazz. When I think back to the 50s and 60s, looking through the Jazz records in outlets in Manchester, I remember seeing the Dixieland Rhythm Kings and the Dukes of Dixieland in boaters and striped jackets on the covers. I should imagine that the Middle Eastern costumes Trevor refers to, would apply only in association with the name of the venue that the band might be appearing at: 'Star of the East', or 'Arabia Nights', or other equally exotic names, where the management would insist on a particular attire, whether the band liked it, or not.

Joe Silmon